Balsamania

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Above: Impatiens acaulis in a rocky habitat at the Sanctuary

It’s the tail end of the south-west monsoon. The north-east  rains are about to begin. The gap between the two is very short this time. I’m sitting by some Impatiens plants in the shola habitat of the Sanctuary’s plant conservation area.The petals of each and every Impatiens flower glisten from the last shower, and the whole slope above me is backlit  in the morning sun. There are several different species of Impatiens here, some on trees, some on rocks, some growing tall and shrubby, others that are  annual, among grass. I watch them dipping their leaves in the warm breeze. They seem to thrive  in large gregarious huddles. They also snuggle up with mosses, grasses, orchids and all kinds of other plants. I watch the dazzle of colour, pinks and whites and crimsons and reds, offset by greens of every hue. 

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Outplanted epiphytic Impatiens

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Farewell to a lovely terracotta rooftile habitat

We know that the forest would take over our human dwellings if we didn’t do a little bit of maintenance work, which we reluctantly do once in a few years.  In between, we enjoy the fabulous ecologies we live under, and within.

The Sanctuary roofs deserve a whole post in themselves. As do unplastered brick pillars and walls, and little ruins that can be left alone to be dens, and piles of rubble that soon become thriving hubs of activity. 

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This post is partly a farewell to a roof that once was. The library roof (above) needed rescue this year, it was bearing down with the weight of layers of humus, and leaf debris, and  the entangled branches of a bougainvillea, and the rootmats of many different plant species. The picture shows how it looked like for many years during the monsoon months.

 Such a wealth of plant diversity makes for a wealth of animal and fungal diversity. From rat snakes, cat snakes and pit vipers, to beetles, birds, bats, rats, shrews, spiders, ants, butterflies and worms of all shapes and sizes, this particular roof was a fascinating place, packed with action.

Below: A closer look at  Impatiens gardneriana  on the library rooftiles. What a perfect place for this sun loving gregarious plant, an annual species, endemic to these mountains, flowering profusely in the monsoon, now self propagated all over the Sanctuary in open sunny areas, particularly on courtyard walls, and roofs. This signifies that they like rocky banks, and cliffs, and the closest we can get to that kind of habitat, is a terracotta tile roof, or a drystone wall.

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Co-existence is a delicate business, and how not to step on different kinds of toes, or tails, or probing roots, as well as keeping one’s bed for oneself, calls for lots of negotiations, as well as different degrees and types of awarenesses. While niche creation is delightful, as it is educational and ecological, every now and then, somebody suffers, usually nonhumans at the hands of our human choices.

Sadly the library roof is bereft of most of the flowers now, and the bougainvillea is no more, the little tree saplings taking root in the humus are gone, the succulent Remusatia (a native aroid) is nearly all gone, in fact, the entire mini-forest up there is gone, barring some mosses, and a few scattered individuals of different species.

Of course, this is a temporary gap. In a couple of years it will be lush again,  for we’ll leave it alone.  The Impatiens will surely be fully back, as will orchids, ferns, nettles and mosses.

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Impatiens gardneriana

We once did a project with 12 year old school kids on the habitats just around us, within which we live, and how we share our most intimate spaces with myriad species. They examined every nook and cranny in the house,  and how a firewood pile is home to all kinds of insects, the life in a drystone wall, and the incredible diversity even on paths. The lists of animals and plants found were impressive!

This is both a sobering fact, as well as one to work with. Living beings are adept at making bare places into homes, given the slightest chance. Imagine how beautiful the whole world was, before industrial civilization hit it. With over 90% of most habitats gone, every little physical toehold that we can give other creatures, is also a toehold in time for those species. Protecting what remains of the wild world is the first most important thing we need to do, and giving more and more destroyed, or degraded spaces back to wild creatures to make their homes is the next. This also includes perceiving our houses as homes of other creatures.  To invite them to be co-creators of a shared home is a great way to bring beauty and ecology together. There is room and roof, for many! If not all! 

