On Orchids

For most of us:

Orchids = Rare

Orchids = Exotic

Orchids = Beautiful.

I recently went to Meghalaya where I visited an orchid park. And of course the variety and beauty of the orchids we saw were amazing. But when I tried to figure out a little bit more about these flowers, I found all the three equations mentioned above, which have been firmly planted in my mind for decades, to be false!

Orchids in fact belong to one of the top two most-common families of flowering plants on earth! This is the family Orchidaceae which comprises about 750 genera and close to 28,000 species!  So orchids are not rare!


The dictionary meaning of ‘exotic’ is ‘origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’. Actually, with their wide distribution, orchids may be among the least exotic flowers. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica. At least four species have been reported from north of the Arctic Circle. So orchids are not exotic in most parts of the world! 

And while most orchids are beautiful, there are some which are warty, bumpy, hairy and unbeautiful. In fact, the latest orchid to be discovered—the gastrodia agnicellus–from a forest in Madagascar, has been dubbed “the ugliest orchid in the world” by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. It has been likened to a soul-sucking eyeless worm. While I am not very comfortable to have anything castigated so severely on the basis of looks, I have to admit after looking at pics of this flower, orchids are not always equal to beautiful!

Ok, easy enough to demolish myths. Now time to look at some facts.

To begin with, what are orchids? Orchids come in different sizes, different shapes, grow in different parts of the world. But the one characteristic which unities them, as well as differentiates them form other flowering plants, is the fusion of the male portion of the flower (stamen) with the  female portion (pistil), into one structure called the column—often visible protruding from the center. Orchids have three sepals and three petals, which all appear to be part of the flower. The middle petal is modified and is usually brightly coloured and exudes a scent.  

Orchids are among the oldest flowering plants known. A few years ago, Harvard University scientists discovered a fossilized bee carrying orchid pollen which dates back at least 15 million years. However, scientists speculate that orchids have been around much longer than that, maybe as much as 100 million years.


Orchids have the tiniest seeds in the world. A single seedpod can have up to 3 million seeds in it.  The seeds are so small they can only be seen under a microscope. The plants take about 5-7 years to bloom once germinated, and can live up to a hundred years.

Incidentally, the vanilla bean comes from a species of orchid.  It is the only orchid which is commercially grown and harvested, not for its flowers but its beans!

India has a vast orchid diversity—a total of 1256 species have been recorded, out of which 307 are endemic to the country. But our orchids are under pressure. This pressure mainly comes from illegal harvesting and exploitation for trade. Orchids are illicitly collected from the wild and traded as ornamental plants.

So yes, do get orchids for your home-garden. They will surely add a touch of colour and beauty (unless of course you choose the gastrodia agnicellus!). But make sure they are sourced ethically. For many of them are indeed under threat.


Tippy-tippy Tap…

The last few weeks have been a time of looking closely at flowers, and marvelling at their variety. I observed about 12 types of pink flowers, about 8-10 types of orange flowers, about 5-6 red, a few yellow ones, a few white ones and two types each of purple flowers and blue flowers–all in my colony. 

So of course the question came to my mind: Was this the typical distribution of flower colours? Was pink the predominant colour, followed by orange and red? And so started my search to find out a little more about this.

First and foremost, what gives flowers their colours? Colours mainly come from the presence of pigments in the chromoplasts or cell vacuoles of floral tissues.  The most common pigments in flowers come in the form of anthocyanins which range in colour from white to red to blue to yellow to purple and to even black and brown. The other major group are the carotenoids, which provide the yellow colours, along with some oranges and reds. While many flowers get their colours from either anthocyanins or carotenoids, there are some that can get their colours from a combination of the two. Other classes of pigments, but of less importance in relation to flower pigmentation, are chlorophylls (greens), quinones (occasional reds and yellows), and betalain alkaloids (giving yellow, red and purple). 

Coming back to which is the most common flower colour, all my web- searching only told me that there was no definitive answer! To begin with, we don’t even know how many flowering plants there are. And of the flowers we know and have catalogued, colour data are seldom maintained. There is no repository of flower colour information. There is no database which documents flower colours, let alone rank them.

There are many good reasons that make it difficult to document these colours. There is no absolute measure. Colours look different in different lights, at different times of the day. Each person perceives colour differently—what looks orange to me look yellow to you. And we all describe them differently—I may say violet for a colour and you may say mauve.

