The Crinum Chance

You and we were the first to conquer
You and we shall be the last
 The Bane of the Black Sword
The possibility of seeing Crinum blooming in the first week of monsoon is higher than that during the second, and the following, and the next, until you’re left standing on a bed of broad, lush-green leaves like ripples on the land.
Crinum latifolium
When it rains, Crinum flowers will tower above the mass of leaves, on a pillar of pale green glowing under an overcast sky. You will see them drooping – not in weakness, nor in sadness – but in respect to the rains for which it is celebrating in delight, and for the land that has sustained it for countless generations, and for the chance for being one of the most beautiful creation of the union of the elements of water and earth. If only man could understand that he, like Crinum, is the son and the daughter of the basic elements of the universe, would he also stand not with pride but due honor to Earth?

Crinum latifolium is one of the 180 Crinum species in the family Amaryllidaceae. Crinum comes from the greek word krinon, meaning lily, or, according to other sources, “trailing hair” or “comet tail”, depicting its long, drooping petals. It is known more for its medicinal properties than its ecology or for its bond with the water and earth. There are hardly any sources that would look at Crinum not as a resource to man but as another living being, because its uses for mankind are many. It has been used as a traditional herb in parts of Asia it is commonly found in, and given the status of “medicine for the king’s high palace”, or as the “royal female herb” (source), signifying the prostrate and the ovary. It is proven to be an excellent medicine against cancer of both.
C. latifolium amidst basalt boulders
Its history dates far beyond its uses for our royal parts, however. And the story of the origin of Crinum latifolium begins in a marsh in East Africa, journeys through the depths of Earth’s innards spewing out – the humongous volcanoes millions of years ago that pillaged India, and rests here in the lap of Sahyadri.

The Deccan Plateau of India was the result of one super-volcanic eruption in Earth’s history, and the hot lava covered an area of 500,000 sq. km. This occurred about 65 million years ago, in the Cretaceous-Tertiary era. A crater called Shiva crater along Mumbai was found to be created about the same time, as well as the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. At least one, or all, these events are theorized to be responsible for the K-T Extinction – the end of dinosaurs.

Whether or not the Deccan volcano resulted in K-T extinction is still debated. This volcano spewed basalt eruptions, forming the Deccan Plateau, a primer to a unique ecosystem and for man to settle and come into his own.
A crown of comets, the umbel of Crinum latifolium
Crinum genus was first described in 1737 by Linnaeus, and has long been the subject of debate as well. But millions of years before that, in a marsh in East Africa, a primer to the tribe of Amaryllidaceae came to life. The plants which remained in such aquatic habitats, according to Crinum.org, seldom experienced many of the drastic climatic stresses initiated by long dry periods. The article further reads;
“By contrast, those forms which migrated progressively from the aquatic to a savanna habitat, and particularly into desert areas, have encountered repeated climatic change and the associated dry-land environmental stress. As a result, numerous modifications, adaptations and evolutionary diversifications have evolved. The most significant being a shift from pauciflowered sessile umbels to multiflowered pecidelled umbels.”
The conditions facing C. latifolium today are quite similar – prolonged dry season (8 months) and harsh, high temperatures during summer. The Crinums of the dryland or near-dryland regions are known to flower during rains, with some species in desert conditions known to flower “at rare intervals (when rains do occur)”. Possibly, C. latifolium, or its relative, migrated slowly across the continents to India’s basalt plains, and with the ingredient of monsoon, C. latifolium came into existence. Although C. latifolium is known to flower every year with the first monsoon shower hitting its underground bulb, it will be interesting to observe whether they flower if no rain strikes on the ground, or how many dry spells can it survive until flowering again in the next rain.
Crinum and Scilla amongst the basalt boulders
In the Western Ghats, C. latifolium has colonized basalt rock regions wherever the rock is eroded. The basalt rock features of Sanjay Gandhi National Park are given quite a beautiful perspective when Crinum flowers. Its otherwise brown to black, formless structure, which bakes most of the year under the hard sun, is given a respite. It’s not so hard to believe that it is not only the rain that is responsible to give Crinum a chance to flower, and a chance for us to wonder at this fleeting wonder, but also the volcano of ages ago which resulted in formation of the basalt plains, eventually giving birth to Crinum latifolium.
A Crinum forest
Crinum is not the only one to celebrate rains, however – there are other plants sharing just as unique a chance as itself.
Ladebouria revoluta
Scilla hyacinthina, now Ladebouria revoluta, is one of the neighbours of Crinum which, along with Chlorophytum tuberosum, spills the otherwise monochrome landscape with its purple aura. While Crinum stands tall on its peduncle, Ladebouria dwells closer to the ground. The same habitat is also shared by other ephemerals – insects, which are as attractive as the crown of Crinum.
Cicindela parvimaculata (?)
Some of the Tiger Beetles that share the habitat with Crinum are Cicindela parvimaculata, and Cicindela azureocincta. Although the larval habitat preference of these beetles is unknown, they probably also nests near the bulb of Crinum, in a burrow in one of the crevices in basalt rocks where the soil is deep enough, while the adults roam the basalt rock surface in search of prey.

