Common balsam

Childhood memories of picking pods off stalks of common balsam (Impatiens balsamina) come to me every time I see these flowers. The pods pop explosively, which is how the balsam co-opts young humans into its reproductive cycle. The flowers are beautiful too. As a child I was very happy when my mother devoted one corner of the garden to balsam. Win-win situation for us both. Now I see it whenever I’m out in the Sahyadris in the monsoon: whole meadows are dotted with the purple flowers of these plants.

Kurdu

Silver cockscomb, (Celosia argentea, called Kurdu कुर्दु in Marathi) is a flower which I photograph every monsoon. There are often whole fallow fields around villages full of these flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. When I think of the Sahyadris in the monsoon, this is what flashes on my inward eye. Every year is slightly different. This year I found a couple of fully developed blooms in that spike. And this year I also found that the leaves of this annual plant are edible. I should try it when I find it on a farm next year.

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.

Invasion

Mass murders can happen in front of your eyes without you looking away. Some things are just so hypnotic. Lantana camara was taken by humans and planted in gardens across the world. As a result, this species from the tropical Americas now infests the old world, from China in the north to New Zealand in the south, from Spain in the west to Fiji in the east. The flowers are cheerful clusters of brightness, but it is a beautiful face which hides a murderous heart.

It is a noxious plant. It harbours toxins which are released in the gut and are strong enough to kill small animals. This is bad enough for farmers, and has induced them to spend effort in clearing Lantana from their land. But it is worse in forests, where it can grow unchecked and kill small wildlife. A study found that it can cause great changes in bird communities in forests. It is specially damaging in the bioreserves and protected forests of India because these are places where human intervention should be kept at a minimum, but control of Lantana sometimes calls for large-scale intervention.

It also spreads rapidly, both by seeding and vegetative expansion. It co-opts many local species of butterflies and moths by producing a large volume of nectar and luring them into providing sexual services. That’s why each flower is shaped like a long, narrow trumpet. This fills up quickly in rain, as you can see in these monsoon season shots. When I want to take photos of butterflies, I look for Lantana patches which are partly sunny. But the nectar also attracts robbers which do not serve to pollinate. These include some types of bees and also nectar feeding birds. The birds have learnt to pluck the flowers and suck the nectar out from the wrong end.

But the plant does not seem to care too much about this loss. It has highly evolved sexual strategies. For example, its flowers change colour after they are fertilized, so that pollinators are attracted to the unfertilized flowers. That’s why every bunch of flowers is multicoloured. Also, in each bunch, the outer flowers open first, the inner later, to reduce self-pollination and thereby increase the chances of vigorous offspring. Moreover, it hybridizes readily, which is why you see such a variety of colours in the wild. This ability, and the consequent ease of generating different cutivars is what attracted gardeners in the first place.

Kana

Kana (काना) in Hindi, Bechka (बेचका) in Marathi, and lots of other names in Indian languages. They all refer to this plant, Cyanotis axillaris. But in English it is Creeping cradle plant. Perhaps less mysterious than the names given to its cousin Cyanotis tuberosa. But when a plant is called a cradle plant and another in the same genus is called a dew grass, you wonder whether those British amateur botanists of colonial times ever talked to each other, or to more experienced botanists.

This plant is widespread in the Sahyadris and across the country up to the Eastern Himalayas. It is easily spotted in the monsoon because of the tiny but bright flower. You can tell it by the lance-shaped leaves, anything between 5 and 12 cms long. The tops are erect, but the main stem creeps along the ground, often around paddy fields. My macro lens turns out to have a very sharp focal plane, so keeping it on the petal sends the pollen sacs on the stamen out of focus. Still, I captured the tangle of purple filaments above the petals. They seem to be characteristic of the genus.

Jakham-judi

Weed. Invasive plant. Pest. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) seems to have little going for it in more vocal parts of the world. I’d been seeing this in my monsoon walks around the Sahyadris and mentally marked it as a daisy on first look. But eventually I realized that it is not. It has only five ray petals, although each is deeply notched into three. It is a totally different genus, although it lies in the same family, the asters (Asteraceae). Like all members of this family, the disk florets each have five petals, as you can see in the photos here. One of its local names, ekdandi, reflects the specific name procumbens, which refers to the observation that the stem lies prone on the ground, sending up isolated vertical shoots which each bear a single compound flower with a yellow center and white rays.

