Autumn flowers

Autumn is a glorious time in Germany. Leaves change colour; the green of forests slowly give way to gold. The sky can be overcast, but when the sun is out, the light on the leaves is a wonderful sight. I loved walking at this time. All my friends told me to look out for mushrooms. My city eyes did not catch even one. But I stopped to look at mosses and at flowers. I find the variety of autumn’s flowers strange. I never thought that there were so many until I walked out with a camera looking for them: first in gardens and then in wild patches. I can’t name even one of the weeds.

If you know any of these, I would love it if you leave a comment with the name of the flower (in German, English or any other language).

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Sleeplessly shuffling past green walls

Soon after writing a post on a vertical garden in Berlin, I was rushing through Mumbai airport to catch a flight. Imagine my surprise when I passed the garden you see in the featured photo. Had I really never noticed it before? I take a flight out of gate 42 or nearby at least once a month. Maybe it was the act of writing about vertical gardens which primed me to notice this. I took the photo and examined it on the flight. I think all the plants which you see there have been in our balcony garden one time or the other.

After landing on the other side I googled for more gardens in Mumbai. There are companies which specialize in creating such gardens. Amazon sells the components of vertical gardens. There is one company which claims to have a contract to maintain all “green walls” in the airport, implying that there are other vertical gardens which I’ve not noticed! Garden spotting is a game I can play now if I am in the airport and have some time on my hands.

During the long taxi ride after this, I recalled a long twenty-foot high wall covered with creepers in the garden of my grandmother’s brother; Green Wall Tech 1.0. I messaged an aunt asking whether she remembered this. She did. Any photos? No. I’ll have to ask my extended family. Maybe someone will have a photo of the first green wall I remember.

A warning to weary travelers

Let my experience be a lesson to every weary traveler. Write it down. When I did some reading about Berlin I found that there were a few vertical gardens. I’ve only recently started being interested in them. There’s a really large one in the bookstore called Dussman’s on Friedrichstrasse. Walk along the road, cross Unter den Linden, and soon you come to Galeries Lafayette where there is a small vertical garden outside. I’m afraid I completely forgot about Dussman’s. The garden in Galeries Lafayette is small but rather beautiful, completely green even at the end of October. I think it is designed by Patrick Blanc, whose work in Madrid had first introduced me to the medium.

Hackesche Hofe

As we ate dinner in a forgettable restaurant in the Hackescher Markt, The Family asked what the name of the area means. I looked it up in the source of all misinformation and found that the market is named after the Count von Hacke who had a hand in the building of the market some time in the 18th century. Through the next centuries the area became associated with Jewish merchants and French Huguenots.

Hackesche Hofe, Berlin

The courtyards, called the Hofe, were probably established around the middle of the 19th century. In 1906 it was bought by the property developer Kurt Brandt, who entered into a partnership with the architect August Endell to redevelop the interlinked complex of eight courtyards. We entered through the 5th courtyard and saw the magnificent Art Nouveau style staircase whose photo you can see above. I think this was in the courtyard called the Rosenhofe.

Hackesche Hofe, Berlin

We wandered through one courtyard after another, having to backtrack now and then. Early tenants included an Expressionist poet’s society called Der Neue Club (started by Kurt Hiller, and whose members included Else Lasker-Schueler, who was then married to Endell). Later, after the war, a tenant’s association resisted an attempt to remodel the Jugendstil architecture by Endell and took over the maintenance as a cooperative. Restoration of the hofe started in 1995, and is now complete.

Hackesche Hofe, Berlin

We exited through the first courtyard, whose original ceramic tiles were designed by Endell. It has been restored (photo above) to show off beautifully the soaring lines characteristic of Art Nouveau. We stood and admired it for a while. There is an restaurant right at this entrance. We looked at the menu and wondered why we hadn’t thought of coming here earlier in the evening.

Sunset glow

For a few evenings there was a beautiful yellow light which would bathe the world around us after sunset. As the red glow on the clouds faded, moments before it turned dark, the world would become a magical yellow. If you mentioned this to someone on the streets of Mumbai, they would smile and agree. The featured photo was taken quite a while after sunset; you can see that the camera, while trying to compensate for the light, makes a blur of the birds.

Land beneath the trees

This is not a light we see every year. After the monsoon the skies are generally clear of dust. If there is the normal pollution of the city, it just creates a haze and reddens the sunset. This colour came with a clear view of the horizon. It wasn’t even as humid as it could have been. It was a mystery until people started mentioning a raging fire on Butcher Island, off the coast. The fuel that is stored for ships on this outer island had caught fire and it took days to bring the blaze under control.

Light effects at sunrise and sunset depend so much on what the air contains. Moisture, dust and smoke are all things that produced beautiful sunsets. What was this due to?

After monsoon

After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.

Methi, fenugreek

Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.

Hibiscus bud

But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.

Dotted moth

Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.

Green lacewing

Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.

Show and tell: the geology of Kaas

The region of the Western ghats around Satara and Pune are full of large plateaus and oddly shaped peaks. When you travel through them, the first impression you have of the mountains is that they look like a layered cake. I stood at the Thosegarh waterfall (featured photo) and found that even the monsoon-fed vegetation could not hide this appearance. The layers are a succession of lava flows, laid down in a massive burst of volcanism 60 to 100 million years ago. These successive layers of lava are called the Deccan traps. I found it hard to estimate the thickness of the layers by eye, but going by the heights of trees, perhaps they are between 50 and 100 feet thick. Since each layer of lava covers a considerable area, this means that each burst of volcanism would have lasted long and spewed out immense amounts of rock and ash. Not only would this have killed all life where it flowed, it would have dimmed the sunlight reaching the earth, and contributed to a mass dying of vegetation around the world.