Crinum latifolium belongs to a family of those ephemerals which bring delight to those who search for them, but this narrow window of barely a few weeks is far more important in order to survive for several organisms.
Eristalinus sp. on Crinum flower
Insects such as this Syrphid fly (Eristalinus sp.), Clear-winged Hawk Moth, bees in the genus Trigona, and Carpenter bees (Xylocopa sp.) visit Crinum flowers and perhaps pollinate it. One of the closest associations with Crinum is that of the moth called Indian Lily Moth (Polytela gloriosae), whose caterpillars feed on its leaves, pupate nearby, and the adults remain very close to its host plant.
Polytela gloriosae
Although P. gloriosae has a wide range of host plants, its relationship to C. latifolium is rather unique owing to the plant’s ephemeral nature.
C. latifolium in rain
With the journey in back of my mind, I love to sit and gaze at these flowers, wondering that this slow-paced – rather still – sentient being was able to travel, evolve, and grow right here, in front of me. As you look at the still, drooping flowers of Crinum, you may imagine that time has stopped still. In reality, everything is racing to survive against time. Everyone wants to make the best out of it. Man, on the other hand, has cultivated C. latifolium extensively to extract the medicinal properties, so fields of this plant are not uncommon to come by in south Asia. The exploitation of the plant however is more painful when you see them hacked and laid out to decay under the rain for no apparent reason.
Crinum massacre
When we went to explore the enigmatic Crinum, we were welcomed first by flowers broken and thrown along the entire trail. C. latifolium is neither rare nor threatened, but the sight of this senseless destruction made me ponder: how long will Crinum’s unconditional bond with water and earth remain, with mankind to compete with?
A panorama of the basalt rock plateau
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Further reading:

1. A systematic review of the genus Crinumhttp://www.crinum.org/review.html
2. An empirical study on the taxonomy of Crinum zeylanicum and Crinum latifolium occuring in Sri Lanka: http://www.pdn.ac.lk/cjsbs/text/text35.15.pdf
3. Deccan volcanism and the K-T mass extinction: http://geoweb.princeton.edu/people/keller/deccan/deccan.html

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Sahyadrica (earlier Wanderer’s Eye) turned five today. It was on this day that I sat and opened a blog to blabber about my exploits in nature. I continue to do it to this day, and I thank each and every one of you for being a patient reader, gazer, and advisor. Thank you!

The genesis of Wanderer’s Eye was to bring the monsoonal diversity to the front, but it started one year earlier when I created an “offline” report, as I put it in the first post. I get a laugh reading through it, so I thought I should share. The Monsoon Trails 2007 report is now online.

Rendezvous with Monsoon

There is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind – Lawrence Anthony

My date with monsoon was as unexpected as the date of its arrival. I think, if it were not for our reliance on monsoon, it shouldn’t be predicted at all. So this year I stayed away from the news flashing its arrival, although I sneaked some information from discussions with, literally, everyone I met. And just as unpredicted was the place where we’d meet – on a Friday evening on the way home from work. If anyone saw me smiling they had no idea if it was for the last day of the week, or for getting my shoes wet in the first monsoon showers of the year.

After all the days spent waiting desperately for the rains to arrive, the monsoon sure does surprise everyone with its pre-monsoonal heavy downpour. People forget the scorching heat of the summer, and get a new reason to complain about wet clothes and muddy roads. Although greeting monsoon in the city was unexpectedly pleasant for me, I would not call it a rendezvous until I had met monsoon in the woods, where monsoon’s persona really comes to life, where monsoon sways with the trees, blossoms with the flowers, sings with the wind, and dances with all life capable of flight. Monsoon always begins with thundering and lightening as a prelude to a four-month long song of heavens. And we monsoon-seekers hop around woods seeking out the large and small dancers of the tunes. And as leaves remain soaked for more-or-less throughout the four months, many emerge and die, and procreate and sow seeds for the next generation to continue the grand performance.

