Edible?

Yellow flowers are not very common in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. So when you scan a meadow, these flowers jump out at you. It has to do partly with the response of the human eye, which is most sensitive to yellows and greens in the spectrum. Many insects, on the other hand, are more sensitive to blues and the, to us invisible, ultraviolet. In any case, I’d spotted this tiny flower quite early, but took my time plodding up to it. The rain had stopped, and a little skipper had come out of hiding from under a leaf and headed for the same flower.

These creepers are quite common across the Sahyadris, but I’ve not yet got round to identifying it down to the species. It is clearly a member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitacaea). This includes an incredibly large number of edible plants, pumpkins and squashes, melons, and cucumbers. Every part of the cucumber vine growing in our balcony is edible, leaves as well as flower. I wonder about this wild species.

Rare but popular

On a walk in a sloping meadow in Khandala, in the middle of a rainy day in August, I came across a bush full of small white flowers which seemed to be very popular with a variety of insects. I’d not noticed this plant ever before, but it was not hard to identify it as Pinda concanensis (pinda in Konkani, pand in Marathi). The genus Pinda contains only a single species, concanensis. The plant is found only in the northern part of the Sahyadris, which means the part of the western ghats around Mumbai.

I was quite taken aback by the number of different kinds of insects which visited it. There were blow flies, a couple of different species of ants, a skipper, and at least one kind of beetle, all visiting one plant at the same time. I wonder whether a rare plant has to make itself popular with pollinators. If it is not, then its rarity could mean that few, if any, insects would visit it by chance. That could lead to an ever decreasing population and eventual extinction.

I spent some time admiring the beautiful compound flowers. They had not opened completely yet. The outer petals were much larger, about a centimeter in size, the inner flowers in the compound had not yet opened, but clearly would be smaller. Like many of these rarer plants of the Sahyadris, this one is likely to be under threat due to extensive loss of habitat. Unfortunately there are not enough field studies to establish the extent of the population and whether it is decreasing. A few generations of botanists in the area are spread thin still trying to identify and classify the immense number of plants in this highly biodiverse region.

Since the plant is rare and I’m unlikely to see them in a different place soon, I end this post with a photo of the stem. The three-lobed serrated leaves are pinnate. The bushes that I saw were about half a meter tall, and stood in open ground which would have been sunny on a clear day. You can see the dense growth around the plant. I did not feel like disturbing them to look at the roots of the bushes to look at the edible tubers which, as a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), they have.

A lesser plant

Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse’s famous Drone, sometimes muses about the best way to start a story. Like him, I will start mine by setting out a time and place. In the middle of August, during a monsoon rain, I was picking my way through a wild open patch in Khandala. I noticed two bunches of bushes of Asystasia dalzelliana (neelkanth in literary Marathi, santapau in Konkani and Marathi) in the open, away from any trees. They were in bloom, quite unaware of the fact that botanists have determined that they flower between September and January. Could this change be due to global warming, or local microclimate? I may have seen this waist high plant earlier, but I don’t remember identifying it before. So, without doing some archaeology in my hard disk, I cannot tell you whether it continues to flower into winter.

I read that it is endemic in the western and eastern ghats, and that it has been over-exploited because of its known folk-medicinal properties. So much so, that there is even a paper on its in-vitro propagation. I suspect that between this over-exploitation and habitat loss it must be endangered. Unfortunately the IUCN list does not contain any information on this species.

This lack of information on the species propagates into the wider scientific literature. There is a lot of material on its invasive cousin, A. gangetica, but next to nothing on A. dalzelliana. I’ve linked to two sources of independent information in the previous paragraph. The third piece of information I picked up is that it the larval host for one species of a rather drab butterfly. That’s the sum total of a morning’s search!

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Crouching slouch, hidden hero

Half a kilometer above Mumbai, I crouched to look at a strange flower hidden under a tree. The Family had led me to a hidden wilderness in Khandala. It was raining hard. As we walked through ankle-high grasses and herbs, insects mobbed us. The place was dotted with trees, and it was below one that I had found a flower which was completely new to me. I took a photo and stood up to look for The Family. She was behind me, looking satisfied with a photo of me with ass in the air, head below my ankles. Her photo was already on its way to the clan.

I pointed at the flower. She said wild ginger. This is her patch of Khandala; she knows it well. I shifted and crouched again. Sure enough, there was a rhizome, visible in the mud where the bract had stemmed out. So I could accept family Zingiberaceae, a ginger. It is more commonly called the hill ginger (Curcuma pseudomontana). Like many members of the ginger family, C. pseudomontana seems to be a source of interesting chemicals which could lead to drugs for treatment of several diseases.The pink leaves I was seeing on the flower spike is not the flower. The small yellow flower is what I should have looked at first.