Satara valley

In the 60 million years since it contributed to killing off dinosaurs, the traps have weathered. Today we see them as flat topped hills, cut through by deeply eroded valleys. Some of the waterfalls lead down to rapids extremely suitable for white water rafting. In other places there are very wide valleys. The town of Satara, which you see in the photo above, lies in the extreme western end of the rain-shadowed region of the Deccan. As a result it gets sporadic monsoon rains, enough to keep it green. The urban sprawl gets its drinking water from the river Umboli, which arises in the Kaas plateau, about 25 kilometers away. Traveling in this area, I saw many high plateaus. At one point each of them must have been home to the variety of flowering herbs and bushes whose diversity is now mainly visible in Kaas.

The surface of Kaas plateau

When you reach the top of one of these plateaus you see exposed rock everywhere. This is the volcanic rock called laterite, formed by weathering of the traps. You can see the dark porous rock peeping out from the low cover in the photo of the Kaas plateau above. There is hardly any soil. What little there is forms in little depressions in the rock. This area is covered by tiny herbs: mainly the carnivorous bladderwort (Utricularia) and sundew (Drosera) species, and tiny coexisting herbs. Between such rocky outcrops, there are deeper fissures where a little more soil can collect. There are higher bushes such as the Topli Karvi and arrowroot. There are very few trees on the plateau. What little soil forms is constantly removed by rain and wind. It is a marginal environment where extremely specialized plants grow. Twenty meters below the top, soil can accumulate, and the vegetation changes quite dramatically. It becomes characteristic of the rest of the Sahyadris. As a result, these high plateaus are like islands: the flora of each plateau is isolated from those of its neighbours.

When you walk through the Kaas plateau your eyes take in the evidence that geology determines ecology, that life is shaped by the land.

Plateau of flowers

I’ve written about the world heritage Kaas plateau before. I went back there over the weekend. The volcanic rock barely holds any soil, and what little is there has little nutrient. The plants that one can see here have evolved in this hard environment. As a result, this 10 square kilometer area at an altitude of about 1.2 kilometers is an island mountain: the flora here is isolated from flora in other plateaus in the region. There’s a brief but glorious flowering at the end of the monsoon. By all accounts the flowers change almost every week.

Kaas plateau: landscape

The most famous plant here is the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) which blooms in mass once every seven years. Last year this was in bloom. This year the general view (see photo above) did not show any of the bright blue flowers of this bush. One had to search hard for the few isolated and idiosyncratic bushes of S. sessilis which flowered this year. Instead the landscape was full of patches of white globular pipewort (Eriocaulon sedgewickii) mixed in with the vivid colours of the carnivorous purple bladderwort (Utricularia purpurascens). In other places we patches of the yellow sonkadi (Pentanema indicum) mixed in with the violet rosemary balsam (Impatients oppositifolia). You can see all four species in the featured photo.

This week the balsam outnumbered everything. Most green patches had highlights of violet. Maybe by next week the sonkadi will dominate.

Stone street

A little cobbled lane leads off from Hanover Square in downtown New York. No vehicle can pass through it, because the bars and restaurants lining the road have placed benches across it. It is a cheerful place. You wouldn’t look at it a second time, unless you wanted to sit down and relax.

It is hard to figure that it was once called High Street. In 1658 it was the pride of New Amsterdam because it was the first paved road on the continent. A few years before that the continent’s first brewery was founded in a building on the road. I don’t think any of the buildings survive. The exit of the Dutch and then of the English gave rise to much rebuilding. After that, the fire of 1835 wiped out a large part of lower Manhattan.

The look of the street is recent. It is possible, but unlikely, that the cobble stones are historic. After all, the road was redone in 1996. I walked through and peered at

A walk in the monsoon

Monsoon stream in KoladMumbai has been hot and humid, but relatively free of rain this monsoon. Disgusted with this state of affairs, The Family and I left one weekend for the a resort in the ghats outside the city. For some reason I’d imagined a natural paradise of stony ground covered with wild plants and streams cutting their way through it. I’d completely forgotten that the region between Mumbai and Pune is full of weekenders who would like to get away from the high rises of the city into a concrete paved paradise of air-conditioned cottages.

I’m happy to have these. But they come with manicured lawns and gardens. All “weeds” are removed systematically, “wild trees” uprooted and the usual garden flowers planted around landscaped lawns dotted with fruit trees. I had to escape this stifling suburban paradise. But the weather conspired to keep me bottled in, with heavy rains through the day.

During a break in the rain I walked out of the resort and followed the road until I got to fallow ground. Here finally was the landscape that I was looking for. The stony ground of the western ghats do not easily absorb the rains. So streams cut through it, merge and become fast flowing rivulets like the one on the right. Trees hang over them.

Common balsam

The banks of these seasonal streams are held together by a dense mat of wild plants. Insects and spiders abound. Water was dripping from the leaves slowly into the ground. It is this slowed rain that recharges aquifers. At this time of the year there are few flowers. The featured photo shows one of the exceptions: the madar or Calotropis gigantea. The other is common balsam, Impatiens balsamica (photo above).

Common grass yellow

There are spider webs everywhere, which means there are insects in plenty. Just after the rain they were hard to spot, because they would probably be hiding under leaves to stay out of the rain. Luckily I got a couple of really tiny ones in the photo of the madar. Other than that all I saw were a few common grass yellow butterflies, one of which you can see in the photo above. It was my first walk of the season in the ghats.