Karela brought me back

Sometimes friends ask me why I gave up on working in Europe and moved back to India. I find that if you tell the unvarnished truth, they laugh and give up. But it is true that I missed karela (Momordica charantia, aka bitter gourd), that warty bitter veggie that you see in the middle of the featured photo. There are relatively few domesticated plants, and like them, this one has been a great traveler: right across the world’s tropics. The bitter taste is a warning of toxicity of course, as some people who tried raw gourd smoothies in recent times found out the hard way. Across the world I see that it is most often fried. I remember from my childhood another preparation where it is boiled and mashed into rice and formed into balls (I can imagine a kombini in Japan stocking this as a quick lunchtime meal). It was always an addition, not the pride of the table, but its bitter taste runs like a glowing thread in my memories.

How did this bitter, warty fruit travel? Where was it first domesticated? Traditionally, the variety of gourds in India has been used to argue that gourds (family Cucurbitaceae) was domesticated in India. This has been borne out, and deeply nuanced, by a carefully sampled genetic analysis, published in 2008, which showed that modern gourds originated about 70 million years ago, during the Cretaceous, on the continental plate which was the progenitor of the continent of Asia, north of what was then the Tethys Ocean. 40-60 million years ago, during the Paleocene and Eocene, the family spread to proto-Africa and proto-South America, and was already established there before Madagascar and India began to separate out into their modern positions. About 30 million years ago, during the Oligocene, the family crossed the Atlantic again, into proto-South America, and across the Indian plate into the proto-Southeast Asia. This last branch included the genus Momordica. Around 10 million years ago, in the middle Miocene, there were repeated crossings from South America to Africa, and the ancestors of Oceania. A paper from 2010 drilled deeper into genus Momordica and verified that it had an African origin, being carried from there to India and Southeast Asia sometime around 15 million years ago. This deep history is consistent with the traditional human history of the karela being domesticated in India, and spreading across the tropics through trade in the last 10,000 years, and eventually calling me back to India.

Decline and fall

In the last three months I’ve spent hours daydreaming as I shell peas. The pods are fruit, and the peas are seeds. “Is it only in legumes that we throw away the fruit and eat only the seed?” I asked The Family in March. I got a severely blank look in answer. Pinterest threw up a slew of recipes for using the heaps of succulent pods, but warned that the garden pea pods that I had in front of me were not very good to eat. In April the pods looked withered and dry. Now in the middle of June the pods are definitely sick, and sometimes the peas too. “Is the world breaking down? Has agriculture collapsed?” I asked The Family. She looked at me and said “Peas are grown only in winter.” I persisted, “Why are they moldy? The world outside must be decaying into chaos.” Practical as ever, she said “Our bhajiwala is turning a profit, selling us the worst preserved peas at inflated prices. I’m sure Colaba market has better peas.”

I pushed away the dry, desiccated, sickly heap of pods in front of me to make space for my laptop. Escape into history is easy at such times. Peas (Pisum sativum) still grow wild around the Fertile Crescent where the first domesticated varieties have been found in archaeological digs dated to 11,500 years ago. In eight thousand years peas spread across Asia and the edge of the Mediterranean. I wonder about those distant human ancestors of ours. Did they know what they were doing? Did they reason like us, observe and think, talk to others, share their findings? We still live in the shadows of their revolution, domestication of plants, agriculture, whatever you call it. A room or two in our modern houses are given over to the lifestyles they developed: storage of agricultural produce, bowls and cups and plates, the hearth for cooking. How different were they?

Salad with micro-greens

The Family has decided to use the fallow pots on our balcony for micro-greens. Being locked up at home with constant connectivity means that fads spread rapidly across the world. You can think of this as a new kind of globalization, on days when you feel happy, or mono-culture, on your bad days. The first harvest was four days after she sprinkled some methi (fenugreek, Trigonella foenum-graecum) seeds into a pot. The tiny herbs do add a nice flavour to the salad. I’m looking forward to more.

I loved the sight of these tiny shoots with their lobed moss-coloured leaves growing in the dark soil of the pot. That little pot is the result of pre-historic human technology that bred the edible herb out of its wild ancestors in the fertile crescent. Remains of the recognizably modern herb are found in 6000 year old tels. A genetic study found a wild back and forth mixture of varieties of methi over the past millennia. This is not in contradiction with the recorded history of the last two to three thousand years. Small herbs were probably transported back and forth across the silk route and the Arabian Sea-Mediterranean Sea trade routes from times before history, leading to the complete genetic homogenization of this herb. That was the first globalization!

