White bark acacia

The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.

On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.

But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.

Desert flowers

Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.

The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.

Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.

The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.

The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.

Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.

Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.

Bare caper

North of the great Rann of Kutch, in the center of the Thar desert, one of the daily staples for dinners are made from the branches and berries of kair. “Common names” used by amateur nature watchers are odd. In the anglophone world there is an attempt to systematize descriptive names in English, whether or not a plant or bird exists in the geography where the English commonly come across it. So the “common name” given to kair ignores the Hindi word altogether, or the Gujarati cognate kerdo, and translates the Latin binomial to get bare caper. The same plant also grows in the Arab desert and arid parts of east Africa, where, no doubt, it has other common names. I can live with using the Latin binomial as a trans-cultural name, since the system recognizes the inventors of modern systematics. So, I’ll give up on the silly name bare caper, and call the plant Capparis decidua or kair.

I’d first met the plant served up on a plate in Jodhpur, then seen it in the Rao-Jodha Desert Park in that town. After that I’ve seen it in many places in the Thar desert. But this was the first time I’d come across it in the flowering season, just after the monsoon. The plant is a climber, but when it grows alone in the desert or a clearing in a forest it looks like a bushy man-high tangle of branches. As you can see, a stalk in the bush above has adapted to circumstances by becoming thicker and growing vertically.

The capers (family Capparis) are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe, and also in north, central and south Americas. This indicates a truly ancient genesis. Molecular evidence shows an old split between the old world and new world groups of this family. The old world (including Australian) species seem to originate from Africa.

The succulent is mostly leafless. Small leaves can be seen sometimes on young branches. This time around I didn’t see any. The paired thorns are pretty well spaced on the stalks, and do not discourage human manipulation. I suppose they are still sufficient to deter browsing. The red flowers seemed to grow in bunches of three, or, rarely, in singles. I suppose they will turn into the red berries in a couple of weeks, and ripen into black in a month. Someone mentioned an achar made of the berries. We found one in a shop in Bhuj, and brought it home.

The next day I found kair vines used by farmers to make hedges around their fields. They grow dense, support other vines, deter cattle from feeding in the fields, and can be harvested for food when needed. The Sanskrit words for the plant include nishpatrika, meaning without leaves, and tamprapatraka, which could refer to the yellow colour of the leaves. But quite as interesting are alternate names like granthika and granthila. Could the reference to books mean that you can obtain a fibre from it which can be used to make paper? Extracts from the plant seem to have the potential for several pharmacological uses. What a wonderful plant!

Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.

Epiphyte or parasite?

Mosses, fungi, orchids, ferns, lichen. I’ve seen many things growing on trees. Very often I cannot identify them. The photos that you see here were taken on a tree in the Sahyadris, at a low elevation. They are two different species. What are they? Orchids or ferns? Some day, when I’ve worked through the monsoon flowers, I’ll get to them.

I don’t even know whether they are epiphytes or parasites. Epiphytes would use the branch or trunk merely for support, without hurting the tree. Parasites would feed on the tree, and would harm its growth. In any case, there is an abundance of animal life inside this greenery. I could see strands of spider silk woven through them. Spiders imply insects which they can feed on. Insects and spiders would be prey for birds. Perhaps I can take an afternoon just to sit near a tree and observe these different kinds of animals.

Topli Karvi

One of the most recognizable of the many species in the genus Niloo sensu Janzen (Strobilanthes) is sadly missing from the handbook Flowers of Sahyadri. This is the species called Strobilanthes sessilis. They most easily recognizable as small bushes which look like an inverted basket (see photo below). This gives them the popular Marathi name of Topli Karvi (topli is the word for basket in Marathi). It is rather widespread, and recognizable also by the deeply grooved elliptical leaves, serrated at the edges and hairy. Even the stalks and buds are hairy, and the flower is the blue which gives Niloo its generic name. It is widespread enough and easy to recognize, and should be in handbooks.

I’d first seen it a few years ago on a trip to the Kaas inselberg. I was new to the flowers of the region, a tyro wildflower spotter, but it didn’t take me any time to learn to spot this plant. Over a couple of years I saw it flowering in late-September and October. This year I saw it in the region of Lonavala, flowering in mid-August. This agrees with the report of flowering times that I saw in eFloraIndia but disagrees entirely with the timings given in Indiabiodiversity and FlowersofIndia. The bushes are reported to be found in the northern end of the western ghats, a much more restricted range than given in the Kew plant list. The limited geographical range is not surprising, since other species of Niloo are reported also to be similarly rare.

One more thing that puzzled me are scattered reports of mass flowering at variously long intervals (called mast seeding). Not impossible at first sight, since about 50 species of the approximately 350 in the genus mass flower after many years. For example, eFloraIndia claims that there is mast seeding of S. sessilis every 9-13 years. There is a variant report in 2008 of its mast seeding in two successive years in Kaas. I saw it mast seeding in 2015 and 2016 in Chiklewadi and Kaas (the featured photo is from 2016). What I saw this year in Lonavala was not mast seeding. Puzzled, I looked at reports on the mast seeding of bamboo and Niloo.

