Plants of Singalila

Since we walked through fog for many hours, I couldn’t admire the scenery. I went back to my favourite eye-exercise, looking at plants and flowers. So this is not an exhaustive survey of the flora of Singalila ridge, not a treatise on the key plants in the ecology, but just the things that caught my eye. If I wanted to put a gloss on it, I might call it listing plants along a transect. Our path descended from Tonglu, a little above 3000 meters, to Chitre, a little below 2500 meters. The flora changed considerably over this descent.

At the upper end of our walk, just below Tonglu, we saw many thistles. It was past their autumn period of seed dispersal, but a few stray silk chutes still clung on to the spiny seed pods. I like to take photos of thistles in summer, during their flowering, and autumn, during seed dispersal. This was the first time I’d seen so many in winter, and I realized this is another good season for photographing thistles. I’m not expert enough to recognize the species from its seed pod in winter. Somewhat lower down I thought I noticed the leaves of an Indian globe thistle.

Less common, but still abundant were the rhododendrons. Kunzum told us that the slopes are red in spring with their flowers, so these must be Rhododendrum arboreum. At the highest part of our walk they grew in single stunted bushes. Lower down they were little forests of short trees. They had begun budding already. I’ve seen seed pods of Rhodos before, so I was very puzzled by these completely different structures on the tree. Rhodos do not let their seeds fly away in the breeze, so what were these plants? I think they are another plant growing in the wind shadow provided by the Rhodo, but I don’t know what they are.

After Meghma we began to see oaks, the Quercus leucotrichophora or Himalayan white oak. They are called banj in the western Himalayas. Kunzum didn’t have a name for it. Growing on them was something that looked like a species of Tillandsia, perhaps even Spanish moss. I was a little hesitant to give it that ID, but then I remembered that this ecosystem was disturbed heavily in colonial times. Pineapple, the most well-known member of the family Bromelaceae, is now grown extensively across Asia, and perhaps no one remembers that it is an exotic. So it is possible that Tillandsia, another member of the family also travelled far.

As we descended the number of species of larger plants definitely increased, and I began to see more and more things that I did not recognize. This plant is certainly in the large family Asteraceae, which bear complex flowers. To recall what is a complex flower, think of a sunflower. Each “petal” is actually a flower all by itself, and its center consists of individual small flowers. They’ve all fused together into what we usually think of as a single flower. This family is so large that I have trouble identifying them all. Any help is always welcome.

Then there were these interesting plants. The first had leaves like a holly. Kunzum told us of a person who’d identified it via Google Lens as Indiana Holly. I don’t think that is a valid identification. All these machine learning algorithms are coverconfident and jump to conclusions. They have trouble telling people that they are not sure what something is. The false holly was entwined with a bush that Kunzum knew of. He scraped the bark with his thumbnail and showed the bright yellow colour of the stem inside. He told us that it was the plant that is used locally to make the yellow colour for religious paintings. The flowers belong to the same plant.

Then, just before we made the final descent to Chitre, we saw two lovely plants. The flowers were growing on a banj tree, but they are clearly not oak flowers. They were a wild orchid. I don’t know the species, but it should be easy to identify since there aren’t many that flower in winter. Next to it is the final puzzle plant that I saw. I hadn’t seen a pine with such long needles in the Himalayas before, but Kunzum was quite certain that many grew around Darjeeling. Later I saw a type specimen in the Lloyd Botanical Garden. It is an exotic, Pinus patula, commonly called the Patula pine or the Mexican weeping pine. With so many exotics, this ecosystem will never go back to what it was before the 19th century botanists came here.

Lemon Clematis

Bunches of bell-like flowers hung just a little above my head on a tangled bank of leaves and stems near the village of Dotiyal (about 1900 m) in Kumaon. The leaves looked like those of the lemon tree that grew in my mother’s garden. I tried to follow the stem back to get an idea of the shape of the plant, but I lost it in the thicket. Later, from my photos I figured that it was Lemon Clematis (Clematis buchananiana, घन्टे फूल).

