Dew grass and cat’s ears

In my reading about the flowers of the Kaas plateau, I’d not remembered the flower which is called abhali in Marathi. But when I started walking through the meadows of Kaas, these beautiful flowers attracted attention instantly. I saw them poking up through fields of Topli Karvi. It seemed to me that they grew in patches where the Karvy was not in bloom, but this impression was heavily biased by the memories of places where I stood and took photos. I cross checked it by looking again at the panoramic shots I’d taken of flowering bushes of Topli Karvi, and found that in this case my general impression was probably correct. The abhali blooms where the Topli Karvi does not, but they both like the same kind of soil.

abhaliplantThe Cyanotis tuberosa seems to have multiple names: it is called abhali in Marathi, valukaikizhangu and netha kina in Tamil, and is referred to by the fanciful names of Cat’s ears or Dew grass. The English names were probably given in colonial times, when its habitat was being systematically destroyed by converting the forests into coffee and tea plantations. The habitat destruction continued with the widespread planting of Eucalyptus, and the building of large dams.

Abhali is widespread. Apart from the Kaas plateau, I found it listed as growing in Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and in the eastern Himalayas. So habitat destruction perhaps does not affect this plant as much as many others. It is the only Cyanotis species complex which has tubers; as a result, it can put out leaves and start to bloom as soon as the monsoon starts. In Kaas it blooms from August to October and around Bangalore it has been reported to bloom in May.

The plant is widely listed as human-edible and medicinal, for example, in the encyclopaedic Wildlife and Ground Flora: an interaction scenario of forests of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri by A. B. Chaudhuri and D. D. Sarkar. At the other end of the country, in Tamil Nadu, the root is ground into a paste and eaten to treat diabetes, and also as a vegetable. In Karnataka it is supposed to relieve coughs. All in all, it seems to be a very familiar plant in many parts of India.

I wonder whether it could have spread through India in recent times? If its origin is in the Deccan plateau, then the fact that it is strongly dependent on the monsoon could have prevented a spread through the dry lands of central and western India. The monsoon opens up corridors along the eastern coast of India, allowing it to spread up through Orissa and Bengal into the eastern Himalayas. I could not find reports of it growing in the western Himalayas. Why?

I didn’t know any of this as I knelt on paths and tried to focus on the hairy flower. Now, I wonder why its petals are like hairy filaments which trap beads of water. Does this have a purpose?

Carnivores in the wild

When I listen to fellow tourists during trips to jungles, it is clear that the stars are the carnivores: tigers, leopards, even wild dogs. In fact I often meet people who do not enjoy the strangeness of tropical jungles, and consider a trip wasted unless they see a tiger close up. So it is also during a visit to the kilometer-high plateau of Kaas: the carnivorous plants of this inselberg enjoy stardom, but are seldom seen or recognized. These stars are the sundew (featured photo) and the small purple flowers of the bladderwort (below right).

The bladderworts, such as the Utriculata purpurea whose purple flowers you see in the photo alongside, are the tiger of this jungle. These bladderworts are rootless plants that float on patches of water. I saw them in growing in close conjunction with other small herbs.Flowers of a bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea) in Kaas plateau Since I was a tourist and not a biologist, I did not try to separate them out to check whether they are free floating. The close association with other plants makes it likely that they float on a mat of vegetation. A recent study found large communities of living algae and rotifers in the bladders of some individuals of this species growing in Florida. So it is possible that Seeta’s tears, as this species is called locally, derives a benefit from supporting an ecosystem within itself, rather than eating everything. To push the analogy further, U. purpurea, may not be the Kumbhakarna it is often thought to be, waking from sleep during the monsoon to eat everything that lands in the bladder. By supporting communities of living creatures, it may be closer in function to Seeta’s mother: the earth itself.

