Tall woody flowering cactus

Four days after I first noticed the flowers on this tall cactus that I pass every day, I managed to take a decent photo. A day to remember to put my camera in my backpack. The next day I saw that the flowers were in bad light, and I tried to figure out the best time to take the photos. The third day I realized that I had figured wrong. The fourth day was when I got the light reasonably fine. Just goes to show that there’s a big difference between looking and seeing.

Early exposure to a cactus-mad uncle did not help me to identify this one. About all I can tell is that it is not of the genus Rhipsalis, the only Old World genus. It is about 6 to 7 meters tall, and very woody at the base. I think the plant is less than thirty years old, but not much less. This is the first year that I’ve noticed it flowering, so I wouldn’t know whether it flowers once a year, or more often or less. If you look around the base of the tree, you can see green spiny masses beginning to grow well away from the main stem. These are the plantlets sent out by the parent plant as it reproduces vegetatively. I suppose the gardeners are trying to make up their minds about whether they should let this cactus run loose on this patch, or keep it to an individual tree. I suppose that depends partly on how long these trees last.

Part of the reason why I never noticed it flowering in earlier years is that the flowers and fruits are confined to the top of the plant. At eye level and lower the stems are a mixture of succulent green and woody tissue. Cacti are plants in which the stems are photosynthetic. In the photo above you can see that the lower stems are slowly turning woody. They show the typical areole, the small knob from which spines (and also flowers and new stems) emerge. What’s interesting in this plant is that the areole looks like a dry scab, and is not the hairy organ that you see in many other cacti. The habit of the plant, that is to say that it grows as a tree, and the appearance of the areole allows me to rule out many genera of cacti in the identification. The fact that the plant thrives in wet and humid Mumbai should provide useful clues to a better educated person.

I had to wait for the noonday sun to light up the flowers right at the top of the plant. Interestingly they don’t grow right out of the areole, but are borne on a stem that grows out from it. The small yellow flowers were too high up for me to look at them carefully; I don’t even now how many petals they have. It seemed to me that this had a radial symmetry, although I could not count the number of petals. Most cactus flowers are perfect, a botanical term which means that it contains both pistil and stamen. A wonderful description of the flowers of cacti is given in a web page from U Texas, Austin: “Imagine partially inflating a cylindrical toy balloon, then painting on dots to represent the leaf, sepal, petal, stamen and carpel primordia. Once all dots have been painted on with carpel dots at the closed end of the balloon, imagine placing your finger on the end of the balloon then blowing it up further: the balloon will become a hollow cylinder with the stamen dots on the inside next to your finger, the petal and sepal dots at the end and the leaf dots on the outside.”

It was only after I zoomed in with my camera did I realize that the rounded knobs that I’d initially taken for buds were actually the developed fruits of the tree. You can see the complex branching of the flower-bearing stems, and the three-lobed fruits, presumably developing from fused ovaries. That also explained why, when I zoomed in to the flowers, they looked like they had three clusters of petals, with spaces between them. Each cluster seemed to have three petals (or tepals, which is a more correct word for cacti). This is consistent with counts of petals in several other families of plants in the same order, the Caryophyllales.

My morning’s search for the name of this cactus species led me into these strange pathways. At the end of it I’m left in this very unsatisfactory state: the tree is a cactus (family Cactaceae) from the Americas. Can anyone help me with a better identification?


The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream

The Indian Serenade, by P. B. Shelley

White for death, white for purity. An ancient Indian custom mingled with the beautiful scent of the Champa to make it a flower of funerals. Indian gardens were full of fragrant white flowers. The rest are used in religion, and not specifically connected with death. Why was the Champa so closely associated with deaths and funerals? Was it because it was a late arrival to India, and was therefore not able to make it into the list of sacred flowers which could be used in auspicious ceremonies? Death is more accommodating. I’ve not been able to trace the journey of this group of plants from its native Central America to South and South-Eastern Asia. Presumably that happened in one of the early and undocumented globalization events, like the spread of rice or wheat across the human world.

When Indian cultural influence spread across Asia in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the association of the champas with death also became part of the pan-Asian cultural background. It is too beautiful a flower to live with death forever, and in the last few centuries has spread into a generalized cultural space. I guess my photos are part of that spread.

Winter light

What passed for winter, the season called shishir, is nearly over. The sea remains cool, but the days are longer. The sun gets enough time to warm up the sea breeze. Still, the light is mild, and oranges are in season. In the afternoons, when the sun streams into the room I work in, I can sit and enjoy an orange with my tea (in shades of Leonard Cohen!) and then take a photo of the emptiness and harmony.

