Milkweed

You can see milkweed (genus Calotropis), called aak in Hindi, in most parts of India. There are supposed to be three species which grow in India: the giant milkweed or crown flower (Calotropis gigantea) which you see in the featured photo, the milkweed (Calotropis procera) which you see in the photo below, and a species called Calotropis acia which I’m not sure that I have seen. I recognize the giant milkweed flower by its well separated and pointed petals and the fact that it is odourless. The milky sap which oozes from broken stems of aak is poisonous when ingested. That poison is used by several butterfly species, notably the one called Common Tiger (Danaus genutia). Its caterpillar gorges on these leaves, and incorporates the poison into its body. As a result, the caterpillar, and the adult which emerges from it, become poisonous. I’ve also seen ants swarming over milkweed, and wondered whether they use the chemicals in some way.

The flowers of C. procera also have the fivefold symmetry, but the petals are not as long and well-separated as that of the C. gigantea. If the bushes are fully grown, then one can tell the two species apart from the fact that the C. gigantea can grow substantially taller than a man, whereas the C. procera is about the same height as a tall person. I’ve never dug up one of them to examine the roots. Since they grow in arid climates, I would guess that their roots are deep and far-ranging. Very often several bushes grow near each other. I wonder whether their roots are in communication.

The colours of the flowers are variable, although most of the time they are on the spectrum of purples: from blue to red. When I first saw the white or greenish white flowers I wondered whether they are another species. But apparently the colour of flowers is not a species marker amongst milkweed. I cannot quite identify the bush whose photo you see above, because the buds haven’t opened up, but from the size I guess it is more likely to be C. gigantea. There’s been a lot of laboratory work separating the toxins from milkweed and examining their action separately and in combination.

Of all the uses of the milkweed, I guess the most widespread is its use in religion: as an offering to Shiva. The iconography of Shiva sometimes shows him with the white variety bound into his hair, giving a possible etymology to the name crown flower. The photo that you see above was taken near the temple of Omkareshwar on the banks of the Narmada. There was a whole line of such stalls on the walkway leading to the temple. I asked the lady in front of the basket what the spiny pods were, and she told me they were fruits of aak, also used in devotions. The seed pods of C. procera and C. gigantea are not spiny. So I wonder whether I have finally seen something of the elusive C. acia.

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A walk in the monsoon

Monsoon stream in KoladMumbai has been hot and humid, but relatively free of rain this monsoon. Disgusted with this state of affairs, The Family and I left one weekend for the a resort in the ghats outside the city. For some reason I’d imagined a natural paradise of stony ground covered with wild plants and streams cutting their way through it. I’d completely forgotten that the region between Mumbai and Pune is full of weekenders who would like to get away from the high rises of the city into a concrete paved paradise of air-conditioned cottages.

I’m happy to have these. But they come with manicured lawns and gardens. All “weeds” are removed systematically, “wild trees” uprooted and the usual garden flowers planted around landscaped lawns dotted with fruit trees. I had to escape this stifling suburban paradise. But the weather conspired to keep me bottled in, with heavy rains through the day.

During a break in the rain I walked out of the resort and followed the road until I got to fallow ground. Here finally was the landscape that I was looking for. The stony ground of the western ghats do not easily absorb the rains. So streams cut through it, merge and become fast flowing rivulets like the one on the right. Trees hang over them.

Common balsam

The banks of these seasonal streams are held together by a dense mat of wild plants. Insects and spiders abound. Water was dripping from the leaves slowly into the ground. It is this slowed rain that recharges aquifers. At this time of the year there are few flowers. The featured photo shows one of the exceptions: the madar or Calotropis gigantea. The other is common balsam, Impatiens balsamica (photo above).

Common grass yellow

There are spider webs everywhere, which means there are insects in plenty. Just after the rain they were hard to spot, because they would probably be hiding under leaves to stay out of the rain. Luckily I got a couple of really tiny ones in the photo of the madar. Other than that all I saw were a few common grass yellow butterflies, one of which you can see in the photo above. It was my first walk of the season in the ghats.