Walking on Elephant’s Head

A day in Mahabaleshwar can be fun. My last visit to this high plateau in the Sahyadris was in the December of the plague year, 2020. There is a big difference between winter, shishir ritu, and this time. Sharad ritu, this hot season immediately after the end of the monsoon, is what the British called an Indian summer. In this time the ground is still wet, and the western ghats are in full bloom. We spent the day walking on the 1800 meter high periphery of the plateau.

Sonki (Senecio bombayensis) is the most common flower of October

Mahabaleshwar is not a protected area, but has large expanses of forest. Between the forest and the edge of the cliffs are meadows which are carpeted in yellow flower of sonki. I spotted a few albinos on a bush, and paused to take a photo. In another season I would have had to examine the underside of the leaves of this shrub, white and hairy, to recognize it. In sharad there is no need for that.

Bushes of common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum) are also in flower

The beautiful flowers of the common hill borage are not as common, but the chest-high bushes cannot be missed. The flowers are small and white, with a beautiful cornflower-blue center. Sonki and this borage are the commonest flowers of sharad in these isolated plateaus, inselbergs, which the years have carved out of the lava deposited in the Deccan shield more than 60 million years ago. I have photos of them from every year in the last twenty.

Santapau (Asystasia dalzelliana) grows in shade under trees

Although they are common, the tiny foxgloves, santapau, are not as easily visible. You have to peer below other bushes to get a view of these small flowers. But once you see one you’ll begin to notice them everywhere. I like foxgloves, so plain on the outside, but so intricately patterned inside.

The heroes of this season in India are really the grasses. I find them flowering everywhere. On this plateau they are visible, but not the dominant plant group. The thin laterite soil of these plateaus in the Sahyadris is often too metallic for grasses. Still, there are places where grasses have taken root.

The invasive Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis) has found a small niche

Tall bushes of the invasive Chinese knotweed are visible at the sides of paths. They seem to have reached an equilibrium in these places. They cannot invade the thin soil of the meadows, nor to they grow in the inner dense jungle. As long as the forest is not cut down to make hotels, the knotweed are under control.

Star violets (Neanotis lancifolia) straggle along the ground

I must have seen the star violets many times before, but until I started taking photos of tiny flowers, I hadn’t noticed their four-petalled perfection. I’ll have to find out why they grow in two colours. What I like about them is that they are the perfect rejoinder to pseudo-mathematicians who claim that the number of petals on a flowers is a Fibonnaci number. This sequence of numbers, {1,1,2,3,5,8,…}, is obtained by adding the previous two to get the next. Four is not a Fibonnaci number, so these flowers should not exist according to the false mathematicians of aesthetics.

Karambal (Justicia procumbens) is still flowering in this ultra-wet year

A flower which shouldn’t exist in this season is the Karambal. This year has been so wet (it is still raining now in the middle of October) that the plants are totally confused. I saw many of these flowers still taking advantage of the weather by continuing to bloom. My favourite flowers change with the seasons, but I’m glad this one is still around this year.

All these are among the wild flowers that I saw on a four kilometer walk along a ridge called Elephant’s Head. It juts out from one side of the plateau. Before the ridge narrows to a few meters, there is a dense canopy of trees. Inside this small limb of the forest I saw a few trees bearing these lovely clusters of white flowers. I think the trees belong to the cherry family, but I’m not sure.


Obligate postings? Is that what you call it? I seem to have taken photos of Justicia procumbens (करंबल Karambal in Marathi) flowers and plants almost every year during the monsoon, and written a post about it. That is just a reminder of how common it is in the Sahyadris. I have photos of the flowers from July to early October. That means if you want to see it go for a walk anywhere in the Sahyadris during the monsoon months. If you see it earlier or later please drop me a line. I’m told you can see it across India: from Manipur to Uttarkhand, Gujarat, and even in Tamil Nadu. I have seen it reported from across Asia, east of India. So it seems pretty widespread. The genus probably has about a thousand members and is reported from across the world. It belongs to the family Acanthaceae (Acanthus family) and like many plants in this family, has found some medical use.

The herbs grow to about 20 cms from the ground, and have hairy stems that lie on the ground without taking root. These procumbent stems give the plant its name. The leaves are 1.5 to 5 cms long, and can be elliptic, as in these photos, or ovals, with serrated edges, and are slightly hairy. The flower-bearing stems are usually upright, and have an inflorescence in a spike at the end. The 5 to 7 mm pink and white flowers are two-lipped. The lower lip has three lobes and a pattern at the center, and the upper lip has one lobe with an indentation along the middle. I haven’t seen the fruits, but I would like to take a walk after the monsoon to see the capsules with their seeds. I’ve mostly seen the plant in open fields, shallow ditches, and along roadsides, but that may just be because I looked there. I haven’t managed to see a pollinator, either in the field or while looking through my photos. They have to be small, and I wonder whether they are so small that my cameras just haven’t resolved them.

Given how common it is, I’m surprised that I haven’t found a single other blog with a post about this flower. It seem that this could be a great subject for citizen science. Where is it found in India and Asia? If you have seen it, please mention the place in a comment (great if you can remember the month when you saw the flower). There are many different common names for this plant in use across India. I don’t know what it is called outside of India. What is it called in your local language? Does it grow in Australia or East Africa? Can it be found further west? Drop me a line, or better still, blog about it and leave a link on this post.