Moreover, colours vary from genus to genus, and even within a species. A plant growing in one area (say, the plains) can have flowers  that are very different from the same plant growing elsewhere (say in higher altitudes). The colours of flowers depend very much on the growing conditions—soil, sunlight etc. So they may change somewhat with season too.

Recent research suggests that factors like ozone depletion and global warming have caused flowers to change their colours over time. For instance, of the 42 species studied in that research, UV-pigmentation in flowers increased at a rate of 2% per year from 1941 to 2017.

Lantana is one of the flowers which changes colour on pollination

Flowers also use colours as signalling mechanisms. Some flowers change their colour once they are pollinated, so that bees do not come back to them, but rather go to unpollinated flowers. (Eminent teacher, Prof. Mohan Ram, who developed a generation of botanists, ecologists and environmentalists, taught us this during a memorable nature walk.) Some flowers change their colour with age.

But here are some speculations about flower colours:

Counter-intuitively, some people believe green may actually be the most common flower colour–many plants, including most trees, bear flowers in various shades of green. This may be followed by white, yellow, blue and the reds in that order.  Brown is not uncommon either. But all scientists and naturalists emphasize that these are only guesses.

So don’t worry too much about how many. Just enjoy the flowers and their colours!


Look, See, Wonder…

As environmental educators, our most important task with children as well as adults was to awaken them to the wonders of the world around them. From this wonder of the variety of life and the intricate connections therein would come an intellectual curiosity to understand the world better, followed by a passion to do something about it. So the responsibility was to take people through the steps of Awareness, Appreciation, Skills, Knowledge and Action.

So the first step seeing and sensing the world. I remember some of the exercises we used to do in our workshops to help people do this:

  1. Observe the greens : Closely observe the shades of the leaves of different plants/trees. Try to describe the differences.
  2. Observe the shapes of leaves: Sketch different leaves to scale.
  3. Bark rubbings: Find a tree, place a piece of paper on the bark and colour over with a pencil to get the impression of the bark design. Repeat with another tree.
  4. Listen to sounds: Sit in absolute silence for 5 minutes in a natural area and note down the sounds your hear.
  5. Smells: Go around a garden and sniff the flowers, the leaves, the plants, the soil.

Even the most cynical adult would get completely involved and excited, and the result would be a ‘Wow, who would have thought that there were so many shades of green;  that soil smelt like this; that there were so many different types of sounds in nature!’

Roles got reversed when the world decided to environmentally educate me two days ago, as I was on my walk. The very same path that I follow every day, but I was out a little earlier than usual. So the light was different and everything stood out with a brightness and clarity that I did not get to see later in the evenings.

I saw one beautiful pink flower and decided to take a pic. I continued for 2 meters, and saw another one. And within the space of 10 minutes, I had 11 flowers in different shades of pink captured in my phone. I was wonder-struck!

I had obviously only been ‘looking’. I had forgotten to ‘see’. The difference, as Grant Scott, a famous photographer puts it: there is ‘.. a seriousness of intention that one of these words suggests, whilst the other gives the impression of a casual approach to perhaps what is the same thing. The word ‘see’ suggests a depth of visual engagement that allows the person ‘seeing’ to control the action and retain control of any further action that may take place after the initial seeing. To look suggests an observation of surface, it does not suggest any further depth than that. To look suggests both the beginning and end of the action, whereas to see suggests the beginning of a process of investigation.’

So while the popular adage is that we should take the time to smell the flowers, I would also urge that we take the time to see the flowers. And even more important, take the time to let a sense of wonder overtake us!

From this sense of wonder will come the sense of urgency to take care of our world!


When is a Flower not a Flower?

When it is a bougainvillea!

Yes, I learnt pretty late in life that what I thought were the petals, are actually bracts! And what pray are bracts? Well, seems bracts are modified leaves! They grow above all other leaves, but below the petals. And no, bracts are not to be confused with sepals, which are the green, leaf-like things which cover the petals when the flower is still in bud stage!

Confused? Well I was. But when I looked more closely at the bougainvillea, I got it. Look closely and you will see small white flowers at the centre of what you would a minute ago have called a pink flower. (There are three such small flowers within each set of bracts, though you cant quite see them in the pic.)

bougainvillae flower

Bracts are often brightly coloured and have evolved to attract flowers. Our friend the bougainvillea is a great example of this, with bracts of magenta, pink, yellow, white, orange and every other colour! Another flower that is not a flower you think, is the poinsettia. The bright coloured petals are bracts. In grasses, each floret is covered by two bracts, and each group of florets has another pair of bracts at its base! The dried bracts are the chaff we remove from the grain!

