Tracing Monsoon: Part I: Following the Plants

It will be wrong if I say I have not spent time (a lot of it) looking at the nimbostratus clouds passing silently from the south-west, waiting for the horns to blow that mark the arrival of monsoon. This we must agree, that monsoon is the epitome of change. It is the most astonishing of all changes. The change is in the air, in the earth, and is ultimately wrought in the mind. And all of this may happen just as you sit and stare out of the window!

Monsoon this year did not arrive at its stipulated time. It thundered sparsely. There was no dance of the lights. May I say that Lord Varuna is not happy with what mankind has done to Mother Earth? That he is not in our favour anymore, and would abandon us when he knows we are completely, hopelessly dependent on him? We are all out praying, some loudly, some in their minds, some going to the length of marrying Hoplobatrachus tigerinus, the Indian Bullfrog, in hopes of impressing the Rain God.

Today, the interval between two continuous rainfalls stretches to over weeks, when it should have been raining incessantly. Just as I stared at the nimbostratus, passing lowly from the cumulonimbus, seeding empty hopes in my mind, I and my friends read news in utter disappointment.

The headings read:

“Monsoon may weaken earlier than thought” – The Economic Times
“Monsoon fails to keep date with Mumbai” - DNA
“Delayed monsoon arrival leads to gives [sic] 36% below average rains in 1st week” – The Times of India
“Less than normal rains in over 70% of the country” – The Times of India

Yet we were not surprised. It was last year when the news broke of a strong El Nino building up in the Pacific. It has been haunting us since then. I can only wonder what is going on in the minds of the farmers who need rains for better reasons, for which we must be equally worried.

The monsoon though, like always, hit us with a surprise on June 9th, when it sprinkled enough to lighten the weight of dust settled over the leaves for over eight months. It did not thunder, and the wind was calm. It was not until July 2nd, that we saw trailing lightening, followed by loud thundering and incessant rains for several hours at an end.

In June, with scant pre-monsoon showers, we started with the ritual visits to Yeoor Hills in the first two weeks. And then we made a visit to one of the higher reaches of Sahyadri, to Mahabaleshwar Hill Station, and to the coastal regions of Kanheri Caves, Karnala Bird Sanctuary, and Peb Fort near Matheran.
Shikra
And as the Crested Serpent Eagles and Shikras soared high in the skies – their sweetest melody echoing in the valley – we spent most of our time chasing Tiger Beetles and Dragonflies, and hunting for Orchids in the undergrowth, for of all the multitudinal changes that take place as the first drop hits the ground, it is in the undergrowth where the transformation is, almost, magical.
Curculigo orcchioides and Adiantum ferns
The magic lies in the commingling of first rains and the desiccated soils. What’s special of this initiation by the pre-monsoons is not the sprouting leaves, but flowers that precede greenness, some flowering only in the pre-monsoon period of hot and humid climate.
Nervilia crociformes
While I tried my best to be on the lookout for such ephemerals, it is a real challenge to race against time and see them in all their glory. One missed sighting, and the flowers vanish, leaving behind the lush green vegetation which camouflages in the surrounding foliage.
The typical habitat of Chlorophytum borivalianum at Kanheri Caves
And that’s exactly what happens when there are a multitude of ephemerals blooming at the same time, at locations hundreds of kilometers apart. Some of the flowers, like Nervilia crociformes, an orchid seen only at higher altitudes of Sahyadri, to those common at lower elevations, such as that of Chlorophytum tuberosum and borivialinum, presented ample opportunity to be seen and relished upon, while some like Pancratium triflorum remained elusive, although I did see plenty of the plants sans flowers.
Chlorophytum tuberosum
And as soon as these ephemerals bloom, their most closest symbiotes, the bees, flies and other insects provide their faithful services of pollination – without which these plants wouldn’t fertilize, and without which an entire ecosystem built upon the little ephemerals could crumple.

These plants are rather common locally, but remain hidden because of their specialized habitats. One such large plant belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family. I wouldn’t be wrong if I called it the most beautiful flower of Mumbai – Crinum latifolium.
The typical habitat of Crinum latifolium
These large, stalk-less, long leaved plants grow on plateau regions with a rocky terrain, and blossom with the pre-monsoonal showers.
Crinum latifolium flowers in rain
A friend and me had taken an offbeat road on our exploration at Yeoor Hills one day, and we followed the animal tracks to a small valley surrounded by age-old mango trees, and lianas dwindling and twining at their feet. And as we marched on – with horseflies on our backs – we stumbled upon a hillock, a monolith rising straight up from the deciduous woods of Yeoor.

As we scampered our way up, with our feet placed carefully in the crevasses’, we found a paradise that is, quite unsurprisingly, well known to the tribal people of this region: a paradise full of Crinum lilies – plants praising the arrival of monsoon with utmost respect and regard – plants bowing gently, yet displaying their vigour and gladness with brilliant colours and subtle fragrance.

Monsoon undoubtedly has an overwhelming effect on the plants, and it is only during this season that we may sense their senses – that they’re alive, and they’re all-knowing, for if they weren’t, they wouldn’t know when to blossom, they wouldn’t know when the rains fell. If you ever wish to trace monsoon – here’s a hint – follow the plants.

