Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.

Himalayan wildflowers

Our senses are poor servants. Even colour sense, which is the most acute as it is the most important for our purpose, is weak. We have, it is true, definite names for many colours, but how many of us recognize them when we see them? But our colour names are few in comparison with the number of shades we wish to distinguish, and that is the measure of our vagueness. … Thus, we do not match flower colour, we merely indicate its quality; only haberdashers match colours.

Smells are even more indefinite. Some are indistinguishable from tastes, or the two are so involved that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But there are only five primary tastes- sweet, bitter, saline, acid and pungent- not one of which can be confused with any smell; it is only when we come to deal with flavours that, again resorting to analogy, we get into difficulties. … In fact, we can do little with smells except classify them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘aromatic’ and ‘foetid’.

It is this capital difficulty which prevents people from attempting to say much about scent in flowers and leaves.

I quote from Frank Kingdon Ward’s book, The Riddle of Tsangspo Gorges

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.

The unfashionable end of town

Far off towards the receding sea, a set of warehouses in Ephesus was converted to a church, probably in the 2nd century CE. That’s what archaeologists seem to believe lies below the ruins of what could be one of Christianity’s most important churches. The very long nave that one sees today was later called St. Mary’s church. If this was unfashionable in the 2nd century, it apparently remains so in the 21st. The Family and I met only a young Japanese trio examining these ruins. Signboards had pointed us along a path which brought us to the very impressive apse of the church.

Sighting down the nave I saw a baptismal font, and a door a long way off. The original church was probably rebuilt for the Third Ecumenical Council, called in 431 CE by the Byzantine emperor, to settle a fine doctrinal point. My audio guide told me that opinion came down in favour of the view that Jesus was simultaneously man and god (but this simplification could possibly have gotten me killed 1500 years ago). As a result, Mary would be called the mother of god, Theotokos in Greek. This also laid the seed of the doctrinal dispute with Islam which, when it rose about two centuries later, recognized Jesus only as a prophet. Long before that, the church was rebuilt into a grand basilica 260 meters long, and probably renamed after Mary. Over the years one part or the other of the grand church would collapse, and worship would shift to an intact part.

I walked down the long nave and past the standing doorway, and the columns which would have been just outside the old basilica. The grand looking apse which I’d entered looked really far away. There was another council held in Ephesus later to decide upon even more subtle questions arising out of such reasoning, but its conclusions were negated by later church doctrine, and led to centuries of schisms and strife. I wasn’t about to delve further into these abstruse questions. I marveled at the extremely thick brick walls and wondered how high a roof must have been held up by walls of such thickness. I couldn’t find an estimate.

There were other ruins around the church which were covered with grass and weeds. Now, in the middle of spring poppies had sprung up everywhere: pink poppies. I don’t remember having seen this colour of poppies before. The eastern Mediterranean is the original home of poppies, so it is possible that there is more variety here than anywhere else in the world. I wondered whether differences in the colours of petals are due to pigments or some other genetic changes, or due to the soil the plant grows in. I found later that poppy petals contain higher concentration of pigments than most other flowers, and that microscopic structures on the petals strongly influence the colours that we see. But whether these effects are controlled by genes or the environment is something I haven’t managed to track down. The world has so many mysteries!

Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

Flowers of the middle heights

The middle heights of the Himalayas are particularly pleasant. The famous British occupation-era “hill stations” of Shimla, Darjeeling, Naini Tal, Dalhousie, Mussoorie, among others lie at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. These famous destinations are now monstrous scabs on the flanks of the Himalayas, where tourists still flock. But away from these madding crowds are nameless villages dotted across the mountains at similar heights. They lie nestled in little flat pieces of land accidentally created by opposing slopes coming together. These accidental valleys often have water, and look out on pleasant meadows full of wildflowers. You see one of these in the featured photo. It is the Himalayan baby’s breath (Gypsophilia cerastioides)

These bushes spread out from below rocks, as you can see in the photo above. In late spring the low bushes are full of the five-petaled white flowers. The Young Niece asked the obvious question, “Why are there five petals?”. Once I’d asked this to a practicing research biologist and got the uninformative answer, “In biology we ask what, not why.” If you ask the Oracle of Google “Why do flowers have five petals?” you remain baffled. The most useful answer turns out to be “Because they are descended from other five-petaled flowers.” I know that another niece would have said something like the number of petals is a number in the Fibonacci sequence, and is related to the Golden Ratio. That is as unhelpful as the answer by the biologist. When we ask why, we would like to have an answer which gives us a chain of causes and effect. Anything else is just resetting the question in a different context.

Further downslope, where the meadows grow less rocky one can find fields of balsam. I don’t think I’ve seen this species before, with its long serrated leaves and the cup-shaped purple-pink flowers with large white anthers full of pollen. I was unable to identify it better. Interestingly, balsam also has five petals. The best argument from causes that I have read about pentapetalism (to coin a new word) was developed by Yutaka Nishiyama at the Osaka University of Economics a few years ago. He argues from the observation that the tip of the growing bud has to be convex. A five-fold symmetry at the growing tip is the most stable way to achieve this, for the same reason that a soccer ball has some pentagonal panels. Since petals grow out the tip of the growing bud, they will have five petals. His argument does not rule out other numbers of petals, but explains why almost 50% of families of flowering plants have five petals.

