A year’s worth of travel

Ever since we got our booster shots we have been taking short trips every now and then. The Family was always good at looking at the calendar and spotting lucky combinations of holidays and weekends which give us travel opportunities. I’ve become better at exploiting them. This has given us a marvelous opportunity to observe the architecture of the world around us. It has been amazing to figure out how forests regenerate with the help of termites which get rid of dead wood, how different trees work together to make a mosaic of forests and grassland, and how the character of the natural world differs at the shores of seas, in the continental interior, and in the places where the joints between continents show up as incredibly high mountains.

Here is a tiny slice of a memoir. These are photos of the creatures I share it with. From the hot desert of Rajasthan to the high cold desert of Ladakh, from the forests of Assam to the grasslands of Uttarakhand, from the wild growth of plants in the monsoon in the Sahyadris to the happy weeds of the Terai, these are images of home.

Nepali false nettle

Daar. That’s the Nepali name for this small tree which intrigued me as we explored the region around Dotiyal. We were probably somewhat below 2000 meters when we stopped in a densely wooded part of the road. It was shadowed by overhanging trees, and was exactly the kind of place where I find it very hard to spot birds. So I concentrated on the plants, while The Family exercised her binoculars. The sight of a tree with long streamers of green flowers hanging down from it was intriguing. What was it? Not weeping willow certainly.

The answer stunned me. It was a member of the nettle family, Utricaceae. The genus Boehmeria which lies in this family does not have stinging leaves, so plants in this genus are called false nettles. This one, Boehmeria rugulosa (a synonym is Pouzolzia rugulosa), is called Daar in Nepali. I could identify it later by the distinct bunched streamers of flowers, the shape of the leaves, and the dark bark. Neither of our guide-drivers could give us a local name. I guess Nepali false nettle is as good a name to recall it by as any other. I found claims that it is common across the lower slopes of the Himalayas. I probably spotted it near the upper end of its range. October is about when its flowering season ends, so I was doubly lucky. I could have made up for past inattention to this tree if the cliff above me was a little less steep, but now I’ll have to leave that examination for another time.

Common thistle

Did you know that thistles are in the same family as daisies? I found that unbelievable at first: the cheerful white and yellow daisies which dot sunny meadows cousin to the thorny thistles which brood in dark open spaces under trees? But then I considered the evidence. Like their other cousins, the asters and sunflowers, both are complex flowers. There are the colourful petals surrounding a distinct center. When you look at the center, you find them full of complete tiny flowers called the disk florets. The circle of “petals” around this disk are each a flower, a ray floret, which has given up its identity by fusing into a larger structure. There are other commonalities, but this observation began to break down my initial disbelief.

I’ve usually seen them under dense growths of pines or deodar (cedar) which dot Himalayan grasslands, in places where the sunlight does not reach easily and other flowers shun. I suppose these are its refugia, safe places, where humans don’t hunt them down. They do not actively shun sunlight, because they can grow also in farmlands, but they are usually evicted quite quickly from there. Maybe they need some open space around the base, which is why they do not grow where the grass is dense. I’ll have to look more carefully at its base in future.

But was this particular plant a common thistle (Cirsium verutum) or Wallich’s thistle (Cirsium wallichi)? The flower head is not sufficient to clearly distinguish the two. I had to look at the leaves and the stem. The common thistle has leaves which end in a long spine, with other spines along the lobes on the sides. Wallich’s thistle has a less pronounced terminal spike and a hairy stem. So I think this was Cirsium verutum, the common thistle.

Tridax daisies

After yesterday’s broad look at the Aster family, I stepped closer to look for plants that I could identify. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) is the one I recognize quickly in the field. It has five ray florets, each such “petal” is deeply notched to give it the appearance of three fingers. The main reason I learnt to recognize it is because the straggling stems with upright flowers can be seen across India. Now, near Dotiyal village in Kumaon, about 2700 m above sea level, I was happy to meet a familiar face.

The featured photo is not of a flower that helps identification, since it has lost its characteristic ray florets . But I liked the way the dew had collected on it. Other flowers were more easily identified. But in the process of taking those flowers, I have caught a fly which I can’t identify. If you are a fly fancier, could you help?

One large happy family

Asters, that’s who mean. The family Asteraceae contains well over 30,000 species. In one small place, around the little Nal-Damayanti Tal in the lake district of Kumaon were these seven species. Some were fleabanes (both seem to belong to the genus Erigeron), two look like daisies, and three I cannot really place.

How do I know they belong to the Aster family? Because they can be identified by one simple feature: they have compound flowers. At the center of each compound flower is a disk, filled with tiny flowers. These are called disk florets. Larger petals surround the central disk. Each petal is an individual flower, called a ray floret. The disk and the rays are often different colours. If this reminds you of sunflowers, daisies, gerbera, or chrysanthemum you are right. They are all part of the same family.

