Two yellow flowers

Darkot village (altitude 2000 m?) near Munsiyari is known for the angora caps and shawls which the local women weave. But any place in the Himalayas is good for a look at its flora and fauna. I stood on the steep path which leads down to the village from the highway and looked at the sides covered with a large variety of plants. A raven and a monkey had just finished their mid-morning snack, and peace had descended on the village. I went back to examining wild plants.

These yellow flowers are a little confusing, but after some thought I figured they must be yellow flax (Reinwardtia indica). They are found at an altitude of 500 to 2300 meters. It has a large overlap with the range of the Himalayan flax (Reinwardtia cicanoba) which is supposed to inhabit a range up to 2000 meters, but can straggle up a little further, depending on local conditions. The yellow flax is smaller, and the flower tube formed by the five petals fusing at the base is shorter. The fine reddish lines near the throat of the tube, the honey guides, are characteristic of the yellow flax. But the telling detail was the month I saw the flowers; April is usually too late for flowers of the Himalayan flax.

I’m still a novice at identifying Himalayan wildflowers. Of the five or so species that I can see in this patch, I could figure out only the yellow flax, after looking at its flowers for a while. The striped fruit next to it should be easy to identify for an expert, but right now I’m flummoxed by it: is the fruit of the flax, or something else altogether? Similarly for the featured plant. The trifoliate leaves make me think it is clover, and the yellow flower could belong to a clover too, but which? I have no idea. This looks like a project that can keep me busy on holidays the rest of my life.

A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.

Raven and Monkey have a tiff

In spite of the heavy smoke in the air, I stood outside and photographed nothing in particular. I was glad that I had an N95 mask on, it was good at filtering the smoke. I’m not good at identifying flowers and plants, so I take photos at the least opportunity, hoping that when I get back home I’ll be able to figure out what they are. On one side of the path that The Family had taken I saw this very common weed with lovely flowers, the Himalayan Daisy fleabane (Erigeron emodi) as I found later. I find it hard to tell the fleabanes apart, so I take photos of several features: the stems, the leaves, and the flowers. As I was busy doing this I heard a raven call.

It takes me a while to figure out whether I’m seeing a raven, but its call is absolutely distinct from those of other corvids of India. This Northern Raven (Corvus corax) was calling insistently. When I looked up, I saw it flapping about a ficus tree with fruits. There were movements behind a branch; a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta). The bird circled the monkey, calling furiously for a while, and then flew off. I’d not been able to take a photo, so I followed it with my camera as it sat on a distant pine, still calling. In minutes it was back on a different branch of the ficus, calling again. The monkey barked back at it, and they continued this tiff as they kept eating the fruits. Clearly a territorial disagreement. I hadn’t seen these two species in a conflict before. I was happy to be out even on such a horrible day.

A mountain garden

Gardens in the Himalayas always amaze me. Even in years when the rainfall has been scanty, there’s enough moisture in the soil to keep most garden plants happy. And, of course, the air is cool enough to keep flowers fresh for longer. But that’s not the main surprise. It is which sense the garden engages. In the mountains the brilliant colours, like in the gardens of the temperate regions, are meant to be seen. Perhaps a rose is the most fragrant of flowers in these gardens. In the plains of India, gardens are places which harbour fragrance, and many of the flowers are simply white. Even among Himalayan gardens, those of the western Himalayas are quite different from those in the east. In Sikkim, Bengal, and further east you see a lot of orchids in garden. Here in Kumaon, and in the rest of the west, orchids seldom appear. Instead, gardens have lilies, pansies, roses, and daffodils. These are flowers my mother struggled with. It is a wonder to see them growing in such profusion up here.

Roses are among flowers which I don’t like to photograph. I don’t really know what to do with them. Do they look good in colour? One moment the delicate rose shade is what you think you want to keep. The very next moment you think you would rather concentrate on the texture and the shape. I can’t make up my mind, so I give you both.

It is the same with any flower slightly past its prime. As a flower begins to dry up, the streaks of colour mature into something immensely complex and eye-catching. The texture is also so beautiful and complex that you can get a lot of pleasure looking at it even when the picture is drained of colour. Again, I leave you to play with these aspects of a photo.

On our long drive from Almora to Munsiyari we stopped for lunch at a deserted hotel outside a busy town. The tourism industry had collapsed the previous year, as it is bound to again. The restaurant next to the parking lot was open, but we were the only customers. The cook had not prepped anything because days go by before anyone pulls in. Since it would take a while for food to be ready, we climbed the stairs to the next level to marvel at the garden. We looked in through picture windows into the rooms: well furnished and large, everything in good shape in spite of a bad year. The garden was also very well kept, and kept us occupied until the food was ready. The cook did a marvelous job.