Giant pill millipede

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This post is dedicated to the giant pill millipede, an unsung hero of the rainforest nutrient cycle. This extraordinary creature spends its adult life breaking down leaf litter to humus,  which is essential for plants. It is a natural compost maker, or detritivore, and thus a great ally to rainforest gardeners at the Sanctuary. 

This is a great time to see lots of them; the monsoon brings them out.   I’ve been  bumping into one or more on almost every walk I take around the garden or the forest.  Some with a bluish sheen to their tergites (plate shields), and others glossy black, mostly likely related to how old they are (blue=young). 

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Giant pill millipedes belong to the order Sphaerotheriidae (sphaerum meaning sphere, referring to their habit of curling up into a ball when threatened), within the class Diplopoda, to which all millipedes belong. Unlike other millipedes however, they have no poison at all, and they rely completely on their curling up ability to protect themselves from predators. The second plate and the last one fit perfectly into each other, to make a tightly sealed ball which is impenetrable, thus protecting their soft underbellies. 

A visitor many years ago likened them to mini-buses, because of their smooth travel over any surface, and their reverse movements too, seeming motor like. I think rather, it’s an inappropriate comparison to make, not only because I dislike using machine metaphors for living creatures, but because their movement is so smooth and so flexible that they can travel vertically, and horizontally, and across short gaps between roots and stones, and their bodies are very elegantly bendable, and the rapid action of their 40 odd legs calls for great coordination and awareness of the textures of the leaflitter world they inhabit. Hardly mini-bus like!

Sometimes we see very young ones when we dig into the soil, white, tender, juicy, and without their protective hard shell, tucked into a pocket in the ground. It’s not clear at all how long they take from egg stage to first emerge above ground, but it is reported that they can live as long as ten years.

The largest giant pill millipedes I’ve seen are about 10 cm long, though it’s possible they get even larger.

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Millipedes are one of the arthropod groups, which means they have jointed legs, a tough exoskeleton, antennae, compound eyes, and different stages in their life cycles. 

Males use stridulation to call females during the mating season, by rubbing their last pair of legs against protrusions in the anal shield. Their legs have tiny ridges, whose shape and size is unique to each species, thereby making their stridulations unique too.

Giant pill millipedes are active and visible these days, but they actually spend most of their time burrowing underground. It’s always a treat to see them.

Here’s a video of one! A few minutes in the life of a giant pill millipede in the Sanctuary!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRCZo3bwS9A&feature=youtu.be

A Note on Orchids

The monsoon is a time to see some strange and wonderful things at the Sanctuary. Here’s what I saw yesterday: pink and mauve pinions curving around moist iridescent pouches.  Pudgy yellow faces stippled in red. Furry tubes and tiny scallops.   Elegant spidery visions in white.   Cascades of cream and orange and purple. I began to feel like I was in the midst of a floral fugue. Endless variations on a very simple theme.

Orchid.

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Above, a Peristylus.

A great deal has been written about orchids. And a great many people have been charmed by them. Orchid mania has been a serious affliction for at least 200 years. The early Victorian passion for collection sent intrepid explorers around the world to search out rare and unusual plants – orchids mostly.  Running in parallel with colonial expansionism, but unaccounted for in most history books, is the story of plant collection and plunder, the strange passion in European hearts at that time, for exotic beings. Like orchids.

Below: Liparis wightiana

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Those of us who have our homes in the Western Ghats may wonder, what is so alluring about the orchid family? We look around the mountains and fail to see these heart-stopping objects of desire.  Where are those gorgeous ostentatious blooms we drool over in flashy picture books? Those almost luridly waxy and everlasting Phalaenopsis flowers sold for thousands of rupees? Those nun and dove and tiger orchids we hear so much of? 

Below: Liparis platyphylla, snug in its leaflitter home, in an area that is being rehabilitated from coffee plantation to native species.

