Probable, possible

We’d been driving through the desert highway which ran parallel to, and high above, the course of the Indus. The undulating landscape around the highway was carved out of a soft but rocky soil. I found later that the river has been moving soil around the plateau for 10-20 million years, and this aspic made of soil and rock is called the Indus molasse basin. The phrase “lunar landscape” was invented by an unknown hack as an utterly wrong description for this riverine landscape. Millions of tourists now repeat it unthinkingly, because the land does not look green and fertile. But the word for a desert is desert.

Like in any desert there are plants which grow here. There are insect communities which they sustain. There are lizards and spiders which prey on the insects. And there are, very visibly, birds which prey on the predators. During the drive my eye adapted quickly to spotting clumps of grass or plants huddled low to avoid the wind. The altitude means that the air is thin, and the UV levels are high. The resulting glare plays games with your sight, and distinguishing green from the khaki landscape may be hard, unless you have grown up in the hot dusty plains of northern India.

As a result I managed to spot these flowers as we sped by. Nassir Khan, our guide and driver for the day, stepped on the brakes immediately, and I had only a short walk up a slope to where the plant was growing out of a clod of earth. This was a globe thistle for sure. We were at a height of above 3000 m, and considering that we were in Ladakh, this was almost certainly the Himalayan blue globe thistle (Echinops cornigerus). The appearance of the bracts, the flowers, the stems, and the leaves are all consistent with this identification.

But the literature is rife with confusion between E. cornigerus and the snow-white globe thistle (Echinops niveus), perhaps half of it due to amateurs like me. Typically the confusion occurs at lower altitudes, where E. niveus (or even the low-altitude, Indian globe thistle, Echinops echinatus) is mistaken for its high altitude cousin. It is often said that E. niveus is found to a height of 1700 meters in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Nepal. But that altitudinal ceiling was only reported in the early 1980s from sites in western Nepal. With warming weathers, and ever increasing traffic, it is not impossible that it has spread its range along this road, the Srinagar-Leh highway. Instead of adding to the confusion, let me keep the issue open until clinching evidence emerges, with the proviso that this is more likely to be Echinops cornigerus.

Catmint in the sky

Scree covered slopes slid by outside the windows of the car as we came down from Khardung La. In the last few days I’d become better at spotting vegetation in this seemingly bare landscape. When I saw a tiny clump growing on a rock, I stopped the car and walked back to look at it more closely. The plant was new to me. In this thin air, at an altitude of about 5 Kms above sea level, I did not want to scramble up slope to smell the flowers and leaves. Instead I took photos.

A few days ago I would have been sceptical of tales of vegetation at these altitudes. But I’d been seeing too many birds at this height to dismiss the idea out of hand. There were corvids here, and they feed on small animals, lizards and rats, or large insects. Insects would need vegetation of some kind. Perhaps the smallest could live on lichens and moss, but anything which could feed a crow-sized bird would probably need plants. Still, it was strange to see a clump of vegetation on a single exposed rock.

A closer look revealed a shallow covering of soil in a little depression on the exposed face of the rock. The temperature was under 10 Celcius, perhaps around 7 Celcius, and the soil looked utterly dry and crumbly. I later found that the soil at this height, and in this season, holds less than 5% of its weight in moisture. This was a plant of a cold desert, adapted to extremely high ultraviolet light and extreme daily temperature fluctuations. I wondered whether its roots held on to cracks in the rock. With the wind here, it must be holding on to more than the thin soil. The roots apparently spread quickly to extend the area covered by the clump. But how did it get here? Did a seed drop here by chance, or did a bit of a twig with root blow into this island of soil? And was it wind that blew it here, or was it carried by a bird?

I’m not good with temperate or cold climate plants. It took me a while to figure that this could be a catmint. Perhaps if I’d smelled the leaves and flowers I might have come to mint (family Lamiaceae) earlier. From catmint it was a short search to find that this is Nepeta longibracteata, the long-bracted catmint found in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Himalayan and trans-Himalayan India and Pakistan, and Xinjiang in China. The flowers grow from purple bracts, and have the trumpet shape and spots which seem to be characteristic of catmints. The perennial plant is apparently common across this region, although I saw it only this once. I found later that it yields an aromatic oil which is used locally. I’m sure I’ll not forget this plant if I come across it later: the leaves, bracts, and flowers are all very recognizable.

