Walking on Elephant’s Head

A day in Mahabaleshwar can be fun. My last visit to this high plateau in the Sahyadris was in the December of the plague year, 2020. There is a big difference between winter, shishir ritu, and this time. Sharad ritu, this hot season immediately after the end of the monsoon, is what the British called an Indian summer. In this time the ground is still wet, and the western ghats are in full bloom. We spent the day walking on the 1800 meter high periphery of the plateau.

Sonki (Senecio bombayensis) is the most common flower of October

Mahabaleshwar is not a protected area, but has large expanses of forest. Between the forest and the edge of the cliffs are meadows which are carpeted in yellow flower of sonki. I spotted a few albinos on a bush, and paused to take a photo. In another season I would have had to examine the underside of the leaves of this shrub, white and hairy, to recognize it. In sharad there is no need for that.

Bushes of common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum) are also in flower

The beautiful flowers of the common hill borage are not as common, but the chest-high bushes cannot be missed. The flowers are small and white, with a beautiful cornflower-blue center. Sonki and this borage are the commonest flowers of sharad in these isolated plateaus, inselbergs, which the years have carved out of the lava deposited in the Deccan shield more than 60 million years ago. I have photos of them from every year in the last twenty.

Santapau (Asystasia dalzelliana) grows in shade under trees

Although they are common, the tiny foxgloves, santapau, are not as easily visible. You have to peer below other bushes to get a view of these small flowers. But once you see one you’ll begin to notice them everywhere. I like foxgloves, so plain on the outside, but so intricately patterned inside.

The heroes of this season in India are really the grasses. I find them flowering everywhere. On this plateau they are visible, but not the dominant plant group. The thin laterite soil of these plateaus in the Sahyadris is often too metallic for grasses. Still, there are places where grasses have taken root.

The invasive Chinese knotweed (Persicaria chinensis) has found a small niche

Tall bushes of the invasive Chinese knotweed are visible at the sides of paths. They seem to have reached an equilibrium in these places. They cannot invade the thin soil of the meadows, nor to they grow in the inner dense jungle. As long as the forest is not cut down to make hotels, the knotweed are under control.

Star violets (Neanotis lancifolia) straggle along the ground

I must have seen the star violets many times before, but until I started taking photos of tiny flowers, I hadn’t noticed their four-petalled perfection. I’ll have to find out why they grow in two colours. What I like about them is that they are the perfect rejoinder to pseudo-mathematicians who claim that the number of petals on a flowers is a Fibonnaci number. This sequence of numbers, {1,1,2,3,5,8,…}, is obtained by adding the previous two to get the next. Four is not a Fibonnaci number, so these flowers should not exist according to the false mathematicians of aesthetics.

Karambal (Justicia procumbens) is still flowering in this ultra-wet year

A flower which shouldn’t exist in this season is the Karambal. This year has been so wet (it is still raining now in the middle of October) that the plants are totally confused. I saw many of these flowers still taking advantage of the weather by continuing to bloom. My favourite flowers change with the seasons, but I’m glad this one is still around this year.

All these are among the wild flowers that I saw on a four kilometer walk along a ridge called Elephant’s Head. It juts out from one side of the plateau. Before the ridge narrows to a few meters, there is a dense canopy of trees. Inside this small limb of the forest I saw a few trees bearing these lovely clusters of white flowers. I think the trees belong to the cherry family, but I’m not sure.

Behind the Chinese knotweed

I saw a flowering bush growing wild by the edge of the road, so I walked out to it. I thought I recognized Chinese knotweed (Polygonum chinense or Persicaria chinensis). It was. The flowers are distinctive, and I think I may be able to tell it even by the shape of the bushes. I’ve written a bit about it after the first trip to the Sahyadris when I learnt to identify it. The amazing group of plants, these knotweeds, diversified in just the last 10 million years and spread out from the Tibetan plateau along the arc of the Himalayas. But this species probably established itself in these hills long after humans came here. I wonder whether old documents or field techniques can date their arrival in this general location. But whenever they came here, they rapidly became the go-to plant for a large number of pollinators. The famous Mahabaleshwar honey seems to have quite a bit of Chinese knotweed pollen in it.

The photo shoot was over pretty soon, but I was intrigued by a path which led beyond these bushes. I followed it, and it soon arrived at the edge of a cliff, with a nice view down to the valley below. The variety of plants was staggering, especially when you consider that this is degraded area, close to a high-traffic road. I looked down at the valley, and for fun took a trio of photos at different zooms of the village I could see.

Wandering around Kaas on a wet day

The invasive Chinese knotweed, Persicaria chinensis

On the verge of the parking lot just below Kaas plateau I came across a chest high growth of Chinese knotwood, whose flowers are featured above. On reading a bit, I learnt that this kind of branched bush is characteristic of knotwoods (family Polygonaceae). Information on this species is hard to find because its Latin double-barrelled name has changed many times; it is known as Polygonum praetermissum, P. auriculata, P. chinense, Persicaria chinensis among others. I could figure out that the round berries are edible. Interestingly, it turns out that of the sixty known species in this family, most are found in the Tibetan plateau, and have diversified only in the last ten million years. The home ground of P. chinensis seems to lie along the arc of the Himalayas, and continuing down to Thailand, Indonesia and Malayasia. It is an invasive species, and is probably poised to take over the Kaas plateau, just as it is taking over parts of the US.

Indian arrowroot, Curcuma caulina, from Kaas plateau

The Indian arrowroot, which I spotted growing cheek-to-jowl with the Topli Karvi, is a much more sedate plant. A member of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, its name has recently changed from Hitchenia caulina to Curcuma caulina. Its Marathi name, chavar, seems to be well documented. Its tubers yield an edible starch. It grows mainly in high plateaus of the Western ghats, like Kaas, so it is vulnerable to a loss of habitat. Since it is economically important as well as endangered, there is an international effort on to cultivate it. I saw very few of these flowers, and came to the conclusion that it is not very common even in the Kaas plateau.

Justicia procumbens called karambal in Marathi is also known as water willow

I kept seeing the spikes of the karambal every now and then, with a few small purple-pink petals growing out of the cylinder. I kept postponing a photo, hoping to get one covered with petals. Then when one of my companions told me that this is all I was likely to see, I stopped and took the photo which you can see above. A member of the Acanthaceae family, this ankle-high plant, Justicia procumbens, is given the rather fanciful English common name of water willow. Maybe the name is given because the leaves of the plant, like those of the willow, are ground into a paste used to treat asthma and coughs. This plant is widely reported in the Deccan plateau, found in Kumaon, known in Japan and Korea and used in Chinese medicine, but is vulnerable to habitat loss.

Plants cannot run away from attack; their defensive mechanism is chemistry. Because of this, they have developed a strange armoury of subtle chemicals over their long evolutionary history. That’s the reason why we keep finding in plants new and useful molecular weapons to combat diseases. It will be a pity if the fruits, so to say, of megayears of evolution disappear in the next couple of decades. The fence around the Kaas plateau, and the effort of growing plants in the Kew gardens are last-ditch measures.