Fields of kaans

The white flowers of fields of kaans waving in a breeze gives me a stab of false nostalgia. I grew up in a parched landscape where the common wild flowers were straggling grasses, kateli, and datura. I saw this tall grass first in Satyajit Ray’s linocut illustration of a young girl and her younger brother running through a field of kaans to see a distant train. Although the scene from his film, Pather Panchali, is now much more famous, I always see it in my mind as a linocut illustration in the book.

Of course, kaans (Saccharum spontaneum, wild sugarcane) is found across India. I saw it again this month in Tadoba. Kaans grasslands in the Terai are the natural habitat of the Indian rhinoceros. The plant has traveled east and west. Traveling east, it met the westward expansion of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and hybridized to give the dwarf sugarcane (Saccarum x sinense) which is still found in Guangdong. After the famous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, it was observed that kaans was one of the early colonizers of the island. It is considered to be an invasive weed in Panama today. On the other hand, as its range is expanding across the mediterranean, its use as a source of fibre has made it a new economic resource in this region.

Interestingly, one of the factors that makes plants, especially grasses, extremely adaptable seems to be a genetic condition called polyploidy. Polyployd cells are those which, through an error in cell division, land up with multiple copies of chromosomes. Normally this harms the organism. However in many plants this helps it to spread and adapt. Familiar examples abound: wheat, potato, banana, coffee, strawberry, to name a few. A study found that kaans can have anywhere between 40 and 128 chromosomes across old-world populations. These point to multiple adaptive events as it spread across the continents.

The grass is tall, often growing to as much as two to three meters high. At a rest block I walked up to a clump of the grass to take a closeup of the feathery flowers. The many branched inflorescences (panicles to botanists) started above my head, and the feathery white flowers blazed in the sunlight. A wind was whipping them about, and I couldn’t take the macros I’d wanted to. I settled for a close up instead.

Grass flowers

I was looking for birds, and I found grass flowering. I’ve never seen this before. But then I’ve never been to wastelands inside the city immediately after the monsoon. I just wish I’d slipped a macro lens into my backpack.

This is the first time I’ve seen grass with what I would think of as a petal. Except that grass has no petals. The orange bits which protect the sexual organs are scales called lemma and palea. I learnt this today while, unsuccessfully, trying to identify the species of grass that I saw.

We’d started at 5 in the morning and reached Bhandup minutes before sunrise. The early morning stroll was our first attempt at bird watching outside our house in eight months. It felt good to be coming to terms with the epidemic while carrying on with life as usual.

There were at least three different kinds of grass I photographed. The one pictured above is probably Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus). Still have to figure out what the others were.

I found a nicely written introduction to grasses. Some parts of it are specific to the UK, but most of it is quite general, and useful no matter which country you live in.