When I first saw Karambal many years ago in Lonavla, I thought the petals had fallen off it. It was only when I spotted the third or fourth plant that I understood what the matter was. Flowers do not burst open all together on the spike. One flowers and withers before the next one opens. Karambal (Justicia procumbens, aka water willow) is common in the Sahyadris. It seems to flower between late July and perhaps September. I was surprised to find that its native range extends all the way east to China and Japan and southwards through Java to Australia. I’d found some years ago that is used in folk medicine in India. But it seems to be used in Chinese folk medicine too. Not surprisingly, a large part of the recent literature on its anti-cancer and anti-HIV action comes from China.

When I saw the flowers in my walks around the Vaitarna lake, I was probably at its highest recorded reach. Late in the monsoon, when the rains have abated, I like to hang around these flowers. They are magnets for several kinds of showy butterflies. Now, quite by chance I saw a different pollinator: a fly. Whenever I see a flower with interesting colour patterns on one of the petals, I’m virtually certain that it is a landing pad for pollinators. This sighting certainly indicates that could be true. I’m pretty certain that under black light the petal will have more complex patterns. Both flies and butterflies can see in UV. I should try that out.

The literature on the origins of this species is hard to trace. The genus Justicia contains a little less than a thousand species, all tropical. They differ clearly in shape and colour. Even the microscopic morphology of pollen is very diverse. It seems that the genus may fragment under the gaze of modern techniques. It is a little too early to answer the question that I was interested in. But I will go out on a limb here and speculate. From the distribution of the plant, it is quite likely that it originated in the Sundaland, and entered India some time in the last 50 million years. I’ll continue watching the literature on the Acanthus family, to which Karambal belongs.

A butterfly and a flower

Just because I am not out in the Sahyadri mountains this year doesn’t mean that the usual things you see in late August have disappeared. I’m sure there are several million people now looking at the flower of the kalmashi shrub (also called karambol, binomial Justicia procumbens). For several years, I didn’t realize that the cylinder is an inflorescence and the individual flowers usually bloom at different times. I would think that I came on it late in the season when the petals had fallen off. The genus is widespread in tropical regions of the world, and has possibly the largest number of species in the Acanthaceae family. This particular species has attracted some attention recently because of a chemical isolated from it which could be useful in treating tumours. I like them for a different reason: they attract butterflies.

Equally common at this time is the butterfly called the common crow (Euploea core). I think this photo, taken almost exactly thirteen years ago, could be my first one of this species. It was taken in the same hour as the photo of the kalmashi, in Matheran. I used to see the common crow everywhere in Mumbai before insecticides began to be used widely. Now one hardly sees butterflies in the city.

Wandering around Kaas on a wet day

The invasive Chinese knotweed, Persicaria chinensis

On the verge of the parking lot just below Kaas plateau I came across a chest high growth of Chinese knotwood, whose flowers are featured above. On reading a bit, I learnt that this kind of branched bush is characteristic of knotwoods (family Polygonaceae). Information on this species is hard to find because its Latin double-barrelled name has changed many times; it is known as Polygonum praetermissum, P. auriculata, P. chinense, Persicaria chinensis among others. I could figure out that the round berries are edible. Interestingly, it turns out that of the sixty known species in this family, most are found in the Tibetan plateau, and have diversified only in the last ten million years. The home ground of P. chinensis seems to lie along the arc of the Himalayas, and continuing down to Thailand, Indonesia and Malayasia. It is an invasive species, and is probably poised to take over the Kaas plateau, just as it is taking over parts of the US.

Indian arrowroot, Curcuma caulina, from Kaas plateau

The Indian arrowroot, which I spotted growing cheek-to-jowl with the Topli Karvi, is a much more sedate plant. A member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, its name has recently changed from Hitchenia caulina to Curcuma caulina. Its Marathi name, chavar, seems to be well documented. Its tubers yield an edible starch. It grows mainly in high plateaus of the Western ghats, like Kaas, so it is vulnerable to a loss of habitat. Since it is economically important as well as endangered, there is an international effort on to cultivate it. I saw very few of these flowers, and came to the conclusion that it is not very common even in the Kaas plateau.

Justicia procumbens called karambal in Marathi is also known as water willow

I kept seeing the spikes of the karambal every now and then, with a few small purple-pink petals growing out of the cylinder. I kept postponing a photo, hoping to get one covered with petals. Then when one of my companions told me that this is all I was likely to see, I stopped and took the photo which you can see above. A member of the Acanthaceae family, this ankle-high plant, Justicia procumbens, is given the rather fanciful English common name of water willow. Maybe the name is given because the leaves of the plant, like those of the willow, are ground into a paste used to treat asthma and coughs. This plant is widely reported in the Deccan plateau, found in Kumaon, known in Japan and Korea and used in Chinese medicine, but is vulnerable to habitat loss.

Plants cannot run away from attack; their defensive mechanism is chemistry. Because of this, they have developed a strange armoury of subtle chemicals over their long evolutionary history. That’s the reason why we keep finding in plants new and useful molecular weapons to combat diseases. It will be a pity if the fruits, so to say, of megayears of evolution disappear in the next couple of decades. The fence around the Kaas plateau, and the effort of growing plants in the Kew gardens are last-ditch measures.