I hadn’t paid much attention to identifying the family Ranunculaceae, the buttercups, to which it belonged. The family includes the many anemones which you see in the Himalayas. Their flowers have numerous stamens and pistils which are all separate from each other. Everything else is variable. The number of petals in the flower may be five or less (this had four) or numerous. The leaves may be simple (this was) or many-lobed and usually alternate along the stem (this had opposed leaves, as you can see in one of the photos above). The flowers may be radially symmetric (as here) or irregular. I’m unlikely to come across them away from the Himalayas, because they like colder climates than most of India offers.

I was pretty sure that the plant was not a tree, nor a herb. Was it a bush or a vine? The growth was too thick to figure this out. But later I found that it is a vine. Kumaonis use it for everything from curing toothache, to peptic ulcers and cuts. If I were to take up watching wild plants seriously I have to spend more time looking at each. Perhaps I’ll also need to carry a magnifying glass in my pocket.

Pink Knotweed

Identification is always dicey. I was on a slope photographing a ground orchid when The Accountant called out from below. “What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at a flowering mat of knotweed around the base of a boulder near him. The flowers were red, so the name red Knotweed popped into my mind. But I’d just looked at the GPS on my camera to check that I was at a height of about 1900 m. And the red-stemmed knotweed (Persicaria sinuata) usually grows above 2500 m. There could be microclimates which allow species to extend their ranges, of course. Also, it flowers immediately after the monsoon. It was later in the year now. But of course, the monsoon had been longer. Two coincidences together? I said “I don’t know”.

Reddish green leaves on alternating sides of a stem which is swollen at nodes!

I came down to take a closer look. The stems were red all right, but the leaves were not lobed. So it definitely was not P. sinuata. I didn’t know this one. That it grew in a low mat was clearly a clue. The elliptical leaves, slightly pointed, half red and half green eventually gave me the clue to its identity. It was Persicaria capitata, pink knotweed. Pink. I could have kicked myself. If my mind had fallen into the pink groove instead of red I could have shouted out “Pink knotweed”. L’esprit de l’escalier.

Trying to identify knotweeds (family Polygonaceae) leaves me with a slight nausea. It’s not just that there are about 50 genuses containing over 1200 known species, but that there are so many of them across the Himalayas (some have even invaded the western ghats). The swollen nodes, the clusters of small flowers, the leaves alternating around the stem, all make it easy to tell the family. But I know that it will take hours to go beyond that. Fortunately pink knotweed are common across the inhabited heights of the Himalayas, so now I can pretend to be an expert.

A flower and a bird

Coneflowers, genus Strobilanthes, are common across India. The most well known among them are the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), which mass flowers once in seven years in the Sahyadris, and the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which mass flowers once in twelve years in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But most species of coneflowers are annuals. I hadn’t expected to find one flowering in October throughout the lower heights of Kumaon. I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are many species found across the Himalayas. This one seems to be sticky ruella (Strobilanthes glutinosus).

From the leaves, I think this specimen, the first coneflower I saw on this trip, must be the same. The slightly different shape of the flower is an earlier stage in its opening. It was standing in the shade by the shore on the paired lakes called Ram and Sita Tal in Sattal. That was at an altitude of about 1300 m. After that I saw it again and again, up to a height of about 1900 m around Dotiyal and Maanila in Kumaon. Like many of the plants in this genus, it seems to have uses in folk medicine. In Pakistan there has been a first go at screening it for useful phytochemicals.

It was interesting to find a lone male Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) strut about a meadow full of these flowers, munching on the leaves and flowers now and then. These birds are known to feed on seeds and nuts, but this behaviour was not something I’d read of before. Leaves and flowers are not likely to be a major source of energy. I wonder whether the bird eats these coneflowers for trace nutrients.


Unknown territory to me, the Sivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, still retain much of their botanical diversity. About 700 meters above sea level, near the village of Kotabagh, I watched two green magpies dart from a tree, and glide over the valley below. The glorious sight of their green bodies and outspread maroon wings catching the light lifted my spirits as I continued photographing unknown and unidentifiable flowers. The tiny white flowers that you see above were my first find after that. The buds look like an Alternanthera (joyweed) but the flowers are completely different. Anyone know this?

