Silver cockscomb

Silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea) is a common weed. I must have seen it since I was a child, but my first clear memory of it is rather recent. It dates from about two decades ago, when I began to haunt scrublands around Mumbai and in the Sahyadris in search of butterflies. The spiky inflorescences attracted several large and colourful nymphalids, and eventually I began to photograph the flower. In recent months, after the end of the monsoon, I’ve noticed it wherever I go: Mumbai and the Sahyadris of course, but also the edge of the Thar desert, in Bera, and in the central Indian plains, in and around the Tadoba national park. I’ll have to look for it further east in coming years. I’m certain I’ll find it there, because it is considered to be as much of a weed in China as well. It is invasive, having originated in the tropical regions of Africa.

Open patches in the jungle were completely overrun with this flower. I find it quite strange that the widely grown garden plant, the cockscomb, is the same species, usually called Celosia argentea var. cristata. How many generations of selective breeding must have gone into creating those showy flowers! I always found the velvety curls of the garden flower faintly repulsive. I like the clean lines of the original wild stock much more attractive.

I stared at a patch of these flowers while everyone around me wasted their time scanning the jungle for a glimpse of the tiger. I love these tiger safaris; the herd of tourists act as lookouts, and their alarm calls are easy to recognize. I can leave the spotting to them and concentrate on these other aspects of the surroundings. The flower bearing stalks rose perhaps a little above knee high, certainly less than a meter tall, but high enough to make the flowers the first thing that a pollinator would spot from far. The bodies of the plant are visible in the photo above.

Historically in India the plant has been eaten when times are hard, and in parts of India it finds regular use as food. It is used traditionally to treat various ailments, including as an anti-parasitic agent. The literature on isolating medically active molecules from the plant is too large to quote here. Interestingly, there have been recent studies in using the plant to suck up heavy metal pollutants (manganese, cadmium, copper) from contaminated soil. This ability to quickly accumulate poisons should make it less attractive as a vegetable. Perhaps this is the reason its use as food persists only in remote places which may not have seen much industrial pollution of the soil. Not being prone to eating random plants, I’m happy to explore waste ground where I see these flowers.

Chasing prickly poppy

Driving back after our last safari, I stopped the car where a patch of kateli (Argemone mexicana) was in flower. I use the common Hindi name for it, although it is not an Indian plant. A less popular name, vilayati datura, is actually more explanatory. It says that the plant is exotic, and also indicates that it is poisonous in some way. Livestock avoid it, perhaps largely because of the thorns. But it can kill if they eat enough of it.

The Encyclopedia of Food Safety sent shivers down my spine with the warning that its oil contains “the toxic quaternary benzophenanthridine alkaloids sanguinarine (approximately 90%) and dehydrosanguinarine (approximately 5%) with lesser quantities of cheletrythrine and coptisine, and small quantities of berberine and protopine, which are isoquinoline alkaloids.” I didn’t understand a word of this, but it sounded menacing. Before cooking oil became available in tamper-proof packaging, there were some incidents of cooking oils adulterated with kateli oil. As you might expect, this resulted in deaths. All plants in the poppy family (Papaveraceae), to which it belongs, harbour toxins.

I’ve grown up seeing this plant in the kinds of degraded land which a city kid finds fascinating: the sides of roads, abandoned half-built houses, even in the cracked concrete of parking lots. Mumbai doesn’t have much; perhaps it is too wet. But across most of the dry Indian planes, even as high up as the lower valleys in Bhutan, the prickly green leaves spread a carpet over wasteland, a carpet which sprouts showy yellow flowers through autumn and winter. Now, with the right tool I could look closely at the flower. Some would hesitate to say it is beautiful, since it has six petals, and six is not a Fibonacci number. But I’m not one of them.

Knowing that it was exotic sent me on an interesting chase. It seems to be found across the tropics; it can be found across south and south-east Asia. I followed its recent progress across Africa: from Kenya to Angola across the continent and up and down the coast. It has been spreading across southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin recently. The genus Argemone contains 24 species, not all of which are equally invasive. The center of diversity seems to be in south-western US, but it is spread across central and south America, including the Andean region. A single species has been found in Hawaii. A study made in the Ngorongo bio-reserve found that seeds traveled hidden in construction material, and then were dispersed in the tyres of vehicles. Perhaps that’s how the invasion of the prickly poppy started.

