The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

Bamboo flowers

Bamboos are a diverse group (Bambusoidaea) of evergreen flowering plants in the grass family (Pocaea), to paraphrase the start of the relevant article in Wikipedia. I’ve seen sentences like this ever since I became interested in mass flowerings. But somehow, my mind never grappled with the idea. I continued to think of all bamboos as the same. So, when I couldn’t get a nice photo of bamboo flowers in Tadoba Tiger Reserve last November, I continued to take photos in the next months. Even after I got a good photo in Kanha NP in May, it took some time before I began to examine it.

Comparing the photos, it becomes clear that the flowers do not belong to the same species. The silhouette in the center was taken in November in Tadoba, the first photo (and the featured image) was of bamboo flowering in May in Kanha, and the third photo was of bamboo flowering in early April in a garden in Lonavala. I wish I’d bothered to do the due diligence that every botanist chides me about: photograph the plant, not just the flower. I suppose the only way to redeem myself is by learning to recognize bamboos a little better. It would work best if there were a geographically appropriate field guide, but until I find one something like this generic guide will have to do.

Flowers of May

Through the hottest part of May the treetops outside our window were a sea of bright red. The Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia, aka Gul mohar) was in flower. It is the one pleasure of this burning season. Between the peaks of the seasons for two major varieties of mangos, the best way to engage your senses is to stare out of the window in the morning or late afternoon, to see a golden light play on the flowers.

June is when the blooms are shed. True flowers of May, these, short lived, dropping into a red carpet on the ground at the beginning of June. It is more truly a Mayflower than that native of the Americas, the Epigaea repens, now commonly known as the Mayflower in the US, or even the original, Crataegus monogyna, after which the pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, was named. On World Environment Day, as I went to plant a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) in a clearing where a giant neem had stood before last year’s storm, I took these photos. That tiny green leaflet is one of the components of the multipart feathery (pinnate) leaves of the tree.

It is much easier to photograph these fallen flowers than to sight on a flower still on the branch. And a shot like this is enough to show you the five-petaled (pentameric) flowers, with one white petal streaked in red. What you don’t see is that when it is on the branch, the white petal sticks up, signalling to insects. These trees are not too far from its native Madagascar, and may well have been carried here in the natural course of migration. But since the 17th century the tree has been carried across the warmer parts of the world to serve be grown in gardens and along roads. Can’t think of a better way of preserving a species which is dying in Madagascar.

A better botanist?

Speeding through the jungle of Kanha NP, my eyes were caught by the many flowering trees. At one point I called a halt and took some photos. Our driver and guide were feeling bad for us because this was our last drive, and we hadn’t seen a tiger. They take it pretty personally. After the surfeit of tigers in Corbett, I wasn’t down in the dumps about it. So I started a conversation about trees and flowers, thinking it would cheer them up. It does usually, because they know many more of the plants than city people like us do.

In passing I wasn’t sure whether the tree was flowering or had berries. When we stopped and backed up I saw that they were buds. The yellow-orange colour was quite eye catching, but most of the buds were still not open. So I could not really see the shape of the flowers. I think these will become five-petaled flowers when they open up, but not seeing an open flower got rid of my main method of identifying the tree. The driver and the guide conferred and came to the conclusion that this was a tree whose leaves could be used on a wound. But that was all the information they had.

To a better botanist the leaf shape might be enough to yield an identification. I remembered to take a photo of the leaves: palmate, entire, emarginate. I know the words, but they are just words to me, not keys to understanding the world. It could be a bauhinia, but this genus has spectacular orchid-like five-petaled flowers. Could these buds open up into something like that? A better botanist would be able to give an answer.

On second thoughts, I might have been confused by the way the trees grew cheek to jowl. If I look at the leaves on the flowering branch, they are pinnate (also entire, acute, and possibly emarginate). On looking at the photos, it seems possible that the flowering branches were poking through a bauhinia towards the sun, but belonged to a different tree altogether. It would make sense, since the guide and the driver knew about bauhinias and their many uses, but were a little unsure about the flowering tree.

Wine and milk lily

A jolt of the familiar! How nice to see a familiar garden flower growing in a protected forest, I thought at first. Then a second thought, is it an escapee from a garden? Could this be the beginning of another invasion? Finally, a balance. Is it a native which I’ve wrongly thought of as a garden exotic? After some search I found that the wine and milk lily (Crinum latifolium) is a native of India, but grows widely in gardens across the world. Another blow to my knowledge of lilies followed. It may be called a lily, and grow from a bulb, but it is an amaryllis. My mother collected and grew many lilies, but I don’t think she ever suspected that this and the closely related spider lily (Crinum asiaticum) were interlopers. She gave me a bulb of C. latifolium which still has its own tub on our balcony from which it sends out a shoot every year without ever having flowered.

This wasn’t the only shoot in that patch of land in Kanha NP. I could see another shoot near its base, and the dead flowers around it were probably due to another which had withered. Bulbs planted in the ground often grow vegetatively by sending out new bulbs. Behind it, in the grass were a couple of other flowering shoots. In one the wine had faded to milk. I’ve seen this happening in a garden, so I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was that in the wild one of its pollinators is a fly. Again, I should have thought a little harder. The trumpet shaped flower (salverform in jargon) would require smaller pollinators like flies, beetles, or ants, rather than large showy butterflies.

