The magnetic tree

Nirgundi, Indrani, Sambhaloo, and a large number of other names in many Indian languages refer to Vitex negundo. So the English name chaste tree seems quite superfluous. It is also inappropriate, considering the number of different pollinators which visit it. Chest tree might be a better name, because of its clinically proven efficacy against colds, flu, asthma, and pharyngitis.

I must have seen this plant many times, because it is supposed to be very common across Asia and eastern Africa, and invasive as far away as the USA. But when I carry a good camera I’m much more attentive. So this was the first time I had paid much attention to this cross between a tree and a shrub. Most were about two meters tall, although I’m told it can grow as high as seven meters. The numerous flowers on the hairy branches were tiny: a few millimeters long. I thought they were appropriate subjects for my fancy new macro lens. Some of these macros showed spider silk threaded through the plant. I took this as a sign that it was visited by such a large number of insects that their arachnid predators found it a good place to hide out in.

The number of butterflies I saw on the first shrub I stopped at was astounding. Many individuals from a variety of species fluttered around. It seems to be even more of a butterfly magnet than the Lantana. My macro lens is not very good for photographing active butterflies. Still, I managed to capture a glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), a somewhat battered grey pansy (Junonia atlites), one of a spectacular flock of the yellow-orange peacock pansies (Junonia almana), a common gull (Cepora nerissa), and a skipper which I can’t identify. There were also several species of wasps and bees, and at least two different kinds of blow flies.

I tried to find the geographical and temporal origins of this plant. Instead found myself looking at the fascinating literature on its invasive qualities. I suppose that the large variety of its pollinators is an essential quality for invasive plants. It makes it easier to find new pollinators in any new geography. I saw it growing on verges around roads in a high plateau in the Sahyadris. The rocky ground, with meager topsoil where it grew meant that it was hardy. It is also fast growing, another essential quality for an invader. It certainly out-competed Lantana camara in this landscape. The few bushes of Lantana I saw were stunted dwarves barely surviving between thickets of Vitex. Since Lantana is viciously competitive, and has taken over landscapes elsewhere, that’s quite an achievement.

Blue hairy

Walk along the Sahyadris in July and August, and you will find a variety of flowers growing everywhere: on the verges of roads, on the berms between paddy fields, and on rocky slopes. There’s a genus called Cyanotis (dew grasses) which are common, and in which the species are not easy to tell apart. I’d seen the Sahyadri dew grass (Cyanotis tuberosa) in Kaas plateau some years ago. This week I saw something that, after much dithering, I think is the common and widespread Cyanotis cristata (crested dew grass). In Marathi it is called nabhali, and the fact that it also has names in Telugu, Tamil, Mizo and Nepali attests to its wide distribution in India. The Kew listing shows a broader distribution: through south and south-east Asia, and in parts of Africa. IndiaBioDiversity lists it as flowering and fruiting in the months of July to October. In the pouring rain during my walks, I must have missed the fruits.

The plants clearly spreads quickly, and perhaps doesn’t need much water, because patches of gravelly ground next to roads had been taken over by these low shrubs which came up to my ankles. I suppose they are less than 30 cms tall. The flowers are small, about half a centimeter across, but highly visible because of their bright blue to purple colour, topped as they are by the contrasting bright pollen. I love the tangled crest of filaments which gives this species its name, although the feature is common to the genus.

In this second photo, the pale carpel sticks out, a long way away from the stamens. I think the rain must have disarranged it, because the pollen from the stamens can no longer be brushed off on the backs of the usual pollinators which dive into the carpel for nectar. I’m happy to have my new conveniently small water-resistant camera with such a lovely macro lens for the monsoon.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

Litter and milli-machines

The sea continues to fall on our heads. It doesn’t feel like just raindrops, but then cryin’s not for me, as the song says. So I got my tiny new camera and went out to photograph the leaf litter in the garden. It’s supposed to be waterproof, and the lens is said to be good for macros. Just perfect for the monsoon, the rotting leaves, and the tiny things that scurry down below, rebuilding the world. These are the millimeter scale engines of the ecology.

The beetle on the wall was half a centimeter long. The lens is good. It does focus stacking, so I spent the morning picking up the basics of how to use that. Now I’ll have to figure out how to store the images. Having twenty or thirty nearly identical shots could fill up my disk rather quickly. I’ll have to delete more images. Once this house keeping is done, I can get to the more interesting subject of trying to identify the mushrooms and insects I saw. I’m an absolute novice, so I’ll be grateful for any help. If you can identify something down to species or genus, let me know.

Goa in the monsoon

Monsoon in Goa: an advertising catchline from the 80s and 90s, when the hoteliers decided to fill up the empty rooms left after the party crowd disappeared. Winter is a washout with all the music and booze on the beach, so you might as well try to see the other Goa in the magical months of monsoon. This is one time when there is a truth beyond the lies of advertising.

The year I took these photos I realized that Goa is a wonderful place to observe the monsoon as it comes in to the Western Ghats. The wonderful plants and insects, the frogs and the moths, straggle down to Goa, to meet the birds and crabs of the coast. You can go for long walks, or drive to lonely spots, with your camera and catch some of the beauties that you might otherwise see on treks through the Ghats. You can lead a solitary life if you wish, broken by exchanging passing greetings with the fisherfolk who are the original inhabitants of this place, or long conversations with the university types over a strongly Portuguese-influenced lunch.

