Farmlands may look tame to you, but seen in the small it is as wild as the jungles. The farmers around Chhoti Haldwani had planted pumpkin vines to grow over the Lantana that takes over berms. They were in flower. I love that bright yellow, a colour that remains even after you batterfry them. I haven’t eaten the flowers in years, because you don’t get them in markets in Mumbai. I remembered the taste as I took this photo of an ant crawling down in search of nectar. There were also a few tiny moths sitting on the flower. If I’d had the time to stand there, I could have got photos of a very large variety of insects as they came to it in search of food.
You can see more of these intersections of different kinds of life if you walk through the fields. Like this blade of grass, converted into a trap by one of the fiercest carnivores of this tiny world. Some spiders can eat around 10% of their body weight in a day. This web has a couple of spidery snack wrapped up for later. The trap is as indiscriminate as a fishing trawler’s net, and has snagged some dandelion seeds. I wonder whether the spider comes along later and cuts them loose.
Sharad ritu, the season called Indian summer, is on us. Even though it looks like varsha ritu, monsoon, has not gone, you can tell it by the festivals (the long nights of Navaratri, or Durga Puja, or whatever you like to call it, seem to have disappeared before you could properly shake a stick at it). You can tell it by the heat and the humidity between the unseasonal showers. You can tell it by the flowers of grass blooming everywhere.
Was there such a variety of grass flowers before I got my macro act together? I hadn’t noticed it. And all the eight grass flowers you see here (two photos have two flowers) grew in one small patch of wasteland I could take in ten strides. Now I wish I could identify grasses. I know you have to look at clues like like the shape of the leaf, and how they attach to the nodes. But there is no field guide to grasses, so I can’t get further. I hate the situation when you find something of interest and realize that no one else has thought to write a guide for you. Such a slog, to have to write your own guide.
Bamboos are a diverse group (Bambusoidaea) of evergreen flowering plants in the grass family (Pocaea), to paraphrase the start of the relevant article in Wikipedia. I’ve seen sentences like this ever since I became interested in mass flowerings. But somehow, my mind never grappled with the idea. I continued to think of all bamboos as the same. So, when I couldn’t get a nice photo of bamboo flowers in Tadoba Tiger Reserve last November, I continued to take photos in the next months. Even after I got a good photo in Kanha NP in May, it took some time before I began to examine it.
Comparing the photos, it becomes clear that the flowers do not belong to the same species. The silhouette in the center was taken in November in Tadoba, the first photo (and the featured image) was of bamboo flowering in May in Kanha, and the third photo was of bamboo flowering in early April in a garden in Lonavala. I wish I’d bothered to do the due diligence that every botanist chides me about: photograph the plant, not just the flower. I suppose the only way to redeem myself is by learning to recognize bamboos a little better. It would work best if there were a geographically appropriate field guide, but until I find one something like this generic guide will have to do.
It was winter when I first passed through the Sahyadris, many decades ago. I looked out of the window of a train at the amazing landscape: fantastic rock shapes covered with swathes of drying grass. Those expanses of drying yellow grass have drawn me out of the city year after year. From a distance you see hills covered by trees, but when the rock falls away too steeply for a tree to find stability, grasses cascade over the steep slopes, in shades of yellow, gold, or red. I’ve always wondered about the varieties of grass that one can see. Now, in the infrequent outings during the pandemic, I thought I would learn how to tell grasses apart.
Starting is never easy. I looked at books and guides, and wondered at why I never took to botany. I looked at the lovely words: rhizome, culm and spikelet, rachis, glume, awn and floret, bulb and crown, sheath, blade, ligule and auricle. I could hypnotize myself with words like this, fall in love with language. But in school, when I tried to study botany, I would open the books too late, and the words would become a wall I could never be able to climb. I never mastered the words, and never managed to look out at the vista of the subject from the top of that high wall. One learns a technical language to be able to read and understand others, not to create barriers for others. Now that I have all the time in the world, here are some notes to myself. In the analogy that I have drawn, the rest of this post is a set of spikes driven into the wall so that I can climb it quickly later. If you enjoy it, so much the better.
I am not about to become a late-flowering botanist, so I will not look at the structure below the ground: the root and the modified stem called the rhizome. All that I’ll need to know is that if the rhizome is present, then the grass is a perennial. The stem is what I start from, and that should be called a culm by people like us who want to know more about grass. The culm could have a part below the ground, called the rhizome, but I will learn about the stolon, which is the part above ground. Some stolons, like the ones in these photos, stand upright, but others, for example on the lawns outside my apartment, trail on the ground. Stolons have nodes, and leaves or roots can arise from these. These nodes are called crowns when leaves arise from them. If a grazer eats a culm, it is regenerated from a crown. The leaf is another thing to look at. Its sheath wraps around the culm; if the blade bends away from the culm, then you can see a little tongue near the bend. This is a ligule; and it prevents insects from crawling down the blade into the sheath to eat away at the culm.
The most interesting part of a plant is the flower, the floret is what you would call it if you are a grass gazer. Grasses are wind pollinated, and do not require the petals which other plants use to attract pollinators. The florets are held on a part of the stem called the rachis; it may be straight or branched. The flowers are contained in spikelets. At the base of the spikelet, close to the rachis, are two modified leaves called glumes, which hold the florets alternately along their length. The tips of the glumes are extended into the long pointed things called awns, which you can easily see in all the photos here.
I love awns; they are what made me take the photos.
I was looking for birds, and I found grass flowering. I’ve never seen this before. But then I’ve never been to wastelands inside the city immediately after the monsoon. I just wish I’d slipped a macro lens into my backpack.
This is the first time I’ve seen grass with what I would think of as a petal. Except that grass has no petals. The orange bits which protect the sexual organs are scales called lemma and palea. I learnt this today while, unsuccessfully, trying to identify the species of grass that I saw.
We’d started at 5 in the morning and reached Bhandup minutes before sunrise. The early morning stroll was our first attempt at bird watching outside our house in eight months. It felt good to be coming to terms with the epidemic while carrying on with life as usual.
There were at least three different kinds of grass I photographed. The one pictured above is probably Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus). Still have to figure out what the others were.
I found a nicely written introduction to grasses. Some parts of it are specific to the UK, but most of it is quite general, and useful no matter which country you live in.