When it comes to pansies I have no doubt that I want to retain the colours. The wild combinations that nature and enthusiasts have collaborated to create are just too good to lose. The deep reds, the showy splashes of mauve and yellow, the exuberance of whites against a brilliant background, not something I can subtract from my photos very easily.

The day was getting warmer, and we still had almost four hours of drive left. So, let me get on with it. But before I go, I give you another rose, drain the picture of its delicate pink, leave the texture of the petals, and the shape of the spiral it is folded into.

Orchid trees

Our trip had been planned badly, so we spent really long hours on the road. There was little time for long walks, and in any case the pervasive smoke from forest fires made it impossible most of the time. As a result, the opportunity for bird watching was limited, and I decided to concentrate on something I’ve long put on the backburner: identifying trees. On the day-long drive from Almora to Munsiyari, I spotted a tree full of white flowers by the road, and stopped. A closer look told me that this was Bauhinia variegata.

The characteristic shape of the leaves of the genus Bauhinia has been called “camels’ hoofprints” by Pradip Krishen in his field guide Trees of Delhi. Less poetically, when you flatten out a leaf, it seems to have two lobes. The five-petalled flower has colours which can range from purple to white, hence the specific name variegata. You can find this tree across India up to an altitude of about 1500 m. As a result it has many names in different Indian languages. I think I’ll stick to the Kumaoni name, Kachnar for now, instead of the fancy English constructs like mountain ebony or orchid tree. After all, Corbett just calls it Bauhinia. In Kumaon I saw the flowers used in food, and read later that the flower as well as leaves are eaten in various parts of India. Apparently its uses in medicine have been documented for a long time. The full geographical range includes Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and southern China. It would be interesting to check whether it is used for cooking in Cantonese food, or, more accurately, in the kitchens of Guangdong.

In most of the flowers that I saw, three of the five petals stand close to each other, sometimes overlapping, and two are quite separate. As a result, from many angles a photo shows all five petals, and all five long stamens. One petal is always multicoloured, making it a very interesting subject for photography. As I read more about this genus, I saw that it contains species across the world’s tropics. Is this then a very ancient genus? Apparently not. Fossil and molecular evidence agree in placing its origins in Eastern Asia only around 60 million years ago, just about the time that India banged into Asia. So its dispersal across the world is not due to continental movement. Amazing that seeds and seedpods can travel such long distances!

Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.

A walk in an oak forest

The breeze blew cool and clear. There was no one close by on the path up to Zero Point inside Binsar National Park, so I pulled my mask down to smell the trees around me. Oak forests don’t have the pleasant resinous smell of pines, but they are so much more alive. At this height, about 2400 meters, the Himalayan white oak (banj, or Quercus leucotrichophora) should be close to its upper limit, but they looked like they were thriving away from the hard competition with chir pines (Pinus Roxburghii) on lower slopes.

Oak forests are alive. Langurs prefer banj oaks as roosts. A yellow throated marten streaked across our path, it is another inhabitant of banj forests. I could hear a woodpecker looking for lunch, and, from a distance, the call of the Great Barbet. This forest was full of birds: seed eaters, acorn gatherers, and insectivores. The oaks themselves harbour life: fungi, lichens, ferns, orchids, and mistletoe. Butterflies flitted about on the sun dappled path. On gentler slopes the canopies merge together to provide complete shade under them, making it hard for younger trees to grow. But up here, the slope was steep enough that there was always a gap in the canopy, and rhododendron and other trees could spring up. Still, the forests of the western Himalayas do not seem to have the exuberance of the east. The monsoon winds create this difference.

The smaller number of large trees here gives me a chance to slowly begin to recognize most of them. A few years ago I made myself a small and incomplete field guide to trees of the middle heights. I’ve added to that by now, and I realize I can recognize most of the trees around me as I walk. But the herbs are another matter. I stop and look at the small plants poking out of the muddy cliff on one side of the path. I haven’t the faintest clue about them.

