A hothouse flower

Do plants need a hothouse in India? Sure, I’ve seen strawberries been grown inside rows of plastic tents, but that must be to conserve water, I thought. But then in Darjeeling’s botanical garden, in December, I saw plants flowering. Unfortunately this interesting flower was unlabelled, an unusual thing in a botanical garden. Perhaps it is so common that everyone in the world except me knows what it is called.

Not having a clue, I’ll have to depend on you to supply possibilities. This was a potted plant, less than waist high. I liked the appearance of the leaves: leathery, with a reddish brown underside and as hairy as the flower.

Note added: Thanks to two readers, Sujata and Bama, I began to look at the genus Begonia. Although I don’t have a photo of the flowers spread out to look at their inner structure, in order to strengthen the genus identification, their suggestion does look viable. Moreover, there are multiple species of Begonia native to the eastern Himalayas which are very hairy. Some of these would find their way into a collection in Darjeeling’s botanical garden.

Mad honey flower?

Mad honey is honey produced by bees which forage among Rhododendron. One has to be careful with the heather family of plants, Ericaceae. Although the family has everyday members like blueberries and cranberries, there are many relatives who are not above producing a little poison. These neurotoxins, the grayanotoxins, can make you very sick without killing you. But in low doses they are hallucinogenic. Mad honey, a small batch specialty from Nepal, contains nectar infused with grayanotxins from many species of rhodo. Interestingly, the buransh (R. arboreum with its dark red flowers) contains only very small quantities of these toxins. That’s why drinking the juice commonly available in Uttarakhand is neither toxic nor hallucinogenic. All this background did not help me to identify the rhodo flowers which I saw in a mild December in Darjeeling’s botanical garden.

Winter Rhodo

Winter in the mountains is the time of flowers on bushes in gardens. You don’t expect to see flowers on trees. Walking through Lloyd botanical garden, I was surprised by a small tree with purple flowers. I took several photos before I realized I was looking at a Rhododendron. It is not a genus which flowers so early in winter. Most species of rhodo flower in spring. So what was I looking at?

From the shape of flower and the leaves it may be the Bell rhododendron, Rhododendron campanulata. But since there are over a thousand known species of rhodo, I could be wrong. It turns out that I should have turned over the leaf and looked at its underside for better identification. You live and learn. Bell rhodo is normally a spring flowering species, so I’m puzzled by why it was flowering so early. Of course it was not really cold in early winter, but that must happen in many years. It could well be an exotic species. Isn’t that what you expect in a botanical garden? In the absence of a sign identifying it, this remains yet another abominable mystery.

Three cacti

Wandering through the deserted cactus house in Darjeeling’s botanical garden, I clicked away with my camera, liking the play of light on these spiny barrels. Later, looking at these photos I realized that I knew nothing about cacti apart from the fact that they are interesting subjects for photos. There is abundant reading matter on any subject that you grow interested in, so for the last month or so I’ve been reading about cacti. They are as fascinating as they look.

I’d eaten prickly pear fruits once in California. Back then I thought it was a trendy thing and let the experience slide from my mind. It seems that the prickly pear may have been among the first attempts at domesticating plants in Mesoamerica, and its human history might be as old as that of maize. I read about its cultivation in Italy and Palestine, and the Italian experiments which delay its fruiting so that it becomes an autumn fruit. I read a couple of books which argue that although cacti are hard to domesticate, they could be ideal for farming in a world where summer temperatures could rise to over 50 Celsius.

It was also fascinating to read about the variety of cacti that can be found in food markets in Mexico. I’d not really thought of Mexico as a possible destination for myself, I have most of Africa and much of Asia left to explore after all. But this discovery nudged Mexico up my list. It was equally fascinating to read about the use of cactus as crops in urban community based agriculture in parts of California and Seattle, and their connection to the use of space in Mexico. That’s something that could well be tried out in India, where urban space is as dense as in Mesoamerica.

Interested in my reading list? Insurgent Public Space, edited by Jeffrey Hou (Routledge), Environmental Biology of Agaves and Cacti, by Park S. Nobel (CUP), Cacti as Crops by Yosef Mizrahi et alia, (Horticultural Reviews, Vol 18).

