Pink hibiscus

Hibiscus is a rather large genus of plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae). So it is not always easy to look at an unknown variety and identify it. The exception, as far as I’m concerned is the blood red Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, the one flower that is offered in the worship of Kali. That is so widely grown in gardens in India that I’m completely familiar with its anatomy. This pink hibiscus had the same morphology, so I quite willing to believe that it is a cultivar of the same species. It is too common a flower for me to stop to take another photo. But the backlighting makes it look rather pretty, I thought, as I took a photo. Then, as I clicked I realized that a gardener had sprinkled water in that patch very recently. It adds a nice effect.

Leafy ornamental

Even the leafiest ornamental angiosperm hedge must flower sometime. When it does, you can be sure that it’s astronomically spring, no matter what the weather is. So, on a burning hot morning in a garden I came across a hedge which had begun to sprout strange long flowers.

I’m bad at identifying plants. Most people who potter around in gardens are much better than me at naming ornamentals. I can perhaps name a few garden flowers, but when it comes to leafy ornamentals I’m lost. Is this a Pilea or a Hosta? Or something else altogether? The strange flowers were quite as intriguing as the leaves, and I’ll appreciate any help with its identification.


Sleepwalking is how I proceed through a garden. I recognize almost none of the flowers. I can tell a rose from a marigold, and Nargis (daffodils) from rajanigandha (tuberose). But beyond that I have to tread cautiously. These flowers were not dahlias, cosmos, or zinnias. They weren’t morning glories, sweet peas, or pansies. I could rule out snapdragons, lupines, and lilies. What could they be? Dianthus? Nasturtium? Impatiens? I’m afraid I have no idea. Do you?

All I knew was that the gardeners in Bhubaneshwar’s Museum of Tribal Arts liked them a lot. They had taken some trouble to collect multiple shades of these flowers: from decidedly purple to clear pink. Looking at the photos now, I realize that my phone’s camera may not have been able to capture the distinctions of the shades that my eyes did. So which was wrong?

Three roses

The rose garden in Rashtrapati Bhavan used to be called Mughal Gardens. The day before I booked a visit with The Family it was renamed the Amrit Udyan. Doesn’t a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Let me go with roses, not names.

I’m completely naive when it comes to gardens. All around me I notice people stopping at their favourites and reeling off the name of the cultivar, talking about the soil and the humidity needed to get the best blossoms. I listen, and the words drip past me. All you need, in order to grow the best roses, is to be the President of India, and have a huge garden and staff.

She does have the best roses I have seen in a while. I do like the spotty white one, although the rose-tending-to-purple is pretty eye-catching too. Interestingly, not one of these three had a sweet smell.

Sport or chimera?

The gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. One of the fun things was a bed of pansies around the base of a tree. The gardening staff have been putting out interesting crosses with the Viola tricolor base stock in recent years. Having seen the photos from the past years, I looked carefully at the bed. The featured photo was taken by The Family. You can see two different stalks of the same plant have flowers in two different colours (the one behind is closer to the wild V. tricolor) than the main subject of her photo. How often do you see two differently coloured flowers on the same plant? Not so often that one can ignore it, right?

How can that happen at all? In any organism, different genes can be activated or silenced as the animal grows. The patches of colour on cowhide, or the stripes on a tiger are the most visible example of this. Sometimes a cell mutates during development, and the mutant cell produces more daughter cells with the mutation. This is called a chimera. Some individuals have a patch of coloured skin visible on their body, sometimes called a birthmark. This is due to such a mutation in skin cells. These two things can happen to a plant as well. If the genes for a pigment are switched on or kept off during the development of a flower, then you might have two different colours of flowers on the same plant. These are called sports in botany.

So the pansies that we saw in that one bed in the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan are sports, and chimeras. I wonder if the flowers give rise to seeds which will keep the colour of the flower it came from. If it does, then you can breed multiple cultivars from the same plant. In that case some seeds from this plant could give violet flowers, others white, a third set yellow, and yet another set of seeds could give that tricoloured flower that you see in the featured photo. Is this one of the methods that plant breeders use? Someone with more knowledge than me will have to answer that question.

Door flowers

I was surprised when Kunzum led us to a cottage at the top of the rise. Our morning’s walk to see Chomolungma had not left me hungry. Perhaps it was the altitude, after all we’d reached a place which was a little over 3 Kms from sea level. Or perhaps it was the nice, but heavy, breakfast of parathas and steaming hot potato curry. Still, I was happy to sit and shed some layers. The last climb had left me a little sweaty.

As I was doing that, The Family had shucked her backpack and walked back out into the yard to take photos of the house. The soil in the yard was parched and hard with the cold, but the house was bright with potted plants. This is one thing about hill houses that really cheers me up: every house has rows and rows of flowering plants lined below windows, around doors, and anywhere possible on exterior walls.

I stayed in for a moment, enchanted by the beautiful light in the pantry and dining room. The full Singalila trek takes experienced trekkers four days or so (it would have taken us maybe about six). Along the road are these “tea houses” where people can spend a night or get something to eat. The pantry reminded me of century old black and white photos of Himalayan houses. I took a few photos and decided the light deserved monochrome.