At the moment I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world. [Charles Darwin, 1860, in a letter to Charles Lyell]

Carnivorous plants are usually found in wet and nutrient poor soils. Like many of these plants, the sundew is poor at competing with neighbouring plants for light. We found three of them, probably Drosera Indica, in patches of ground below the roots of Topli Karvi bushes. I often wondered about whether the sundew is beneficial to humans or not, and was pleased to see a positive answer. Apparently Drosera preferentially eat mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies, which would otherwise proliferate in these wetlands, and therefore pose public health hazards.

An unidentified plant of the Araceae family

While watching tigers you may also watch birds. While trying to take the featured photo of the sundew, I thought I saw a little tuft of grass growing next to it. When I looked at it again I thought that maybe it was not grass but a lily. I took a photo, and later saw that I was mistaken again. The tiny flowers at the tips of some of the stalks were clearly protected by a single modified leaf. This is called a spathe. Its presence means that the plant belongs to the family Araceae and so is cousin to Irises and Crocuses. I wish I’d looked more carefully at it in the field and tried to take a closer photo of the unfurled spathe and the inflorescence which it protects. Not having made this observation, I have no identification. Please help, if you can.

Just in case you like to read about plants, I will leave you to settle down to read this interesting scientific review of the state of our knowledge of carnivorous plants.

Kaas: a Deccan Plateau

Head out of Mumbai, pass the Expressway and its food courts, and you soon come into impressive weathered hills. Strange shapes rise out of the land. Pass Pune, and head South, and you begin to see ranges of hills with a very characteristic feature: they seem to form gigantic layers or steps.On the road to Thosegarh If you look carefully at the far, mist covered, hills in the photo alongside you see these characteristic layers. They are volcanic features called “trappen” in Swedish, meaning steps. Successive volcanic eruptions created these layers.

A closer and clearer view of the steps is in this photo taken at the Thosegarh waterfalls south of the town of Satara.One of the waterfalls at Thosegarh These layers are called the Deccan traps. It is thought that thirty thousand years of continuous volcanic eruptions laid down these layers of basalt over a huge part of the Indian plate. This happened while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Since then the volcanic rock has worn down to a half million square kilometres area in the Deccan plateau.

This is the geology within which the Kaas and neighbouring kilometer-high plateaus stand. Over millennia, the basalt was weathered down by successive dry and wet seasons until it is a porous rock. The soil of the Kaas Plateau is very poor in parts You can see the weathered rock, called laterite, in the featured photo. Over this laterite is a thin layer of red iron-rich soil called lateritic soil. You can see in the photo alongside how poor the soil is. The grasses and the low herbs of these plateaus, including Kaas, barely manage to hold the soil together. Of all the things that damage this fragile ecosystem, tourists are the worst, although the construction of windmill farms and extraction of bauxite also harmful. Reading about this area, I discovered the word "inselberg", meaning island mountain. It is a very apt description of these plateaus: each stands isolated from others. The flora of each of these inselbergs is different from that in the surrounding lowlands. Environmental degradation of a plateau is like killing off the ecology of an island. It seems that of the 850 odd species of herbs identified here (including genera found only here), more than 600 are on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

The ministry of the environment lists many benefits that these ecosystems provide, including medicinal plants.A monsoon pond in the Kaas plateau Another ecosystem service provided by this fragile system is the recharging of the surrounding water table. As you can see in the photo here, the grasses and herbs trap water into little monsoon pools. This water is then absorbed by the spongy laterite rocks. In the absence of the flora, the water would run off too fast to be soaked up. The average annual rainfall here is between 2 and 2.5 meters, so this is quite a service!

The eight year itch

I can’t believe that I wrote a piece saying goodbye to the monsoon on Saturday. On Sunday I was at the Kaas plateau. It rained all morning. The thin layer of soil was saturated with rain. Then other Sunday visitors turned up, and the soil on the road turned to a well-churned slush. The official website says that 3000 people are allowed each day. It seemed to me that there were many more people there on Sunday. People waiting to get into the fenced-off part of the plateau lost their patience. Someone lost their spectacles. I found the featured image.

