Inside a fig

The edible fig (Ficus carica) was among the first domesticated plants. Their remains, older than 11,000 years, from Jordan tell us that they were used before any of the grains that gave us farming. Between then and 2500 years ago, when Aristotle and Theophrastus opened up figs and described them, many others must have looked carefully at the inside of a fig. So my photos must be the most recent in a long human history of marveling at a thing that we mistakenly call a fruit.

It is an inflorescence, a bunch of flowers turned inside out. When you cut it open you see a pale colored wall, the syconium, on the outside. From this a bunch of female flowers grow inwards. In the photos you can see their long stems attached to the syconium wall. The ovaries of the flower have an organ called the style, some are long, the others short. The long-styled ones (yellow in the photos, shown selectively coloured in the photo on the right, above) can be pollinated to produce fruit. The opening that you always see in the outer wall of the syconium allows entry to fig wasps (Blastophaga psenes) which do the pollination.

About 60 million years ago, just before the time that India had begun to break away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, these wasps had begun to evolve an unique lifestyle. They began to breed inside the short-styled flowers. So now each inflorescence is home to these wasps. Pollinating wasps come and go, leaving the mother and males to breed inside. A new generation is raised by the time the fruits are ripe, and the parents die inside and are digested by the plant’s enzymes. You won’t see any wasp parts in my photos.

A nice thing about food photography is that you can eat what you photographed. The fig was ripe, juicy, and sweet. The slightly crunchy parts were the achenes, the true fruits.

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

Deenanath grass

Bright pink flowers are not something you would normally associate with a grass, but I’d been seeing fields of such a grass all the days that we’d driven around Tadoba. These chest-high flowers were just a bit too far away for me to get good photos. Until the last morning. Seconds before sunrise I got the shot that you see as the featured photo. The other photo was taken a minute later, when the sun had cleared the horizon.

I found that it is called Deenanath grass. That’s an odd name. It means the lord of the poor, or the saviour of the poor. Why such a name? It is used as animal feed in Ethiopia (where it is called Desho grass), but I could not find any references to its use by Indian farmers. In any case, it is a very literary construction, and I find it hard to imagine that the deen, the destitute, would think it up. Wouldn’t they just call it red grass, or something like that? There are more oddities. It has two Latin binomials: Cenchrus pedicellatus as well as Pennisetum pedicellatum.

It is a winter flowering grass, and like other winter flowering grasses like rice, wheat, and oats, possibly uses C3 photosynthesis. The Kew garden listing for this grass records its range as very wide: from the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic, across tropical Africa, to Madagascar, India and Indo-China. The dense thickets that I saw led me to look a bit further into its habits. It is a perennial, and its roots form dense mats which prevent soil erosion. Perhaps that is the origin of the name. It can be used to prevent topsoil from blowing off. There were cycles of failure of the Indian monsoon in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, and earlier in the medieval and early modern eras. Could it be that during these hard times it was discovered that fields could be made productive by mixing this grass with crops? That is a technique used today in Ethiopia. Perhaps some historical digging into 19th century Indian records is called for.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

Ghost tree

Driving through the jungle paths you sometimes see the skeletal white torso and arms of a ghost tree reaching out towards the path. I find them beautiful, and often pause to take a photo. They grow even more ghostly after dark, shining white in even the faintest light which breaks through the darkness of the jungle. Since I’d only visited jungles at the height of summer earlier, I’d always seen ghost trees (Sterculia urens, also called the gum karaya tree) without leaves. The leaves grow back in early monsoon. In winter they look even more beautiful, as the leaves turn amber and gold. I took these photos in Tadoba in early November. In a month the tree would be bare again.

Deeper in winter is the time of the flowers. I would like to see that sometime. Ghost trees not only have male and female flowers, but also hermaphrodites. Interestingly, these last are completely barren, incapable of producing seeds. However, they do have nectar and attract bees. What role could this play in the survival of the species? I couldn’t find any literature on it. The tree is commercially important, since an edible gum, gum karaya, is obtained by tapping its trunk. I was surprised to find that this is the ingredient E416 often mentioned on wrappers of chocolate. Over the last couple of decades I had the impression that the trees were dying out. It seems that overtapping was the culprit. Apparently there are now attempts to heal the tree after tapping. I hope this succeeds. I would hate to see the ghosts die out.