I include the flowers which you can see in the photo above not because they are wild, but because they are green. I saw them in one of the fields terraced out of a slope for agriculture. If there is something I know less about than wildflowers, it is farming. I am totally unable to say what these plants are. I’m sure if I’d stopped a local and asked I would have had instant enlightenment. Around the edges of these fields we saw the bright red flowers of large-mouthed poppy (Papaver macrostomum). That’s another five-petaled flower!

Poison anemone

I have been paying more attention to wild flowers since my trips to Kaas in the last couple of years. It took some time to identify the very ordinary looking flower that I saw on the grassy verge of a mountain path on the way to the Great Himalayan National Park. It is probably the ratanjot (Anemone obtusiloba). This turned out to be special in two ways. Firstly, it is mildly poisonous, since it contains an oil (called protoanemonin; such an inventive name!) which causes severe stomach irritation when eaten, and also local irritation if it touches the skin. I am happy not to be a compulsive sniffer of flowers. The Young Niece is not so careful, but this was growing so close to the ground that she didn’t stoop to examine it. In the perpetual arms race between plants and grazers, this anemone seems to have the upper hand now.

Secondly, it turns out to be extremely variable, with yellow, white or blue flowers. When I read this out, The Family asked “What causes the different colours in the flowers? Is it the soil?” A little searching led me to web sites on gardening which seem to indicate that the colours run true for plants. It is genes and not external factors which affect the colour. That’s a little bit like skin colour in humans. But the flowers seem to be even more variable than in colour; apparently they can be twice as large, or even change in shape somewhat. Since the plant grows across a wide altitude belt, from 2000 to 4500 meters, this seems to be a strategy to attract a very diverse set of pollinators. I was surprised to look at the photo and see that I captured one of these pollinators in the frame. It is a bee which is just enough out of focus for me not to be able to identify it.

But perhaps the biggest surprise to me was that the root of this plant is used in Himalayan home remedies. In Nepal it is mashed up and the paste is eaten to relieve coughs and colds. In the region of Kedarnath a decoction of the root is used as a cure for diarrhoea. I found a paper which investigated its effect on several common soil bacteria, and found that it inhibits the growth of several. This potentially useful plant has developed a defense against grazers, and seems to be surviving climate change till now. Sometimes in your travels you can come across unsung heroes.

Wildflowers in the city

In neglected patches inside the city, one sees wild flowers blooming. In the late 16th century, when Garcia da Orta began to record the flora of the islands which became Mumbai, the vegetation was quite different. Over the last 450 years, urbanization has changed the balance of plants so that only the hardy and quick-growing survive in the city.

What you see in the photos above are weeds which flower in Febraury. The balance of flowers changes from month to month. I wonder whether I should take my camera with me on a walk to look at what is flowering this month.

Autumn flowers

Autumn is a glorious time in Germany. Leaves change colour; the green of forests slowly give way to gold. The sky can be overcast, but when the sun is out, the light on the leaves is a wonderful sight. I loved walking at this time. All my friends told me to look out for mushrooms. My city eyes did not catch even one. But I stopped to look at mosses and at flowers. I find the variety of autumn’s flowers strange. I never thought that there were so many until I walked out with a camera looking for them: first in gardens and then in wild patches. I can’t name even one of the weeds.

If you know any of these, I would love it if you leave a comment with the name of the flower (in German, English or any other language).

Monsoon flowers

The Sahyadris come alive with flowers in the late monsoon. As we get ready for a weekend in the Kaas plateau, I decided to look again at the wild flowers I’d photographed when we were lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara about a month ago. I took out my newly acquired three-volume set of the flowers of the Sahyadris and decided that I must identify all the photos I have.

The easiest to identify is the Silver Cockscomb, called kombda in Marathi, whose binomial is Celosia argentea. Many years ago, when I first started to take macro photos, I’d noticed this as a plant which attracts many kinds of butterflies. I could wait by a patch in any open piece of land, and I would definitely get a few satisfactory shots of butterflies. Unfortunately, mid-August is too early in the season for butterflies. There are lots of other pollinators around, but the colourful Lepidoptera of the Sahyadris emerge a month later. So this time I only have a photo of the blossom (featured image).

A patch of Murdannia pauciflorum
A patch of Murdannia pauciflora in an open field

The purple flowers in the background took me a while to identify. It was called Murdannia wightii in a checklist prepared in 1965, and gets into the field guide of the flowers of the Sahyadris under this name. But the website of the Botanical Survey of India says that it is more properly called by the name Murdannia pauciflorum since it was identified as such in 1892. No common name is recorded, not even in Marathi. There were so many of these in fallow fields that I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t have a local name.

Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)
Common balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

The common Balsam was a flower that I knew well when I was a child. My gradparents’ garden always had a patch of these in some corner. Over the years I’d forgotten it. Then in August I saw whole hillsides covered with these lovely purple flowers. Bees buzzed among them. I knew I should have been able to name them. Eventually, I resorted to asking an aunt, and got an instant identification.

Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree
Blumea mollis in a shady overgrown patch under a tree

An identification which really bothered me was these tiny flowers which I saw growing in the shade of some trees in a rocky patch of land next to a rice field. I’m not certain yet that it is indeed Blumea mollis, but that’s the closest I have got. I’ll keep looking, and if I find a better identification I’ll come back and change it. But for the moment I let it stand.