The Karvi does not bloom any more

The purple blue flowers of topli karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) blanketed the plateaus of Kaas and Chilkewadi in September and October of 2015 and 2016.Windmills in the middle of fields A photo I had taken in the windmill-infested plateau of Chilkewadi last year shows the flowering bushes. Last year the weekend I spent in these high plateaus near Satara was rained out; we did not see the sun at all. This year the threatening skies remained dry, but the topli karvi was not in bloom. It blooms every eight years. The next blooming is expected in 2023. Botanists give the name “mast seeding” to synchronous flowering of many plants of the same species after intervals of several years. The Western Ghats have several species of Strobilanthes which do mast seeding.

Topli karvi bushes in Chilkewadi

You can see one of the round bushes of topli karvi in the foreground of the photo above. I looked closely at it. It was healthy, free of parasites and seemed to be vigorous. As far as I know, these bushes do not die after a flowering, unlike bamboo, which dies out after a mass flowering. Botanists would call the bamboo monocarpic, and the topli karvi polycarpic. Around these bushes you can see other flowers. This patch was full of flowering shoots of the common balsam (Impatiens balsamica). I’ve seen other flowering shoots poking out of the karvi bushes. But it is easy to pick them out. The topli karvi is a low round bush with dark green hairy leaves with serrated edges (see the featured photo for a closer look at the leaves).

I’ve never seen the fruit of the topli karvi, although I was told that it remains on the bush for most of a year. I’m not sure whether this information is correct. This behaviour is attributed to a different species of mast seeding Strobilanthes in a Wikipedia article: the hill karvi or the Strobilanthes callosus. I’d also seen the hill karvi flowering last year, and did not see it this year.

Topli karvi flowering in 2015

Two years ago The Family had taken the photo of flowers of topli karvi which you can see above. I saw a few scattered bushes in flower this year. The featured photo shows a flower bud developing. If you really want to see karvi flowers, it seems quite possible that you should be able to do this every year. It is mast flowering that you must wait for.

Why did Strobilanthes take to mast seeding, whereas other plants in the same plateaus flower each and every year? Some people say it is because of variable rainfall and heat; some years are just not conducive to flowering. Maybe so, but then other nearby plants flower every year. Some say that these plants could be responding to the weather quickly by flowering, but then the eight-year cycle would not hold, because the monsoon does not have such a predictable cycle. A third set of people say that the karvi has this long cycle because it is synchronized to the long cycle of a pollinator. I haven’t seen a study of the pollinators of the karvi, and in any case this just shifts the problem on to another species. Why would the pollinating species have a long cycle? Since I have not seen the fruit of karvi, I do not know whether this has such large seeds that it is inefficient for the plant to seed every year. Could it be, as some believe, that synchronized seeding serves to produce such a large amount of fruit or seed that animals which eat these cannot possibly eat all the fruits or seeds produced in a mast seeding year? I guess someone has to study the animals which feed on karvi to find out.

Although the topli karvi grows widely, it is a mysterious plant. This is a mystery which I will not be able to solve. The solution will come from a younger person who can see it go through several cycles of bloom and fruit.

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Plateau of flowers

I’ve written about the world heritage Kaas plateau before. I went back there over the weekend. The volcanic rock barely holds any soil, and what little is there has little nutrient. The plants that one can see here have evolved in this hard environment. As a result, this 10 square kilometer area at an altitude of about 1.2 kilometers is an island mountain: the flora here is isolated from flora in other plateaus in the region. There’s a brief but glorious flowering at the end of the monsoon. By all accounts the flowers change almost every week.

Kaas plateau: landscape

The most famous plant here is the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) which blooms in mass once every seven years. Last year this was in bloom. This year the general view (see photo above) did not show any of the bright blue flowers of this bush. One had to search hard for the few isolated and idiosyncratic bushes of S. sessilis which flowered this year. Instead the landscape was full of patches of white globular pipewort (Eriocaulon sedgewickii) mixed in with the vivid colours of the carnivorous purple bladderwort (Utricularia purpurascens). In other places we patches of the yellow sonkadi (Pentanema indicum) mixed in with the violet rosemary balsam (Impatients oppositifolia). You can see all four species in the featured photo.

This week the balsam outnumbered everything. Most green patches had highlights of violet. Maybe by next week the sonkadi will dominate.

Beasts of Kaas

Since this post is about creatures fairly high up on the food chain of the Kaas plateau, I could start with the top predator I saw: the funnel-weaving spider (family Agelindae) you see in the featured photo. This one had laid down a huge sheet of a web covering several Topli Karvi bushes, and was waiting for food to fall out of the sky. When an insect lands on the web, it usually runs very fast to it and engulfs it in silk. Now, with rain drops falling intermittently on the web, I’m sure this guy had his work cut out, trying to distinguish rain from food. Other insectivores on the plateau are plants: sundews and bladderworts. I’ve written about them elsewhere.