It turns out that mast seeding may be an emergent property of populations and not determined genetically. An article by Janzen documented reports such historical reports for both bamboo and Niloo, and gave detailed observations which could support such a hypothesis. I found this article to be a wonderful read, as clearly written as the classic of natural history by Gilbert White. Another article reports genotyping of a different species of Niloo which mast seeds in one of three different locations. The close similarity of the three genomes led them to believe that the differences in flowering habit had to be sought at the population level instead of individual. Nevertheless, individuals from a mast seeding population continue to flower after many years even when propagated to a different location. What triggers mast seeding in individuals of one population but not in another? Unfortunately the answer is not yet known.

Rare but popular

On a walk in a sloping meadow in Khandala, in the middle of a rainy day in August, I came across a bush full of small white flowers which seemed to be very popular with a variety of insects. I’d not noticed this plant ever before, but it was not hard to identify it as Pinda concanensis (pinda in Konkani, pand in Marathi). The genus Pinda contains only a single species, concanensis. The plant is found only in the northern part of the Sahyadris, which means the part of the western ghats around Mumbai.

I was quite taken aback by the number of different kinds of insects which visited it. There were blow flies, a couple of different species of ants, a skipper, and at least one kind of beetle, all visiting one plant at the same time. I wonder whether a rare plant has to make itself popular with pollinators. If it is not, then its rarity could mean that few, if any, insects would visit it by chance. That could lead to an ever decreasing population and eventual extinction.

I spent some time admiring the beautiful compound flowers. They had not opened completely yet. The outer petals were much larger, about a centimeter in size, the inner flowers in the compound had not yet opened, but clearly would be smaller. Like many of these rarer plants of the Sahyadris, this one is likely to be under threat due to extensive loss of habitat. Unfortunately there are not enough field studies to establish the extent of the population and whether it is decreasing. A few generations of botanists in the area are spread thin still trying to identify and classify the immense number of plants in this highly biodiverse region.

Since the plant is rare and I’m unlikely to see them in a different place soon, I end this post with a photo of the stem. The three-lobed serrated leaves are pinnate. The bushes that I saw were about half a meter tall, and stood in open ground which would have been sunny on a clear day. You can see the dense growth around the plant. I did not feel like disturbing them to look at the roots of the bushes to look at the edible tubers which, as a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), they have.

A lesser plant

Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse’s famous Drone, sometimes muses about the best way to start a story. Like him, I will start mine by setting out a time and place. In the middle of August, during a monsoon rain, I was picking my way through a wild open patch in Khandala. I noticed two bunches of bushes of Asystasia dalzelliana (neelkanth in literary Marathi, santapau in Konkani and Marathi) in the open, away from any trees. They were in bloom, quite unaware of the fact that botanists have determined that they flower between September and January. Could this change be due to global warming, or local microclimate? I may have seen this waist high plant earlier, but I don’t remember identifying it before. So, without doing some archaeology in my hard disk, I cannot tell you whether it continues to flower into winter.

I read that it is endemic in the western and eastern ghats, and that it has been over-exploited because of its known folk-medicinal properties. So much so, that there is even a paper on its in-vitro propagation. I suspect that between this over-exploitation and habitat loss it must be endangered. Unfortunately the IUCN list does not contain any information on this species.

This lack of information on the species propagates into the wider scientific literature. There is a lot of material on its invasive cousin, A. gangetica, but next to nothing on A. dalzelliana. I’ve linked to two sources of independent information in the previous paragraph. The third piece of information I picked up is that it the larval host for one species of a rather drab butterfly. That’s the sum total of a morning’s search!

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Crouching slouch, hidden hero

Half a kilometer above Mumbai, I crouched to look at a strange flower hidden under a tree. The Family had led me to a hidden wilderness in Khandala. It was raining hard. As we walked through ankle-high grasses and herbs, insects mobbed us. The place was dotted with trees, and it was below one that I had found a flower which was completely new to me. I took a photo and stood up to look for The Family. She was behind me, looking satisfied with a photo of me with ass in the air, head below my ankles. Her photo was already on its way to the clan.

I pointed at the flower. She said wild ginger. This is her patch of Khandala; she knows it well. I shifted and crouched again. Sure enough, there was a rhizome, visible in the mud where the bract had stemmed out. So I could accept family Zingiberaceae, a ginger. It is more commonly called the hill ginger (Curcuma pseudomontana). Like many members of the ginger family, C. pseudomontana seems to be a source of interesting chemicals which could lead to drugs for treatment of several diseases.The pink leaves I was seeing on the flower spike is not the flower. The small yellow flower is what I should have looked at first.

The rain was letting off, and I was tired of crouching over a hollow full of insects, several of which had begun to pierce my face in search of food. We walked on. Close to the edge of a cliff I found another little pink stem. Here more of the plant was visible, including the enormous ribbed leaves. The flowering spike poked out from between them. I took a photo of the plant, growing tangled among other things. Then I bent for another close up of the pink spike. In this photo you can see more clearly that the pink parts are modified leaves. The plant is endemic to the Sahyadris, and other hilly parts of the Deccan plateau, both east and west. Its narrow range is now under “development” stress, and the plant has gone from vulnerable to near threatened in recent years. I was lucky to have permission to visit a stretch which botanists are trying to preserve.

Later, when we went back to the villa where we had parked our car, I noticed that someone had planted a bed of hill ginger. That’s not surprising. It has many uses, apart from the new pharmaceutical possibilities. Traditionally the leaves could be used as a plate instead of banana leaves. The potato-shaped buds on the rhizome could be eaten, or powdered for arrowroot. Getting a photo of the yellow flower was easier here.