White bark acacia

The forest department is meant to conserve ecology. Unfortunately, they interpret their job to mean they are supposed to grow forests. As a result, they are changing the desert scrub ecology of the Rann of Kutch by planting white bark acacia (Vachellia leucophloea). These plants have nitrogen fixing nodules in their roots, which are useful when you want to green a desert. That may be part of the reason why the forest department likes it. This acacia also grows naturally in other parts of the Thar desert. So, maybe, this experiment is not as bad as the one carried out in the 1970s, when the desert was seeded by the exotic mesquite Prosopsis juliflora. But the Rann of Kutch is a special habitat, and reduing the space for its distinctive flora and fauna creates a sudden change in ecology which will have effects that we cannot predict. But then, maybe none of this matters. Maybe the rising seas will reclaim the Rann very soon.

On our last evening’s attempt to spot birds in the Rann, I found myself quite distracted by the greenery. We walked gingerly between the trees, but there was little to see. You see a typical stand of white bark acacias here: spindly trunks with white bark spreading out a little above your head. The older bark turns rough and dark as the tree ages. The canopy is full of the typical feathery mimosa leaves. The flowers are very interesting, as you can see in the slideshow above. The dense round collection of white flowers are called glomerules, and they grow in a multiply branched stem called a panicle. That picture does a good job of explaining the words.

But there were too many trees, and the birds were avoiding this place. We moved away into the open land and were immediately rewarded by multiple sightings: silverbills, larks, warblers, robins, flycatchers. A single bird came and sat on a branch of a tree right at the edge of the open scrub. It was the grey-necked bunting (Emberiza buchanani) that you see in the photo above. In the setting sun and against the bright green background its drab brown plumage looks red.

Bare caper

North of the great Rann of Kutch, in the center of the Thar desert, one of the daily staples for dinners are made from the branches and berries of kair. “Common names” used by amateur nature watchers are odd. In the anglophone world there is an attempt to systematize descriptive names in English, whether or not a plant or bird exists in the geography where the English commonly come across it. So the “common name” given to kair ignores the Hindi word altogether, or the Gujarati cognate kerdo, and translates the Latin binomial to get bare caper. The same plant also grows in the Arab desert and arid parts of east Africa, where, no doubt, it has other common names. I can live with using the Latin binomial as a trans-cultural name, since the system recognizes the inventors of modern systematics. So, I’ll give up on the silly name bare caper, and call the plant Capparis decidua or kair.

I’d first met the plant served up on a plate in Jodhpur, then seen it in the Rao-Jodha Desert Park in that town. After that I’ve seen it in many places in the Thar desert. But this was the first time I’d come across it in the flowering season, just after the monsoon. The plant is a climber, but when it grows alone in the desert or a clearing in a forest it looks like a bushy man-high tangle of branches. As you can see, a stalk in the bush above has adapted to circumstances by becoming thicker and growing vertically.

The capers (family Capparis) are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe, and also in north, central and south Americas. This indicates a truly ancient genesis. Molecular evidence shows an old split between the old world and new world groups of this family. The old world (including Australian) species seem to originate from Africa.

The succulent is mostly leafless. Small leaves can be seen sometimes on young branches. This time around I didn’t see any. The paired thorns are pretty well spaced on the stalks, and do not discourage human manipulation. I suppose they are still sufficient to deter browsing. The red flowers seemed to grow in bunches of three, or, rarely, in singles. I suppose they will turn into the red berries in a couple of weeks, and ripen into black in a month. Someone mentioned an achar made of the berries. We found one in a shop in Bhuj, and brought it home.

The next day I found kair vines used by farmers to make hedges around their fields. They grow dense, support other vines, deter cattle from feeding in the fields, and can be harvested for food when needed. The Sanskrit words for the plant include nishpatrika, meaning without leaves, and tamprapatraka, which could refer to the yellow colour of the leaves. But quite as interesting are alternate names like granthika and granthila. Could the reference to books mean that you can obtain a fibre from it which can be used to make paper? Extracts from the plant seem to have the potential for several pharmacological uses. What a wonderful plant!

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.

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