Life changing events

We tried many things. We took mint leaves and whipped them into chutneys. That works to preserve the freshness, but there are times when you want leaves and not mush. We washed and dried them thoroughly before putting them into an airtight box lined with soft absorbent cloth. Even so, the mint leaves start getting black after a couple of days in the fridge. So The Family sent out an SOS to the family. There were lots of suggestions including the whole process of washing, drying and then stripping the leaves from the stem before putting it in a cloth lined airtight box. Too much work, The Family muttered. Indeed. When you buy mint for ten days, this can be too much. Eventually Pycnonotus called to say “Stick the stems in a jar of water.” That changed our lives. Now the sprigs of mint stay in a glass of water, and even sprout new leaves between forays to buy vegetables.

This gives us time to concentrate on the really important things, like weeding the pots in our balcony. Can you believe that pots need weeding. There was a fallow pot which I’d been stuffing leaves into. I saw that a whole lot of tiny plants had begun to sprout in them. I called The Family to check that they weren’t any of her microgreens. No, I have to clean it out. There was also an interesting mushroom growing in there. I guess I’ll have to turn the earth over to expose the main body of the fungus and dry it out.

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Water world

A few winters ago, I spent a week in one of the smaller islands of the Andaman archipelago. Some mornings I could walk most of the way around the island, at the edge where land and sea meet. The green wall of trees on one side would loom over the mysterious blue depths on the other. Our world is a water world; almost three quarters of its surface is ocean, over half the life on earth is oceanic. What do we know about it?

A recent read (partly hidden behind a paywall) overturned everything that I though I knew about the earth. It seems that plants make up less than 10% of the biomass of the oceans (they make up 95% of the biomass on land). The waters of our world are dominated by animals, bacteria, and complex single-celled creatures collectively called protists. These three groups make up 80% of the biomass of the oceans (on land, these groups make up 2% of the biomass). In the oceans fast growing primary producers make up about 15% of the biomass, whereas consumers, with a slow lifecycle, make up the rest. There are two different worlds sharing this planet of ours!

The flame of the forest

Summer is the time of the Gul mohar, the Flame of the Forest, Delonix regia. I love that strange construction: a five petalled flower, four of which are bright red, and the fifth is stippled with yellow or white. When one petal of a flower looks special, you can be sure that it had something to do with pollinators. This one, called the standard, is a nectar guide, and its base contains nectar. I remember our class teacher telling us, “Go ahead and take them apart to look at them carefully, each flower will fall off the tree in four days or so, even without your help.”

As a result of the class project in primary school, this was one of the first flowers that I looked at carefully. In my mind it goes with the blazing heat of grishma, summer before the monsoon, in the plains of northern India. But modern genetic techniques extend recorded history in placing its origin in the western part of Madagascar, after it had separated out from the continental landmass of Africa. It spread to Africa unaided by humans, probably rafted by ocean currents, perhaps 10-20 million years ago. Then, in the blink of an eye, in geological terms, in the last four or five hundred years, it has been carried across the world by humans.

More tales from the pumpkin patch

What I say thrice is true, the Bellman said. And I’m not one to question. So let me leave you with these images of invaders in my mother’s pumpkin patch from this week many years ago.

Now I softly and silently vanish away. The cyclone that is passing over me right at this moment is no boojum, but I have to take care of a few things.

A moth and a butterfly in my mother’s garden

Intrigued my the insect I couldn’t identify in my photo yesterday, I looked at other photos I’d taken around that day, and found that the insect was indeed a moth. I saw it laying eggs quite indiscriminately on pumpkin leaves and sunflower petals. Why am I now sure that it wasn’t a beetle? Because the antennae were not segmented, like a beetle’s. Moth identification is hard, and I have no idea what kind of moth it is.

I remember that the tiny black eggs confused me for a while. Were they insects too small for my eyes or camera to properly resolve. I’d owned a low power microscope when I was a child, but it had long ago been given away to some one else. I have a memory of never resolving (!) this problem. But now, looking at the association between the moth and these shiny black ovoids in several photos, I think they are eggs.

It was in my mother’s garden that I first started to try and identify butterflies. This is so much easier! The featured photo shows a common butterfly with a memorable name: the Forget-me-not (Catochrysops strabo).

My mother’s pumpkin patch

Flicking through photos of this week in past years, my eyes stopped at the photos I took in my mother’s garden thirteen years ago. She had devoted a considerable amount of her energy during her last active years in cultivating a small flower garden in front of the house, and an unkempt vegetable patch at the back. The Family and I would spend hours with her at the dining table next to the kitchen which was the real living room, and look out at her patch of vegetables. That June the pumpkins were in flower (featured photo).

At intervals I would wander out into the garden to take photos of a bird or insect which caught my eyes. On this one sortie, I caught a moth (or is it a beetle?) sitting on the flower and an unfurling tip of the pumpkin vine. These are prodigious climbers, and by the next year the pumpkin vine had climbed into a terrace on the upper floor, and had to be cut back again.

Vegetable memories

We tend to think of memories in a fixed way; as pictures in our minds, snatches of sounds, less often smell and taste, or touch. So we are fascinated by stories of other species who share such long term memories, for example, that crows remember human faces. But we also have memories of another kind, which we are not aware of. Our immune system remembers past encounters with invasive proteins, and reacts to them. This is the basis of vaccines. Some of these immune memories last a lifetime, others disappear, and have to be reinforced from time to time.

I was fascinated to find that there is now a whole new branch of science which deals with memories in plants. Plants lack a nervous system, and have no adaptive immune system like ours. Still, gardeners and farmers have noticed for long that trees seem to be able to adapt to fighting off recurrent invasions of fungi, or recover faster from those insect infestations which occur over and over. Apparently plants can also remember extreme weather (at least cold, I haven’t seen anything about the more important adaptation to hot weather). It turns out that these memories are directly coded into each cell. Plants have arranged to use a whole set of ways of triggering or silencing genes in response to environment and other stresses to enable them to respond faster in future. It would be really interesting to know whether they can learn to adapt to heat, in response to our mistakes with the environment.

Winter rain

A very hard afternoon shower in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park had left roads soaked. At one end of the road you could see a single rickshaw coming. Local investment in tourism takes many forms in this area. The most visible are probably the many hotels which line the approach to the main gates of the sanctuary. But another wonderful form of investment are these rickshaws. Many national parks have cars with trained guides. Here they are replaced by rickshaws. The people driving them are trained naturalists. The best have wide knowledge not only of birds, but also the trees and herbs in this area. They are also enormously curious if they find that you know something better than them, and try to gain as much out of conversations as they can. You could hire bicycles to ride into the sanctuary, but it is good to take the rickshaws at least once. Not only do you support the local economy, you also get to spend a long time talking to a local. That’s always something I look forward to when I travel.

Waiting for the weekend

Some weeks are hectic, and you wait impatiently for the weekend to arrive. Even when you are in isolation. Like this tiger cub in Kanha National Park, waiting for its mother. The white ear tufts are characteristic of the Bengal tiger.


I was behind the curve on this one. The third Friday of May is National Endangered Species Day in India. Fortunately, I can retrofit this post. There are degrees of danger: IUCN has categories which run from near threatened (NT), vulnerable (VU), endangered (EN), critically endangered (CR), to extinct in the wild (EW) and extinct (EX). The three categories VU, EN, CR will lead to extinction without human intervention and help.