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.

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.

Karambal

Obligate postings? Is that what you call it? I seem to have taken photos of Justicia procumbens (करंबल Karambal in Marathi) flowers and plants almost every year during the monsoon, and written a post about it. That is just a reminder of how common it is in the Sahyadris. I have photos of the flowers from July to early October. That means if you want to see it go for a walk anywhere in the Sahyadris during the monsoon months. If you see it earlier or later please drop me a line. I’m told you can see it across India: from Manipur to Uttarkhand, Gujarat, and even in Tamil Nadu. I have seen it reported from across Asia, east of India. So it seems pretty widespread. The genus probably has about a thousand members and is reported from across the world. It belongs to the family Acanthaceae (Acanthus family) and like many plants in this family, has found some medical use.

The herbs grow to about 20 cms from the ground, and have hairy stems that lie on the ground without taking root. These procumbent stems give the plant its name. The leaves are 1.5 to 5 cms long, and can be elliptic, as in these photos, or ovals, with serrated edges, and are slightly hairy. The flower-bearing stems are usually upright, and have an inflorescence in a spike at the end. The 5 to 7 mm pink and white flowers are two-lipped. The lower lip has three lobes and a pattern at the center, and the upper lip has one lobe with an indentation along the middle. I haven’t seen the fruits, but I would like to take a walk after the monsoon to see the capsules with their seeds. I’ve mostly seen the plant in open fields, shallow ditches, and along roadsides, but that may just be because I looked there. I haven’t managed to see a pollinator, either in the field or while looking through my photos. They have to be small, and I wonder whether they are so small that my cameras just haven’t resolved them.

Given how common it is, I’m surprised that I haven’t found a single other blog with a post about this flower. It seem that this could be a great subject for citizen science. Where is it found in India and Asia? If you have seen it, please mention the place in a comment (great if you can remember the month when you saw the flower). There are many different common names for this plant in use across India. I don’t know what it is called outside of India. What is it called in your local language? Does it grow in Australia or East Africa? Can it be found further west? Drop me a line, or better still, blog about it and leave a link on this post.

Fritter my wig

He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry,
      Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!”
To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!”
      But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”

Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark

As we climbed towards Khardung La, the pass at an altitude of 5.5 Kms above sea level, we passed from the cold desert of Ladakh to a glacier fed oasis. Leh was two kilometers below the pass, and there the ground was barren except in narrow bands on the banks of the Indus river. I suffered from a lack of oxygen there, but it wasn’t air pressure or oxygen which made this a desert. As always, this cold desert was created by a lack of moisture. You feel it on your skin too: a need for constant moisturization. But when you climb towards the 4.5 Km mark in summer, little mountain streams create a swathe of greenery, an altitudinal oasis. In that green, The Family was the first to spot these bushes full of flower.

Most of them grew on protected slopes, and I could see that they were between one and two meters in height. I was considering getting out to photograph one at close range when we came to one right next to the road. This was a giant, about 4 meters tall. And full of flowers. Not anemones. Roses, maybe.

Wild rose flowers look different from our familiar Damask roses, which are the results of intricate cross breeding. My first thought was the musk rose (Rosa moschata). But I understand that always bears white flowers, and its leaves are more pointed than these. In fact, the leaf shape rules out the other roses I’ve seen in books. The buds and serrated leaves do resemble those roses. But strangely, after nearly two months, I have no real ID. My best bet is to put this out there, and hope that one of you will be better at identifying it than I have been.

Abhali

Cat’s ears or Dew Grass? Which name do you prefer for the flower you see here. Colonials did not adopt local names for the flowers they saw in India but created their own fancies. Abhali (आभाली) is the common Marathi name for Cyanotis tuberosa, whose beautiful but tiny flower you can see here. I’d first seen this flower in the Kaas plateau a few years ago. There it was entangled in the bushes of the Karvi, and I could not see its leaves and base.

