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.