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.

Tall woody flowering cactus

Four days after I first noticed the flowers on this tall cactus that I pass every day, I managed to take a decent photo. A day to remember to put my camera in my backpack. The next day I saw that the flowers were in bad light, and I tried to figure out the best time to take the photos. The third day I realized that I had figured wrong. The fourth day was when I got the light reasonably fine. Just goes to show that there’s a big difference between looking and seeing.

Early exposure to a cactus-mad uncle did not help me to identify this one. About all I can tell is that it is not of the genus Rhipsalis, the only Old World genus. It is about 6 to 7 meters tall, and very woody at the base. I think the plant is less than thirty years old, but not much less. This is the first year that I’ve noticed it flowering, so I wouldn’t know whether it flowers once a year, or more often or less. If you look around the base of the tree, you can see green spiny masses beginning to grow well away from the main stem. These are the plantlets sent out by the parent plant as it reproduces vegetatively. I suppose the gardeners are trying to make up their minds about whether they should let this cactus run loose on this patch, or keep it to an individual tree. I suppose that depends partly on how long these trees last.

Part of the reason why I never noticed it flowering in earlier years is that the flowers and fruits are confined to the top of the plant. At eye level and lower the stems are a mixture of succulent green and woody tissue. Cacti are plants in which the stems are photosynthetic. In the photo above you can see that the lower stems are slowly turning woody. They show the typical areole, the small knob from which spines (and also flowers and new stems) emerge. What’s interesting in this plant is that the areole looks like a dry scab, and is not the hairy organ that you see in many other cacti. The habit of the plant, that is to say that it grows as a tree, and the appearance of the areole allows me to rule out many genera of cacti in the identification. The fact that the plant thrives in wet and humid Mumbai should provide useful clues to a better educated person.

I had to wait for the noonday sun to light up the flowers right at the top of the plant. Interestingly they don’t grow right out of the areole, but are borne on a stem that grows out from it. The small yellow flowers were too high up for me to look at them carefully; I don’t even now how many petals they have. It seemed to me that this had a radial symmetry, although I could not count the number of petals. Most cactus flowers are perfect, a botanical term which means that it contains both pistil and stamen. A wonderful description of the flowers of cacti is given in a web page from U Texas, Austin: “Imagine partially inflating a cylindrical toy balloon, then painting on dots to represent the leaf, sepal, petal, stamen and carpel primordia. Once all dots have been painted on with carpel dots at the closed end of the balloon, imagine placing your finger on the end of the balloon then blowing it up further: the balloon will become a hollow cylinder with the stamen dots on the inside next to your finger, the petal and sepal dots at the end and the leaf dots on the outside.”

It was only after I zoomed in with my camera did I realize that the rounded knobs that I’d initially taken for buds were actually the developed fruits of the tree. You can see the complex branching of the flower-bearing stems, and the three-lobed fruits, presumably developing from fused ovaries. That also explained why, when I zoomed in to the flowers, they looked like they had three clusters of petals, with spaces between them. Each cluster seemed to have three petals (or tepals, which is a more correct word for cacti). This is consistent with counts of petals in several other families of plants in the same order, the Caryophyllales.

My morning’s search for the name of this cactus species led me into these strange pathways. At the end of it I’m left in this very unsatisfactory state: the tree is a cactus (family Cactaceae) from the Americas. Can anyone help me with a better identification?

Rose Garden? Of course!

Something like Aloe VeraDon’t even think about it. Yes, we all know that there is a rose garden in Munnar. We have all read the great reviews. But don’t promise one. It has no roses. It is full of people bumbling about, looking cross, although there are absolutely spectacular flowers. All because someone promised them a rose garden, and they don’t think a garden without roses is what they were promised.

Anthurium seen in Munnar

The one thing in Munnar which I had low expectations of, and which therefore stunned me totally was this garden off on the eastern part of town. The entrance to the garden is at a pretty narrow spot in the road, and the people entering and leaving cause a bit of a traffic jam. On the steep slope below the road is the garden. There is a little charge for entry, but it is well worth paying. rosegarden3 The flowers here are unusual and you are unlikely to be able to find a better place to spend an hour in the town.

I’m not an expert gardener. I know my roses and lilies, marigolds, vinca and zinnia. I can tell an Iris from a Pansy, and I’ve learnt the difference between a peony and a petunia. Otherwise I talk of blue flowers and yellow flowers.rosegarden4 Close to the entrance was a whole bunch of flowers which I think of as Anthurium. I’ve only seen a couple of varieties before: both with a yellow spadix, one had a red spathe, the other white. Here there was such a variety of colours of both that it was clear that some of them are hybrids. They must be breeding them here.

Lady's slippers: flower seen in MunnarWe walked past flowers which I cannot name (a couple of pictures above), and then reached a lower aisle where every flower was labelled. We stopped to admire the flower here (called "Lady’s slippers"), which is possibly an orchid. The plant is a creeper. There was a little walk where the plant had been allowed to form a roof over a lattice covering the walk, making a green tunnel. The flowers hung in bunches from the green walls, looking really pretty.

Zebra hawthoria seen in Munnar

Further on we came to the cacti. We’d seen several before, but there were some spectacular Hawthoria among them. The specimen above was labelled Hawthoria fascita but could well be Hawthoria attenuata. The usual way to distinguish the two is that the attenuata has stripes on both sides of the leaf. The attenuata also develops this nice red colour if it is in the sun long enough.

Orchids in Munnar's rose gardenThe final section of the garden had orchids. We’ve seen a spectacular orchid garden in Gangtok. This selection was smaller, but there were some very nice ones here, including the Cattleya shown on the left. The walk through the garden took us about an hour.