There are no true daisies (genus Bellis) in India. So these must be something closely related, perhaps true asters? I always wondered if there are so many asters in the world, why haven’t we tamed many of them into edible plants, like we have done to grasses. I looked it up today, and it seems that asters do not store energy in starch but in what we would think of as dietary fiber.

Almost three quarters of Asteraceae belong to a subfamily called Asteroideae, which contains most of our garden flowers. I think it means that the two flowers in this bunch which look like daisies could be the most difficult to identify. The rest should be relatively easy. Any guesses? As the Terminator said, “I’ll be back”, to write down the identifications of these seven in full when I get them.

Speaking of grasslands

Perhaps the most beautiful, and least recognized, habitat of the middle Himalayas are the grasslands. I was mesmerized by the number of birds that I could hear. And then I could see birds fluttering through the open canopy: so many warblers and woodpeckers! One that was completely new to me was the upland pippit (Anthus sylvanus). It has been reported across the Himalayas from Pakistan to Bhutan, and also in southern China. But it is said to be rare. That it is. This was my first sighting. Don’t miss the foliose lichen on pine just below the bird. It is taken as a biomarker for clean air these days, since they die when the SO2 content of air goes up.

I looked up-slope of the road and down-slope. That haze in the distance was mist in the lower valleys. The sky above me was a clear and bright blue. I was in the middle of a huge patch of grassland, dotted with chir pine (Pinus roxburgii, long leafed pine). You can see the shiny leaves of a single banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora, white oak) in the corner of one of these shots, but there were no patches of oak woodlands to be seen. I’d thought that the pine grasslands are bereft of life but the songs of warblers, the rapid fire drilling of woodpeckers, and the occasional territorial call of pheasants told me that I’d been wrong. These grasslands are a complex ecology, and I would find both flowers and insects here. I like the division of labour in which The Family looks at birds, leaving me free to look at the smaller things.

Pink Knotweed

Identification is always dicey. I was on a slope photographing a ground orchid when The Accountant called out from below. “What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at a flowering mat of knotweed around the base of a boulder near him. The flowers were red, so the name red Knotweed popped into my mind. But I’d just looked at the GPS on my camera to check that I was at a height of about 1900 m. And the red-stemmed knotweed (Persicaria sinuata) usually grows above 2500 m. There could be microclimates which allow species to extend their ranges, of course. Also, it flowers immediately after the monsoon. It was later in the year now. But of course, the monsoon had been longer. Two coincidences together? I said “I don’t know”.

Reddish green leaves on alternating sides of a stem which is swollen at nodes!

I came down to take a closer look. The stems were red all right, but the leaves were not lobed. So it definitely was not P. sinuata. I didn’t know this one. That it grew in a low mat was clearly a clue. The elliptical leaves, slightly pointed, half red and half green eventually gave me the clue to its identity. It was Persicaria capitata, pink knotweed. Pink. I could have kicked myself. If my mind had fallen into the pink groove instead of red I could have shouted out “Pink knotweed”. L’esprit de l’escalier.

Trying to identify knotweeds (family Polygonaceae) leaves me with a slight nausea. It’s not just that there are about 50 genuses containing over 1200 known species, but that there are so many of them across the Himalayas (some have even invaded the western ghats). The swollen nodes, the clusters of small flowers, the leaves alternating around the stem, all make it easy to tell the family. But I know that it will take hours to go beyond that. Fortunately pink knotweed are common across the inhabited heights of the Himalayas, so now I can pretend to be an expert.

A flower and a bird

Coneflowers, genus Strobilanthes, are common across India. The most well known among them are the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), which mass flowers once in seven years in the Sahyadris, and the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which mass flowers once in twelve years in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But most species of coneflowers are annuals. I hadn’t expected to find one flowering in October throughout the lower heights of Kumaon. I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are many species found across the Himalayas. This one seems to be sticky ruella (Strobilanthes glutinosus).

From the leaves, I think this specimen, the first coneflower I saw on this trip, must be the same. The slightly different shape of the flower is an earlier stage in its opening. It was standing in the shade by the shore on the paired lakes called Ram and Sita Tal in Sattal. That was at an altitude of about 1300 m. After that I saw it again and again, up to a height of about 1900 m around Dotiyal and Maanila in Kumaon. Like many of the plants in this genus, it seems to have uses in folk medicine. In Pakistan there has been a first go at screening it for useful phytochemicals.

It was interesting to find a lone male Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) strut about a meadow full of these flowers, munching on the leaves and flowers now and then. These birds are known to feed on seeds and nuts, but this behaviour was not something I’d read of before. Leaves and flowers are not likely to be a major source of energy. I wonder whether the bird eats these coneflowers for trace nutrients.

