The magnetic tree

Nirgundi, Indrani, Sambhaloo, and a large number of other names in many Indian languages refer to Vitex negundo. So the English name chaste tree seems quite superfluous. It is also inappropriate, considering the number of different pollinators which visit it. Chest tree might be a better name, because of its clinically proven efficacy against colds, flu, asthma, and pharyngitis.

I must have seen this plant many times, because it is supposed to be very common across Asia and eastern Africa, and invasive as far away as the USA. But when I carry a good camera I’m much more attentive. So this was the first time I had paid much attention to this cross between a tree and a shrub. Most were about two meters tall, although I’m told it can grow as high as seven meters. The numerous flowers on the hairy branches were tiny: a few millimeters long. I thought they were appropriate subjects for my fancy new macro lens. Some of these macros showed spider silk threaded through the plant. I took this as a sign that it was visited by such a large number of insects that their arachnid predators found it a good place to hide out in.

The number of butterflies I saw on the first shrub I stopped at was astounding. Many individuals from a variety of species fluttered around. It seems to be even more of a butterfly magnet than the Lantana. My macro lens is not very good for photographing active butterflies. Still, I managed to capture a glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), a somewhat battered grey pansy (Junonia atlites), one of a spectacular flock of the yellow-orange peacock pansies (Junonia almana), a common gull (Cepora nerissa), and a skipper which I can’t identify. There were also several species of wasps and bees, and at least two different kinds of blow flies.

I tried to find the geographical and temporal origins of this plant. Instead found myself looking at the fascinating literature on its invasive qualities. I suppose that the large variety of its pollinators is an essential quality for invasive plants. It makes it easier to find new pollinators in any new geography. I saw it growing on verges around roads in a high plateau in the Sahyadris. The rocky ground, with meager topsoil where it grew meant that it was hardy. It is also fast growing, another essential quality for an invader. It certainly out-competed Lantana camara in this landscape. The few bushes of Lantana I saw were stunted dwarves barely surviving between thickets of Vitex. Since Lantana is viciously competitive, and has taken over landscapes elsewhere, that’s quite an achievement.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

Harrison’s folly

A little finger of a ridge juts out of the side of the road from Wai to Panchgani. A dusty flat top of a table land, surprising you with the fact that it has been left open. This is Harrison’s Folly; don’t ask who or why, there’s no answer. We saw cars pulling in, and drove in through the ramshackle gate that you see in the featured photo. We paid a small price for the entrance, it wasn’t clear whether it was municipal land or private. The light was good and it seemed like it would have a view of Dhom lake.

We walked to the north-eastern edge of the plateau. The road had curved around a hill, hiding Panchgani. The valley had a haze, probably a mist. Much of the valley would be protected from direct sunlight by the plateaus. But beyond a parallel ridge, I could see Dhom lake through the haze. This is the due to the second dam across the Krishna river. The source of the river is just beyond the ridge, and there is a first dam there. A trickle is let out, which flows into this lake, and beyond. I can never have enough of the horizontal bands of successive lava flows which erosion reveals as the building material for the Deccan shield.

We walked to the northern tip of the finger, down a tiny slope which would be the take-off point for the para-gliding enthusiasts who used to flock here once. The little town in the middle distance was Wai. The haze was light, but it blocked the view eventually. On a clear day, when the horizon is visible it would be nice to stand here and identify all the distant villages and towns that one can see.

So what if I can’t do para-gliding, I can still take ambush photos. A couple was having their photo taken while leaping. I missed the moment of the leap, but they were quite the cynosure of all eyes in the neighbourhood. As we left I saw my cousin drive in. Apparently a swarm of bees appeared on this tableland while they were there, causing everyone to dive to the ground. This, he was told, was a daily affair, and crouching low for a couple of minutes prevents accidents. I’ve never heard of such a phenomenon, and I’m sad to have missed it. The Family and I agreed to disagree on this point.

Three wildflowers

When the known walks are crowded you just have to find new places to walk in. In the slight drowsiness of a post-lunch discussion, we did not really think this through. So we set off along deserted roads, looking for small paths into the forests of the Mahabaleshwar plateau. We found one, parked on the side of the road, and set off along what looked like a tunnel between trees trodden out by many feet. It was in use. We saw discarded bottles of alcohol and cans of beer in little clearings off the main path, and not too much plastic. One of the first things I saw were the purple heads of Indigofera cassioides (चिमनाती, pronounced chimnati) in flower. I have seen this flower before, but it took a little consultation with Ingalhalkar’s book and a cross check with IndiaBiodiversity to reach an ID. Some other day I’ll talk more about the indigo plants.

I misidentified the yellow flowers of Mysore thorn (Cesalpinia decapetala, also Biancaea decapetala) when the oldest niece asked for an ID. I have been set right by Ingalhalkar and CABI. This is a firm ID I think, it takes into account the flowers, the leaves, and the fact that the widespread plant was a climber. I have no ID for the white flowers. Can anyone help?

This is only a small sample of the flowers and plants we saw on the walk before we met a villager coming down the path. He warned us that leopards are seen here often. As we walked on, the chatter of the nieces decreased in volume. Then there was a crashing noise in the trees and everyone wanted to turn back. On the way back we heard more crashing noises and then saw a monkey leaping between branches. It was clearly not a leopard hunting. I argued that leopards are known to be very secretive stalkers, and monkeys are known to give alarm calls when they see predators, so we were quite likely to be safe. But the group had given up, and we were out near our car soon. Later I thought that if everyone who had come for a holiday up here had decided to take a walk in the woods for the next few months there would not be much of a forest left in a few years. In a way it was good that the villagers put us to flight.

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.