High wilds

What we know is a tiny fraction of what is there. To me this is cause for joy, because it means I’ll never be bored. There’ll always be new things to find out. And it is cause for a little humbleness. I am reminded of it every time I walk out of the house, and look at things which are not entirely made by humans. Even on walks around the garden outdoor, there are grasses which I can’t identify. I know nothing about how they fit into the garden’s ecology. And when I go travelling, I seem to walk into the wilderness of things well beyond my ken.

Twenty paces from each other I found these four wildflowers when I was out hunting the Koklass pheasant. They are different, as you can see from the way they are clustered, and from the shapes of individual flowers. They are also different sizes and colours, but then shade is a lesser determinant of identity than shape. And the grasses around them, including the flower head in the featured photo, were also equally varied. I have not been able to identify them in the last month and a half, so any help you give is welcome. I saw them at a height of about 2400 meters outside the town of Munsiyari.

Note added: With the help of the partial ID provided by Susan Rushton, I found that the first and last photos in the slideshow are the frilly Bergenia (Bergenia ciliata). The white flowers are possibly, but not quite definitely, those of the Chinese Bergenia (Bergenia pacumbis). The remaining photo could be of the Purple Bergenia (Bergenia purpurascens). I made the elementary mistake of not taking photos of the rest of the plants.

Two yellow flowers

Darkot village (altitude 2000 m?) near Munsiyari is known for the angora caps and shawls which the local women weave. But any place in the Himalayas is good for a look at its flora and fauna. I stood on the steep path which leads down to the village from the highway and looked at the sides covered with a large variety of plants. A raven and a monkey had just finished their mid-morning snack, and peace had descended on the village. I went back to examining wild plants.

These yellow flowers are a little confusing, but after some thought I figured they must be yellow flax (Reinwardtia indica). They are found at an altitude of 500 to 2300 meters. It has a large overlap with the range of the Himalayan flax (Reinwardtia cicanoba) which is supposed to inhabit a range up to 2000 meters, but can straggle up a little further, depending on local conditions. The yellow flax is smaller, and the flower tube formed by the five petals fusing at the base is shorter. The fine reddish lines near the throat of the tube, the honey guides, are characteristic of the yellow flax. But the telling detail was the month I saw the flowers; April is usually too late for flowers of the Himalayan flax.

I’m still a novice at identifying Himalayan wildflowers. Of the five or so species that I can see in this patch, I could figure out only the yellow flax, after looking at its flowers for a while. The striped fruit next to it should be easy to identify for an expert, but right now I’m flummoxed by it: is the fruit of the flax, or something else altogether? Similarly for the featured plant. The trifoliate leaves make me think it is clover, and the yellow flower could belong to a clover too, but which? I have no idea. This looks like a project that can keep me busy on holidays the rest of my life.

A tiny garden

Outside Kausani I found a shop selling rhododendron juice and a variety of beans. On my travels I like to collect beans to use in salads. I’d finished my shopping and sat in the sun outside the shop, waiting for The Family to tear herself away from her shopping across the road. I was enjoying sitting on this hillside full of deodars and pines when I realized that a patch of ground I’d been looking at was a garden.

It was all local wildflowers, which is why I had taken it to be untended, but soon a design was visible. The different flowers were segregated. The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale, featured photo) were placed at the edge of a rise, the best place to catch a breeze and launch the seeds into the air. The carpet of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata) was restricted to its own patch. I love these flowers which grow at altitudes of about 500 to 3500 meters, unlike the dandelions, which seem to thrive in any weather. The mat of knotweed creates its own small ecology which allows other flowers and grasses to grow. I haven’t progressed to the point where I can identify the tiny anemones peeping out from under the knotweed.

A sunny patch held ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) common European flowers which have naturalized to these middle heights. The flower-hunting botanists of the 19th century are well known for trafficking flowers out of the Himalayas, but there were imports as well. I could not identify the stand of racemes that lay under the daisies. A clump of gazanias (Gazania rigens) grew right next to the door of the shop, another import which has naturalized. The urge to tame nature into gardens seems to spring as easily in the human heart as the flowers which we call weeds.