Karvi in bloom on Kaas plateauThe press has been full of reports about the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) blooming this year after a gap of eight years. We found fields full of flowering Topli Karvi (see the photo alongside). But then there were large patches of these knee-high bushes which did not have any flowers. The Family had visited the plateau last year and come back with photos of Topli Karvi flowering in some patches.

Seeing her photos, I’d speculated that Topli Karvi could bloom once in eight years, but different patches could bloom in different years. Then this would not be a textbook case of mast seeding, such as that seen in the related Strobilanthes Kunthiana (Neelakurinji, which is supposed to flower next in 2018), in which the plants die after flowering. Incomplete synchronization of the flowering of some species of Strobilanthes has been reported from Japan, so this is not a radical idea. It would be nice to see data on this species.

View of a path on the Kaas plateau

I did not see any of the usual pollinators. Perhaps it was raining too hard. The previous evening, near the Thosegarh waterfalls I’d seen Indian honeybees in a stand of the related Strobilanthes callosus (Karvi). Dhamorikar has a very interesting observation about the Karvi: it is pollinated by bees, flies, ants, some moths and maybe even the Oriental White-eye. He speculates that the purple colour of the Karvi has evolved to attract a large number of pollinators.

There aren’t that many flowering cycles of Karvi in a lifetime. More than one life may be required to solve the mysteries of the blooming of the Karvi.

Memories of rain

The name of this post is the title of a book by Sunetra Gupta which I loved. The Family and I were still busy discovering each others’ tastes in books when she recommended it to me. After reading the book about a failing cross cultural marriage, I began to follow her advise about what to read. "But this is not that story", as Aragorn says at the gate of Barad Dur.

Early monsoon near Munnar in Kerala

This is a little post to commemorate the end of the monsoon for this year. We have travelled long distances during these four tedious months. The green that sprouts from the earth during this time is incredible. It seems that there is a twenty thousand year long climatic cycle [alternate link] during which the monsoons are good. During the peak of such times the Sinai desert and the Arabian peninsula bloom, and provide a path connecting Africa and the Eurasian continent. During two such long wet seasons humans migrated out of Africa. The first left only enigmatic traces in our DNA and the second wave colonized the world. This is not such a green period. We live in times when the Sinai and the Arabian peninsula are great deserts.

Late monsoon in the Sahyadris

You wouldn’t believe it if you drove in India in the last four months. Here are three views through the windshields of cars which I took in Kerala and Maharashtra during this monsoon. The interior of the car becomes humid and warm, and you need to turn on a blast of air to keep the windows from fogging up. And then you can look out into a world which has become strange and silent. Another year till we come back to this time again.

Monsoon flowers

The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.

The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).

A patch of Murdannia pauciflorum
A patch of Murdannia pauciflora in an open field

The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.

Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)
Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.

Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree
Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree

An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.

Monsoon mela

Something weird has happened in the last decade. Very large numbers of people from Mumbai want to go and stand under a waterfall in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. The photo you see here is of the Ashoka waterfall about a 100 kilometers from Mumbai on a weekend.Ashoka waterfall in monsoon

The waterfall was steep, and the path to the crowded pool was down a steep rocky face. It seemed as crowded as a suburban railway station at rush hour. We had gone to get away from the city, and turned away at the sight of crowds as dense as any we see on a working day. Such a density of humans would be dangerous in almost any situation. Fortunately, a car can only deliver you about a kilometer away on a slushy road, otherwise the place would be even more dangerous than it is. We remembered many recent newspaper stories about accidental deaths by drowning. From the statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau it seems that rates of accidental death by drowning in Maharashtra are high compared to the rest of the country.

On the drive back we noticed a few spots where cars and motorbikes were parked haphazardly at the edge of the highway near a stream falling over the side. People were clambering over the stones below to take selfies in the "waterfalls". If a large number of people take similar selfies, it usually means a social-media buzz.