A seemingly simple cheerful plant, which happily blooms for us on road-medians, along compound walls, in gardens. Fairly easy to grow as long as it gets enough sun and we take care not to over-water. But I have found three levels of complexity:

  1. The spelling. I just cannot get it right without the spellcheck! Yes, I know it is named after a person. But please can we do something about it?
  2. This bract-petal confusion.
  3. The woman who discovered it, while disguised as a man and who never got the credit (see our post ‘Colour and Cheer’, 15 Nov, 2018).

Simple is the new Complex! Or do I mean Complex is the new Simple?


Colour and Cheer



P1130289 (1).JPGRight through the long and dusty summer months when all the other plants drooped and dried, it was the riot of pink and white bougainvillae in my little garden that bestowed colour and cheer to the sweltering days.

I have always enjoyed the sight of the colourful mass, and took it pretty much for granted until I read an interesting story about how the plant was discovered. In 1766 the French government had commissioned French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville to sail around the world, to find new territories for France. Accompanying him on this voyage of circumnavigation was Philibert Commerson a botanist, whose brief was to collect hitherto unknown plants from the different continents and countries during the voyage. It is Commerson who is thought to be the first European to describe the plant we know of as bougainvillae.

Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. It turns out that Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But he was accompanied by his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and not only sailed with Commerson, she was with him while he was exploring plants in the new lands where the ship docked. As Commerson was frequently unwell, it was Baret who did most of the plant collecting, and she is believed to have discovered many of the plants which are attributed as being Commerson’s discoveries.

It is now believed that it was probably Baret who found bougainvillea at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero. Impressed by the bright blossoms, Commerson named them Bougainvillea after the admiral. Baret also thus became the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. Interestingly the surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to the fear of the consequences of admitting that the “no women!” rule had been broken.

Since the introduction of the first two species to Europe in the late 1700s, Bougainvillea have made their home all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require hot climate and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers and are found in many colours. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world, and since many of the hybrids have been crossed over several generations, it is now difficult to identify their respective origins. Botanists, however, have traced back most of today’s rich variety of bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

While the Bougainvillea is popularly known as an ornamental plant, the people of the Amazon region had long used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb, and it is only more recently that it medicinal values are being recognised by other schools of medicine.

There is definitely more to the bougainvillea than colour and cheer!

P1130286 (1).JPG
 It’s not the flowers that make this plant so colourful, it’s actually the bracts or modified leaves that surround the tiny white flowers. 



Heaven’s Flower 

Re-telling of a tale from Bhagwat Purana about Nyctanthes arbortristis, night-flowering jasmine or parijat, a species of Nyctanthes, native to SouthSoutheast Asia

(A long-read, this one!)

My parijat tree has just started flowering


Narada entered Indra’s court. Indra was obviously in a bad mood. All the minor gods and goddesses, apsaras and attendants, ghandarvas and gyaanis looked uneasy. Indra was firing a courtier:

‘How dare you question my decision? Don’t you know that I am Indra, the greatest of the Gods? The ruler of heaven and earth? The warrior before whom the world trembles? Even the Gods listen to me, and you question my wisdom?’ he thundered.

‘Great Indra! I know what a great god and king you are Sir! I do not question your wisdom. I only wanted to give you some information that I thought you might not know,’ said the trembling courtier.

‘Don’t try to act smart. I know all there is to know. My decision stands. Court is dismissed,’ said Indra in his rudest tone.

Narada was worried. ‘Indra’s arrogance is growing beyond limits now. He is rude to one and all. He respects neither age nor wisdom. He doesn’t listen to his well-wishers. If a ruler is so arrogant, it does not bode well for the kingdom. A ruler must be open to criticism as well as praise. He has to listen to all before he takes decisions. And he must be kind and just and fair. Indra has forgotten all this. He needs a lesson.’

Narada in his tension was playing with the flowers he had gathered for his puja. Suddenly he looked down at the flower basket. His eyes sparkled.

‘Ah ha! Two birds with one stone. Two nice people who have become proud and arrogant can be brought back to their senses with one drama!’ There was a smile on Narada’s lips

And when Narada smiled, someone was going to be in trouble!

It was but a jiffy before Narada was over Dwarka.  He smoothly landed in Rukmini’ courtyard. He knew this was the time Krishna would be there.

‘Narayana, Narayana!’ he said—that was his usual greeting.

