Chasing prickly poppy

Driving back after our last safari, I stopped the car where a patch of kateli (Argemone mexicana) was in flower. I use the common Hindi name for it, although it is not an Indian plant. A less popular name, vilayati datura, is actually more explanatory. It says that the plant is exotic, and also indicates that it is poisonous in some way. Livestock avoid it, perhaps largely because of the thorns. But it can kill if they eat enough of it.

The Encyclopedia of Food Safety sent shivers down my spine with the warning that its oil contains “the toxic quaternary benzophenanthridine alkaloids sanguinarine (approximately 90%) and dehydrosanguinarine (approximately 5%) with lesser quantities of cheletrythrine and coptisine, and small quantities of berberine and protopine, which are isoquinoline alkaloids.” I didn’t understand a word of this, but it sounded menacing. Before cooking oil became available in tamper-proof packaging, there were some incidents of cooking oils adulterated with kateli oil. As you might expect, this resulted in deaths. All plants in the poppy family (Papaveraceae), to which it belongs, harbour toxins.

I’ve grown up seeing this plant in the kinds of degraded land which a city kid finds fascinating: the sides of roads, abandoned half-built houses, even in the cracked concrete of parking lots. Mumbai doesn’t have much; perhaps it is too wet. But across most of the dry Indian planes, even as high up as the lower valleys in Bhutan, the prickly green leaves spread a carpet over wasteland, a carpet which sprouts showy yellow flowers through autumn and winter. Now, with the right tool I could look closely at the flower. Some would hesitate to say it is beautiful, since it has six petals, and six is not a Fibonacci number. But I’m not one of them.

Knowing that it was exotic sent me on an interesting chase. It seems to be found across the tropics; it can be found across south and south-east Asia. I followed its recent progress across Africa: from Kenya to Angola across the continent and up and down the coast. It has been spreading across southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin recently. The genus Argemone contains 24 species, not all of which are equally invasive. The center of diversity seems to be in south-western US, but it is spread across central and south America, including the Andean region. A single species has been found in Hawaii. A study made in the Ngorongo bio-reserve found that seeds traveled hidden in construction material, and then were dispersed in the tyres of vehicles. Perhaps that’s how the invasion of the prickly poppy started.

Desert flowers

Aak (Calotropis procera), named rubber bush, is the typical dry area plant. You won’t find it deeper in the Thar desert, but the bushes were visible around rocks everywhere we went. In the Rann of Kutch they seem to be usually less than two meters high. Usually they attract ants, so I keep a watch on the small purple five-petalled flowers to see what kinds of ants I can spot. In Kutch, as the featured photo shows, I didn’t manage to get the flowers with any ants at all.

The succulent called Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) is the commonest plant in this region. I spotted lots of birds sitting on a projecting stem of the bushes. You can see an Indian Robin in the photo on the left above. They can grow well above a man’s height, 3 meters often, taller sometimes. It flowers in late winter. If you want to see what the local insects are, keep a watch on its flowers at that time. They attract many of local insects wherever they grow.

Another succulent that is widely found in the desert is the Aak Thor (Cynanchum acidum). It has attractive tiny six-petalled white flowers (6 is not a Fibonacci number) which were budding from the ends of the stem; you can see them most of the year except in the winter months. It seems to be a climber. I saw stems trailing on the ground when there’s nothing else growing nearby.

The Rann of Kutch is full of many different kinds of grass or millets growing wild. I find myself completely unable to identify grasses. I’ll have to spend time learning more about this group. Many of them were in bloom at this time, immediately after the monsoon.

The low bushes of Kana (Commelina benghalensis) were very visible even from speeding cars, because of the attractive three-petalled blue flowers. There was a variant in purple which was also quite widespread. The flowers are large, petals can be half a centimeter in size. It seemed that a plant can either have blue or purple flowers, but they can grow quite close to each other. That makes me suspect that the colour is determined by genetics rather than soil.

Thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum), Kateli in Hindi, is again a plant that is common in most dry areas in India. I’ve seen it deep inside the Thar Desert as well. Here you see the five-petalled flower poking out from under a different bush. Kateli is a spreading herb, and this particular plant was spread along the ground below this other bush. You can see it flowering around the year, except in the monsoon months.

Perhaps the commonest tree that I saw was the Khair (Senegalia catechu). It happened to be in flower. It is a typical mimosa, with the feathery leaves (called pinnate by botanists), flowers with wire-like petals, and thin gnarly trunks. They grew up to a man’s height, and spread out thorny branches which were exactly at the wrong height for me. if you add the Kair (Capparis decidua, bare caper), which I’ve written about earlier, I think I’ve listed the most widespread plants which I noticed in this area.