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.

Yond Cassia

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

Cassia is a lean and hungry name. It gobbles up a lot of different plants. It includes those which lie properly in the genus Cassia but then it can be used for the genuses Senna and Chamaecrista. It is such a hungry name that it has traveled up the tree of life and laid claim to a whole tribe, the group of genuses called Cassiaea in the subfamily of peacock flowers, the Cesalpinioideae, in the family of peas, the Fabaceae. It is a useful word, because it hides my inability to distinguish this plant from a few hundred others.

Although I don’t know this plant enough to give it a name, by calling it a Cassia I’m committing myself to a guess that its fruits will bear seeds in a pod, like a pea. It is a pretty yellow flower, five showy petals like a lot of the Cassias, the paired elliptical leaves spaced out nicely along twigs. And it looks like it is popular with the pollinators. Can anyone take a better stab at identifying it?

This post appears on schedule while I travel.

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

Growth is decay

It was a bright cold day … and the clocks were striking thirteen.

1984, by George Orwell

I’m not out to deliberately confuse truth and falsehood as the political system in Orwell’s book does: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” What I mean instead is that buildings decay when nature invades. The constant churn that is the natural state of a biosphere is the end of buildings. Black, yellow, green. The three colours of moss that I saw growing on this pink Kota limestone cladding on a wall is exactly what I mean.

The deliberate fracture of language practiced by elective dictatorships is not what I have in mind when I say that growth is decay. You see the same in a garden. Stop tending it for a month, and see the weeds sprout, the grass become patchy, the flowers you planted begin to wilt, the plants themselves begin to sag and spread like teenagers on a sofa. I prefer wilderness and unplanned nature, but I don’t mind a well-tended garden either. But the effort that is required!

Colourless green flowers sleep furiously

It makes no difference
If it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm
Everything you’ve got

Duke Ellington

I’m no Duke Ellington. I only potter about with images. But I asked myself whether it matters that a flower smells or looks great? Can’t I just give the texture everything that I’ve got? I didn’t want to use an AI assistant for this experiment, just my own eyes and hands (that was the reason I chose a title which recalls Noam Chomsky’s famous counter-example to an early version of AI). How much texture could I tease out of a photo?

The simplest test might be to take a white flower and check out how well it does in black and white. I’m pretty happy with the monochrome version that you see above. I think I managed to get its rough texture better in B&W than I could in the coloured version. When you are working to get more dynamic range in the whites of a coloured image, you begin to affect the colour balance. That’s a whole lot of extra variables to track. Perhaps that is what an AI assistant can help you with, if it has the proper controls.

This second example seemed to be a little simpler even that the previous photo. The starting colour was almost monochrome, different shades of green. But not really. Hidden in the green are reds and blues. So, trying to enhance the texture in coloured version again produced colour artifacts which I had to then compensate. Very tedious, and, more importantly, limiting. There are some adjustments in texture space which I could not compensate in colour space (perhaps a better navigation tool in colour space is needed). The B&W is not only easier to deal with, you can do more fiddly adjustments in both the light and dark parts without worrying about colour.

I was happy doing this myself. AI assisted photo editors are becoming more common these days, and they seem to produce magical images at the push of a button. It is good to figure out a human way of doing the same things, because you can then do things that these assistants are not yet trained to do. Staying a little ahead of your tools is always a good thing.

And the featured photo? I will leave you to compare it with its coloured version, which I’d posted long back.

The tomorrows past

My hard disc is full of ghosts. Electrons streamed through complex orderings of magnetic fields. I dredged out a few images. The end of December is always a calm and quiet time it seems. In years without the omicron I have strolled through gardens, walked on deserted beaches, sailed through calm lagoons.

We seemed to have traveled without a passport on most Decembers. The furthest photo in this bunch was the beach in the Andaman’s Neil Island. We have travelled north, into the colder parts of India, or stayed by the warm shorelines.

Every time I look at a collection of photos, something different leaps out at me. This time it was this photo taken in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. The duo look like chess players: looking into the interior of a baroque piece of ancient electronics. A very close look before the next move, I’m sure.

Just before the monsoon

This week the monsoon arrived in Mumbai, with two days of gloomy skies and frequent rains. You can feel its arrival: the unsettled weather before it, the thunder showers at night, then the persistent westerlies and a choppy sea. I went for a walk in the garden in the early afternoon. That’s when most people are at home, and the overhead light is usually terrible for photos. But I had spots in mind, where the sun would filter down through trees, and throw a beautiful dappled light on the handiwork of the gardeners. I was not disappointed. These days full of warmth and light will decrease over the next couple of months, so I was happy to catch the photo that you see here.

The flame of the forest

Summer is the time of the Gul mohar, the Flame of the Forest, Delonix regia. I love that strange construction: a five petalled flower, four of which are bright red, and the fifth is stippled with yellow or white. When one petal of a flower looks special, you can be sure that it had something to do with pollinators. This one, called the standard, is a nectar guide, and its base contains nectar. I remember our class teacher telling us, “Go ahead and take them apart to look at them carefully, each flower will fall off the tree in four days or so, even without your help.”

As a result of the class project in primary school, this was one of the first flowers that I looked at carefully. In my mind it goes with the blazing heat of grishma, summer before the monsoon, in the plains of northern India. But modern genetic techniques extend recorded history in placing its origin in the western part of Madagascar, after it had separated out from the continental landmass of Africa. It spread to Africa unaided by humans, probably rafted by ocean currents, perhaps 10-20 million years ago. Then, in the blink of an eye, in geological terms, in the last four or five hundred years, it has been carried across the world by humans.