Silver cockscomb

Silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea) is a common weed. I must have seen it since I was a child, but my first clear memory of it is rather recent. It dates from about two decades ago, when I began to haunt scrublands around Mumbai and in the Sahyadris in search of butterflies. The spiky inflorescences attracted several large and colourful nymphalids, and eventually I began to photograph the flower. In recent months, after the end of the monsoon, I’ve noticed it wherever I go: Mumbai and the Sahyadris of course, but also the edge of the Thar desert, in Bera, and in the central Indian plains, in and around the Tadoba national park. I’ll have to look for it further east in coming years. I’m certain I’ll find it there, because it is considered to be as much of a weed in China as well. It is invasive, having originated in the tropical regions of Africa.

Open patches in the jungle were completely overrun with this flower. I find it quite strange that the widely grown garden plant, the cockscomb, is the same species, usually called Celosia argentea var. cristata. How many generations of selective breeding must have gone into creating those showy flowers! I always found the velvety curls of the garden flower faintly repulsive. I like the clean lines of the original wild stock much more attractive.

I stared at a patch of these flowers while everyone around me wasted their time scanning the jungle for a glimpse of the tiger. I love these tiger safaris; the herd of tourists act as lookouts, and their alarm calls are easy to recognize. I can leave the spotting to them and concentrate on these other aspects of the surroundings. The flower bearing stalks rose perhaps a little above knee high, certainly less than a meter tall, but high enough to make the flowers the first thing that a pollinator would spot from far. The bodies of the plant are visible in the photo above.

Historically in India the plant has been eaten when times are hard, and in parts of India it finds regular use as food. It is used traditionally to treat various ailments, including as an anti-parasitic agent. The literature on isolating medically active molecules from the plant is too large to quote here. Interestingly, there have been recent studies in using the plant to suck up heavy metal pollutants (manganese, cadmium, copper) from contaminated soil. This ability to quickly accumulate poisons should make it less attractive as a vegetable. Perhaps this is the reason its use as food persists only in remote places which may not have seen much industrial pollution of the soil. Not being prone to eating random plants, I’m happy to explore waste ground where I see these flowers.

Fields of kaans

The white flowers of fields of kaans waving in a breeze gives me a stab of false nostalgia. I grew up in a parched landscape where the common wild flowers were straggling grasses, kateli, and datura. I saw this tall grass first in Satyajit Ray’s linocut illustration of a young girl and her younger brother running through a field of kaans to see a distant train. Although the scene from his film, Pather Panchali, is now much more famous, I always see it in my mind as a linocut illustration in the book.

Of course, kaans (Saccharum spontaneum, wild sugarcane) is found across India. I saw it again this month in Tadoba. Kaans grasslands in the Terai are the natural habitat of the Indian rhinoceros. The plant has traveled east and west. Traveling east, it met the westward expansion of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and hybridized to give the dwarf sugarcane (Saccarum x sinense) which is still found in Guangdong. After the famous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, it was observed that kaans was one of the early colonizers of the island. It is considered to be an invasive weed in Panama today. On the other hand, as its range is expanding across the mediterranean, its use as a source of fibre has made it a new economic resource in this region.

Interestingly, one of the factors that makes plants, especially grasses, extremely adaptable seems to be a genetic condition called polyploidy. Polyployd cells are those which, through an error in cell division, land up with multiple copies of chromosomes. Normally this harms the organism. However in many plants this helps it to spread and adapt. Familiar examples abound: wheat, potato, banana, coffee, strawberry, to name a few. A study found that kaans can have anywhere between 40 and 128 chromosomes across old-world populations. These point to multiple adaptive events as it spread across the continents.

The grass is tall, often growing to as much as two to three meters high. At a rest block I walked up to a clump of the grass to take a closeup of the feathery flowers. The many branched inflorescences (panicles to botanists) started above my head, and the feathery white flowers blazed in the sunlight. A wind was whipping them about, and I couldn’t take the macros I’d wanted to. I settled for a close up instead.