The rain was letting off, and I was tired of crouching over a hollow full of insects, several of which had begun to pierce my face in search of food. We walked on. Close to the edge of a cliff I found another little pink stem. Here more of the plant was visible, including the enormous ribbed leaves. The flowering spike poked out from between them. I took a photo of the plant, growing tangled among other things. Then I bent for another close up of the pink spike. In this photo you can see more clearly that the pink parts are modified leaves. The plant is endemic to the Sahyadris, and other hilly parts of the Deccan plateau, both east and west. Its narrow range is now under “development” stress, and the plant has gone from vulnerable to near threatened in recent years. I was lucky to have permission to visit a stretch which botanists are trying to preserve.

Later, when we went back to the villa where we had parked our car, I noticed that someone had planted a bed of hill ginger. That’s not surprising. It has many uses, apart from the new pharmaceutical possibilities. Traditionally the leaves could be used as a plate instead of banana leaves. The potato-shaped buds on the rhizome could be eaten, or powdered for arrowroot. Getting a photo of the yellow flower was easier here.

Common balsam

One of the most common among the wildflowers of the Sahyadris during the monsoon is a staple of many gardens: the common balsam (Impatiens balsamina). This region is one of the five hotspots of the diverse genus Impatiens, and new species are discovered every year. Unfortunately, all I’ve noticed is this common flower. I saw it again a couple of weeks ago in my wanderings in Khandala. This time I paid special attention to the large lower petal which has markings to direct insect pollinators to the nectar. I wonder how it would look in ultraviolet. There is much discussion of the visible colours of these flowers, whether white, pink (as here), red or purple. But these are the colours visible to us. Pollinators see them in UV, and how different do they appear to bees and other insects?

The common balsam plant is hard to misidentify, although there’s probably more than a thousand species in its genus. Growing to waist height, it has long serrated leaves growing on alternate sides of the reddish stem. The leaves are lanceolate-elliptic, base narrowed, margins serrate, apex acute to acuminate, in the highly abbreviated terminology of botanists. As a child I was fascinated by the seeds pods which could burst explosively, releasing seeds. That’s one of the reasons why this is a potential weed wherever it is introduced across the world.

Puzzle flower

Puzzling is a word that came repeatedly to mind when I tried to identify the flower you see here. It was very common around Vaitarna, but I haven’t seen it in Mumbai. The plant is short, growing about 20-50 cms off the ground. I could see it on the verges of most roads, so it is perhaps hardier than many other plants. The bell-like flower is a centimeter long, usually solitary, and mostly hang down. The colour varies from a light pink or violet to near white. As you can see, it has no visible markings. I can’t place it after a couple of weeks of searching. Does anyone have a pointer to an ID?

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

Flower for Friday

My new camera gave me a really close look at this tiny flower. The flower is less than two millimeter long, and the whole cluster that you see above is certainly less than a centimeter across. I was very happy to find that the camera can catch such tiny details. That lovely macro lens and the waterproof body makes it an ideal compact to take with me on monsoon walks. The flower is unusual; I haven’t seen many green flowers.

Focus stacking is an immense help in the field. You take one photo, and your camera catches lots of things around it in beautiful focus. I was fixated on the featured photo, but the camera also gave me part of the surroundings. The stalk and the placement of the flower, the shapes of leaves, everything helps to identify it. It is very likely to be the sessile joyweed (Alternanthera sessilis). Although its present range seems to include most of the world, it is said to originate in the West Indies. So I don’t know who gave it the Sanskrit name Mastyakshi, which means fish-eyed. It was definitely a late naming, because by then the different Indian languages had evolved many different names for the plant. I’m surprised to find that it is edible, and it is even sold in markets in Sri Lanka!

Invader!

New tools need to be tested. I’m not yet familiar with my new camera. So, in Vaitarna I was still playing with focus stacking when I aimed it at patches of growth. The results surprised me over and over again. Once it was these tiny white flowers, each about a millimeter in size. They grew in clusters, and each cluster was less than a centimeter across. If I’d looked more carefully, I would have also tried out a further zoom. As it is, I have to be satisfied with the photos you see here. It took me a while to identify this as the Alternathera tenella.

Why does it not have a local name? Simply because it is an invader. This diverse genus, containing 80 to 100 species, is largely confined to the tropical Americas. In fact, recent genetic studies seem to trace this species to the Galapagos. It is used in Brazilian folk medicine, and has generated a huge literature. The fact that it is not used in local folk medication shows that it is a rather recent arrival. Several species of Alternanthera are persistent weeds, as this one must be (specimens have been collected in Odisha earlier). What are its pollinators? Is each flower perfect? I don’t know. But I’m happy to have a camera which lets me into its tiny world.