Or you could just stay at home on rainy days, reading, eating the sausages or dried fish in boiled rice, stepping out into the garden on the beach between spells of rain to capture the play of rain and sun on vegetation. It is a life to dream about in these constrained years.

Who’s bothered by closed gates?

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowers every twelve years. In 2018 we set off for Munnar in the middle of a terrible monsoon to see its flowering. The slopes where they grow were battered by rain, and although we did see a few flowering bushes, we never got the magnificent views of purple-covered mountains that the media was showing. I think all that footage came from the previous flowering in 2006. In the evening we retreated to a tea estate and the next day we walked around the nearest village to admire feral plants.

Kerala is an amazing place in the monsoon. Every garden runs uncontrollably wild. Bushes and vines cannot be kept inside closed gates and orderly gardens; they spill into roads and the countryside. The yellow flower above is certainly a garden flower (can someone help me with its name?) but it was growing in a jungle of bushes along the road outside the purple gate.

Any gate which was shut could no longer be opened because of the growth around and over it. A good thing that some of the gates were merely ornamental, standing free of fences. You could just go around it if you wanted. We kept to the meandering and narrow. It was a Sunday, and most people were at the bazaar or church. Very few were at home to wave at us as we strolled through the village.

Blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica)

On a previous visit to Munnar I’d noticed that the blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica) has become a pest, over-running trees and taking over forests. In this village it had competition, but there were still many of its spectacular flowers to be seen. The pistil projects quite a way from the disk of its petals, as you can gauge from the focus in this photo.

Scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia)

Its main competitor seemed to be the scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia), another import from South America or the Caribbean. It is hard to be more precise about the original range of most morning glories because they spread very easily as human activity opens up dense forests. The long slender goblets of nectar in both of these trumpet shaped flowers evolved to take advantage of the long beaks of hummingbirds. I wonder what their pollinators are in this far land. Clearly there must be some. How would they spread so far and wide otherwise?

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Another of the plants which I cannot name is the one you see above. The dark green elliptical leaves with pink dots and the two-lipped flowers with the very long pistil are familiar. I’ve seen them in garden even as a child, and I think I have a memory of these plants in my mother’s garden. But I’ve completely forgotten what they are called. Can someone help? (Thanks Deb for identifying it as the polka dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora)

Another plant which runs wild easily is the Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora). The name comes from the fact that the creeper winds clockwise around any support. I was curious why this property would enter into its name. Apparently 92% of vines from around the world twine anti-clockwise, so the sense in which this plant winds does make it very special. You seldom get such a clear explanation of names of plants.

Rangoon creepers and railway flowers

Clusters of the red and pink flowers of the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) seem to be growing from every hedge and fence in our neighbourhood. They provide a little colour, even drenched in the continuous rain of this week.

I love the multiple names it has. In Hindi Madhumalti (corrupted to Madhumati in the many web sites on flowers which copy from each other) coexists with the beautiful name Ishq pehchaan. The name can change to Madhumanjari in Bengali and is quite uniquely Radha Manohar in Telugu. The variety of names could be indicative of the geographical origin. Madhumalti does come from the forests of India, east up to the Philippines, and north into southern China. It has a variety of names across this region: in Vietnamese, Malay, Thai, and the languages of the Philippines. The names are mostly quite local and not widely shared across languages. That leaves me with the puzzle: why Rangoon creeper?

But there’s also another puzzle I found when locating names in other Indian languages. Very closely related climbers (C. malabaricum and C. shivannae, among others) grow wild in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, so it is odd that the Marathi name for C. indicum is Vilayati Chembeli (which translates to “foreign Jasmine”). Interestingly, in the neighbouring Malayalam it has a simple name, Udani, but this is shared with Malay and Sumatran. An alternate name in Malayalam, Akar dani, is also shared with Malay. Could it be that Madhumalti does not grow wild in the western ghats, and was a late import in these parts? I’m sure a real field botanist would be able to tell me.

Another flower grows cheek by jowl with Madhumalti in my neighbourhood. That’s the morning glory which is called the Railroad flower (Ipomoea cairica). That’s a very apt name for a highly invasive weed which can easily smother other plants if allowed to grow unchecked. The plant spreads so easily that its aboriginal homeland cannot be located too well. It is believed to have originated in some place in Northern Africa or the Mediterranean, but perhaps even in some islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Looking at the photos I took in yesterday’s rain, I thought that the Railroad flower is easy to distinguish from other morning glories which are common across India. But one has to be careful. The spectacular colours of the Ipomoea indica, native to the West Indies, but widely seen across India, make it easy to tell apart. The oddly-named Bengal clock vine (so called because it is never seen to wind anti-clockwise around support) is perhaps the easiest to mistake for the Railway flower, until you realize that it has a yellowish-cream heart. I’m pretty fascinated by what botanists call the “vulgar names” of plants.

A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

Multitude

Zinnias are compound flowers. Here the large outer petals (part of the disk flower) have fallen off, leaving only the inner cluster of ray flowers. Each compound flower in this bush had eleven disk flowers, each giving one large orange petal to the compound. You can see the eleven large sepals left over from the one where they have fallen off. I lost count of how many ray flowers they had, but clearly each had five petals.