Hothouse flower

Primroses seem to be the kind of flower that you take for granted. Until you see one on a day late in spring in a Himalayan meadow so high that you are slightly short of breath for the lack of oxygen while crossing it. That would be the drumstick primrose (Primula denticulata). That’s why I was surprised to see it flowering in December in a greenhouse in Darjeeling’s Lloyd Botanical Garden.

I’d grown familiar with this plant in earlier visits to the Himalayas. More than a decade ago, I’d grown jaded enough to ignore it when I saw it. Seeing it flowering in winter in the hothouse, I wondered when I’d last seen it. The last photo I could find of one was from a walk in Sikkim’s Yumthang valley in 2010. Why haven’t I seen it after that? I checked for news about it, and the only news I could see was that the warming climate can now cause it to bloom in January if the temperature rises above 15 Celsius. But there were no reports of it disappearing. So I guess I just haven’t been at the right place at the right time.

So I was glad that a mad botanist in Darjeeling had decided to move these plants indoors. It was like seeing an old friend in a monkey cap sipping a hot chai in winter. I’d remembered the extreme variability in colour that this plant has. Of the two stalks of flowers next to each other, one was purple, the other pink. I walked on, resolving to visit the mountains in spring more often.

Another slipper

One beautiful orchid may just be. Two set you thinking. The orchid house of Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling was filled with flowers of two species of Venus slippers, the genus Paphiodedilum. I showed photos of P. insigne some time ago. You can see here the similar shaped flowers of the Paphiopedilum villosum that grew cheek by jowl with it in the greenhouse. I was startled to find later that this genus has 70 to 80 known species. The genus seems to have originated between 5 and 7 million years ago in a geographical region called the Sundaland, which is the Indonesian and Philippine islands and the Malay peninsula. The present range of these slipper orchids extends southwards to New Guinea, and northwards to Southern China and eastern India.

The late Miocene was a time when the earth’s climate was changing rapidly. With a lot of the ocean’s waters locked into ice, the Sunda islands could have been joined by land bridges, allowing the earliest of these orchids to slip across the land. The great flowering, so to say, of species in this genus began about 5 million years ago, in the early Pliocene, when the waters rose again, splitting the land into islands. By then the increasing height of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys seaway had changed the global climate (incidentally causing large evolutionary changes among our ancestors) and the slippers evolved into humidity-loving species.

The climate and conditions in the core areas of Venus slipper diversity do not seem so different from each other; after all they have similar temperatures and humidity. But the many of these orchids have found extremely specialized niches in the ecology: some growing only on cliffs near the sea, others, like these Assamese species, in very humid rainforests high in mountains.

Interestingly, the actual process of evolution in these plants has also been studied. The genome of these orchids seems to be highly fragile, and repair mechanisms have created the variation needed for speciation. The evolution of these slippers is still ongoing in the wild. This could also explain why the slipper orchids are popular among orchid enthusiasts who love to create hybrids. That would be an interestingly complete story, if a geneticist actually bothers to study these hybrid varieties of slippers.

Two cacti

Some corners of the greenhouses in Lloyd Botanical Garden had a lot of light. As I knelt to take photos of cacti, between shots I wondered at the forms that these strange plants take: the eight-armed spiral of the one in the featured photo, and the symmetric radiation of the bush below. How did they come about?

The slow processes of geology, the breaking and joining of continents, the raising of mountains, the closing of seas, all change the earth’s climate. And these changes break open old ecologies and their dependencies, giving new spaces for change. About thirty million years ago, in the high noon of dinosaurs, the Andes mountains began to lift up. The warm wet winds from the Pacific were blocked, and on the continental side the land turned into a desert. It was here that the cacti evolved. Then, about 4 million years ago, when the isthmus of Panama formed, one group, the prickly pears took the opportunity to move northwards. But it was the formation of the rift valley in far away Africa which finally created the species that could give cacti a way to spread across the world, to the sunlight in front of me.