The genus Crinum is pantropical. From an origin in present day South Africa it spread across the world in two migrations, one to north Africa and Americas, another to India, Madagascar, and Australasia. This geographical spread must have then occurred when the continents were arranged differently. If you look at maps of the world around 250 million years ago you’ll see that was the last time that two such dispersals could produce relations of this kind. Northern Africa and the Americas were then one connected landmass. India, Madagascar and Australia were another contiguous area. These two landmasses were on opposite sides of southern Africa in the super-continent of Pangaea. So the origin of Crinum is likely to be in Pangaea, which means between 350 and 200 million years ago. The genus could be older than all dinosaurs! All this is a prelude to saying that the base form of Crinum is not like a lily at all, but the lily shape (salverform actinomorphic perianths in jargon) has evolved independently several times in the genus.

Two sub-Himalyan wildflowers and a stranger

From the plains the Manas National Park begins to rise as it crosses the border with Bhutan. In late March the forest was full of the graceful flowers of Clerodendrum wallichii. It has lots of fanciful names, but the one I like most is Nutan bleeding heart. Is that a reference to the film star Nutan, active in the 60s and 70s? I forgot to ask for the local Bodo name of the flower. A little further south the Khasi call it Horrandieng, and their neighbours, the Garo, call it Bolungre. Although Assam and the north-east are home to it, I’ve seen the flower escaped from gardens and growing wild in the Sahyadris. You know it is not local because in Maharashtra it is called Clerodendron. I suppose it is one of the flowers that now grow in temperate gardens.

In one spot I saw this Euphorbia cactus. I don’t think it is native. There are no cacti in this humid jungle. I suppose at some time there might have been a forest guard outpost here. The guards are local recruits, and treat their outpost as their home. To many of them the notion of protected biosphere means prevention of poaching, and perhaps, at a stretch, foraging. The notion that planting a garden, or releasing smuggled exotics into the wild is quite as undesirable has not yet been widely understood.

Among the flowers that I could not recognize were these tiny whites growing on vines in some spots. They seemed to prefer shade, but that is all I could tell. When you take a jeep through a jungle there is much that you can miss. Most drivers are tuned to large animals. A few have concentrated on the category of visitors who want to watch birds. I haven’t yet found a driver who will point out flowers and trees and fungi. And no one notices insects.

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

Grishma

Grishma ritu, high summer, has us in its grip. The relentless heat of the day only gets worse as the sun passes the zenith. At night the moist sea breeze comes down on us like a warm blanket. As your body tries its ancient mammalian method of cooling by sweating, the moisture works against it. You are easily dehydrated in summer.

The flowers love it. Bougainvillea is flourishing on our balcony, providing a green screen that filters the light in the living room. The white flowers of the creeper are nestled in four colours of bracts. Hibiscus blooms in its shade, its fivefold stigma red and erect.

Fire and forest

One day in Manas National Park I took the photo of forestry men on foot. The smoke behind them tells you that they were going about their summer job (white hot March is summer in Assam, just before the onset of the monsoon) of setting controlled fires to manage the grassland habitat. Forest and fire. The two words don’t seem to go together, but that is the legacy of English: both the language and the empire. When the English came to India and saw these ancient grasslands, they didn’t have the language to understand them. They hadn’t yet seen the grasslands of South America or Africa. In North America the destruction of grasslands had begun (think Johnny Appleseed). The English invented the phrase “degraded forest” to describe these grasslands.

To understand the fallacy in this, I reached a little further back into history. Grasses evolved about 75 million years ago in ancient Gondwanaland, before the dinosaurs dwindled due to a series of volcanic eruptions that tore that super-continent apart into the Americas, Africa, India, and Australia (that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs after this is another story). How did this evolutionary marvel spread across the world? One theory is that geasslands spread across northern Gondwanaland (present day South America, Africa, Asia, and India) before its breakup. This theory runs into problems with the evolutionary clock. In order for this early spread to have hppened, many families of grasses would have had to evolve earlier than they are known to have. The second theory is that the evolution of grasses happened in the isolated island-continent of India before it met Asia, and the grasslands spread from there outwards to the rest of the world after the contact. This theory has to contend with major geological barriers to its spread. Perhaps neither theory is right, but nevertheless, India is home to some of the oldest grasslands in the world, and also to some of the most ancient grazing animals in the world (Bharattherium bonapartei is one of them). In order to begin preserving this heritage, we have to give up notions encapsulated in phrases like “degraded forests”, “dry scrubland”, and “wasteland”. The lack of trees is not lack of biodiversity. The rich grasslands of Assam are evidence of it. Look at the bottom of the photo above: the number of varieties of grasses and herbs you see is more than that of the trees above them.

There are other aspects of grasslands which should concern us in this era of a changing climate. Grasses evolved new pathways of photosynthesis to deal with hot and wet weather: the technical name is C4 photosynthesis. In contrast, the grasslands of the Himalayas have many species which use the older C3 photosynthesis. In the ancient battle between forest and grassland, our inadvertent tuning of the atmosphere has shifted the balance. Grasslands are also prone to fire, and trees and grasses which grow in them have evolved to use it. Often seeds lie dormant until the heat of a fire starts new growth. When the ancestors of humans responded to an ancient climate crisis, 2.5 million years ago, by adapting from arboreal to grassland life, they would have encountered fires very often. The use of fire distinguishes Homo habilis and its descendants, us, from all our remaining cousin species of apes. The forestry men I saw were using an old human technology to maintain the environment that gave us this technology.

The language I use to deal with the wild spaces around me is wrong. The culture surrounding it is wrong. Still, that’s what I’ve grown up with. I cannot name the grasses that I see. But I can name the flowering trees. I recognized the beautiful purple flowers of Bauhinia variegata as soon as I saw them. The orchid tree, as it is sometimes called, grows from sea level, here, up to the lower heights in the Himalayas, and eastwards across South-East Asia and Southern China. It was one of the several flowering trees that I recognized in Manas.

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