Unknowns

Unknown territory to me, the Sivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, still retain much of their botanical diversity. About 700 meters above sea level, near the village of Kotabagh, I watched two green magpies dart from a tree, and glide over the valley below. The glorious sight of their green bodies and outspread maroon wings catching the light lifted my spirits as I continued photographing unknown and unidentifiable flowers. The tiny white flowers that you see above were my first find after that. The buds look like an Alternanthera (joyweed) but the flowers are completely different. Anyone know this?

How hard could identifying this be? Bright red and four petalled. There can’t be too many families with four petalled flowers, I imagined. Not so. They pop up among gentians (Gentianaceae), willow herbs (Onagraceae), evening primroses (Rublaceae), even among Melastomes (Melastomataceae). The number of petals turns out to be as uninformative about the identity of a plant as its colour. So I still don’t know what this one should be called.

Then there was this small flowering tree, with spectacular clusters of flowers. Himalayan botany was explored very thoroughly in the 19th century. So it should not have been hard to identify them. Unfortunately, the older books are now out of print, so you need access to specialist libraries to consult them. New books have not been written, and web sites specializing in these plants are inadequate. Another fine mess we have gotten into.

So I was happy to find a portion of a cliff brightened by the small flowers of the common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum). This was familiar to me from the Sahyadris. In fact, I’d seen it just the previous week in a walk around Mahabaleshwar. When the world seems unfamiliar, it is nice to see someone you recognize, even if it is not exactly a friend. All these flowers were growing within ten paces of each other, along with invasive Lantana and morning glories.

Dreamland

Pandemic changes are still rearranging my life. The Family asked “Why do you need so many small holidays?” Every few months a hale and hearty colleague or friend dies suddenly. Most are male, between the ages of 50 and 70. They include diverse people like Himalayan trekkers and yoga enthusiasts. What they share is the manner of their sudden death, a matter of seconds when their heart stops beating in the middle of a mundane day. One sitting at a beach with his family, one in the middle of a presentation, one at dinner with wife and two young daughters. Such incidents, all in the last two years, can change your perspective on what is important. Watching the sunlight filter through sal and pine into a grassland, in the coolness of autumn, two kilometers above sea level, seems as important as the work that I continue to love. In my travels now I meet a lot of people, often in their 30s and 40s, who have become more nomadic than me. I don’t doubt that people with other interests are also following them more passionately now. Pandemic and death, perhaps even the expectation of an imminent climate disaster, have changed our lives more deeply than we see yet.

Near these foothills the landscape changes within an hour’s drive. In the plains below I stood near a village where some partition refugees from Punjab settled a lifetime ago. Their children and grandchildren now till the land. Tractors and harvesters have set the bullocks and horses free, but they are still loved and tended. Another dream, of escaping the madness of the partition, of settling into a quiet slow life, of being untouched by history, is coming true.

Across the bund on which the horse stood was a huge reservoir created by the Haripura dam. We stood on the bund looking at water birds through our binoculars. This is the season when the winter visitors begin to arrive. We were not surprised by the water birds and small warblers which have come down from Tibet and central Asia. But I was happily surprised when a resident pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) dived into the water and came up with a catch.

Halcyon smyrnensis, white-breasted kingfishers, can be found everywhere in this landscape. They don’t require water, being able to catch lizards and frogs from the ripe rice fields they are poised over. The farmers watched us curiously: Who are these people with binoculars and cameras? I explained to one that we were watching birds. The young Sikh farmer took a look, then told me how one of the birds which used to nest under roofs here is disappearing. Everywhere you go, there are stories of slow extinctions. He invited us for a cup of tea. Very reluctantly, we refused. We had to be in the hills in a short time. He understood.

The berms are overgrown with Lantana. But among them are other plants which can beat them at the wild game of growth. There are vines of morning glory, pumpkin vines topping out the Lantana to spread their edible yellow flowers to the light. And there are these small white flowers with their incredible petals, like the wild dream of a botanist who tastes every leaf she sees. But for all its wild fantasy look, it is a real flower. I’ve seen it before, but haven’t identified it. Can anyone help? (It turns out to be parval, परवल, Trichosanthes dioicha. Now I’ll remember this flower every time I eat parval. Thanks for pointing to Cucurbitaceaea, Profundareflexion.)

Another dream is slowly emerging into reality. For years I would see the work of those wonderful wildlife photographers who post fantastic photos of predators with prey. In my own small way, I’m getting a chance to do the same thing. I saw a blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) on a wire. If you stand and watch for a while you see it sallying to catch an insect on the wing. I was lucky to get a shot of it with a wasp in its mouth. I remembered Lotte Eisner’s voice narrating the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, in Werner Herzog’s movie called Fata Morgana. The paradise of the myth is a place where food flies into your mouth. That’s what the photo of the bee-eater with its prey looks like. So that’s my answer to The Family, it’s a way to change a nightmare into a halcyon dreamland.