The light was less dramatic in the dining area, behind the wide open windows, but still mild enough that the place deserves a black and white photo, in keeping with historical precedent. In truth though, you must imagine it as being very colourful in a pastel sort of way. The Family leaned in through the windows and said “Come out. Look at the flowers here.” I pulled on my jacket and followed her.

I suppose I could try out monochrome shots of the flowers, but they were so lovely and colourful that I think they deserve a full colour treatment. Some were wilting a bit in the extreme dryness of the atmosphere up here. The air pressure at this altitude is about 70% of what it is at sea level, and that means water can evaporate pretty rapidly. But in spite of the dryness at the edges of the petals, these flowers looked really pretty.

The two of us took our phone to every flowerpot we could see. Now when I look at the number of flower shots we took, I think we must have been slightly addled. Still, that gives us a nice big set to select from.


No doubt you’ve seen this small tree, or large shrub, somewhere. Peacock flowers (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) have been carried from their home range, somewhere in the tropical Americas, across the world, even to parts of Alaska. I see on a range map that it is not reported from northern parts of Eurasia, Canada, and Australia. If it grows in Alaska and southern Argentina, and every latitude in between, then it is only a matter of time before it is planted in Sweden, and Finland, and Siberia. I’ve seen and ignored this plant often. But I was stopped recently by a showy display of three varietals together.

I stopped to go up to the four meter high trees, thick with blossoms. The spectacular orange and yellow flowers are perhaps most common, as much as the deep red variety which was missing from this show. I may have seen the fully yellow variety before, but I certainly did not remember seeing the pink and white ever. You can tell the plant by the five petals on each flower, one smaller than the rest, the long stamens and pistils, the flowers clustered at the ends of a stem, and the bi-pinnate leaves. A more common name for the plant is Poinciana. I like to avoid this, because there could be a little confusion with the completely different Royal Ponciana (Delonix regia, the flame of the forest).

You can see the flat pods of the fruits in the photo above. If you open them you’ll see a row of flat seeds. As I turned away, The Family spotted a flowerpecker on a woody upper branch of one of these trees. So small birds serve as pollinators. Are there butterflies and other insects which are also pollinators? I don’t remember from my earlier encounters with this tree, and the day was rainy enough that most high-flying butterflies where hidden away, only small grass yellows fluttered around the grasses and herbs below the trees.

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.

Scarlet fever

We live in books and photographs,
our stories all begin with ‘Once’,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Barbary Lion, Atitlan Grebe,
Caribbean Monk Seal, Carolina Parakeet.

We tasted good, our forests were yours
Our horn was valuable, you wore our furs,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Laughing Owl, Passenger Pigeon,
Javan Tiger, Japanese Sea Lion.

We flew and swam beneath the sun,
nested, hunted, raised our young,
three, two, going, going…gone.

Western Black Rhinoceros, Aldabra Snail,
Pyrenean Ibex, Wake Island Rail

Shells, tails, whiskers and bone,
three, two, going, going…

Extinct (2010) by Mandy Coe

A vision of colour

What is a garden all about? I take a stroll in a garden now and then when I have to sort out a knotty problem. The Family enjoys a walk in a garden because she meets people there, some old friends, some people whom she doesn’t know more than to nod at. My mother would spend time in her garden picking up dry leaves, digging at beds, and arguing with the gardener who would come by to help her. And then there are times when I take my camera on a walk to photograph flowers and bees. And I always wonder whether the bee sees what I see.

What is colour? There has been a century long dispute about this among philosophers. Before you dismiss it as just another meaningless dispute, think about this. Would a flower be any different if my brain was rewired somehow so that I saw the colours in the image on the right where every other human saw that in the left hand image? Certainly not. I can run this experiment by leaving a camera to take images by itself and display it to me on a screen in a room, but invert the colours before showing me the photos. In a while I would learn the colours of the different flowers, and those of the honeybees which visit them. My recognition of the object is not tied to its colour. We consciously use this notion when we use colour codes, or show images in false colour. But, as the experiment shows, all the time, in everything that we see, colour is an arbitrary label which we put on the world.

If colour does not reside in the object, does it reside in the light that reaches our eye? Didn’t Newton prove that white light is composed of several colours? A version of this story enters the Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman the White changes into Saruman of Many Colours. But if the colours are intrinsic to the wavelength of light, then how is it that we can combine two different colours to produce a third? And how is it that there are colour blind people? We know that the answer to both questions has to do with the colour receptors in our eyes, and their wiring in our brain. That’s the origin of many optical illusions involving colour. Insects and birds have more colour receptors than we have, so they see more “basic” colours, and an infinitely more variety of colours than we do. Octopuses have no receptors for colour, but are still able to see colour through a totally different mechanism. So colour does seem to be an arbitrary label which animals use as a convenient means of organizing their perception of colour. Colour does not seem to reside in the material of the external world, but only in the states of our minds.

Shakespeare is so often correct: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose // By any other name would smell as sweet.” He provides an entry to our understanding of our senses as providing arbitrary and useful labels to understanding the world outside us. We live in Plato’s cave. We only see shadows of the world. The bees which harvest the nectar of flowers see a different shadow of the world. Even if they could talk to us, we might have a hard time understanding what they are saying. Which is the flower: the featured photo, or the one above? Or neither? Or does it really matter? Isn’t the beauty of the colours all that you want to enjoy?