Snail on the Kaas plateauThis snail is about the largest animal I took a photo of on the plateau. There are birds; the Crested Lark (Galerida crestata) had put in a hazy appearance in the morning mist. After it started raining we saw no birds. The rain does not stop a snail, as it munches the roots of Topli Karvi bushes. This was on its way from one bush to another, when I saw it. It didn’t seem to move as I took the photo, meaning it would take an age and half to get to the next busg. The western ghats harbour a large variety of land snails; I’m not sure which species this is. Any expert comments?

Startled grasshopperOne of the more common animals which inhabit these parts are grasshoppers. Judging by where it was sitting, this one probably feeds on the leaves of Topli Karvi. It has a silly startled look, as it turns its head slightly to take a look at the relatively large camera lens looking at it. I couldn’t get a shot of the three eyes it has on top of its head. Again, I have no idea what species this is, and have to depend on the kindness of an expert to provide the answer.

A very strange animal was this leaf piercer. Plant borer seen in Kaas It stood on this leaf for a long while as people tried to photograph it. The early photos show a little spot of sap on its long snout. By the time the last photos had been taken the sap had disappeared: it had done its version of licking its chops. I have no further idea about the classification of this beautiful and strange beast.

Interestingly, none of these animals are pollinators. Tiny moth seen in Kaas This tiny moth which flew on to a Topli Karvi leaf while I watched is also unlikely to be a pollinator. It is quite likely to be another herbivore. Interestingly, the leaf it is sitting on already has been attacked. Usually true bugs (order Hemipteran) attack plants in this way. Unfortunately I didn’t see any.

Caterpillar munching grassI didn’t see a single butterfly in my few hours in the Kaas plateau. It was raining, and butterflies don’t like to get their wings wet. More likely, the butterflies had not pupated yet. I had evidence for this soon afterwards when we arrived at a grassy meadow full of caterpillars. I don’t know which butterfly they will metamorphose into, but the complete fearlessness with which they crawled across the ground, and the absence of predators, probably means that they are toxic.

I’m sure I missed a very large number of insects. It was raining hard, so most of them were probably hidden under leaves. Since it was muddy, I was not intent of kneeling or sitting to peer under the low leaves of the Karvi. So I’ll have to leave the job of talking about more beasts of the plateau to someone else.

The flower and the water

If only all visitors to the Kaas plateau were as subtle as Neruda’s lover, they could come and go among the flowers and the water, and no harm would come to anything. Unfortunately, some are not.

Sutil visitadora, llegas en la flor y en el agua.
(Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water)
[Pablo Neruda in
Twenty Poems of Love]

In the featured photo you can see, through raindrops which kept falling on my lens, hordes of people trampling bushes in order to take selfies among flowers. This, in spite of guards blowing their whistles and shouting at such deplorable behaviour. At one point I was standing on a path, using a zoom to take a close up of a flower which was about a body length away. A young woman walked right up to the flower, knelt on the bushes around it and used her mobile phone to take a close up. She left a long trampled swathe of greenery behind her. All this happens on the only protected plateau left in this region!

Gentle visitors to the Kaas plateauOf course, all visitors are not like that. Most are probably like the couple you see above. They stood next to me as I took a photo of a patch full of the purple flowers of bladderwort. Then they walked away along the path, hand in hand. Now as I look at this photo, I realize something that I missed as I followed them along this path: collectively, our lightest footprints change the ecology. One person’s passage may not cause damage. But a hundred careful couples, fifty conscientious photographers, or two deplorable persons, wear out these paths through the rock and prevent plants from growing where they pass.

Windmills in the middle of fields

Other, equally interesting, plateaus nearby are not protected. The Chilkewadi plateau, which you can see in the photo above, is full of windmills. Properly planned, these could be an ecologically low-impact alternative to other sources of energy. Unfortunately, they have been placed in one of the last few inselbergs which harbour many rare plants found only in the western ghats, a subset of which are found only near Satara. In the deep fog I’d stepped into a meadow and retreated immediately when I saw that it was full of Topli Karvi and bladderwort. Then I noticed that a work gang was in the same meadow, working on one of the giant windmills placed there.

On my next visit to this region I will try hard to argue with my companions that we should spare the Kaas plateau, and instead spend all our time on the Chilkewadi plateau. It has the same flowers as Kaas, and by not going there, may be we can help that ecology to repair itself. Can we adopt the slogan: Visit Kaas only once in your lifetime? We can start frequenting nearby plateaus. Many of the plants grow in other parts of the Sahyadris as well. I know that I can convince very few people alone. But if you help me out by doing this, and talking and writing about it, refusing to like photos of people standing among the flowers of Kaas, then maybe we can change the fate of the bladderwort, sundew, Karvi, Indian arrowroot, and other such strange and vulnerable species.