We sat amidst these natural gardens, rocks protruding here and there, curiously cut into cubicles – perfect to sit and seep in the fragrance in the air and the rain on our face – the breath of monsoon.

A step down from the plateau was a field gleaming in freshly blossoming herbs – Scilla hyacinthine.
Scilla hyacinthine at Scilla Hill, Yeoor
It is after their abundance that we baptized this monolith Scilla Hill. These plants, carrying deep-purple patches on their leaves, shot out long, tender raceme inflorescence of pink-to-purple flowers from large boulders tumbled randomly. They added an indistinguishable appeal to the otherwise broken features of the terrain.
Scilla hyacinthine flower
Scilla Hill made us realize that there is plenty to explore in our neighbouring woods. It may be a little plant you’ve never seen before, or a place you’ve had no time to look at in another season. Such is the magic of monsoon that you feel new yourself, a feeling that all naturalists feel but find hard to comprehend.

In the forests, of trees that send their roots seeking the warm comforts of Earth, rain hardly affects them except by replenishing the diminishing groundwater. Yet trees as individuals, and forests as super-organisms, behave in a very curious way – something which I believe brings them closer to us. They sing. They dance. They play to the tune of monsoon. If you’ve not done it in your time, I don’t believe you’d relate with the trees.
Forests of Kanheri Hills, Sanajay Gandhi National Park
The deciduous forests were only sprouting in vivid shades of greens. Fog filled in the empty spaces between the trees. They creaked and croaked, swayed back and forth, and there a glittering rain fell on the tender young leaves. We were on the plateau of Kanheri Hills that house a number of caverns built in the age where once dwelt the Buddhists. It was the 17th of June, the day it rained, as rain is defined, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in Mumbai but in the heart of the city – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I, for once, had forgotten my umbrella on the path, but I did not regret not having it (although I found it on the way back).

As days passed, week-long dry spells haunted all of us, drenching all our hopes in bouts of sweat, until that day, incidentally on a weekend again, when the clouds unfurled on the peaks of Karnala fort on June 24th. The forest floor was saturated with water, and with the right amount of humidity and the cool air, it is a boon to all the perennials, as well as saplings of giant trees.
Gardenia gummifera and a fly
There were several trees in blossom as well, from the grand, Gardenia gummifera, whose fragrance spread to every corner of the little stream we explored. One of the most delicately designed flowers belonged to a shrub called Turraea villosa, whose petals were dripping wet from the rain that fell ruffianly for several minutes, and leaving behind a humid clime ideal for all sorts of things to glimmer.

The monsoon, yet, was as unpredictable as it always has been. On our trek to Peb Fort near Matheran, we were pelted with no rains, but sun’s rays, which the clouds could not win against. On that unusually warm day of July 1st, we waded through long-grown grass trimmed by cows, past flowerless plants of Pancratium triflorum and fruiting Chlorophytum tuberosum, to a completely different set of flora in bloom.
Fields of Trachelostylis lawiana
One such perennial is (probably) Trachelostylis lawiana (then Fimbristylis lawiana), a sedge endemic to peninsular India, abundant in the northern Western Ghats. It prefers secondary habitats and grazing lands, which are plenty at the foot of Peb fort. According to the Assessment Information on IUCNredlist.org, this grass can have more than hundred individuals per meter squared in grasslands during early monsoon.

As we passed fields of Trachelostylis lawiana, we entered fields filled with rainwater, and crops growing out to the sky.
A paddy field
It was with pleasure that we sat by this paddy field, tilted and twisted our cameras for photographs, and observed dragonflies and damselflies as they busied themselves for the upbringing of the next generation. The algal growth in these shallow pools was a sign that rains have not completely failed to keep its million-year old promise.

The farmers had sown seeds. It will be another few months until the next harvest of the paddy. Yet the same cannot be said for Kharif crops (crops grown in summer). The delayed monsoon may affect the sowing pattern of coarse grains. This is unfortunately because of deficient rains in the central and western India (as per Times of India).

It has been said that the rains will be sufficient in the months of July and August, although the effects of El Nino were to be set in only in the latter half of monsoon. The first week of July was not what it used to be, but monsoon has picked up pace, and it rains consistently. It is quite fascinating to trace the progress of monsoon and the life it brings with it. It comes in waves. Once a generation has completed its lifecycle, another shall take its place. The pre-monsoon ephemerals will now give way to others. Now Begonias, Commelinas, Balsams, and Habenarias will dominate the landscapes.
Karnala Fort
Monsoon is here, at last. Clouds are playing hide-and-seek in the minarets of Sahyadri, and rain is filling in every empty puddle. It is a phenomenon that is not uncommon, but worthy of every praise.

4 comments:

  1. Ani, the monsoon is here in England. Nature is very unhappy with mankind. We are being punished.

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    1. Haha, you can't have all the good weather of sunshine and a pleasant breeze all the time, John! It's an irony that further north you go, the rain becomes further unpleasant. Tropical rains are the best if you ever want to experience getting wet without being unhappy!

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  2. happy to see your flora pics....welcome back to TRIBE

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  3. I always look forward to the rains here in England and I am always searching for that missing factor that make rains so lovable in the tropical!

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