Unknown wildflowers

It feels odd to slip into a piece on unknown wildflowers of the Sahyadris with a the very common and widespread weed, lantana. They were introduced into India during the British period, escaped, and have now become great butterfly magnets. This species, the Lantana camara, is identifiable by the colours which give it its common name, Spanish flag lantana. As children we would pick the ripe black berries on these bushes and eat them by fistfuls.

But immediately after that I jump to species that I do not know. The Sahyadris are under constant surveillance by botanists and wildlife experts, so I’m sure that these species can be easily named by many. Unfortunately, I’m not a member of that smart set. Ingalhalikar’s three volume Flowers of Sahyadri is extensive, but unfortunately not useful as a field guide. So, all you trekkers, and amateur naturalists out there, I need your help with identification and suggestions for field guides.

A butterfly and a flower

Just because I am not out in the Sahyadri mountains this year doesn’t mean that the usual things you see in late August have disappeared. I’m sure there are several million people now looking at the flower of the kalmashi shrub (also called karambol, binomial Justicia procumbens). For several years, I didn’t realize that the cylinder is an inflorescence and the individual flowers usually bloom at different times. I would think that I came on it late in the season when the petals had fallen off. The genus is widespread in tropical regions of the world, and has possibly the largest number of species in the Acanthaceae family. This particular species has attracted some attention recently because of a chemical isolated from it which could be useful in treating tumours. I like them for a different reason: they attract butterflies.

Equally common at this time is the butterfly called the common crow (Euploea core). I think this photo, taken almost exactly thirteen years ago, could be my first one of this species. It was taken in the same hour as the photo of the kalmashi, in Matheran. I used to see the common crow everywhere in Mumbai before insecticides began to be used widely. Now one hardly sees butterflies in the city.

Twelfth night

Twelve nights? Definitely more. By the second half of August I usually reach a milder version of the mood I am in now. It has been raining almost continuously for two weeks. I can’t even get up the enthusiasm to go for a walk. My shoes don’t dry by the next day. Even in the rain it would have been lovely to drive out to the Sahyadris and go for a couple of hour-long walks between mountains. But even that is not possible with this lock-down. And to top it all, one of the buildings I would pass on my daily walk has been sealed due to an infection. On days like this I just land up eating junk food and feel even worse the next day. No inspiration at all. I will just copy lines from a better writer.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Perihelion photoshow

The year should rightly begin on Perihelion Day, tomorrow, January 4, when the earth is closest to the sun. On the Perihelion Eve of the end of the fourth century of the Keplerian Era (Why do I feel like Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch?), I thought of examining the ghosts of Perihelia past. One year ago I was in the Little Rann of Kutch. As the sun set after a full day of photography, the batteries on my camera ran out soon after I took the featured photo. That was a spectacular way to end Perihelion Day.

I haven’t been consistent about taking photos on Perihelion Day. I had to go back five more years, to 2014, before I found a set of photos I’d taken on Perihelion Day. It was a Saturday, The Family was at work in the morning, and I was at a loose end. I took a series of photos of a cape gooseberry. I liked the difference in texture between the fruit and the leaves which enclose it.

Two years before, in 2012, that Perihelion Day was on a Wednesday. I was in Mahabaleshwar for a meeting, and had the morning off. Somewhere near the edge of the plateau I could see the hills marching off into the distance. The layer cake of the Deccan traps turns from red to hazy blue as you look away towards the horizon. The Sahyadri mountains are spectacular, and it is a pity we seldom go out there in winter any more. Perhaps that’s something we should start doing again.

The previous set of photos that I took on a Perihelion Day was in 2009. That year Perihelion Day was on a Sunday, and I walked out into the garden with my new camera to take test shots of flowers. Looking at this photo brings back memories of a warm winter morning, and a camera I really enjoyed working with for the next few years.

My digital photo album goes back a few more years, but there are no photos taken on Perihelion Day. Four photos at the end of a century is rather careless. I should track Perihelion Days better in future.

Monsoon is made of such things

The Indian Ocean monsoon is a massive planetary scale circulatory system which we are just beginning to understand. Much more easy to see are the things that happen at our scale. In the last decade or slightly more, there have been longer dry spells between heavier showers. Thirty centimeters of rain or more in a few hours is no longer rare. There’s an emergency of this kind every couple of years in Mumbai.

Storm coming in

If you face the open sea on the west of Mumbai you will see very often a storm coming in. You can take a photo, and then look at the satellite map to marvel at the scale of the storm cloud. Sometimes it covers hundred of kilometers. The new views that a phone can add enhance the sense of wonder that one feels about the monsoon. You are not alone. Across the country a million others are seeing this storm coming.

Roads full of water

When the storm passes and the sun comes out, there are pools of water which evaporate slowly. Above the clouds it is astronomical summer: the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. The humidity and heat can be hard. You long for the rain to cool you down.

Clouds rolling in

In the poem Meghdoot, an epic about love in the time of the monsoon, written one and a half thousand years ago, Kalidasa described the monsoon rain on these mountains as “painted streaks on a elephant’s hide”. Watching the clouds roll in over the hills, you understand that he wasn’t talking about water streaks, but the green that suddenly sprouts between rocks.

Clouds invade a dance floor

Low clouds roll relentlessly over the Sahyadris. When it invades a dance floor, it becomes a light which hangs over everything and at the same time hides everything. The dance floor is all music and light and warm moisture. I peer at The Family; we are walking on a cloud. What message does it bring?

Everything is bleak and gray

Sometimes, you think the monsoon is bleak. Roads are washed away. Dark clouds rob the world of colour. But it is warm rain that beats down on you. The hills are alive, really, and growing. When the sun comes out you see the electric green that will fade between the end of monsoon and the beginning of winter. That will be the season of festivals all over India.