Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

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The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.

Unseen flowers

This has been a year of canceled trips for me. The latest cancellation is a long-planned trip to Kerala. Once every 12 years there is a mass blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) in the region of Munnar. We had planned to go to see these flowers. Unfortunately this year there was a freak monsoon storm which destroyed roads and parts of Munnar town, flooded large parts of Kerala downriver, and killed many people. I understand that this is possibly the worst monsoon flood in a century.

In this bad time we did not want to cancel our trip in a hurry. Often recovery is helped by providing business. Unfortunately now, with about a week to go for our trip, we are forced to cancel. The flood damage is so heavy that the state government has requested tourists to stay away. Kerala will take time to rebuild and rehabilitate. The state needs help. Here is a link to the main portal where you can offer to help if you wish. I believe that this government portal possibly entails the minimum of administrative overheads, so almost all the donated money will reach those who need help.

Kerala’s new year just passed: Onam. We joined the community in a traditional meal, the Onam Sadhya (featured photo).

Dwarapala photo bomb

In the middle of Munnar’s busy bazaar, I noticed the small temple which you can see in the featured photo. I was amazed by the dwarapalas. I’ve seldom seen a guardian of a temple with such enormous mustaches! I tried to position myself to the left, in front of the guy with the cobra and a mace, but a couple of auto-rickshaws displaced me. So I moved to the right, and found that I could just about get the mace in the mirror placed strategically behind the dwarapala. I took the photo and moved on.

Behind me The Night started laughing: the priest had followed me from one side to the other and positioned himself more or less in the center of the frame. I hadn’t noticed him photo-bombing me. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly that. I think the photo improves with him where he is. Seldom do you get a third dwarapala in front of a temple, and that too with spectacles.

Inexplicable

We’d spent an afternoon walking at a height of about 2000 meters above sea level, in a sliver of shola grasslands caught between tea estates. The day alternated between sunny and overcast, but warm. At one point I looked over what seemed to be a vast landscape where the last flowering was taking place before the heat comes down from the skies. You can see the stunted trees of the shola forest making a dark green border around the slopes. It was getting close to lunch time.

We drove into the nearest town: Munnar. I was not surprised by the crowds in the central bazaar. But what made me stop and look again was this small steel cabinet in the middle of the road. The gentleman in the purple shirt had a bunch of keys and was trying to figure out whether he could unlock it. I don’t know whether the door ever opened. When I came by next, the whole cabinet had disappeared.

A meeting over tea

On our way back from the Eravikulam National Park, we saw a massive black shape between the neat rows of tea bushes which line the slopes here. The bus driver stopped obligingly to let us figure out that the shape was not a rock but a lone bull Gaur. It had its head down and seemed to be rooting at the tea. I’d seen this before. Gaur move through the aisles in these plantations, and if they destroy tea, it is by accident. Their target is the smaller herbs and grasses that grow on the verge. There is something about tea that they don’t like. I’m happy that they leave the pekoes to us.

The genus Bos includes both the Gaur (Bos gaurus) and domestic cattle. It seems that their ancestors developed and migrated from Africa at the same time as humans. The single male that I saw is among the last of a species that diverged and evolved in the forests of India, and is now on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat. What a sad end that would be to this marvelous and gentle giant!

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.

Weeds in Munnar

The soil of Munnar seems particularly fertile: fruits and vegetables grow very well, as does tea. Weeds which take root in pretty inhospitable soil all over the country do extremely well here. One extremely visible example is morning glory. I see it struggling to keep alive in empty concreted lots in Mumbai. Here it takes over everything. We drove through a forest where morning glory was beginning to suffocate a whole stand of trees (featured photo).

Lantana and morning glory

Elsewhere it is even trying to suffocate Lantana. That’s as tiring as seeing Iron Man and Captain America slogging it out.

Traffic jam at elephant crossing

Traffic in the village of Anachal

Every day we passed the village called Anachal; the word means Elephant Crossing (ana stands for Elephant in Malayalam, and chal is path). One day we came to a stop. There was a small traffic jam. Some of the branches in the trees lining the road had begun to push at electric lines. There were people up in the trees hacking at the branches with machetes.

Shankumar was told to move the car back and to the center of the road. Next to us was a line of autos. One was driven by a girl. This is so uncommon in Mumbai that I’ve never seen a woman taxi driver yet. Here it is common enough that the tenth taxi I saw was driven by a woman.

Vive la difference.

Rose Garden? Of course!

Something like Aloe VeraDon’t even think about it. Yes, we all know that there is a rose garden in Munnar. We have all read the great reviews. But don’t promise one. It has no roses. It is full of people bumbling about, looking cross, although there are absolutely spectacular flowers. All because someone promised them a rose garden, and they don’t think a garden without roses is what they were promised.

Anthurium seen in Munnar

The one thing in Munnar which I had low expectations of, and which therefore stunned me totally was this garden off on the eastern part of town. The entrance to the garden is at a pretty narrow spot in the road, and the people entering and leaving cause a bit of a traffic jam. On the steep slope below the road is the garden. There is a little charge for entry, but it is well worth paying. rosegarden3 The flowers here are unusual and you are unlikely to be able to find a better place to spend an hour in the town.

I’m not an expert gardener. I know my roses and lilies, marigolds, vinca and zinnia. I can tell an Iris from a Pansy, and I’ve learnt the difference between a peony and a petunia. Otherwise I talk of blue flowers and yellow flowers.rosegarden4 Close to the entrance was a whole bunch of flowers which I think of as Anthurium. I’ve only seen a couple of varieties before: both with a yellow spadix, one had a red spathe, the other white. Here there was such a variety of colours of both that it was clear that some of them are hybrids. They must be breeding them here.

Lady's slippers: flower seen in MunnarWe walked past flowers which I cannot name (a couple of pictures above), and then reached a lower aisle where every flower was labelled. We stopped to admire the flower here (called "Lady’s slippers"), which is possibly an orchid. The plant is a creeper. There was a little walk where the plant had been allowed to form a roof over a lattice covering the walk, making a green tunnel. The flowers hung in bunches from the green walls, looking really pretty.

Zebra hawthoria seen in Munnar

Further on we came to the cacti. We’d seen several before, but there were some spectacular Hawthoria among them. The specimen above was labelled Hawthoria fascita but could well be Hawthoria attenuata. The usual way to distinguish the two is that the attenuata has stripes on both sides of the leaf. The attenuata also develops this nice red colour if it is in the sun long enough.

Orchids in Munnar's rose gardenThe final section of the garden had orchids. We’ve seen a spectacular orchid garden in Gangtok. This selection was smaller, but there were some very nice ones here, including the Cattleya shown on the left. The walk through the garden took us about an hour.