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.

The flame of the forest

Summer is the time of the Gul mohar, the Flame of the Forest, Delonix regia. I love that strange construction: a five petalled flower, four of which are bright red, and the fifth is stippled with yellow or white. When one petal of a flower looks special, you can be sure that it had something to do with pollinators. This one, called the standard, is a nectar guide, and its base contains nectar. I remember our class teacher telling us, “Go ahead and take them apart to look at them carefully, each flower will fall off the tree in four days or so, even without your help.”

As a result of the class project in primary school, this was one of the first flowers that I looked at carefully. In my mind it goes with the blazing heat of grishma, summer before the monsoon, in the plains of northern India. But modern genetic techniques extend recorded history in placing its origin in the western part of Madagascar, after it had separated out from the continental landmass of Africa. It spread to Africa unaided by humans, probably rafted by ocean currents, perhaps 10-20 million years ago. Then, in the blink of an eye, in geological terms, in the last four or five hundred years, it has been carried across the world by humans.

My mother’s pumpkin patch

Flicking through photos of this week in past years, my eyes stopped at the photos I took in my mother’s garden thirteen years ago. She had devoted a considerable amount of her energy during her last active years in cultivating a small flower garden in front of the house, and an unkempt vegetable patch at the back. The Family and I would spend hours with her at the dining table next to the kitchen which was the real living room, and look out at her patch of vegetables. That June the pumpkins were in flower (featured photo).

At intervals I would wander out into the garden to take photos of a bird or insect which caught my eyes. On this one sortie, I caught a moth (or is it a beetle?) sitting on the flower and an unfurling tip of the pumpkin vine. These are prodigious climbers, and by the next year the pumpkin vine had climbed into a terrace on the upper floor, and had to be cut back again.

Vegetable memories

We tend to think of memories in a fixed way; as pictures in our minds, snatches of sounds, less often smell and taste, or touch. So we are fascinated by stories of other species who share such long term memories, for example, that crows remember human faces. But we also have memories of another kind, which we are not aware of. Our immune system remembers past encounters with invasive proteins, and reacts to them. This is the basis of vaccines. Some of these immune memories last a lifetime, others disappear, and have to be reinforced from time to time.

I was fascinated to find that there is now a whole new branch of science which deals with memories in plants. Plants lack a nervous system, and have no adaptive immune system like ours. Still, gardeners and farmers have noticed for long that trees seem to be able to adapt to fighting off recurrent invasions of fungi, or recover faster from those insect infestations which occur over and over. Apparently plants can also remember extreme weather (at least cold, I haven’t seen anything about the more important adaptation to hot weather). It turns out that these memories are directly coded into each cell. Plants have arranged to use a whole set of ways of triggering or silencing genes in response to environment and other stresses to enable them to respond faster in future. It would be really interesting to know whether they can learn to adapt to heat, in response to our mistakes with the environment.

Tree to table

It has become a near-daily ritual to exchange photos of our food with the family. Strangely, now that we are physically distanced from each other, we know more about each others’ daily lives. After I shared the featured photo, an undistinguished apoos (Alphonso, so called by the Portuguese, after Afonse de Albuquerque), I was bombarded with photos of its better pedigreed cousins. Sad to say, our local vendor only has these unblushingly green skinned apoos. With the restrictions we have, the two of us are unwilling to try to finish a crate of six dozen which the better ones are packed into. As a result, it has been a year since we saw the beautiful rose-coloured Ratnagiri variety.

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On the other hand, I’ve never kept such a close watch on the friendly neighbourhood mango (Mangifera indica) tree before. Here is a record of the development of the mango from April 11 to May 17. I missed the first stage, the growth of the flowering stem and the initial budding. The earliest photo I have shows the opened flowers. Then, the mature stage of flowering, when some have already transitioned into fruits. Each inflorescence holds both male and hermaphroditic flowers, and only the latter develop into fruit. From the second and third photos you can see that most of the flowers on the inflorescence were male; few develop into fruits on each flowering stem. If this were a cosseted orchard tree, with enough nutrients and water poured around the roots, then most of these growing fruits would mature. In the wild, usually at best one fruit eventually remains on each flowering stem. The one you see in the fourth shot will drop off the tree in another month, unless a bird gets to it first.