The plot, the fog, thickens

We walked bravely into the fog after lunch. With the sun hidden now, the wind that blew over the ridge felt colder. I pulled my cap down over my ears. The world was strangely quiet due to the fog, and the woolen cap cut out sounds even more. With sight and sound cut off, the world seemed to shrink to a little space around the three of us.

Kunzum turned out to be great company, with a lot of stories to tell. As we wandered over the slopes he began to tell us stories of missing people. When you are in a dark jungle at night, nothing is more soothing than ghost stories. And in our present situation, stories of people lost on the Singalila ridge was the perfect entertainment. When we came to the seat at the edge of a cliff I thought we were going to sit there and listen to his stories, but he actually wanted us to assess a path down that cliff.

We didn’t think our knees could take that steep path, so we moved on to the motorable road along the ridge for a while. This also descended pretty steeply, but not so much that we couldn’t talk about the person who came here to organize an expedition, collected money from several of his countrymen, and disappeared with the money while on a Singalila trek. The road here veers between Nepal and India. While there are counts kept of travellers on the Indian side, there are no checks on the Nepali side. I gathered that it is easy to disappear here, if you put your mind to it.

Eating on a hike

High points are high points. At least on our hike the biggest experiences were all clustered together. The actual highest altitude, the fantastic view of four of the world’s highest peaks, and the lunch. I’ve already written about the kitchen where we broke for lunch. It looked a little like colonial-era photos come to life. In order to clean the scene of the unsavoury history that encrust those monochrome images, here I show the photos in colour. You can see that the old photos missed out on the cheerful colours that hill people surround themselves with.

While approaching the village I’d heard the tinkling sound of a mountain spring filling a large tank which had been placed under the runoff. The water is used to grow vegetables. I could see the freshness of the produce just from the colours of the vegetables in the pantry (you can compare the photo above to an earlier monochrome version).

Soon enough a simple but tasty meal appeared on the table in front of us. There was a mound of rice in each plate to go with this. For lunch I would have normally eaten only a quarter of it, so I put three quarters aside into a spare plate. The Family also put aside a large part of the rice. Good as the dal and rice tasted, it was just a background to the vegetables here. On the plains you would see diced vegetables in curries. The batonnets that these were cut into foregrounded the freshness of the vegetables. But then I reached for the rice I’d put away. I couldn’t have enough of the veggies, and the curry base needed the rice. Our guide, Kunzum, was delighted. “You’ll need the energy,” he said.

At breakfast in the border town of Manebhanjan, we’d had the option of having these preserved chilis with our fresh-made parathas. I’d passed it up. These cherry chilis, dalle, grow in the Darjeeling hills, and are widely used in kitchens here. During lunch a jar of home-made pickle of radish and dalle was an option. Here, in the coolness at 3 Kms above sea level, my tongue seemed to react differently to chilis. The Family looked at me goggle-eyed as I liberally dosed my rice and dal with the the pickle. She’d never seen me enjoy chilis.

One thing I miss on such walks is frequent doses of tea. We’d had tea a little after eight in the morning and our next hot cup would come only at the end of the trek, at five in the evening, when we reached a cozy tea house in Chitre. It called itself Eagle’s Nest, and seemed to be a place where people came from nearby hamlets to socialize. We sat in a corner table and watched the place fill up with lots of people who knew each other. The trek ended as we walked to our pickup car parked by the road. The road is the border between India and Nepal. All day we’d weaved between the two countries. Now, as I looked at the time on my phone, I realized that it was fifteen minutes out of sync with Kunzum’s watch. “What a bother,” I told The Family, “That means we’ve been on international roaming through the day. I have a long dispute with the phone company coming up.”

One cactus

What is a cactus? As I wandered through the greenhouses holding cacti and succulents in the Lloyd Botanical garden of Darjeeling, camera in hand, I had time to puzzle about this. We recognize them by their swollen stems and thorns. The thorns are leaves modified to prevent loss of moisture, and simultaneously as a defense against herbivores. I suppose in a barren land any plant is fair game, so prickly leaves and thorns are common in plants of arid regions. Cacti also flower, and flowering plants evolved later than the dinosaurs. Interesting, the way they catch light. Just the thing for some black and white photos.