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Most of the southern Indian orchids are tiny, inconspicuous  plants,  adopting the quietest of camouflages –  evanescent herbs merging with their substratum. A  few are vivid: their floral displays emblazoning the forests and grasslands with splashes of brilliant colour.

Below, a Seidenfia blooms in the monsoon. These are tiny flowers of a ground orchid, and held upside down on the stalk!

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Our love (and consequent concern) for plants at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary started with a single orchid. It appeared suddenly, one day, out of the confusing disarray of the wet dark green woods.  An Aerides crispa astride a rotten branch that crashed out of the forest canopy and lay miraculously alive on  our firewood pile for weeks – a bizarre, strangely different life form, stiff and waxy, with  silver stilted velamen  and strap like leaves.  It was something we had never really noticed before – this epiphytic being, adapted to a soil-less world, living off of humid tropical air and leaf wash and decomposed bark dust. 

Below: another Seidenfia

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That was the beginning. When we knew and understood nothing about plants or the forest or about how plants and environments co-create each other.  Now, 40 years later, the garden at the Gurukula Botanical  Sanctuary is home to nearly 700 species of orchids.   Our learning curve has been steep. For much of the early years we had little access to books or experts. We struggled with the wealth of information we were so suddenly faced with. The dark woods began to gleam  with myriad forms. Our home in the forest took on a different meaning. We now shared a space with an immense and dazzling variety of beings. Orchids were prominent among these.   

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The Sanctuary’s orchidarium and garden host most of the Western Ghat species. Both nursery and garden areas are structured according to the ecological requirements of individual plants. Special consideration is given to light requirements as orchids can vary quite a lot in their preferences – ranging from highly sciaphillous (shade loving) to highly heliophillous (sun loving) species. In the main orchidarium, simple structures provide room for both epiphytes and terrestrials, organized as much as possible by taxonomy unless  environmental conditions prevent related taxa from being located together. Additionally, there are greenhouses and simple  mist chambers utilized for the very tender and difficult species as well as for the acclimatization of new arrivals. 

Below: Ipsea malabarica, the daffodil orchid, in a rat proof outdoor intermediate stage nursery.

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Below, Brachycorithis iantha flowers amongst grasses in the nursery.

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The Orchid family, one of the largest plant families worldwide, reported to have at least 20,000 species (and some experts claim, 35,000), is represented by around 300 species in south India, 40 % of which are endemic to here. Which means, that 120 species are found here and nowhere else on the planet. They are utterly localized, native beings, with their niches in the rugged interiors of the subcontinent.

Below Habenaria rariflora

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Orchids are notoriously difficult to cultivate. For a garden concerned with species conservation through propagation, this is a big problem. While vegetative propagation is very easy and although  large numbers of species have been multiplied very successfully through this method, it is much more difficult to grow them by seed, without the aid of micropropagation and other high tech techniques. In  recent years, however, some interesting developments have taken place,  showing that this may not be an altogether  impossible task.    For this to happen we have to step aside and allow nature’s creative hand to take over.

Below, H. rariflora outplanted in a habitat with other herbaceous plants.

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Learn your landscape through the orchids. They may be prodigious but they are all specialized. They have close affinities to specific conditions. They speak volumes on the history and health of a place. If you spot one, allow yourself to listen to its story, there is a lot there. In conservation jargon, orchids are an indicator group of the vitality of an ecosystem.   They will tell you how wholesome your environment is. How viable. And hopefully you will find out that whatever’s good for an orchid is good for you too. 

Photographs by Sora Tsukamoto

The Stones in our Lives

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It’s time to honour the lithosphere (the rocky outer shell to the planet), whether at continental scale, like the Indian plate whose uplifted western flank form the mountains where we live; or more local: outcrops, dells, ridges, valleys, crevices. Look out of your window, and muse upon the bedrock below your house, or a stone wall on the street perhaps. How does it come to be there, and what is its connection to biological life? 