Yet as much as I romanticize a date with monsoon, I must tell you that it is riddled with swarming mosquitoes, horseflies, ticks, and leeches – and the deeper you go into the woods, the further it feels ethereal, and unbearable. But to feel the essence of monsoon, one has to brave it.
The semi-deciduous forests in the backdrop of cumulus
Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary
So here we were at Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, rendezvousing with monsoon with hordes of mosquitoes and horseflies flying about us, capable of piercing through pants and shirts. The climate remained cool and humid, warming only when the sun peeped through the clouds. It was June the Eighth, the day after the day monsoon is officially (on papers) set to start.

It is important to note what your date is going to be about. It is going to be a lot about flowers, new shoots, and insects, reptiles, birds, and, in general, everything you sight – for all of this has been moved by the monsoon as much as we’ve been touched by it.

On your first walk, you will see a lot many flying insects; one in particular will be brown in colour, with inch-long wings and a very indolent flight. These are the winged termites which emerge with the first showers; they are the monsoon-seekers too. Unfortunately for them, they are packed with a load of proteins, and are a favourite food of every other predator, from other insects such as ants and flies, to birds and mammals. This is also nature’s way of preserving harmony in the natural world – for too much of something always poses a danger to the rest.
A robberfly feeding on a winged termite
There would be lizards such as Skinks and Calotes, hunting with utmost concentration a flying termite, that it will hardly notice you stalking it from close distance.
Many-keeled Skink, Mabuya carinata, hunting for winged termites
Another insect that soon takes to the air with the first showers are winged ants – the drones, and the females. And one particular, the Camponotus, fills the air. They’re on every leaf you see.
Ant drones ready to swarm the air
And there are some who have decorated themselves with dead ants. The nymphs of an Assassin Bug are notoriously peculiar about their hide (or suit), that it consists only of a particular species of ants.
Assassin bug nymph in its best dinner suit - the carcass of ants
You will be amazed by the butterflies dancing in circles – the male chasing the female round-and-round.
Spot-swordtail butterflies doing the courtship dance
Another ephemeral of the monsoon are the Tiger Beetles, out hunting and playing and mating, for their life is too short, and only lasts until the prelude of monsoon gives way to the incessant downpour.
A mating pair of Tiger Beetles, Cicindela fabricii (or is it spelled C. fabriciana?)
The Forest Calotes with their blood-red war markings are showcasing their prowess to females. A mating pair of a Calotes indeed resembles a clash between two red-painted warriors.
A mating pair of Forest Calotes, Calotes rouxii
The puddles are a home to crabs, mostly large gravid females, their abdomens bulging proudly with adorable brood of crablings.
A mother field crab carrying crablings (young crabs) in her abdomen or brood pouch
The ground is moist, almost wet, and on rocky precipices grow the ephemerals – the most delicate and passionate lovers of monsoon. Some have already flowered, some are still buds, and many are waiting to sprout in a conflagration of vivid colours.
Chlorophytum tuberosum growing along the rocky parts of the hill under the shade of tender leaves
The people living in the forests have collected the last lot of dry branches to build their homes, for it won’t be until October that they can harvest dry wood.
Branches of Karvy, Strobilanthes callosus, used to build walls of huts
My rendezvous was full of exciting findings that are seen only during this time of the year. If you haven’t fixed your date with monsoon yet, do not falter – she is here to stay. All I would advise you is to be aware of your surroundings as you go on to indulge yourself. Every flower we pluck, we reduce the chance of fertilization for the plant, we reduce the chance of a bee collecting pollen to feed its brood, we reduce the chance of a bird feeding on its seed. Do not litter, do not leave behind anything, nor carry anything back except memories and photographs.
Carpet of Chlorophytum tuberosum
If you are going to go get your clothes dirty photographing all the plants and animals, you can view and download  a report on some of the flowers and invertebrates of the Sahyadri I was fortunate to observe in 2011.
I wish you all a merry monsoon and a wonderful season ahead!