Walking on Elephant’s Head

A day in Mahabaleshwar can be fun. My last visit to this high plateau in the Sahyadris was in the December of the plague year, 2020. There is a big difference between winter, shishir ritu, and this time. Sharad ritu, this hot season immediately after the end of the monsoon, is what the British called an Indian summer. In this time the ground is still wet, and the western ghats are in full bloom. We spent the day walking on the 1800 meter high periphery of the plateau.

Sonki (Senecio bombayensis) is the most common flower of October

Mahabaleshwar is not a protected area, but has large expanses of forest. Between the forest and the edge of the cliffs are meadows which are carpeted in yellow flower of sonki. I spotted a few albinos on a bush, and paused to take a photo. In another season I would have had to examine the underside of the leaves of this shrub, white and hairy, to recognize it. In sharad there is no need for that.

Bushes of common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum) are also in flower

The beautiful flowers of the common hill borage are not as common, but the chest-high bushes cannot be missed. The flowers are small and white, with a beautiful cornflower-blue center. Sonki and this borage are the commonest flowers of sharad in these isolated plateaus, inselbergs, which the years have carved out of the lava deposited in the Deccan shield more than 60 million years ago. I have photos of them from every year in the last twenty.

Santapau (Asystasia dalzelliana) grows in shade under trees

Although they are common, the tiny foxgloves, santapau, are not as easily visible. You have to peer below other bushes to get a view of these small flowers. But once you see one you’ll begin to notice them everywhere. I like foxgloves, so plain on the outside, but so intricately patterned inside.

The heroes of this season in India are really the grasses. I find them flowering everywhere. On this plateau they are visible, but not the dominant plant group. The thin laterite soil of these plateaus in the Sahyadris is often too metallic for grasses. Still, there are places where grasses have taken root.

The invasive Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis) has found a small niche

Tall bushes of the invasive Chinese knotweed are visible at the sides of paths. They seem to have reached an equilibrium in these places. They cannot invade the thin soil of the meadows, nor to they grow in the inner dense jungle. As long as the forest is not cut down to make hotels, the knotweed are under control.

Star violets (Neanotis lancifolia) straggle along the ground

I must have seen the star violets many times before, but until I started taking photos of tiny flowers, I hadn’t noticed their four-petalled perfection. I’ll have to find out why they grow in two colours. What I like about them is that they are the perfect rejoinder to pseudo-mathematicians who claim that the number of petals on a flowers is a Fibonnaci number. This sequence of numbers, {1,1,2,3,5,8,…}, is obtained by adding the previous two to get the next. Four is not a Fibonnaci number, so these flowers should not exist according to the false mathematicians of aesthetics.

Karambal (Justicia procumbens) is still flowering in this ultra-wet year

A flower which shouldn’t exist in this season is the Karambal. This year has been so wet (it is still raining now in the middle of October) that the plants are totally confused. I saw many of these flowers still taking advantage of the weather by continuing to bloom. My favourite flowers change with the seasons, but I’m glad this one is still around this year.

All these are among the wild flowers that I saw on a four kilometer walk along a ridge called Elephant’s Head. It juts out from one side of the plateau. Before the ridge narrows to a few meters, there is a dense canopy of trees. Inside this small limb of the forest I saw a few trees bearing these lovely clusters of white flowers. I think the trees belong to the cherry family, but I’m not sure.

Two herbs

Flowers of Dipcadi ursulae

I saw a single stalk bearing these white flowers sticking out of a green meadow some distance away. It was foggy on the Kaas plateau. The rain had left little droplets of water suspended from the flowers. As I tried to take photos, I thought that they reminded me of lilies. Later I wasn’t sure whether it was a lily or a confusingly similar orchid. I thought I would see it again elsewhere, but didn’t come across it later. As a result, this somewhat noisy photo is the only one I have.

When I eventually identified it as Dipcadi montanum (conflated with D. ursulae by Ingalhalikar), it turned out that its classification is contentious. It used to be placed in the family Liliaceae. By the time Ingalhalikar wrote his book it had been moved to family Asparagaceae. Recent papers split off the subfamily and class it as a separate family Hyacinthaceae. I’ll go with this. Classification of angiosperms is being transformed by molecular data, so the older classifications are never going to come back.

This herb is said to be widespread but rare and endangered. Its claimed rarity agrees with my personal observation. In India it has been reported from various parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Bihar, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh. Eflora India has photos which show bladderwort (Utricularia) growing nearby. Interestingly, my only photo of bladderwort came from the same patch where I saw these flowers. Is there really some connection between them?

At the other end of the scale of rarity were chest-high bushes of the common hill borage, with the double-barrelled name of Adelocaryum coelestinum. The pale blue flowers of this forget-me-not (family Boraginaceae) grow along long stalks, as in the featured photo. The tiny five-petalled white flowers have a beautiful blue center. They are widely spotted in Maharashtra and Goa, but probably also grow in neighbouring states, including arid Gujarat.

I lumped these two together because I couldn’t find any documented use for them, neither as remedies against disease, nor as food. As of now, it seems that they are just beautiful flowers which we can enjoy looking at.