Landscape architects work with stone, and so do most gardeners. That stones lend themselves to beauty is hardly a surprise, nor that they are used to build our human dwellings.

But that stones are essential to life is rarely celebrated, nor actively worked with, nor given much space in any ecological discourse.

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In this post, a moment to cherish the lithos in our lives, whatever part of it we see. Why do the old peoples of the world recognize stones and rocks and mountains to be alive? What is the connection between your bones and the rest of your body, or the calcium in your nails to the calcium in the sea? How can we separate the lithosphere from the biosphere or the atmosphere or the hydrosphere: the various spheres that work together to make this amazing planet? Where does life end and mineral begin?

Avid plant conservationists that we are, we know our total dependance on every aspect of the lithosphere. If we take the wise help of rocks, then plants truly flourish. River stones, pebbles, laterite nodules, soap stones, gneiss shards, and the things we do with them, drystone walls, stairways on a hillslope, rocky banks and slopes, and even sculpture: these are all niches for the amazing plants of this region, and every stone surface sooner or later is home to plant species.

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Above, a liverwort hugging the end of a laterite block, most likely feeding on the debris from the alga (black in this picture).

Stones lead to soil formation, and this is done partly with the help of lichens, alga, bacteria, and fungi as well as the work of wind and water and sun. Pedogenesis is the scientific word for this.

Lichens for instance, release tiny amounts of carbon which becomes acidic with the rain, and then breaks down the rock surface into small particles, which then collect in little pockets. 

When I look at bare rock, or what looks like bare rock, I think of lichen pastures, fungal fields and grazing grounds for bacteria.

Plants require minerals as much as they need sunlight, and the process of soil formation is partly one of breaking the rock down to tiny tiny pieces, and then further to molecules that can be taken up by various creatures.

At the Sanctuary it is possible to observe how: different stones lead to different lichens, which then lead to various liverworts and mosses, and sooner or later to specific  ferns, or grasses, or various herbs like the rhynchoglossums in the first picture in this post, or the tectaria fern just below…., 

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…..Or how liverworts, can make a home for mosses which can then make a home for Impatiens seedlings, and also for ladybugs….

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….or how lichens make a home for the commeline on the lips of the old man (and the tortoise) sculpture  below.

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Had you noticed the hawkmoth by his nose in the earlier photo? Go back up and check it out! In this little inset, lichen, moss, various seedlings are a perfect perch for the moth.

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Below, a sunny moment in the monsoon, and the plants on the rockwall to the courtyard of the library display their luminous glory, a self propagated tree fern, begonias, ferns, liverworts and more.

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More walls, laterite walls. And stairways. Retaining walls to the courtyards are important plant habitats. Below a mix of exotic and native species on the library courtyard wall.

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Stairways are favourite perches for selaginellas, rhynchoglossums and henckelias. Below:  the main stairway going up to the community kitchen, used by 40 humans and 7 dogs several times a day! Wilbur poses by the ferns to give us a sense of scale.

Despite all this daily traffic it’s clear that plants get first attention!

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Below, a  Monstera in rocky relief, makes a great place for Impatiens acaulis in the monsoon. This is at the public entrance to the Sanctuary.

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Finally, here is an old stone quarry, in a place that had been completely clearfelled, by previous owners. We used the hollowed out space, extended it a little and built up the sides a bit more with a drystone wall, and made a pond in the middle. This is a diverse habitat now for many species of ferns, notably Cyathea crinita, an endangered tree fern native to these mountains.

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By no means is this an excuse to dig up rocks for human or other purposes. However, if you are working with species, then rocks become indispensable aids in conservation. And while we wonder about whether or not to bring in stones for plant conservation, let us remember that more mountains are being hollowed out for the decorative facades of shopping malls, than the few used by plant conservationists.

