Flowers wake

I was extremely surprised when I realized that feral okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, aka bhindi) grew widely near the seashore around Mumbai. By most accounts, this plant originates in north-east Africa, and spread from there to South Asia and Arabia in prehistoric times, and then to the rest of the world in the modern era. There are several closely related edible plants, which seem to have been hybridized extensively over millenia and are genetically almost indistinguishable now. It is a bit surprising to find that it is as hardy as a weed, and grows in most unused land around the city. Perhaps the hot and wet conditions here suit it especially well.

This week, while watching birds around Bhandup pumping station, I spent a while looking at the flowers of this plant unfold in the morning. I had not realized that the flowers close at night, a behaviour called nyctinasty. Why would plants put on rapid bursts of growth at different parts of the petals at dusk and dawn to force the flower to open and close? There’s a lot of speculation about the function of nyctinasty in leaves. Okra leaves seemed to have remained open at night, so most of the speculations are ruled out. Since the leaves were dripping water at dawn, I guess the main function of the closing of petals must be to keep the sexual organs dry. Interesting that this question does not seem to have been investigated before.

Grass flowers

I was looking for birds, and I found grass flowering. I’ve never seen this before. But then I’ve never been to wastelands inside the city immediately after the monsoon. I just wish I’d slipped a macro lens into my backpack.

This is the first time I’ve seen grass with what I would think of as a petal. Except that grass has no petals. The orange bits which protect the sexual organs are scales called lemma and palea. I learnt this today while, unsuccessfully, trying to identify the species of grass that I saw.

We’d started at 5 in the morning and reached Bhandup minutes before sunrise. The early morning stroll was our first attempt at bird watching outside our house in eight months. It felt good to be coming to terms with the epidemic while carrying on with life as usual.

There were at least three different kinds of grass I photographed. The one pictured above is probably Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus). Still have to figure out what the others were.

I found a nicely written introduction to grasses. Some parts of it are specific to the UK, but most of it is quite general, and useful no matter which country you live in.

Love and death

As I rose, I turned to look at the tall plant that had been at the edge of my vision while I was sitting on the wet log bench in the garden. What was this? A tall stalk with inflorescence symmetrically placed on two sides. I looked down and found it was growing out of a low succulent. It reminded me of an aloe, which spends most of its life as a succulent, but grows a long stem now and then to hold flowers. But this wasn’t an aloe; it turned out to be a century plant (Agave americana).

The bush of succulent leaves was drooping a bit now, but it would never have reached above my hips, so maybe it would have been a meter high. The flower spike, on the other hand, was almost twice my height, so perhaps around 4 meters. From what I read, the plant spends its whole life gathering enough resources to put out this spike with its cyme of yellow flowers. Then, its job done, it dies. In this place I didn’t see any pollinators visiting the flowers.

The native range of the plant seems to be southern USA down to Mexico. It is a desert plant, and is said to take thirty to forty years to bloom. Its succulent leaves store water and nutrients, and when it has enough it spikes into flower. It seems to have been brought to Europe around 1520 CE, and first botanical description was written by Jacob Anton Cortosus of Padua in 1561. It may have come to parts of Asia earlier, perhaps even a thousand years earlier. However, its present use as a garden plant probably spread with European colonialism.

If God exists I hope he has a good excuse

Boris Grushenko (Love and Death, 1975)

I found that water is the crucial ingredient that limits the flowering of a related plant. Although I couldn’t find a similar study for this one, I suppose the fact that it has begun to flower immediately after the monsoon could be an indicator that this one also behaves similarly. It is possible that in many places with abundant light and water, the plant actually has a much shorter life. Its cousin, the Agave deserti, produces one viable seed out of a million, and usually propagates vegetatively. I suppose that must be true of this plant too, since it is a very successful weed.

A fine weekend

The weekend was bright and sunny. It was the first weekend of the month of Ashwin, the beginning of the season of sharad. It was warm and humid, as you might expect of a season which the British called an Indian summer, but the blue skies were fantastic. In the 4th century BCE, the Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa, described sharad as the season of white, of inner beauty. On a walk with my camera, these champa (Plumeria alba) flowers against the gentle blue sky seemed to be the essence of the new season. The skies will be grey again, but eventually give way to this blue.

