Lemon Clematis

Bunches of bell-like flowers hung just a little above my head on a tangled bank of leaves and stems near the village of Dotiyal (about 1900 m) in Kumaon. The leaves looked like those of the lemon tree that grew in my mother’s garden. I tried to follow the stem back to get an idea of the shape of the plant, but I lost it in the thicket. Later, from my photos I figured that it was Lemon Clematis (Clematis buchananiana, घन्टे फूल).

I hadn’t paid much attention to identifying the family Ranunculaceae, the buttercups, to which it belonged. The family includes the many anemones which you see in the Himalayas. Their flowers have numerous stamens and pistils which are all separate from each other. Everything else is variable. The number of petals in the flower may be five or less (this had four) or numerous. The leaves may be simple (this was) or many-lobed and usually alternate along the stem (this had opposed leaves, as you can see in one of the photos above). The flowers may be radially symmetric (as here) or irregular. I’m unlikely to come across them away from the Himalayas, because they like colder climates than most of India offers.

I was pretty sure that the plant was not a tree, nor a herb. Was it a bush or a vine? The growth was too thick to figure this out. But later I found that it is a vine. Kumaonis use it for everything from curing toothache, to peptic ulcers and cuts. If I were to take up watching wild plants seriously I have to spend more time looking at each. Perhaps I’ll also need to carry a magnifying glass in my pocket.

Pink Knotweed

Identification is always dicey. I was on a slope photographing a ground orchid when The Accountant called out from below. “What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at a flowering mat of knotweed around the base of a boulder near him. The flowers were red, so the name red Knotweed popped into my mind. But I’d just looked at the GPS on my camera to check that I was at a height of about 1900 m. And the red-stemmed knotweed (Persicaria sinuata) usually grows above 2500 m. There could be microclimates which allow species to extend their ranges, of course. Also, it flowers immediately after the monsoon. It was later in the year now. But of course, the monsoon had been longer. Two coincidences together? I said “I don’t know”.

Reddish green leaves on alternating sides of a stem which is swollen at nodes!

I came down to take a closer look. The stems were red all right, but the leaves were not lobed. So it definitely was not P. sinuata. I didn’t know this one. That it grew in a low mat was clearly a clue. The elliptical leaves, slightly pointed, half red and half green eventually gave me the clue to its identity. It was Persicaria capitata, pink knotweed. Pink. I could have kicked myself. If my mind had fallen into the pink groove instead of red I could have shouted out “Pink knotweed”. L’esprit de l’escalier.

Trying to identify knotweeds (family Polygonaceae) leaves me with a slight nausea. It’s not just that there are about 50 genuses containing over 1200 known species, but that there are so many of them across the Himalayas (some have even invaded the western ghats). The swollen nodes, the clusters of small flowers, the leaves alternating around the stem, all make it easy to tell the family. But I know that it will take hours to go beyond that. Fortunately pink knotweed are common across the inhabited heights of the Himalayas, so now I can pretend to be an expert.

A flower and a bird

Coneflowers, genus Strobilanthes, are common across India. The most well known among them are the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), which mass flowers once in seven years in the Sahyadris, and the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which mass flowers once in twelve years in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But most species of coneflowers are annuals. I hadn’t expected to find one flowering in October throughout the lower heights of Kumaon. I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are many species found across the Himalayas. This one seems to be sticky ruella (Strobilanthes glutinosus).

From the leaves, I think this specimen, the first coneflower I saw on this trip, must be the same. The slightly different shape of the flower is an earlier stage in its opening. It was standing in the shade by the shore on the paired lakes called Ram and Sita Tal in Sattal. That was at an altitude of about 1300 m. After that I saw it again and again, up to a height of about 1900 m around Dotiyal and Maanila in Kumaon. Like many of the plants in this genus, it seems to have uses in folk medicine. In Pakistan there has been a first go at screening it for useful phytochemicals.

It was interesting to find a lone male Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) strut about a meadow full of these flowers, munching on the leaves and flowers now and then. These birds are known to feed on seeds and nuts, but this behaviour was not something I’d read of before. Leaves and flowers are not likely to be a major source of energy. I wonder whether the bird eats these coneflowers for trace nutrients.


Unknown territory to me, the Sivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, still retain much of their botanical diversity. About 700 meters above sea level, near the village of Kotabagh, I watched two green magpies dart from a tree, and glide over the valley below. The glorious sight of their green bodies and outspread maroon wings catching the light lifted my spirits as I continued photographing unknown and unidentifiable flowers. The tiny white flowers that you see above were my first find after that. The buds look like an Alternanthera (joyweed) but the flowers are completely different. Anyone know this?

How hard could identifying this be? Bright red and four petalled. There can’t be too many families with four petalled flowers, I imagined. Not so. They pop up among gentians (Gentianaceae), willow herbs (Onagraceae), evening primroses (Rublaceae), even among Melastomes (Melastomataceae). The number of petals turns out to be as uninformative about the identity of a plant as its colour. So I still don’t know what this one should be called.

Then there was this small flowering tree, with spectacular clusters of flowers. Himalayan botany was explored very thoroughly in the 19th century. So it should not have been hard to identify them. Unfortunately, the older books are now out of print, so you need access to specialist libraries to consult them. New books have not been written, and web sites specializing in these plants are inadequate. Another fine mess we have gotten into.

So I was happy to find a portion of a cliff brightened by the small flowers of the common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum). This was familiar to me from the Sahyadris. In fact, I’d seen it just the previous week in a walk around Mahabaleshwar. When the world seems unfamiliar, it is nice to see someone you recognize, even if it is not exactly a friend. All these flowers were growing within ten paces of each other, along with invasive Lantana and morning glories.

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.


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.


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 (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.


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.”