Tigers, Rajahs, and Nawabs

When I smugly said “I’ve seen a few today,” in answer to The Family’s lament about not having seen a tiger during the day’s safari, her eyes popped wide. But she knows me too well. In seconds she said “I don’t mean butterflies.” Not even a blue tiger, Thirumala limniace? Not even when it is feeding on cypress vine morning glory, Ipomoea quamoclit? I thought it was quite a sight, the sun shining through the wings of the butterfly. As for the flower, it may have originated in Central America, but by the mid-18th century, when Carl Linnaeus named it, it was already widely established globally across the tropics, leading him to describe it as a native of India.

My attention had been initially drawn to a tall herb with red flowers glowing with the afternoon sun shining through it. From the shape of the leaves it could have been marijuana, but the flower rules out this unlikely identification. My best guess is that this is the Monarch Rosemallow (Hibiscus radiatus). Jungle safaris are not the best suited to spotting wild flowers. Rules of usage prevented me from getting off the jeep and walking round to see the flower from the front to confirm my guess.

The reason we had stopped was a piece of carrion on the ground, under a distant tree, but visible from the track. The guides had identified it as a leopard kill from a few days ago. The disturbed leopard had not come back to claim it. The fact that it had been lying there for a few days told us that there were no vultures left in this area any longer: an unfortunate local extinction in an area once known for white-rumped vultures.The Commander’s eagle eyes had spotted a butterfly on the carcass. I took a photo. The distance and the dappled light made it hard to get a good photo, but it was enough to see two butterflies and identify them.

The one in the foreground was definitely the Common Nawab (Polyura athamas), of which I had a good photo from thirteen years ago. I’d seen the other fluttering around canopies in the forest, and misidentified it earlier. It was the Tawny Rajah (Charaxes solon). The common names betrayed the casual racism of the 19th century English in India, who named many nectar feeders after ranks in the British military, but the carrion feeders after the ranks of Indian nobles.

I’ve seen a Baron and a Sailor feed on mud, and an Admiral on animal dung. But seeing the Rajah and Nawab feast on meat made me think of matters that I’d not given any time to earlier. Years of helping The Clan to reinforce better eating habits in my nieces has given me the certain knowledge that animal metabolism requires more than sugar. In this light it seems odd that some species could survive on sugar alone. I jumped to the conclusion that nectars must contain a lot of amino acids. Later search led to papers which build on exactly such an insight. Apparently the study of amino acids in nectar is now a booming field. There are studies of how the amino acid profile changes in species across a family and how these serve to attract different pollinators, what other purposes these acids serve, even how they get into the flower in the first place! But every question leads to another. Why do these two butterflies need the extra amino acids? The beginning of an answer is the observation that it is largely the males who prefer non-flower sources of food. Here is a mystery that requires more thought.

Teak tok

Quite possibly you are familiar with teak wood: that dense hard wood which so much of the lasting furniture of the last two centuries was made of. My father in law once gave us two large roof beams from an old house. A carpenter looked at it and swooned, “Real aged teak.” There are many hard woods that he’d worked with, but one of the reasons he loved teak was that it never gets termites or other pests.

Now, a couple of days before Diwali, I was parked in a jeep under a towering teak tree (Tectona grandis), waiting for a tiger to arrive. Tiger watching is often said to be a fruitless task, if you count as useless the silent hours spent in the open air of a forest in central India, sitting next to someone you love. I spent the time looking up at the trunk slowly turn with the earth to point at different parts of the sky. The sun shone on the tree from different directions as this happened. The large leathery leaves of teak blazed green as the sun illuminated them from above.

Later I look a macro shot of the surface of a leaf: so intricately patterned, like hide. New leaves appear brown and then change into green. The trees were just past their post-monsoon bloom. There is a typical fragrance in a teak forest in bloom. I missed it this year. Most trees already had berries. I don’t know whether the berries brown as they ripen, or like the leaves turn green as they mature. “Does anyone drink teak berry juice?” I asked The Family. We’d never heard of it. No one does.

The reason turns out to be interesting. There are stories that newly cut teak wood smells leathery. The Commander demonstrated to me that if you take a young leaf and rub it on your palm it produces a juice that looks like blood. This is due to tannins which give the new leaf its brown colour. But it seems that teak has large amounts of interesting chemicals in the wood, root, leaves and berries. They have germicidal and anti-fungal properties, and even inhibit some plant viruses. In general they can stress the body if eaten. That’s probably why teak wood is free of pests, the leaves are not used by humans, teak berry juice is not common, and I did not see birds feeding on teak berries.

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