Again I was distracted and opened up my copy of Achaya’s book on Indian food. Oranges were first mentioned by Charaka, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He called it nagaranga. The traveller Xuan Zang, in his memoirs of his travel through India in mid-7th century CE, mentions them as growing everywhere, but does not use the Chinese word for the fruit. In Shah Jahan’s time (17th century CE) grafting was applied to oranges and mangos in Bengal. Presumably it was already widely available when the Portuguese came to India. ArcGIS adds that the origin of this fruit is in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas, but misses the reference in Charaka.

Colourful leaves

Calla lily, Poinsettia, Bougainvillea. Three of the plants in which people sometimes mistake leaves for flowers. Gardens and hedges in Mumbai are full of the splashy colours of Bougainvillea right now. But the colourful stuff isn’t petals, they are just the leaves surrounding the true flower. The youngest niece asked me, “What’s the difference?” Well, the petals unfurl from inside the bud, but the bracts, these differently coloured leaves, develop from the stem just as normal leaves would do. Hers was a deep question if I read it differently. One parts of the “abominable question” of the rise of flowering plants which exercised Darwin was the origin of petals. Are they modified leaves, or modified stamen? Modern methods are beginning to answer this question, but the understanding can change yet. Current opinion leans towards petals rising from bracts.

In our balcony I caught the bracts in the middle of changing colour. In the featured photo you can see the green stalks of the buds just about to open into tiny flowers. The leaves around them have started losing their chlorophyll. The transformation has progressed further in the leaves closest to the bud. A few of the leaves in this cluster are more green, presumably having started the transition later. Further back in the same branch you see a small cluster of leaves which have just begun to turn colour.

Just for fun, here is another of my experiments with black and white. This time I wanted to get the difference in texture between the leaf and the bract, and colour distracts from texture. I’m happy to have caught this plant at the right time.

We don’t see the world as it is …

Someone said something like “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Who? A search, filtered through my web bubble, ascribed it to Stephen R. Covey, Anais Nin, Albert Einstein… The trail is complex enough that the Quote Investigator has an article on it. When you start thinking about the path from the the eye to the perception of the world around us, you realize that the world is so complex that the brain’s computations can only create an approximation. A frog sees a world of moving objects in exquisite detail. A butterfly sees the bright patterns in ultraviolet light that flowers have evolved to attract them. We do not. And the camera, that instrument that we carry around in our pockets, does not see what we see. So it takes a little work to tweak a camera’s output to get the impression of dark water, its surface reflecting the clouds above, its transparency letting you see a rotting leaf slowly sinking, its beading on the fresh leaf to reflect the sun, into what you think you see.

The cold war led to the development of CCDs to act as eyes on spy satellites. In the same year, 1976 CE, that they were first used for this purpose, they were also used for astronomical observations. The very next year they were put into the Voyager satellites, our first eyes to travel to other planets. Kodak labs had developed the first CCD camera in 1975, but it wasn’t till 1988 that the first commercial digital camera became available. There is enough information in the output that what looks like a perfectly black image at first can be used to tease out details. Even without using raw data, I could recover an image of a gaur (Bos gaurus) that I saw on a dark night in a forest. You see that imposing creature in the photo above. This was an old camera, so there is a lot of noise, but I like it that way. After all even our eye/brain does not see too well in the dark.

Colour perception is another whole kettle of fish. The simple RGB colour space model which cameras use is a very crude approximation of what our eye sees. Actual human colour perception is still an active research area. So the images that come out of a camera require colour correction. And the interaction of attention and colour; let’s not even go there. When I looked at this lotus pond inside a forest my first reaction was to the bright red of the flowers. Only later did I realize that the number of insects on it was enormous. And was the water strider (Gerridae) there for the flower, or its shade? I forgot all about the red. To reproduce a semblance of this attention I had to tweak the photo.

Lens artists will want to see the” originals” too. The step from raw to jpeg is all digital magic, so nothing is really original. For that matter, our eyes are not particularly great instruments, so the brain’s chemical-electronic magic is really needed to build up, see, the world around us.

Gratuitious photo

A walk in the garden on Perihelion Day was a bit of a disaster. In most years this is the best time in the garden in Mumbai. This year the pandemic meant delays in turnover and replanting. As a result, the garden was mostly freshly turned beds. Only one row of plants was flowering, the lilies that you see here. Backlit, I wonder which version looks better, the colour or the monochrome. What do you think?

A silver-lining in a man-made ecology?

I wanted to demonstrate to The Family that my vision had not improved after my surgery. I nodded at the trees on the ridge half a kilometer above us. “I was able to see those white flowers more clearly before,” I said. She was surprised. “I hand’t seen them.” She raised her binoculars to her eyes as I took a photo. My eyes were truly bad. Those weren’t flowers, just the white underside of the silver oak (Grevillea robusta) leaves, as the wind ruffled its canopy. We laughed at that, my point made. Thank you, unknown colonisers who disrupted the ecology of this ridge in the mid-19th century CE, barely a decade after the discovery of these pseudo-oaks in eastern Australia, by planting them across the Deccan plateau.