Maybe you have a different idea. I would love it if you put it in the comments below. It is important to get together and work on preserving Kaas.

Dew grass and cat’s ears

In my reading about the flowers of the Kaas plateau, I’d not remembered the flower which is called abhali in Marathi. But when I started walking through the meadows of Kaas, these beautiful flowers attracted attention instantly. I saw them poking up through fields of Topli Karvi. It seemed to me that they grew in patches where the Karvy was not in bloom, but this impression was heavily biased by the memories of places where I stood and took photos. I cross checked it by looking again at the panoramic shots I’d taken of flowering bushes of Topli Karvi, and found that in this case my general impression was probably correct. The abhali blooms where the Topli Karvi does not, but they both like the same kind of soil.

abhaliplantThe Cyanotis tuberosa seems to have multiple names: it is called abhali in Marathi, valukaikizhangu and netha kina in Tamil, and is referred to by the fanciful names of Cat’s ears or Dew grass. The English names were probably given in colonial times, when its habitat was being systematically destroyed by converting the forests into coffee and tea plantations. The habitat destruction continued with the widespread planting of Eucalyptus, and the building of large dams.

Abhali is widespread. Apart from the Kaas plateau, I found it listed as growing in Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and in the eastern Himalayas. So habitat destruction perhaps does not affect this plant as much as many others. It is the only Cyanotis species complex which has tubers; as a result, it can put out leaves and start to bloom as soon as the monsoon starts. In Kaas it blooms from August to October and around Bangalore it has been reported to bloom in May.

The plant is widely listed as human-edible and medicinal, for example, in the encyclopaedic Wildlife and Ground Flora: an interaction scenario of forests of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri by A. B. Chaudhuri and D. D. Sarkar. At the other end of the country, in Tamil Nadu, the root is ground into a paste and eaten to treat diabetes, and also as a vegetable. In Karnataka it is supposed to relieve coughs. All in all, it seems to be a very familiar plant in many parts of India.

I wonder whether it could have spread through India in recent times? If its origin is in the Deccan plateau, then the fact that it is strongly dependent on the monsoon could have prevented a spread through the dry lands of central and western India. The monsoon opens up corridors along the eastern coast of India, allowing it to spread up through Orissa and Bengal into the eastern Himalayas. I could not find reports of it growing in the western Himalayas. Why?

I didn’t know any of this as I knelt on paths and tried to focus on the hairy flower. Now, I wonder why its petals are like hairy filaments which trap beads of water. Does this have a purpose?

The eight year itch

I can’t believe that I wrote a piece saying goodbye to the monsoon on Saturday. On Sunday I was at the Kaas plateau. It rained all morning. The thin layer of soil was saturated with rain. Then other Sunday visitors turned up, and the soil on the road turned to a well-churned slush. The official website says that 3000 people are allowed each day. It seemed to me that there were many more people there on Sunday. People waiting to get into the fenced-off part of the plateau lost their patience. Someone lost their spectacles. I found the featured image.

Karvi in bloom on Kaas plateauThe press has been full of reports about the Topli Karvi (Strobilanthes sessilis) blooming this year after a gap of eight years. We found fields full of flowering Topli Karvi (see the photo alongside). But then there were large patches of these knee-high bushes which did not have any flowers. The Family had visited the plateau last year and come back with photos of Topli Karvi flowering in some patches.

Seeing her photos, I’d speculated that Topli Karvi could bloom once in eight years, but different patches could bloom in different years. Then this would not be a textbook case of mast seeding, such as that seen in the related Strobilanthes Kunthiana (Neelakurinji, which is supposed to flower next in 2018), in which the plants die after flowering. Incomplete synchronization of the flowering of some species of Strobilanthes has been reported from Japan, so this is not a radical idea. It would be nice to see data on this species.

View of a path on the Kaas plateau

I did not see any of the usual pollinators. Perhaps it was raining too hard. The previous evening, near the Thosegarh waterfalls I’d seen Indian honeybees in a stand of the related Strobilanthes callosus (Karvi). Dhamorikar has a very interesting observation about the Karvi: it is pollinated by bees, flies, ants, some moths and maybe even the Oriental White-eye. He speculates that the purple colour of the Karvi has evolved to attract a large number of pollinators.

There aren’t that many flowering cycles of Karvi in a lifetime. More than one life may be required to solve the mysteries of the blooming of the Karvi.