But this native of the tropical Americas has been adapted to folk medicine across India. It’s well-documented use in the treatment of wounds has earned it the name Jakhamjudi (wound healer) in Marathi. But, as I learned from a review of its pharmacology, it has multiple uses, from the treatment of diabetes to countering falling hair. One does expect hardy weeds to be a veritable factory of bio-active chemicals, and modern pharmacology profits from screening such widespread weeds. As we heard from a chef specializing in sustainable food, “Waste is a lack of imagination.”

Edible weed!

You might think that the most common weed along the Mumbai-Nashik highway would not be part of a botanical controversy. But it is. You would not be wrong if you call it edible hibiscus and I can equally correctly call it junglee bhindi (जंगली भिंडी, meaning wild okra), but some botanists bristle when it is called Abelmoschus manihot. The reason is visible at the tip of the long column of the style. You can see the five round stigma, which is typical of Hibiscus. The controversy is whether there should be a genus Abelmoschus at all, or whether it should be absorbed back into genus Hibiscus, where it was before 1924. A very recent paper compares the genome of three wild species of Abelmoschus in detail with its commercially important cousin A. esculentus (okra to you and me), and concludes that they are related closely enough that they should be collected into a genus. Does this end a controversy that was not settled by two earlier papers on genetics (this and this)? I have no idea. All the papers, however, agree that the species could have radiated from an ancestor somewhere in South Asia. No wonder this perennial sprouts so readily in cities and along roadside drainage ditches at altitudes up to 700 meters or so. Knowing this, I will treat it as a wildflower and not an invasive weed.

I’ve often seen plants which are taller than me, flowering between monsoon and winter. But before today I was not aware of the fact that its edible leaves are highly nutritious, with a substantial protein content, and with several vitamins and minerals. I really should investigate this plant a little more. Can I use its leaves as a salad, or should I cook it? I would avoid harvesting it from the wild, because the waste lots where it grows in Mumbai are places with abandoned warehouses and factories. These are exactly the kinds of places which can be chemically contaminated. But since it grows from a cutting, I don’t mind planting one in a pot on my balcony along with other greens.

Jalpipari

Monocots abound. They may be only a quarter of all flowering species of plants, but that’s still a huge number of species. The striking blue petals of this dayflower (Commelina clavata, Jalpipari, of the family Commelinaceae) was actually what attracted my attention when I ambled past the rice fields outside the village of Pargaon. not far from the Pimpalgaon Joge Dam in Pune district of Maharashtra. The centimeter sized flowers were trimerous: three petals, three stamens with yellow anthers, and three stamenoids (false stamens). The pistil was below the anthers. The leaves were smooth and lance shaped,

PoWO lists the range to be in Sri Lanka and India, stopping west of Assam, then jumping to Myanmar, skipping Thailand to appear in Malayasia and then on the islands of Java and Sumatra. These geographical gaps must arise because of inadequate reporting. I’m pretty sure that this plant grows on the berms of rice fields in Bangladesh, Assam, other states of the north-eastern India, as well as in Thailand. Many of the dayflowers have edible leaves, and I read reports that the leaves of Jalpipari are eaten in southern Africa (where it must also grow). I wish I knew that. I would have tried to get a few of these plants home to grow in our balcony herb garden.

This note is added later in the day. I took a look at photos that I took during a walk in Nameri national park on 5 November, 2015, and came across this photo. It is clearly a photo of Commelina clavata in flower. Nameri in in Assam, and rather far east of the West Bengal border, being right at the border with Arunachal Pradesh. The national park is part of a larger protected ecosphere as the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary of Arunachal. This observation therefore extends the range of C. clavata almost all the way to the eastern border of India. It may be just a matter of time before the gaps in PoWO’s range map are filled in.

Dayflower

Dayflowers (family Commelinaceae) should be easily identified you think. They have only three petals, and all three-petalled flowers are monocots. But sometimes four petals are fused into three. You need to count how many stamens there are: multiples of three or not. Once you have got to monocots, you have cut out three quarters of all flowering plants, and identification should be straightforward. There are only about 60,000 plants remaining to choose from. But it is easier to recognize dayflowers from their false stamens, the staminodes. These are the three stems bearing what look like minute white flowers in the middle of the flower in the featured photo. The stamens bear the purple pollen sacs that you see. The flower is about half a centimeter across, and, since it lacks a pistil is male. I don’t have a photo of the female flower. If you look carefully, you’ll see a tangle of filaments near the center of the flower. I wonder what purpose they serve.