Money plant

There are myths that you cannot kill a money plant (Epipremnum aureum), that it grows even in dark places around the house, even in a jar of water. All false, as three generations in my family can attest to. The Family finally got one to grow by taking a dying stem and planting it in a pot in our balcony. It hasn’t exactly thrived there, but it has grown for a while, and lived for a long time. You can see the spray of leaves it has put out in the featured photo. There’s such a variety of leaf colours in this species, that I find it hard sometimes to tell whether a money plant is indeed one.

You would be as surprised as I was when I read that this is a flowering plant. Apparently it seldom flowers spontaneously, and needs you to add plant hormones to the soil. I guess its remarkable ability for vegetative propagation was useful for it to reach and proliferate in the remote Pacific islands of the French Polynesia, from which it was exported in historically recent times across the world. The fact that it can grow in saline water perhaps also helps it to live as it crosses oceans. I wonder why it was confined to just one island in the South Pacific before humans transported it across the world. It is a mystery on par with how it reached that island in the first place.

Viper bowstring hemp

When I paused to take photos of this common garden ornamental, I was struck by how appropriate its common name snake plant is. Unfortunately, too many different plants are called by that name, so I could call it by its binomial, Dracaena trifasciata, or call it the viper bowstring hemp. This name comes from the fact that the fibers of this plant were used to make bowstrings by the Yoruba people who live in the native range of the plant: from the Congo westwards to Nigeria. There are so many varieties of this plant (another one in the photo below) that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all in the same species. At least one study has tried to make sure that several plants that we lump into this species are indeed one.

Although the center of diversity of the 120 species of the genus Dracaena lies in west Africa, there is increasing evidence that the genus evolved in sub-tropical Asia. The main clue to this strange event is that the closest cousins of these species are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of eastern Asia. They have gone extinct in that part of the world, but the oldest species of Dracaena seem to lie in Hawaii and parts of South America. This apparently also happened to the family of plants called the Begoniaceae (the Begonias). So there is the beginning of a mystery here: how did that first dispersal happen, and then a second dispersal to Africa. I’m on tenterhooks now, waiting for the solution.

The plant is easy to grow indoors, and we once had one which grew very well even away from direct sunlight. I find that different varieties as well as closely related species are being sold as “natural air purifiers”. This is not entirely wrong, since many papers have been written about its ability to slowly soak up volatile organic molecules like benzene and formaldehyde. Good ventilation is perhaps a more effective way of getting rid of those indoor air contaminants. There is no evidence that the plant gets rid of suspended particulate matter, which is a major component of air pollution in India.

Tulsi in flower

I woke to a flat and uninspiring light. Towards the end of the monsoon the days alternate between sunlight and totally overcast, and the temperature oscillates rapidly between warm and cool. All around me people have sniffles, and scaring themselves and others to death. No help in the balcony; there was an unnatural quietness from the birds. None of the potted plants are flowering. Or are they? In one forgotten corner, the tall struggling tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, previously called Ocimum sanctum, aka holy basil) was flowering. I’m constantly fooled by the reddish leaves into thinking that I need to water the plant (now that the monsoon is over I’ll have to), but that’s a natural colour. This is the variety called a Krishna tulsi, not the more common green-leafed variety known as the Ram tulsi.

It was almost not worth taking a photo in this awful light, but I know of no better way of finding inspiration than by drilling down to the particulars of a small little thing, losing myself in the moment. That’s my way to inner peace, my zen or meditation, whatever you call it.

The genus Ocimum are the basils, a huge genus of aromatic plants. The tulsi is one of the seven species of this genus which is found in India, and was probably domesticated in the early Bronze age somewhere in the middle of India. Its medicinal properties made it a staple in Ayurveda later. A recent genetic study claims to have found the keys to its special properties. That’s a good study, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions.

