An octoploid

If dahlias grew in New England and behaved here as they do in Mexico, we would surely regard them as weeds.

Paul D. Sorensen (The Dahlia: An Early History)

During its cultural evolution from a source of food in Mexico, on account of its tuberous roots, to its prominence as an ornamental plant in modern day gardens, the Dahlia has passed through an enormously complicated process of breeding. When I walked through a garden last weekend, the variety of colours of Dahlias was stunning. In the middle of March the weather has turned unpleasantly warm, so the flowers had started wilting. Still, I hadn’t seen a Dahlia this year until then, so I took photos. What makes the Dahlia a breeder’s pet is that it has four pairs of each chromosome (unlike our two), and the chromosomes are full of jumping genes. Even though this anemone-flowered Dahlia does not have disk florets like a normal member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) it has tube shaped flowers in the center and the usual long flat ray florets outside.

Walking near the Periyar river

Periyar river, the lifeline of Kerala. It was a name that fascinated me. A simple name, meaning big. That’s all that the people around it need to know. But the river rises in the biodiverse Western Ghats, and in the short 244 Kms from its source to its mouth in the Arabian sea it traverses a wide range of altitudes. So, almost exactly five years ago we took a short trip to the Periyar National Park. We landed at the Kochi airport and took a bus to our destination. The road passes through the intensely urbanized plains. But then, as we crossed a bridge over the river, the urban clutter fell off. We’d reached our homestay, a small two-storeyed house near the entrance to the park.

We dropped our bags and headed out for a walk. There is always a lot to see just outside a national park. We walked back to the bridge we’d crossed. Power lines ran next to it and we were sure to find kingfishers and bee eaters perched there, at eye level. I had my big lens with me, but I’ll show here only those photos I took with the fixed lens of my cell phone. The river branched crazily here, as it reached the plains. A boat was tied next to a little side stream that we crossed. A group of langurs chattered madly as they ate leaves in the canopy of trees around the path.

The phone was also good for close ups. Here in the undergrowth is one of the numerous species that you could call a daisy. I love their complex flowers, five white ray florets and numerous five-petalled yellow florets in the disk. The arrangement of the disk florets and their shape should be a very good guide to a more precise identification, but I’m intimidated by the size of the family Asteraceae, the asters. Full identification is a finicky and time-consuming job.

Which trees grow here? The answer is plain when you look around you. But it is equally plain when you look down at the small landscape around your feet. A large leaf from a teak tree was flaking into pieces as it dried. I pointed my phone at it. Bamboo too, as you can see. And the small leaves of, what was it, jamun? Quite a variety. It would be hard to keep the jamun from being eaten by birds and langurs. But then those trees fruit so abundantly that you can always get enough. We reached the bridge, and then it was time for the big zoom and the end of my fixed-lens adventure.

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.


Weed. Invasive plant. Pest. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) seems to have little going for it in more vocal parts of the world. I’d been seeing this in my monsoon walks around the Sahyadris and mentally marked it as a daisy on first look. But eventually I realized that it is not. It has only five ray petals, although each is deeply notched into three. It is a totally different genus, although it lies in the same family, the asters (Asteraceae). Like all members of this family, the disk florets each have five petals, as you can see in the photos here. One of its local names, ekdandi, reflects the specific name procumbens, which refers to the observation that the stem lies prone on the ground, sending up isolated vertical shoots which each bear a single compound flower with a yellow center and white rays.

But this native of the tropical Americas has been adapted to folk medicine across India. It’s well-documented use in the treatment of wounds has earned it the name Jakhamjudi (wound healer) in Marathi. But, as I learned from a review of its pharmacology, it has multiple uses, from the treatment of diabetes to countering falling hair. One does expect hardy weeds to be a veritable factory of bio-active chemicals, and modern pharmacology profits from screening such widespread weeds. As we heard from a chef specializing in sustainable food, “Waste is a lack of imagination.”

Tagetes and Apis

Does anyone really want to know that the name marigold is a mistake? That when these showy flowers were imported from South America, they were mistaken for a different European flower? That they could be called by the genus name Tagetes? Or that they are part of the Aster family of flowers, the Asteraceae? Or that the flower in the photos here belong to a cultivar of the species Tagetes erecta, also known as African Marigold, although it comes from Mexico and therefore should be called Aztec marigold? Or that the flowers are edible, and are used to produce edible yellow and orange dyes? I don’t think so.

What people are really interested in is the very supple red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) shown in these photo. That’s because this pan-Asian species is the original honey bee from which all other honey bee species seem to have descended. In common with all honeybee species, queens mate with multiple drones and their eggs produce drones, workers, as well as future queens. Interestingly, workers often lay unfertilized eggs which can go on to produce viable drones. If these drones then start to impregnate the queen, then one of the half-sisters gains a reproductive advantage over the others. Such a disruption to the cooperative in the colony is not tolerated by the other workers, and they all police this by eating up eggs which have not been produced by the queen. Any attempt by a worker to give special treatment to a queen egg fathered by her own father is also policed. This kind of “worker policing” behaviour is inherited by all honeybees. The lives of bees are not as mechanical as I’d thought once. Bee hives are societies, and they have conflicts and their resolution, just as other societies have.