Smithia sensitiva (Kawala in Marathi, Adabimi in Hindi) is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) with leaves that fold up when touched. This small plant is one of those which most Indians would have seen, but are unable to name. So it came as a surprise to read that it was the centerpiece of a bitter dispute early in the 19th century between two of England’s most famous botanists of that time, James Smith (b 1759, d 1828) and Richard Anthony Salisbury (b 1761, d 1829). The name was given by Salisbury and was widely interpreted as an aspersion on Smith’s character. This was a real life Jonanathan Strange and Mr. Norrell rivalry set in the Napoleonic era, just as in the novel by Susanna Clarke.

There are reports of Kawala being widespread in the open grassy areas of 19th century Bombay, and it can still be easily seen in the Sahyadris. I took these two photos last September on the verge of a road outside a winery near Nasik. Apparently the plants are often infested with blister beetles which feed on the flowers. I didn’t see any, but I should be more careful in future.