This year, on a slow drive between Malshej Ghat and Naneghat in the Sahyadris, a mere 4 hours’ drive from home, The Family spotted a lone plant growing by the side of the road. The camera I use for taking macros records interesting other information about the location. We were at 857 meters above sea level when I took these photos, the temperature was 27.2 Celsius, the air pressure was 919 hectoPascals, and it was the 25th of August, a dry but overcast day past the peak of a very heavy monsoon season. Most importantly, I could see the base of the plant, where the long leaves sprout from the tuber and the fact that the “flowering shoots are sub-erect” as Mayur Nandikar and Rajaram Gurav note in their 2014 paper revising the genus Cyanotis in India.

Their paper cleared up a confusion in the literature that had puzzled me earlier. In their revision of the genus, they note that Cyanotis tuberosa (Abhali, Sahyadri Dew Grass, Greater Cat’s Ears) is found only in peninsular India. Flowers which are similar in appearance elsewhere in India actually belong to different species. Nevertheless, there remains a confusion in the timing of the flowering across the Western Ghats. I saw it flowering in late August this year, and had photographed the flowers in October 2016 in Kaas. Around Bengaluru it is reported to flower significantly earlier. I’m waiting for someone to draw maps with iso-lines of its flowering season from across the Indian peninsula.

I’m not going to repeat all the things I’d found about this plant six years ago; if you are interested, you can read my earlier post. In these few years I’ve learnt a few things about plants. I noticed that the flower has six stamens, that hairy bracts enclose the flower (you can see a pair about to open up to let a flower bloom at the left end of the photo above). I’ve also learnt to take photo of the whole plant, after having failed to identify some because I concentrated only on the flower. So I not only saw the large lance shaped basal leaves, but also the smaller and rounder leaves on the flowering shoot, and that it grows on porous rocky soil. After a few years of taking photos of wildflowers, especially in the Sahyadris during monsoon, I’ve finally started taking baby steps towards really looking at what I see. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the patience to wait and see which pollinators come by the Abhali.

A wild garden

Ladakh is surprisingly full of wildflowers. Most tourists come back from this high desert talking of “lunar landscapes” because they don’t look hard enough. We had a different experience because we were looking for birds. And when you think of birds you think of berries and bugs which they feed on, and, inevitably, of plants and flowers. We found plenty in the desert, enough to make me regret not planning to take macros. But our biggest surprise was in a hotel we stayed in. It prided itself as a low-impact structure and organization, and one manifestation of this philosophy was its garden. They grew only local wildflowers in their garden, and I failed to identify most. The gardener was always elsewhere, so I will have to sit with a book and teach myself how to identify them.

From the flower, I first thought that the featured photo shows a thistle, but the leaves tell you that it isn’t one. I could place only two of the flowers in a sub-family. One was the rose buds. Could they be the Himalayan big-hip rose? Probably not, going by the colour of the leaves. The other was the aster. That’s the yellow flower with the spiky petals. I’ve probably seen one of the others before, but I have no clear idea what they are. In all of these, I get to a conclusion by looking at the flower, and then the leaf does not fit.

But every garden draws the true wilderness. We call them weed, but we should really be paying them more attention. When I looked down at the lawn, it was full of life. There’s no lack of sunlight at these heights, and the garden provides the water that these hardy interlopers need. The gardeners had cleverly decided not to remove these wild flowers. They were more familiar to me. After all, the hardiest plants are what you see most often. I could see milkwort budding, and daisies and asters in bloom. This was a wonderful place to relax in.

Probable, possible

We’d been driving through the desert highway which ran parallel to, and high above, the course of the Indus. The undulating landscape around the highway was carved out of a soft but rocky soil. I found later that the river has been moving soil around the plateau for 10-20 million years, and this aspic made of soil and rock is called the Indus molasse basin. The phrase “lunar landscape” was invented by an unknown hack as an utterly wrong description for this riverine landscape. Millions of tourists now repeat it unthinkingly, because the land does not look green and fertile. But the word for a desert is desert.

