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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Love song of the bee

Winter has ended in the north of India, the only part of the country which has a clear winter. That is the season when gardens are full of exotic flowers brought from temperate countries. Bees are everywhere at the end of winter, in the last flowering of gardens, and continuing into spring, the season of wildflowers. On my trip to Dehradun, and up to the Garhwal Sivaliks, I saw lots of flowering gardens. I didn’t manage to capture the bees with my phone camera, but I got the flowers.

In response to an invitation for a villanelle (I had to look up a detailed description too), I had fun making up something which you could call the Love Song of the Bee. It could remind you of Vogon poetry, or you could think of it as a mashup of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Thomas Eliot, Theocritus by Oscar Wilde, and a view of a garden seen from a kitchen,

Still through the ivy flits the bee
While I finish in the kitchen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

The winter sun dips behind a tree
A pot and cups, in the light glisten
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

I hurry. The kitchen chores a fee
I pay for the pleasure of the garden
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Winter’s almost gone. I see
the leaves are touched with brown.
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

Kitchenwork’s done. It’s time for you and me
To walk in the garden, talk, listen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Come, see the flowers. I’m now free
For the wicker chairs in the garden,
Where, still through the ivy flits the bee
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Fibonacci’s flowers

I love the sight of flowering cosmo. You find them growing in gardens, but they often escape and grow wild. As you can see, these are typically eight-petaled. On the other hand, all Himalayan wild flowers that I photographed on a trip a couple of months ago turned out to have five petals. Eight is the number that follows five in the Fibonacci sequence of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. Each number after the first two is obtained by adding up the two previous numbers. Works on aesthetics are full of the mystical properties of these numbers, and the relation they bear to the Golden Ratio, which is the ratio (1+√5):2. If you are interested, I can point you to one or two. But all these theories are wrong for a simple reason; they do not really describe flowers.

Is the number of petals in a flower always a number out of the Fibonacci sequence? Of course not. Primroses and Gentian have four petals. The ginger and onion families have flowers with six petals. I’m sure they are no less beautiful than five or eight petaled flowers. So it is surprising to find web sites on popular mathematics which make the unprovable claim that most flowers have a Fibonacci’s number of petals. This is a hollow claim because we don’t know what “most” means: is it 90 out of hundred or 51 out of a hundred. Should we count the number of flowers, or the number of species of plants? “Most” is a weasel word. Even so there are some impressive attempts to debunk this claim.

The most impressive amongst the scant evidence for Fibonacci’s flowers is the sunflower, which has 21 petals. There is a missing number, as you may have noticed: the even more mystical 13. Looking through the collection of flowers which I photographed, I can offer the example of a thirteen petaled gazania in the photo below.

I don’t have the legendary patience of a botanist, so I have never managed to count petals up to the next number in Fibonnaci’s sequence, which would be 34. But it seems that I don’t need to play along with this myth. All the flowers with more than six petals are compound flowers. Each one of the structures that we think of as petals is a separate flower and the cluster of rods at the center are also other flowers. The central ones are called ray flowers and the ones we naively think of as petals are called disk flowers. You can easily look at the gazania in the last photo more closely and see that the ray flowers have five petals each. The cosmo also seems to have five petaled ray flowers. The disk flowers are also five petaled, but you have to look at the underside of the flower to see how they have fused together.

Contrary to mystics, botanists find that the number of petals is three, four, five or six. Some counts say that 70% of all flowering plants have five petals. I don’t know how precise this census is. Such percentages depend again on what you count: flowers, species or genus. But one thing is certain. Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio may be nice stories, which have little to do with the budding of a flower.

Now, there might be an escape route for the Fibonacci fans; so let me quickly block that exit. Could it be that the number of disk flowers in a compound flower is a Fibonacci number? After all that is the number of “petals” most of us count. It seems that this story also fails. In the photo above I show you a spectacular water lily. If you count the “petals”, you will find a number between 21 and 34. Since these are successive Fibonacci numbers, so the actual count is definitely not a Fibonacci number.