If there are so many plants in the genus, you would be surprised if no other species is potentially useful. Sure enough, a little searching led me to papers (here and here) which find many commonalities between chemicals produced by different Ocimum species. So, I guess the tulsi is a little more useful than its cousins, as people discovered a couple of thousand years ago; they were no less intelligent than us. But over the years we have amassed more knowledge. So, I’m sure that we could turn these lesser known plants to good use today, if we wanted to.

Red prawn curry

Another day, another recipe. When The Family said she was planning to make a pepper prawn curry, I asked her “Why not tomatoes instead?” Our bhajiwala has started stocking some really flavourful tomatoes recently: tart and acid. They are so good that sometimes I pick up one and just bite into it (is it possible that canning plants have shut down due to the epidemic?). She asked “Do you have a recipe?” I dug into my memory. “Kalonjee, Mirchandalchini, and Tejpattam”, I ventured, channeling the Moor’s Last Sigh. “That’s a Rushdie job,” she muttered. “Don’t be paneer,” I replied.

We cobbled a recipe together. Kalonji (Nigella seed) was acceptable. Two or three leaves of curry (Murraya koenigii) were drying inside the masala dabba. They went into the bagar. A sliced green chili was dropped in before I could protest. Then six of the wonderful tomatoes, chopped into pieces, just before the lid was closed for the reduction. When they had reduced, The Family dropped the cleaned prawn into it. I added a splash of water to deglaze the pot. In five more minutes the prawns were ready. The Family likes to squeeze a few drops of lime juice into something like this. I take away my portion before she sprinkles some chili flakes on top. (“Don’t forget to mention the grated ginger,” The Family reminded me after seeing the post.)

This bit of quick cooking gave me time to think a little more about the curry tree. Wikipedia told me very little about it. The genus Murraya (Linnaeus named the genus after his student, the Swedish physician Murray) belongs to the citrus family, and its center of diversity is in southern China and south Asia. In the past, when butterflies were more common in Mumbai, I’d seen the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) visit the plant very often when it was in flower, and even lay eggs on it. Since the butterfly is endemic to south Asia, it stands to reason that the plant is also a south Asian species. I found a report of high genetic diversity in wild plants of this species in India, which also gives additional evidence for this supposition.

So our little recipe was truly fusion food: recognizably Indian in taste, but impossible without bringing Indian and south American food plants together with prawns. Authenticity is such a fluid concept when it comes to food!

Jamun

I managed to taste some jamun (Syzygium cumini) at the tail end of the season. This is a fruit which is deeply embedded in my childhood memories. I literally measured my growth by a jamun tree which stood in the garden in front of the house I grew up in. My earliest memories of the fruit are of picking fallen jamun and eating them until my mouth and tongue were stained deep purple. Every summer, over years, my cousins and I tried to climb the tree. Eventually I was able to shin up that straight scaly trunk until the first branch. I was never as good at it as a friend who would go straight up to the fruiting branches and drop fruits down on the rest of us after eating his fill. I wasn’t surprised to find that this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the mango, another fruit of the summer, there is no mystique to this fruit; it is just an old friend, a favourite which you love to come back to. This year too, The Family and I sat down to savour the sweet acidic taste of the fruit, and shared childhood memories of having it with rock salt.

That’s why I was not surprised to find that there is huge genetic variation in the tree across India; no one has tried to cultivate particular strains. Since the taste of the fruit is preserved by the seed, vegetative propagation of jamun has not been widely used. Propagation by seed must have caused some selective distinctions between different regional varieties (the ones we ate this year did not colour our tongues much) while retaining genetic diversity. Two related facts amazed me. First, that although jamun has been carried across the world recently, there are many regions where the fruit is grown but not eaten (imagine that!). Second, that the genus Syzygium is found in a wide arc across the world, from Africa and Madagascar, through Asia, all the way to Australia and several Pacific islands. The geographic spread and genetic clocks indicate that the genus may have evolved after the late Jurassic, when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was breaking up to create the modern oceans. It contains more than 1500 species, many of which have edible fruits, and (this blew me right out of the water) cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) belong to the same genus.