Why? The Family feels that more people have cars, they drive, and there are few places to drive to. This is true; most of the people we saw are young and newly affluent. But the same people could have done anything in the mountains. We did see some groups on open meadows, sitting down to a picnic lunch. A very few go trekking. Some probably go and have an impromptu dance. Could it be that some movies in recent years have kicked off a frenzy of selfies under cascading water?

Dolkhamb market

We tried to follow a road which petered out after the market square in Dolkhamb. It was flanked by two long structures. One was an office, and the other, which you see in the photo below, was a row of shops. This was one of the larger villages we had passed in the previous twenty kilometres. Off to one side was a little open space where several utility vehicles were parked: they serve as local buses. The market was crowded. We oozed through it to ask for directions. As we talked to the "bus" drivers, more vehicles arrived, bringing people to add to the crowd.

Market square in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra

For some time now we have been trying to eat a larger variety of vegetables and greens than what our meals had reduced to. So the sight of a village market brought out the gatherers in us. On a side of the road was a line of people who had set up makeshift stalls. The featured image shows the lady nearest to us. She had four different kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, knobbly green karela (bitter gourd), fresh okra and large green chilis. Not a large variety, but incredibly fresh. The okra was crisp and snapped easily between my fingers. After her a man sat with small heaps of dried fish. There were fruits further on. The Family bought bananas and apples. The apples were small and not very colourful, but when we bit into them they were extremely flavourful.

Once upon a time these were available in all markets in Mumbai. Now WTO rules force us to import apples which are too expensive to be sold anywhere except in big towns and cities. As a result, these profitable markets are almost completely shut to local apples. We love to eat, and we are not politically committed to local produce. We do like the fact that globalization brings us food from far away, but we are also aware of the variety that local produce can bring to our table. We have read enough about the carbon cost of pushing fruits around continents to begin to take the trouble to visit farmer’s markets.Woman selling farm produce from a truck in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra It would be a pity if we were forced to make a choice between the planet and the economy without thinking through sustainable middle paths. (I’m afraid that sentence might succeed in offending both sides of a political divide which exists, but need not).

The most exciting discovery was a truck of assorted greens, presided over by a lady in a red sari (photo alongside). People walked up to a boy, probably her son, paid him and asked for the greens they needed. He would shout out the order, and she would throw it out of the truck. We bought a bunch of fresh fenugreek and coriander greens from the duo. This family also pushes vegetables around in a box which burns hydrocarbons. But they travel tens of kilometres, not thousands. With fresh produce in the car and virtuous thoughts in our heads, we ignited the non-renewable fossil fuel in the tank of our car and drove out along the road the local drivers told us to take.

Lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara

Mumbai is a megapolis reclaimed from the sea, windwards of the Sahyadri mountains. An hour inland, the terrain is usually rocky and inhospitable: cliffs and oddly shaped peaks tower over a seared land. But, during the monsoon the land turns lush green, and waterfalls cascade over every cliff.

It seems that every monsoon weekend a large fraction of Mumbai’s population spreads out over the mountains. This is a special week, with many holidays. In the afternoon of last Friday there were long traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city. The Family decided that Saturday was a good day for a drive. We started out in the morning, took the highway towards Nasik, turned off it at Shahapur, and got lost soon after as cellular connectivity faded. We were near Dolkhamb, and wanted to reach Kasara. We knew there should be a road, but there were no signboards.

Farmer and rice paddy near Kasara

The result was hours of blundering through an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape. This area is normally dry, and the farmers barely eke out a living. In this season the only way to figure that out is the fact that the land is almost empty. Now and then you come across a small cluster of huts, where each family tends a small plot. Even in the middle of such a heavy monsoon, rice grows only in the lowest parts of the terrain. Hillsides are an inch of soil covering volcanic rock: not suitable for farming. Earthen dams husband water for the remainder of the year. In spite of the fluorescent green cover, this is a harsh country.

