Abhali

Cat’s ears or Dew Grass? Which name do you prefer for the flower you see here. Colonials did not adopt local names for the flowers they saw in India but created their own fancies. Abhali (आभाली) is the common Marathi name for Cyanotis tuberosa, whose beautiful but tiny flower you can see here. I’d first seen this flower in the Kaas plateau a few years ago. There it was entangled in the bushes of the Karvi, and I could not see its leaves and base.

This year, on a slow drive between Malshej Ghat and Naneghat in the Sahyadris, a mere 4 hours’ drive from home, The Family spotted a lone plant growing by the side of the road. The camera I use for taking macros records interesting other information about the location. We were at 857 meters above sea level when I took these photos, the temperature was 27.2 Celsius, the air pressure was 919 hectoPascals, and it was the 25th of August, a dry but overcast day past the peak of a very heavy monsoon season. Most importantly, I could see the base of the plant, where the long leaves sprout from the tuber and the fact that the “flowering shoots are sub-erect” as Mayur Nandikar and Rajaram Gurav note in their 2014 paper revising the genus Cyanotis in India.

Their paper cleared up a confusion in the literature that had puzzled me earlier. In their revision of the genus, they note that Cyanotis tuberosa (Abhali, Sahyadri Dew Grass, Greater Cat’s Ears) is found only in peninsular India. Flowers which are similar in appearance elsewhere in India actually belong to different species. Nevertheless, there remains a confusion in the timing of the flowering across the Western Ghats. I saw it flowering in late August this year, and had photographed the flowers in October 2016 in Kaas. Around Bengaluru it is reported to flower significantly earlier. I’m waiting for someone to draw maps with iso-lines of its flowering season from across the Indian peninsula.

I’m not going to repeat all the things I’d found about this plant six years ago; if you are interested, you can read my earlier post. In these few years I’ve learnt a few things about plants. I noticed that the flower has six stamens, that hairy bracts enclose the flower (you can see a pair about to open up to let a flower bloom at the left end of the photo above). I’ve also learnt to take photo of the whole plant, after having failed to identify some because I concentrated only on the flower. So I not only saw the large lance shaped basal leaves, but also the smaller and rounder leaves on the flowering shoot, and that it grows on porous rocky soil. After a few years of taking photos of wildflowers, especially in the Sahyadris during monsoon, I’ve finally started taking baby steps towards really looking at what I see. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the patience to wait and see which pollinators come by the Abhali.

Dew grass and cat’s ears

In my reading about the flowers of the Kaas plateau, I’d not remembered the flower which is called abhali in Marathi. But when I started walking through the meadows of Kaas, these beautiful flowers attracted attention instantly. I saw them poking up through fields of Topli Karvi. It seemed to me that they grew in patches where the Karvy was not in bloom, but this impression was heavily biased by the memories of places where I stood and took photos. I cross checked it by looking again at the panoramic shots I’d taken of flowering bushes of Topli Karvi, and found that in this case my general impression was probably correct. The abhali blooms where the Topli Karvi does not, but they both like the same kind of soil.

abhaliplant

The Cyanotis tuberosa seems to have multiple names: it is called abhali in Marathi, valukaikizhangu and netha kina in Tamil, and is referred to by the fanciful names of Cat’s ears or Dew grass. The English names were probably given in colonial times, when its habitat was being systematically destroyed by converting the forests into coffee and tea plantations. The habitat destruction continued with the widespread planting of Eucalyptus, and the building of large dams.

Abhali is widespread. Apart from the Kaas plateau, I found it listed as growing in Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and in the eastern Himalayas. So habitat destruction perhaps does not affect this plant as much as many others. It is the only Cyanotis species complex which has tubers; as a result, it can put out leaves and start to bloom as soon as the monsoon starts. In Kaas it blooms from August to October and around Bangalore it has been reported to bloom in May.

The plant is widely listed as human-edible and medicinal, for example, in the encyclopaedic Wildlife and Ground Flora: an interaction scenario of forests of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri by A. B. Chaudhuri and D. D. Sarkar. At the other end of the country, in Tamil Nadu, the root is ground into a paste and eaten to treat diabetes, and also as a vegetable. In Karnataka it is supposed to relieve coughs. All in all, it seems to be a very familiar plant in many parts of India.

I wonder whether it could have spread through India in recent times? If its origin is in the Deccan plateau, then the fact that it is strongly dependent on the monsoon could have prevented a spread through the dry lands of central and western India. The monsoon opens up corridors along the eastern coast of India, allowing it to spread up through Orissa and Bengal into the eastern Himalayas. I could not find reports of it growing in the western Himalayas. Why?

I didn’t know any of this as I knelt on paths and tried to focus on the hairy flower. Now, I wonder why its petals are like hairy filaments which trap beads of water. Does this have a purpose?