How hard could identifying this be? Bright red and four petalled. There can’t be too many families with four petalled flowers, I imagined. Not so. They pop up among gentians (Gentianaceae), willow herbs (Onagraceae), evening primroses (Rublaceae), even among Melastomes (Melastomataceae). The number of petals turns out to be as uninformative about the identity of a plant as its colour. So I still don’t know what this one should be called.

Then there was this small flowering tree, with spectacular clusters of flowers. Himalayan botany was explored very thoroughly in the 19th century. So it should not have been hard to identify them. Unfortunately, the older books are now out of print, so you need access to specialist libraries to consult them. New books have not been written, and web sites specializing in these plants are inadequate. Another fine mess we have gotten into.

So I was happy to find a portion of a cliff brightened by the small flowers of the common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum). This was familiar to me from the Sahyadris. In fact, I’d seen it just the previous week in a walk around Mahabaleshwar. When the world seems unfamiliar, it is nice to see someone you recognize, even if it is not exactly a friend. All these flowers were growing within ten paces of each other, along with invasive Lantana and morning glories.

Fritter my wig

He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry,
      Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!”
To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!”
      But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”

Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark

As we climbed towards Khardung La, the pass at an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level, we passed from the cold desert of Ladakh to a glacier fed oasis. Leh was two kilometers below the pass, and there the ground was barren except in narrow bands on the banks of the Indus river. I suffered from a lack of oxygen there, but it wasn’t air pressure or oxygen which made this a desert. As always, this cold desert was created by a lack of moisture. You feel it on your skin too: a need for constant moisturization. But when you climb towards the 4.5 Km mark in summer, little mountain streams create a swathe of greenery, an altitudinal oasis. In that green, The Family was the first to spot these bushes full of flower.

Most of them grew on protected slopes, and I could see that they were between one and two meters in height. I was considering getting out to photograph one at close range when we came to one right next to the road. This was a giant, about 4 meters tall. And full of flowers. Not anemones. Roses, maybe.

Wild rose flowers look different from our familiar Damask roses, which are the results of intricate cross breeding. My first thought was the musk rose (Rosa moschata). But I understand that always bears white flowers, and its leaves are more pointed than these. In fact, the leaf shape rules out the other roses I’ve seen in books. The buds and serrated leaves do resemble those roses. But strangely, after nearly two months, I have no real ID. My best bet is to put this out there, and hope that one of you will be better at identifying it than I have been.

A wild garden

Ladakh is surprisingly full of wildflowers. Most tourists come back from this high desert talking of “lunar landscapes” because they don’t look hard enough. We had a different experience because we were looking for birds. And when you think of birds you think of berries and bugs which they feed on, and, inevitably, of plants and flowers. We found plenty in the desert, enough to make me regret not planning to take macros. But our biggest surprise was in a hotel we stayed in. It prided itself as a low-impact structure and organization, and one manifestation of this philosophy was its garden. They grew only local wildflowers in their garden, and I failed to identify most. The gardener was always elsewhere, so I will have to sit with a book and teach myself how to identify them.

From the flower, I first thought that the featured photo shows a thistle, but the leaves tell you that it isn’t one. I could place only two of the flowers in a sub-family. One was the rose buds. Could they be the Himalayan big-hip rose? Probably not, going by the colour of the leaves. The other was the aster. That’s the yellow flower with the spiky petals. I’ve probably seen one of the others before, but I have no clear idea what they are. In all of these, I get to a conclusion by looking at the flower, and then the leaf does not fit.

But every garden draws the true wilderness. We call them weed, but we should really be paying them more attention. When I looked down at the lawn, it was full of life. There’s no lack of sunlight at these heights, and the garden provides the water that these hardy interlopers need. The gardeners had cleverly decided not to remove these wild flowers. They were more familiar to me. After all, the hardiest plants are what you see most often. I could see milkwort budding, and daisies and asters in bloom. This was a wonderful place to relax in.

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.