I could stick to the trees for now. The path is surrounded by oaks. I’ve aways been a little surprised by that. Oaks, mistletoe, holly all sounded exotic to me when I grew up surrounded by mango, guava, jamun, and silk cotton trees. But to my surprise the genus Quercus, oaks, seems to have its origins in a part of an ancient continent which is today East Asia, in the middle of the Eocene Epoch, perhaps about 45 million years ago. That was just after the earth had gone through one of its temperature maxima (there were no ice sheets anywhere on the planet) and the Indian plate had just banged into Asia. Over the geological ages after that, the oaks adapted to the cooling climate, and crossed the Himalayas into Europe. The five Himalayan species found themselves settled at various heights, Q. leucotrichophora at the lowest altitude. During the multiple ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch the white oaks seem to have covered a very large part of the lower slopes.

Most observers agree that the oaks are slowly being crowded out by pines on the lower slopes. I asked why, and got different replies. The literature is also a little confused, but I tried to make sense out of what I read and heard and got an interesting story. The two main threads in the plot are how fast the trees grow and how they respond to fire. Once the acorns germinate, the oak seedlings can halt growth until conditions are just right. This requires a moderate disturbance of the forest to let in some light. In the days of Jim Corbett, this was provided, at least partially, by human intervention, as villagers chopped off a few branches of older trees for kindling, and removed some of the leaves for fodder. But now this activity is forbidden, for reasons that were well-intentioned. As a result seedlings lie in arrested growth for long times in unattended forests. The trouble is that in recent decades a “fire season” has become part of the annual cycle in the ecology, probably due to direct human intervention. I have read no account of it in the older literature on Kumaon. Fire affects the slow-growing oak seedlings disproportionately.

Pines, on the other hand, are adapted to grow in degraded land, and can reach a height of 20 meters or so in a decade. Fire also causes pine cones to open up and release spores. As a result, chir pines out-compete and out-grow oaks. They are also more immediately useful for commerce, so the forest department manuals on planting and harvesting of pines are widely used. Oaks provide more ecosystem services, but they are not seen as commercially viable products. As a direct result, I could not find any manual on oak silviculture. When I reached the end of the walk I could look down at the surrounding slopes. The nearer ones, inside the park, still held many stretches of oak forests. Further off, there seemed to be more pines.

Altitude

We took an hour’s walk inside Binsar National Park, a short climb to its highest point. This Zero Point, as it is called is at an altitude of just over 2400 meters. The cool air at this height smelt clean, with a flavour of green trees. The view at the top showed smoky valleys, and the high Himalayas were almost invisible because of the haze. But just around this part of the park the winds and the cool heights had together managed to confine the smoke below. I’m sure that the air here is usually much cleaner, but at that time it still felt better than city air. The walk through an oak forest was wonderful, and a great change from sitting inside a car all day. At this height you get Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), easily identified by the fact that the oval leaves with serrated edges are white on the reverse. The dry tree fern that you see in the featured photo is just one of many things which grow on oaks.

Coming back to our hotel, we felt the change in the air. Warmer, of course, now that we were half a kilometer lower, and also more haze. Fortunately there was no smell of smoke in the immediate vicinity. We were told that a short shower the previous day had put out fires locally, and cleared the haze a little. I admired a red sunset as I walked up the steep forested path from the road to the hotel. Pollution gives you interesting sunsets.

Rhododendron heights

This is meant to be extremely literal: red rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum) in its native Himalayas grows at altitudes between 1500 and 2500 meters. This means that almost all of Kumaon is at the right altitude for this lovely blood red flower. Micro-climates can cause upward or downward fluctuations in this band. Human effort also brings it down to gardens at somewhat lower altitudes in India, but not to the plains. Climate change can also cause upward migration of the tree, but as as tourist you would not be able to disentangle the effect of micro-climate and global warming.

After several years, we’d come back to a hotel outside Almora which has a large area of jungle around it. We woke late, did a little birdwatching right from the balcony of our room. When we walked down for breakfast I was surprised to find no flowers on the rhododendron. Just a month before we’d been to a similar height and the rhodos had not started flowering. Early April is smack in the middle of the season. “Monkeys,” explained the person we asked. “They come and eat the flowers.” I found one flower which they had missed. That’s the one you see in the featured photo.

Picking at tigers’ claws

A Himalayan black bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) posed for a while on a tree next to the road. Perhaps unsatisfied with the ways the photos were turning out, it flew to a Tiger Claw (Indian coral tree , Erythrina variegata) in bloom. Just hold it there, Bulbul. Turn a bit, bit more. Right. Now chin up. Perfect. I’ll let you know when the photo’s published.

Damn. He didn’t give me his phone number. If you see him, just let him know. I met him at 1800 meters.