Peacocks

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?

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

Who’s bothered by closed gates?

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowers every twelve years. In 2018 we set off for Munnar in the middle of a terrible monsoon to see its flowering. The slopes where they grow were battered by rain, and although we did see a few flowering bushes, we never got the magnificent views of purple-covered mountains that the media was showing. I think all that footage came from the previous flowering in 2006. In the evening we retreated to a tea estate and the next day we walked around the nearest village to admire feral plants.

Kerala is an amazing place in the monsoon. Every garden runs uncontrollably wild. Bushes and vines cannot be kept inside closed gates and orderly gardens; they spill into roads and the countryside. The yellow flower above is certainly a garden flower (can someone help me with its name?) but it was growing in a jungle of bushes along the road outside the purple gate.

Any gate which was shut could no longer be opened because of the growth around and over it. A good thing that some of the gates were merely ornamental, standing free of fences. You could just go around it if you wanted. We kept to the meandering and narrow. It was a Sunday, and most people were at the bazaar or church. Very few were at home to wave at us as we strolled through the village.

Blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica)

On a previous visit to Munnar I’d noticed that the blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica) has become a pest, over-running trees and taking over forests. In this village it had competition, but there were still many of its spectacular flowers to be seen. The pistil projects quite a way from the disk of its petals, as you can gauge from the focus in this photo.

Scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia)

Its main competitor seemed to be the scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia), another import from South America or the Caribbean. It is hard to be more precise about the original range of most morning glories because they spread very easily as human activity opens up dense forests. The long slender goblets of nectar in both of these trumpet shaped flowers evolved to take advantage of the long beaks of hummingbirds. I wonder what their pollinators are in this far land. Clearly there must be some. How would they spread so far and wide otherwise?

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Another of the plants which I cannot name is the one you see above. The dark green elliptical leaves with pink dots and the two-lipped flowers with the very long pistil are familiar. I’ve seen them in garden even as a child, and I think I have a memory of these plants in my mother’s garden. But I’ve completely forgotten what they are called. Can someone help? (Thanks Deb for identifying it as the polka dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora)

Another plant which runs wild easily is the Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora). The name comes from the fact that the creeper winds clockwise around any support. I was curious why this property would enter into its name. Apparently 92% of vines from around the world twine anti-clockwise, so the sense in which this plant winds does make it very special. You seldom get such a clear explanation of names of plants.

Rangoon creepers and railway flowers

Clusters of the red and pink flowers of the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) seem to be growing from every hedge and fence in our neighbourhood. They provide a little colour, even drenched in the continuous rain of this week.

I love the multiple names it has. In Hindi Madhumalti (corrupted to Madhumati in the many web sites on flowers which copy from each other) coexists with the beautiful name Ishq pehchaan. The name can change to Madhumanjari in Bengali and is quite uniquely Radha Manohar in Telugu. The variety of names could be indicative of the geographical origin. Madhumalti does come from the forests of India, east up to the Philippines, and north into southern China. It has a variety of names across this region: in Vietnamese, Malay, Thai, and the languages of the Philippines. The names are mostly quite local and not widely shared across languages. That leaves me with the puzzle: why Rangoon creeper?

But there’s also another puzzle I found when locating names in other Indian languages. Very closely related climbers (C. malabaricum and C. shivannae, among others) grow wild in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, so it is odd that the Marathi name for C. indicum is Vilayati Chembeli (which translates to “foreign Jasmine”). Interestingly, in the neighbouring Malayalam it has a simple name, Udani, but this is shared with Malay and Sumatran. An alternate name in Malayalam, Akar dani, is also shared with Malay. Could it be that Madhumalti does not grow wild in the western ghats, and was a late import in these parts? I’m sure a real field botanist would be able to tell me.

Another flower grows cheek by jowl with Madhumalti in my neighbourhood. That’s the morning glory which is called the Railroad flower (Ipomoea cairica). That’s a very apt name for a highly invasive weed which can easily smother other plants if allowed to grow unchecked. The plant spreads so easily that its aboriginal homeland cannot be located too well. It is believed to have originated in some place in Northern Africa or the Mediterranean, but perhaps even in some islands in the eastern Atlantic.

Looking at the photos I took in yesterday’s rain, I thought that the Railroad flower is easy to distinguish from other morning glories which are common across India. But one has to be careful. The spectacular colours of the Ipomoea indica, native to the West Indies, but widely seen across India, make it easy to tell apart. The oddly-named Bengal clock vine (so called because it is never seen to wind anti-clockwise around support) is perhaps the easiest to mistake for the Railway flower, until you realize that it has a yellowish-cream heart. I’m pretty fascinated by what botanists call the “vulgar names” of plants.

Garden in the shade

Looking back at photos from our first trip to Binsar, I discovered that we had taken off-route walks on several days. One of the walks took us from a little temple in a meadow inside the national park up through a slope into a garden around an old and abandoned bungalow. You can see the back of the bungalow from the shady side of the slope in the featured photo.

I’d like to be, under the sea”

Lennon-McCartney (Abbey Road)

Gardens grow extremely well in the wilds up there. Over the years this rose bush had run wild, and had taken over a small slope. This delicate purple-rose colour is hard to photograph. In full light the colour bleaches away. I was very happy that this side of the slope faced north west, and was in the shade at that time of the day.

You might think that nargis, daffodils, are a dime a dozen up there. But they are actually quite hard to spot. A bed of nargis stood next to the path where it turned. It had been watered recently. It turned out that a family had established themselves in the yard of this deserted bungalow, and were taking care of part of the garden.

Bushes had been hacked away from the path to keep it clear, and posts had been planted in the ground to mark something, perhaps a boundary. The edge between open ground and the undergrowth is a good place to spot small warblers. I’m not good enough at warblers to be able to tell what this is.

This dark flower was growing in bright sunlight. In any other light I would not have been able to get that deep red on the nine petals. Nine! That’s not a Fibonacci flower. Whatever happened to all those theories of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio which are supposed to make flowers beautiful? This is so clearly a compound flower; you can even see the tiny yellow florets in the core beginning to open up.

On one edge of the hedge a sulphur butterfly was sunning itself among the balsam. The butterfly with its irregular spots merges beautifully with the vegetation around it. Camouflage could mean that the insect is not poisonous. That, in turn, means that the caterpillar feeds on plants which are not poisonous.

They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude

William Wordsworth (Daffodils)

My final photo from that walk is of this flower in full sunlight, throwing its shadow on a lush green leaf. The leaf has been fed on by a pest. Could it have been the caterpillar of the butterfly we just saw? The bungalow behind it was locked up completely. I wonder whether it has been turned into a hotel now, years later, or whether it has fallen into ruin. I don’t have a photo, but I recall spotting a raptor up here and hearing its high pitched call as it dove into the forest canopy below us. Some things you don’t need a photo to remember.

Garden day

Between chasing birds and scoping out animals on holidays, and traveling on work otherwise, I don’t get to spend much time in gardens. So when the opportunity does come, I lose no time in relaxing. Instead I’m up and about with my camera, until I come to a nice empty bench on which I can sprawl.

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I managed a long sprawl in this tiny garden in Hampi while others were visiting some small and insignificant forestry museum. I think it was time well spent. You decide.