Common balsam

One of the most common among the wildflowers of the Sahyadris during the monsoon is a staple of many gardens: the common balsam (Impatiens balsamina). This region is one of the five hotspots of the diverse genus Impatiens, and new species are discovered every year. Unfortunately, all I’ve noticed is this common flower. I saw it again a couple of weeks ago in my wanderings in Khandala. This time I paid special attention to the large lower petal which has markings to direct insect pollinators to the nectar. I wonder how it would look in ultraviolet. There is much discussion of the visible colours of these flowers, whether white, pink (as here), red or purple. But these are the colours visible to us. Pollinators see them in UV, and how different do they appear to bees and other insects?

The common balsam plant is hard to misidentify, although there’s probably more than a thousand species in its genus. Growing to waist height, it has long serrated leaves growing on alternate sides of the reddish stem. The leaves are lanceolate-elliptic, base narrowed, margins serrate, apex acute to acuminate, in the highly abbreviated terminology of botanists. As a child I was fascinated by the seeds pods which could burst explosively, releasing seeds. That’s one of the reasons why this is a potential weed wherever it is introduced across the world.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

A walk in the monsoon

Monsoon stream in Kolad

Mumbai 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.

Monsoon flowers

Silver cockscomb (Celosia argenta) sticks out of a field of mixed flowers

The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.

The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).

A patch of Murdannia pauciflorum
A patch of Murdannia pauciflora in an open field

The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.

Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)
Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.

Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree
Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree

An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.

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