Chicken shop in the middle of nowhere

There were no signs at crossroads telling us which way to go. We often took the wrong turn and drove for kilometers before meeting someone who told us to back up and take the other fork. At an empty crossroads we found this little shack sporting a battered board which proclaimed that it was Arbaaz’s chicken shop. They were out of stock, but easy with directions. There were no villages in sight, but I guess the road has enough traffic to keep Arbaaz in business.

Soon after, our cell phones began to receive signals, and we came to the highway again. Fifteen kilometers on we reached a roadside restaurant just before their lunch service closed. This had been a wonderful drive, although really slow.

Kaas: the plateau of flowers

Kaas is a highland plateau about 6 hours’ drive from Mumbai, famous for its monsoon flowering. Ever since it was declared a UNESCO biodiversity heritage area, the number of visitors has grown so much that maintaining the biodiversity has become even more difficult than it used to be. We’ve admired photos of the place, and have wanted to go there for many years. The Family was very keen on it this year, but I couldn’t go, having committed my weekends to learning Chinese. She went there last weekend with a wonderful nature group we have traveled with before.

kaasb

In a normal year, the monsoon would have receded by now; but this year the weather is a little mixed up. It rained very hard during the weekend, both in Mumbai and in Kaas. The plateau is part of the Deccan Traps, the largest volcanic feature in the world. 66 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions lasting perhaps 30,000 years, built the landscape which contains the plateau. The topsoil is less than an inch thick, and the low herbs and grasses form a dry mat holding it together over most of the year. But during the monsoon little pools of water gather in hollows, the ground turns marshy, and the plateau comes alive with glorious flowers. The Family did not gauge the weather properly, and got pretty wet several times a day. But she came back with great stories and photos.

kaasdThe strange ecology has bred strange flora. The soil lacks various nutrients, so a pretty impressive fraction of the plants feed on insects. The Family did not have photos of these. Instead she came back with this photo of the famous Ceropegia vincaefolia. The five petals of this flower (see photo on the left) form a trap to keep in flies which arrive to feed on the nectar. As the trap snaps close around it, the fly frantically buzzes around, so managing to pollinate the flower. Once the pollination is accomplished, the flower droops down so that the trap can open to let the fly out. You can see a drooping flower to the left in the photo.

kaascAnother famous plant is the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus). Although the leaves are poisonous, they are crushed to treat inflammations by the locals. It flowers once every eight years (but some bushes are reported to flower even as infrequently as once in fourteen years). Fortunately different plants are not synchronised, so The Family saw a clump of plants which were all flowering together. Some distance away was another clump which had no flowers. It is claimed that the fruits may hang on the plant for a year, bursting to release seeds only with the arrival of the next monsoon. Elsewhere in the region these plants can grow taller than a man, but the ones she saw came no higher than her knees, and she had photos to prove it. I don’t know whether the thin soil of the Kaas plateau is responsible for this stunted growth.

kaaseThe Family was very impressed by the large number of wind-power devices. It is interesting in many ways, the chief reason being that local farmers are bothered to put these up. It probably means that there are subsidies involved. Moving from coal generated electricity to greener methods will involve subsidies (even if the WTO disagrees). A question which came to my mind when I saw the photos on The Family’s phone is whether the move to install these windmills also has an effect on the outlook of the farmers towards the environment. Do they become more conscious of the surroundings, more caring of the natural environment? I hope so, otherwise, as another blogger says, the flowers may be gone in a few years. I hope not, but I fear they will.

[All photos in this post taken by The Family on her phone]

Note added

I talked about the windmills with a couple of people who know the area, and they threw cold water on my suggestion. Apparently putting up these wind generators is big money in the locality. This drives people to put them up even in fairly eco-sensitive spots. The rush for short term gains trumps long term sustainability again. If only the sustainable was also profitable in every short run.