Krishna and Rukmini welcomed him warmly. But behind Krishna’s smile was a small doubt. What was Narada up to now? He never went anywhere without a purpose!

‘What a privilege that you have come to my house Revered Muni! How may I serve you?’ asked gentle Rukmini, a bit flustered with such an important visitor.

‘I just thought I would visit friends on Earth, Rukmini. And obviously the first of these friends are Krishna and yourself. Just a casual visit, to chat and catch up.’ Narada turned to Krishna casually. ‘Vasudeva, have you seen the flowers of the Parijat tree? The tree that came from the seas during the Manthan, the churning? It has the most beautiful and fragrant flowers! See, so unusual. White petals with a coral stalk.’

Krishna and Rukmini peered at the string of flowers in Narada’s hand. Indeed it was exquisite, unlike any other flower they had ever seen.

‘Oh, how foolish of me! I brought the flowers for you Krishna, and look at me, holding on to them! Here, take this sting of heavenly flowers. Give it to the one you love,’ said Narada with an innocent look, as he handed over the flower to Krishna.

Krishna saw Rukmini looking at the flowers longingly. He knew he had no choice but to give it to her! ‘Here Rukmini, put the flowers in your hair. It will look beautiful.’ Rukmini was thrilled!

Narada stayed chatting about this and that and the other for a good hour. Krishna and Rukmini couldn’t stop laughing at all the stories that he told about the rishis, devas and asuras. All true no doubt, but with a little Narada-masala sprinkled!

‘Oh, it is getting late. I must take your leave Rukmini! I need to visit dear Satyabhama too before it is time for the lamps. Thank you for your hospitality. I will come around again in a few months’, said Narada as he made his way out of Rukmini’s palace.

Rukmini gazed at the flowers in her plait. They were so beautiful—like pearls set in coral! It had such a lovely fragrance. Never had she seen anything like it! “Oh, Indradev should share the flowers of his tree with all. It is so beautiful. If I could get these flowers, I would make garlands every day for you and for the Gods in the temple! Everyone looking at them would be so happy.’

“Yes indeed Rukmini! Beauty should be shared. I wish I could get you more of these flowers. But Indra is very possessive about his tree,’ said Krishna.

In the meantime, Narada was already with Satyabhama. After all, her palace was right next to Rukmini’s. He got as warm a welcome there. Satyabhama set out the most delicious snacks as he regaled her with news and stories.

Just as he was about to take his leave he said: ‘Oh Satyabhama, how rude you much think me, that I have come to visit you without a gift. But I did bring one. It was a string of beautiful parijat flowesr, from Indra’s tree. I gave it to Krishna and told him to give it to his loved one. He gave it to Rukmini.’ With this parting barb, Narada bowed to Satyabhama and disappeared.

It took Satyabhama a few minutes to digest this news. She hadn’t ever seen a parijat flower. But she knew that the tree grew in Indra’s garden and that he wouldn’t give it to anyone. It was heavily guarded. So she knew it must be very special. And Krishna had given the flowers to Rukmini! What was he thinking? Was she not his loved one? Was Rukmini more precious to him? Her eyes blazed with anger.

‘Call Krishna here immediately! I want him here, now!’ she called out to her maids.

They knew better than to dally! With Satyabhama in this mood, they didn’t want to be in the way. Obviously Krishna had done something, let him take the flak!

A breathless maid soon ushered in an apprehensive-looking Krishna. ‘What is it my dear Princess?’ he asked. ‘You look so bothered and flustered. What has happened? Has anyone offended you?’

‘Oh innocent Gopala! Oh intelligent Sumedha! Oh Vasudeva who runs the whole world! Of course you don’t know what’s wrong! Of course you don’t know what has happened and who has offended me!’ began Satyabhama, who had resolved not to tell Krishna what the problem was. But she couldn’t desist! ‘Narada gave you heavenly flowers to give to your loved one and you gave them to Rukmini! So I am not worth such special gifts? I am not the loved one! I am just some stupid ill-tempered girl who must make do with some silks and jewels bought from the local merchants! I am the one who can be ignored and not counted in this household!’

Krishna understood what this was about! His unease at the sight of Narada was borne out.

‘Beautiful Princess! Lovely Satyabhama! How can you talk so? It was just another flower! Rukmini happened to be there, so I gave it to her! See, for you also I have brought so many lovely jasmines and lotuses,’ cajoled Krishna. ‘Don’t you understand, it is just Narada pretending that he gave me something very special, when actually he came to see me with one little string of flowers.’