Funky Skunky Aroids!

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 Arisaema tuberculatum

Who does not admire cobra lilies, the elephants’ foot yam, the voodoo lilies or the deadhorse arum, or the world’s largest inflorescence, the titan arum? These monocots, of the family Araceae (aroids for short) are showy, smelly, and large (oh! the world’s smallest flower, the Wolffia also belongs to this group)!

At GBS, the genera AmorphophallusArisaema, Typhonium, and Anaphyllum,  are in full floral display in the months of May to July.

Rising up from tubers that stay dormant through the dry months, these intriguing plants make their presence known all over the wet forests of the Western Ghats during the height of the monsoon.

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 A. tuberculatum

There’s been quite some taxonomic confusion with these tuberous monocots, partly because their flowers are tiny, and hidden inside the hood (a modified leaf called a spathe), and partly because the leaf stalks and the flower stalks may not be out at the same time. The flowers are arranged along a candle or spike-like structure called a spadix. 

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 Arisaema neglectum

In Malayalam language they are generically referred to as the kattu chena (meaning forest tuber) after the domesticated chena, Amorphophallus paeonifolium (the elephants’ foot yam),  a staple food throughout the tropics.

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A. tortuosum

These floral displays, are actually composite flowers, or inflorescences. The hood like structure is a leaf, and not a petal at all. The elongated structure within is the actual inflorescence, called the spadix, with tiny female flowers scattered all along it. Some species have both male and female flowers on the same candle (monoecious), while others are dioecious.

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Amorphophallus sp. from north India

A characteristic feature of this group is the smelliness of their flowers, often resembling rotten meat, to attract flies and beetles to pollinate them. Many species are thermogenic, that is, they produce heat in their flowers, that helps to spread the smell further afield, and also attracts insects.

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Above is a picture of an Anthurium spadix with flies foraging on the tiny flowers. Anthuriums, Philodendrons, Monsteras, Remusatias, Rhaphidophoras, Dieffenbachias, Colocasias, Alocasias, Agalonemas and Pothos are also members of the Araceae, a vast family of over 3000 species in 100 or more genera, largely distributed in tropical moist forests. Many species are growing in the Sanctuary: the exotics in visitors’ display areas, and the natives in outdoor habitats!

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Above: Lagenandra meeboldii,  a native of the Western Ghat forests, found all along  streams in medium and upper elevations.

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Here Sruti stands next to an Amorphophallus inflorescence. 

The floral stalks can grow in a matter of a few days, and they can last for a a couple of weeks. For the rest of the season only the leaves are visible.

At the Sanctuary, Suma has successfully propagated more than 4 dozen species of Arisaema and Amorphophallus, and several other genera too.

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 A. murrayii in garden habitat

Conservation of plant species requires successful outplanting trials, so that plants are happy in communities outdoors. While nurseries with potted plants are necessary, far more important is a habitat. Above, this Arisaema is growing amongst grass, in an area that once had tea bushes only. 

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Here is another habitat, with trees, climbers, ferns, several herbaceous plants, and two Arisaemas, one with leaves only, and one with the hood only.

Above Anaphyllum wightii growing outdoors in a gardened habitat, resembling evergreen forest.

As this post goes live, the flower heads have become fruit heads. Below the fleshy fruit of an Arisaema in a nursery area. The fruit does not last long, germination occurs very soon after they fall to the leaf litter.

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Below, the long long spadix of the Anthurium tankervillae.

Note: Anthuriums are a neo-tropical group, most at home in the Amazon, and the Mata Atlantica forests of Brazil.

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And there is another way to reproduce! Below, a bulbil forms on the axis of Amorphophallus leaves, which will fall off to grow into a new plant. This is asexual reproduction.

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The Araceae have been cultivated and conserved at the Sanctuary since the very early days. They are such a classic tropical group, and so varied in how they grow. Visitors (human as well as dipteran) are usually attracted to them!