Like in any desert there are plants which grow here. There are insect communities which they sustain. There are lizards and spiders which prey on the insects. And there are, very visibly, birds which prey on the predators. During the drive my eye adapted quickly to spotting clumps of grass or plants huddled low to avoid the wind. The altitude means that the air is thin, and the UV levels are high. The resulting glare plays games with your sight, and distinguishing green from the khaki landscape may be hard, unless you have grown up in the hot dusty plains of northern India.

As a result I managed to spot these flowers as we sped by. Nassir Khan, our guide and driver for the day, stepped on the brakes immediately, and I had only a short walk up a slope to where the plant was growing out of a clod of earth. This was a globe thistle for sure. We were at a height of above 3000 m, and considering that we were in Ladakh, this was almost certainly the Himalayan blue globe thistle (Echinops cornigerus). The appearance of the bracts, the flowers, the stems, and the leaves are all consistent with this identification.

But the literature is rife with confusion between E. cornigerus and the snow-white globe thistle (Echinops niveus), perhaps half of it due to amateurs like me. Typically the confusion occurs at lower altitudes, where E. niveus (or even the low-altitude, Indian globe thistle, Echinops echinatus) is mistaken for its high altitude cousin. It is often said that E. niveus is found to a height of 1700 meters in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Nepal. But that altitudinal ceiling was only reported in the early 1980s from sites in western Nepal. With warming weathers, and ever increasing traffic, it is not impossible that it has spread its range along this road, the Srinagar-Leh highway. Instead of adding to the confusion, let me keep the issue open until clinching evidence emerges, with the proviso that this is more likely to be Echinops cornigerus.

Marche

Summer in a village in the Marche, that’s a memory that stays with me. Maybe because it was a complete internet detox, since the telephone line to the farmhouse had fallen down in winter. The result was that I walked a lot, across the lovely countryside. The Marche borders the more touristy province of Emilio-Romagna, shares many things with it, but has the advantage of being less fashionable.

Daily walks through the countryside gave me beautiful and unexpected views. It was early in summer, and the wildflowers were still in bloom. But it was late enough that the harvesters had already begun to rove over fields, taking the wheat and leaving a scatter of large bundles of hay to dry in the summer sunlight.

The countryside is dotted with little treasures: small villages, several of them medieval or older. After all, this region was at the center of the Roman empire, and was later fought over by the Byzantines and the various tribes.

Summer in the countryside also brings other treasures in plenty. I found that it was easy to indulge in my taste for photographing millifauna, the little creatures which are attracted to wildflowers. I’m happy I went back to these photos. They bring back great memories.

A better botanist?

Speeding through the jungle of Kanha NP, my eyes were caught by the many flowering trees. At one point I called a halt and took some photos. Our driver and guide were feeling bad for us because this was our last drive, and we hadn’t seen a tiger. They take it pretty personally. After the surfeit of tigers in Corbett, I wasn’t down in the dumps about it. So I started a conversation about trees and flowers, thinking it would cheer them up. It does usually, because they know many more of the plants than city people like us do.

In passing I wasn’t sure whether the tree was flowering or had berries. When we stopped and backed up I saw that they were buds. The yellow-orange colour was quite eye catching, but most of the buds were still not open. So I could not really see the shape of the flowers. I think these will become five-petaled flowers when they open up, but not seeing an open flower got rid of my main method of identifying the tree. The driver and the guide conferred and came to the conclusion that this was a tree whose leaves could be used on a wound. But that was all the information they had.

To a better botanist the leaf shape might be enough to yield an identification. I remembered to take a photo of the leaves: palmate, entire, emarginate. I know the words, but they are just words to me, not keys to understanding the world. It could be a bauhinia, but this genus has spectacular orchid-like five-petaled flowers. Could these buds open up into something like that? A better botanist would be able to give an answer.

On second thoughts, I might have been confused by the way the trees grew cheek to jowl. If I look at the leaves on the flowering branch, they are pinnate (also entire, acute, and possibly emarginate). On looking at the photos, it seems possible that the flowering branches were poking through a bauhinia towards the sun, but belonged to a different tree altogether. It would make sense, since the guide and the driver knew about bauhinias and their many uses, but were a little unsure about the flowering tree.