Satyabhama was not taken in. The argument went on and on, till finally Satyabhama completely lost her temper. ‘Krishna, I have had enough. You gave Rukmini parijat flowers. I want the whole tree. Nothing less will do. That tree had better be planted in my garden in the next week. Otherwise, I will never ever speak to you. Nor eat, nor go out.’

Krishna knew that this was serious. Satyabhama was the sweetest girl, but she was prone to throwing tantrums when she didn’t get her way! And boy, could she be stubborn. He had no way out but to get the tree!

‘OK Satyabhama. Of course if you want it so much, you will get it! Your wish is my command, Princess,’ said the harassed Gopala.

Krishna left immediately for Indralok. He knew he had a tough task ahead. Indra was very possessive about this tree. But Krishna was sure he could convince him. After all, it was not just about Satyabhama. If the tree came to Earth, everyone could enjoy its beauty.

But Krishna was not prepared for the new not-at-all-reasonable Indra! Indra would not even talk civilly to Krishna! ‘No Vasudeva! Sorry! I cannot part with the tree. I got it as my share in the Manthan. It is for me. It is too beautiful to leave Heaven. No other place deserves to have it. I am sorry,’ he told Krishna. And then turned away to talk to his other courtiers and ignored Krishna totally!

Krishna was shocked! This was no way for one god to treat another, for one ruler to behave with another. Even in refusing a request, there must be politeness. And anyway, there was no reason to refuse the request. But Krishna knew how to keep his cool. ‘Is that your last word Indra? My request is reasonable and I have been polite. But don’t you think that you have been both unreasonable and rude?’ he asked.

‘I have every right to refuse the request. You may be a big guy, but you can’t get whatever you want. Thank you for visiting me,’ said the unrepentant Indra, and started to walk out of the court.

‘Indra, you have exceeded all bounds of propriety. You need to be taught a lesson, and I shall do so. Prepare for war!’ said Krishna, cool but firm.

And war there was! A war in which Indra had no chance before the skill, intelligence and technique of Krishna. In no time Indra suffered a humiliating defeat.

And with that humiliation, came good sense! He realized that Krishna had not fought the war to get the tree, but to teach him a lesson for his arrogance. He fell at Krishna’s feet. ‘Jagadisha, forgive me! I understand that I had grown too big for my boots. My pride had gone to my head. I thought that I was so powerful that I could behave as I wanted, do what I liked. But that is not true. No one is above anyone else, and no one is above law. A ruler especially is here to ensure the well-being of all. It will never happen again.’

Krishna was pleased. His mission had been accomplished. The parijat tree was but an excuse. ‘All is well Indra. Rule wisely and kindly. I take my leave now.  All earthly beings and Satyabhama will be so happy with this tree—I thank you.’

As Krishna turned to go, he spied Narada standing in a corner. A smile came to his lips. ‘I take my leave of you also, Kalahapriya!’ he said.

‘Farewell Govinda. Take the tree carefully and plant it as soon as you get to earth. I know a spot where the soil is just right. On the edge of Satyabhama’s garden, right next to the compound wall adjoining Rukmini’s garden is a nice spot.’ He said. ‘And oh! I hope you know, parijat flowers are never picked off the tree. They fall on the ground early in the morning. All you have to do is spread a nice clean cloth on the ground and the flowers will fall on to it. You can tell Princess Rukmini that.’

‘Tell Rukmini? You mean Satyabhama?’ Krishna was confused. But when he saw the gleam in Narada’s eye, he understood. He understood why Narada had asked him to plant the tree near the compound wall next to Rukmini’s garden.

And sure enough, that is what he did! As soon as he returned to earth, he made for Satyabhama’s garden. A triumphant Satyabhama stood beside him as he planted the tree in the spot indicated.

‘Oh Krishna! This is a magic tree from heaven, right? It won’t take time to take root. I think it will start flowering tonight itself.’ She said.

And she was right! She got up early the next morning and she looked out of her window, thrilled to see the tree in her garden. But what she saw the next moment did not please her so well! It was true that the tree stood in her garden, but all the coral-stemmed flowers had fallen into Rukmini’s compound. Rukmini and her maids were picking them up.

And Satyabhama understood Krishna’s message. She had got the tree by throwing tantrums and being unreasonable. But she was not going to get the coveted flowers!  She smiled wryly to herself. Krishna had indeed taught her a lesson! Bad behavior does not pay in the long run!

And in his palace, Krishna smiled. And in the heavens, Narada smiled.