Raven and Monkey have a tiff

In spite of the heavy smoke in the air, I stood outside and photographed nothing in particular. I was glad that I had an N95 mask on, it was good at filtering the smoke. I’m not good at identifying flowers and plants, so I take photos at the least opportunity, hoping that when I get back home I’ll be able to figure out what they are. On one side of the path that The Family had taken I saw this very common weed with lovely flowers, the Himalayan Daisy fleabane (Erigeron emodi) as I found later. I find it hard to tell the fleabanes apart, so I take photos of several features: the stems, the leaves, and the flowers. As I was busy doing this I heard a raven call.

It takes me a while to figure out whether I’m seeing a raven, but its call is absolutely distinct from those of other corvids of India. This Northern Raven (Corvus corax) was calling insistently. When I looked up, I saw it flapping about a ficus tree with fruits. There were movements behind a branch; a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta). The bird circled the monkey, calling furiously for a while, and then flew off. I’d not been able to take a photo, so I followed it with my camera as it sat on a distant pine, still calling. In minutes it was back on a different branch of the ficus, calling again. The monkey barked back at it, and they continued this tiff as they kept eating the fruits. Clearly a territorial disagreement. I hadn’t seen these two species in a conflict before. I was happy to be out even on such a horrible day.

Orchid trees

Our trip had been planned badly, so we spent really long hours on the road. There was little time for long walks, and in any case the pervasive smoke from forest fires made it impossible most of the time. As a result, the opportunity for bird watching was limited, and I decided to concentrate on something I’ve long put on the backburner: identifying trees. On the day-long drive from Almora to Munsiyari, I spotted a tree full of white flowers by the road, and stopped. A closer look told me that this was Bauhinia variegata.

The characteristic shape of the leaves of the genus Bauhinia has been called “camels’ hoofprints” by Pradip Krishen in his field guide Trees of Delhi. Less poetically, when you flatten out a leaf, it seems to have two lobes. The five-petalled flower has colours which can range from purple to white, hence the specific name variegata. You can find this tree across India up to an altitude of about 1500 m. As a result it has many names in different Indian languages. I think I’ll stick to the Kumaoni name, Kachnar for now, instead of the fancy English constructs like mountain ebony or orchid tree. After all, Corbett just calls it Bauhinia. In Kumaon I saw the flowers used in food, and read later that the flower as well as leaves are eaten in various parts of India. Apparently its uses in medicine have been documented for a long time. The full geographical range includes Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and southern China. It would be interesting to check whether it is used for cooking in Cantonese food, or, more accurately, in the kitchens of Guangdong.

In most of the flowers that I saw, three of the five petals stand close to each other, sometimes overlapping, and two are quite separate. As a result, from many angles a photo shows all five petals, and all five long stamens. One petal is always multicoloured, making it a very interesting subject for photography. As I read more about this genus, I saw that it contains species across the world’s tropics. Is this then a very ancient genus? Apparently not. Fossil and molecular evidence agree in placing its origins in Eastern Asia only around 60 million years ago, just about the time that India banged into Asia. So its dispersal across the world is not due to continental movement. Amazing that seeds and seedpods can travel such long distances!

Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.

Rhododendron heights

This is meant to be extremely literal: red rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum) in its native Himalayas grows at altitudes between 1500 and 2500 meters. This means that almost all of Kumaon is at the right altitude for this lovely blood red flower. Micro-climates can cause upward or downward fluctuations in this band. Human effort also brings it down to gardens at somewhat lower altitudes in India, but not to the plains. Climate change can also cause upward migration of the tree, but as as tourist you would not be able to disentangle the effect of micro-climate and global warming.

After several years, we’d come back to a hotel outside Almora which has a large area of jungle around it. We woke late, did a little birdwatching right from the balcony of our room. When we walked down for breakfast I was surprised to find no flowers on the rhododendron. Just a month before we’d been to a similar height and the rhodos had not started flowering. Early April is smack in the middle of the season. “Monkeys,” explained the person we asked. “They come and eat the flowers.” I found one flower which they had missed. That’s the one you see in the featured photo.

Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.