Invaders are usually bad, but the silver oak, planted right across India and Kenya, have been generally regarded as benign. They do not immediately have an advantage in competition with local plants. They provide shade and support for multi-culture of pepper in coffee plantations (these British colonial-era plantations devastated the ecology of the Nilgiris). In Kenya they are used very similarly, and also provide useful hard wood in regions that lack them. Newspapers carry happy reports of their integration into the local ecology. Through Africa there are studies of increased productivity in agro-forestry when silver oak is used to provide a high canopy. However, new elements are always disruptive. It is a second host for the mealy bugs which infest mango trees, and can act as reservoirs for the pest. What seems to be a good neighbour one century can turn out different in another. The story of silver oaks in Asia and Africa is still beginning.

Three wildflowers

When the known walks are crowded you just have to find new places to walk in. In the slight drowsiness of a post-lunch discussion, we did not really think this through. So we set off along deserted roads, looking for small paths into the forests of the Mahabaleshwar plateau. We found one, parked on the side of the road, and set off along what looked like a tunnel between trees trodden out by many feet. It was in use. We saw discarded bottles of alcohol and cans of beer in little clearings off the main path, and not too much plastic. One of the first things I saw were the purple heads of Indigofera cassioides (चिमनाती, pronounced chimnati) in flower. I have seen this flower before, but it took a little consultation with Ingalhalkar’s book and a cross check with IndiaBiodiversity to reach an ID. Some other day I’ll talk more about the indigo plants.

I misidentified the yellow flowers of Mysore thorn (Cesalpinia decapetala, also Biancaea decapetala) when the oldest niece asked for an ID. I have been set right by Ingalhalkar and CABI. This is a firm ID I think, it takes into account the flowers, the leaves, and the fact that the widespread plant was a climber. I have no ID for the white flowers. Can anyone help?

This is only a small sample of the flowers and plants we saw on the walk before we met a villager coming down the path. He warned us that leopards are seen here often. As we walked on, the chatter of the nieces decreased in volume. Then there was a crashing noise in the trees and everyone wanted to turn back. On the way back we heard more crashing noises and then saw a monkey leaping between branches. It was clearly not a leopard hunting. I argued that leopards are known to be very secretive stalkers, and monkeys are known to give alarm calls when they see predators, so we were quite likely to be safe. But the group had given up, and we were out near our car soon. Later I thought that if everyone who had come for a holiday up here had decided to take a walk in the woods for the next few months there would not be much of a forest left in a few years. In a way it was good that the villagers put us to flight.

Behind the Chinese knotweed

I saw a flowering bush growing wild by the edge of the road, so I walked out to it. I thought I recognized Chinese knotweed (Polygonum chinense or Persicaria chinensis). It was. The flowers are distinctive, and I think I may be able to tell it even by the shape of the bushes. I’ve written a bit about it after the first trip to the Sahyadris when I learnt to identify it. The amazing group of plants, these knotweeds, diversified in just the last 10 million years and spread out from the Tibetan plateau along the arc of the Himalayas. But this species probably established itself in these hills long after humans came here. I wonder whether old documents or field techniques can date their arrival in this general location. But whenever they came here, they rapidly became the go-to plant for a large number of pollinators. The famous Mahabaleshwar honey seems to have quite a bit of Chinese knotweed pollen in it.

The photo shoot was over pretty soon, but I was intrigued by a path which led beyond these bushes. I followed it, and it soon arrived at the edge of a cliff, with a nice view down to the valley below. The variety of plants was staggering, especially when you consider that this is degraded area, close to a high-traffic road. I looked down at the valley, and for fun took a trio of photos at different zooms of the village I could see.

Unknown wildflowers

It feels odd to slip into a piece on unknown wildflowers of the Sahyadris with a the very common and widespread weed, lantana. They were introduced into India during the British period, escaped, and have now become great butterfly magnets. This species, the Lantana camara, is identifiable by the colours which give it its common name, Spanish flag lantana. As children we would pick the ripe black berries on these bushes and eat them by fistfuls.

But immediately after that I jump to species that I do not know. The Sahyadris are under constant surveillance by botanists and wildlife experts, so I’m sure that these species can be easily named by many. Unfortunately, I’m not a member of that smart set. Ingalhalikar’s three volume Flowers of Sahyadri is extensive, but unfortunately not useful as a field guide. So, all you trekkers, and amateur naturalists out there, I need your help with identification and suggestions for field guides.