Presidential Bonsai

Bonsai is an art that I find fascinating. It has the same relationship to plant breeding as, say street art has to painting. A painting is made to last. A plant breeder can sit back after creating a stable new line of plants and say, “There. That will spread. That will last a long while now without my care.” In contrast, a street artist lives with the certainty that the painting will disappear in a relatively short time. Bonsai is an artistic statement about a single tree, and will disappear when the tree dies. Oh, these adolescent sighs over the impermanence of things!

The President of India has a whole division in his gardening staff whose job, it seems, is to produce and care for bonsai. Going by the results, they must be a dedicated lot, quite in love with their job. They may not have the showmanship of Makoto Azuma, but I liked their work. Click on an image in the gallery above to look at it in more detail.

Bee’s knees

Not really the knees, but filled pollen baskets. That’s what stopped me in my tracks inside the Presidential gardens. As I tried to take a better picture, a plainclothes security man appeared at my elbow and said “You can’t stop to take pictures.” Without taking my eyes off the bee, I said “But photography with the phone is allowed in the garden.” He replied “But it doesn’t mean that you have to take a photo of every flower.” I conceded that point, but argued that I hadn’t, I wasn’t even so interested in the flower. It was the bee I was looking at. But he didn’t stay to listen to me; other knots of people attracted his interest.

Bees do not feed on nectar alone. While carbs are good for giving them energy, all individuals, especially the growing larvae, need proteins and fats. That comes from pollen. Bees are not being altruistic in taking pollen from one flower to another in order to further the reproductive success of plants. They harvest pollen, and nectar, in order to feed themselves. The sexual favours to plants are incidental. Hairy species of bees just carry the pollen in mats of hair called scopa. But these red dwarf honey bees (Apis florea) have pollen baskets, corbicula, on the tibia of their hind legs instead. I haven’t noticed them so full before. I wish I had panniers built into my legs; it would be a very useful alternative to plastic shopping bags.

Presidential gardens

We’d seen many photos of the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, so when we found that we had a uncommitted morning in Delhi that was one place that immediately came to mind. A search told us that there were seven hourly slots for entry, each accommodating a hundred people. Since people rarely spend more than two hours in the garden, one should expect about two hundred people at a time. A friend had told The Family about the tulips in bloom in the gardens, so she was keen on it. Even though only phone photography was allowed in the gardens, it seemed like a place where I could get some decent macros. We made our online bookings for a Friday morning.

What we’d not known was that school children are allowed a free visit on Fridays, so an enormous number of schools plan a trip to the gardens. We were waist deep in about ten thousand children. It was hard to get lines of sight which did not involve throngs of children being hurried about by the security, while their teachers ran ragged trying to get their bunch to keep together. I was happy to get the usual calendar shot of a rose in the foreground of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Maybe I shouldn’t say usual, because the calendars I’ve seen frame the rose more carefully. Here I found that I couldn’t budge because of the press of children around me.

In spite of all the jostling, I did get the rose in the foreground. I was happier with the photo of the tree with the guard in the background. The tulips? They were far from the path that visitors had to keep to. It was impossible to get a photo using my phone camera. I could have done with a better zoom.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan has been occupied by the titular head of India since the capital shifted to Delhi from Kolkata in 1912. The gardens were laid out first a year later by William Robert Mustoe, and have been changed many times later. Our path was lined with these interesting chest-high water spouts, each sporting a globe of spilling water. As I framed the two gardeners at rest behind it, I became the center of a curious bubble of school children. Their minders kept them moving, but there was always a bubble around me. Somewhat like the water bubble around the central unmoving spout, I thought.

Three roses

The rose garden in Rashtrapati Bhavan used to be called Mughal Gardens. The day before I booked a visit with The Family it was renamed the Amrit Udyan. Doesn’t a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Let me go with roses, not names.

I’m completely naive when it comes to gardens. All around me I notice people stopping at their favourites and reeling off the name of the cultivar, talking about the soil and the humidity needed to get the best blossoms. I listen, and the words drip past me. All you need, in order to grow the best roses, is to be the President of India, and have a huge garden and staff.

She does have the best roses I have seen in a while. I do like the spotty white one, although the rose-tending-to-purple is pretty eye-catching too. Interestingly, not one of these three had a sweet smell.

Sport or chimera?

The gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. One of the fun things was a bed of pansies around the base of a tree. The gardening staff have been putting out interesting crosses with the Viola tricolor base stock in recent years. Having seen the photos from the past years, I looked carefully at the bed. The featured photo was taken by The Family. You can see two different stalks of the same plant have flowers in two different colours (the one behind is closer to the wild V. tricolor) than the main subject of her photo. How often do you see two differently coloured flowers on the same plant? Not so often that one can ignore it, right?

How can that happen at all? In any organism, different genes can be activated or silenced as the animal grows. The patches of colour on cowhide, or the stripes on a tiger are the most visible example of this. Sometimes a cell mutates during development, and the mutant cell produces more daughter cells with the mutation. This is called a chimera. Some individuals have a patch of coloured skin visible on their body, sometimes called a birthmark. This is due to such a mutation in skin cells. These two things can happen to a plant as well. If the genes for a pigment are switched on or kept off during the development of a flower, then you might have two different colours of flowers on the same plant. These are called sports in botany.

So the pansies that we saw in that one bed in the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan are sports, and chimeras. I wonder if the flowers give rise to seeds which will keep the colour of the flower it came from. If it does, then you can breed multiple cultivars from the same plant. In that case some seeds from this plant could give violet flowers, others white, a third set yellow, and yet another set of seeds could give that tricoloured flower that you see in the featured photo. Is this one of the methods that plant breeders use? Someone with more knowledge than me will have to answer that question.