I made life harder for myself by not examining the plant carefully when it was in front of me. I was misled by the leaves of a pea-like plant through which the bare flowering stem arose. Eventually I found a photo in which the plant was visible in the background. From that I found that the stem probably lies along the ground, and sends up an erect branch bearing a few buds. The lower leaves are lance-shaped, about 2 to 4 cms long. Unfortunately, I can’t see what the upper leaves (along the flowering stem) look like. Still, there is enough evidence that this plant is Murdannia spirata. I found it in a ditch near a rice field, which agrees with observations that the species likes wet fields. PoWO lists its range as encompassing India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, Vietnam, and across the sea in Taiwan, and parts of the Philippines and some parts of Java. It has also been introduced to Florida, where it seems to thrive. I have not been able to find its name in Marathi, which perhaps indicates that it is not very common in the Sahyadris.

I was glad I found the little anecdote about the genus Murdannia being named after Murdan Ali, who was the keeper of the herbarium at Saharanpur in the mid-19th century CE. He is said to have compiled a checklist of plants of Western UP in Hindi which was unpublished and is now presumed to be lost. Nothing else seems to be known about him. Botany and plants do not seem to catch public imagination, although pharmacology would be a non-starter without it.

Murder by glory lily

Glory lilies are not lilies. They should rightly be called Gloriosa superba. They belong, along with 10 other species, to the genus Gloriosa, which, in turn, lies in the family of crocuses, Colchicaceae. Lilies, on the other hand, belong to the family Liliaceae. Why do glory lilies look so much like lilies then? Not a far-fetched accident, really. Colchicaceae and Liliaceae both originate from a single parent plant, around 117 million years ago, in the early Cretaceous period. This parent was old enough to be one of the earliest flowering plants, and lived at the same time as the early ceratop and theropod dinosaurs. Yes, you are right, I’ve gone off topic. What is really the difference between lilies and the crocuses, you ask? All plants in the latter group contain colchicine, a widely used medicinal drug, and doctors know that overdoses of colchicine can be fatal.

So I was not completely surprised to find in a medical journal an article titled “A rare case of attempted homicide with Gloriosa superba.” It seems that in Sri Lanka it is common to have a tea made with coriander seeds, a condiment all south Asians will have in their kitchen. Apparently, one day in 2016, a man was brought into a hospital in Colombo with diarrhea and profuse vomiting. He went into shock. His hair fell off, and he developed trouble breathing. So much so, that he had to be put on a respirator. The attending physicians might have been flummoxed by the symptoms, had the family not brought the pot in which his tea was brewed.

It seems that the man’s sister in law was missing from the house after she made the tea. Seeing the man in distress, his wife took a small amount of tea to test it, and developed milder symptoms of poisoning. The rest of the family identified glory lily seeds mixed in which coriander seeds in the pot, and brought it along to the hospital. The journal article contains more details of the symptoms and treatment, and nothing else about the crime. The means and opportunity are reasonably clear. But the motive? And the resolution? It is all left to your imagination, gentle reader.

The plant grows wild in the Sahyadris, and in other parts of India and Sri Lanka. It is also a fairly popular garden plant, with several cultivars available. All of them are perennial vines which grow from tubers that sprout up to six stems every spring, some of which are stiff enough to be upright and can grow up to 4 meters in height. The one I saw was half that. The lance-shaped leaves grow opposite each other or in a whorl around the stem (as you can see in the wide-angle shot). The tips of the leaves can wind around support to pull the vine up. Here it has climbed over a lantana bush. I’ve only seen them flowering during the monsoon, but my experience is limited. The flowers are either solitary, or appear, as here, in a group of a few. The 6-7 cm long petals start off in yellow and orange, aging to a deeper red. The 6 stamens appear in a ring around the bottom of the flower, just above the green ovary, from which a single style juts far away. The distance between the style and stamens prevents frequent self pollination. You can see that the flowers in this cluster were all at different ages. This is reportedly common, and is a also strategy to minimize the chances of self-pollination. Contrarily, studies show that fertile seed production is higher if they are self-pollinated by hand than if they are cross-pollinated. It’s natural pollinators are not documented, so if you see one, perhaps a sunbird or a large butterfly, make sure you take a photo.