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.


The Versatile Shoe Flower

Within urban myths (defined by the Collins Dictionary as ‘a story, esp one with a shocking or amusing ending, related as having actually happened, usually to someone vaguely connected with the teller’), there should be a special category for ‘school myths and beliefs’  which could be defined as ‘stories and other things believed by a generation or generations of school children’.

One such myth subscribed to fervently by our generation was that if pencil shavings were soaked in milk, left in the moonlight, and some incantations recited over them, they would turn into erasers. Hundreds of children tried this, but since the incantations were not known to anyone in our circles, we attributed our failures to the lack of this knowledge.

The other widely held belief was that we could polish our leather shoes to wonderous lustre with the shoe flower or hibiscus. This was a very convenient belief to hold, as we thus avoided putting in 10 minutes hard work a day with brush and polish, and getting all messy. On the way to school, we would grab some red hibiscus flowers which were ubiquitous, and just before assembly, surreptitiously give our shoes a wipe-around. When the shoes were still kind of wet with the juice from the flowers, they looked ok, but I was never sure if they actually did anything.


But unlike other urban myths, maybe this one has some basis in fact. The hibiscus is called shoe flower because in Malaysia and Indonesia, the flower petals were used to produce a black dye for shoe polishing.

Hibiscus belongs to the genus Malvaceae of the mallow family. There are many hundred species, and the genus is native to warm temperate, subtropical and tropical  regions throughout the world. 

In fact, the hibiscus is an extremely versatile flower. It is used extensively in pujas, and having a bush in the garden assures the devout that they will have flowers throughout the year.

And then of course, its use as a hair tonic. Remember the jabakusum hair oil? The jabakusum or javakusum in fact is a name for hibiscus. It was C.K. Sen, a vaidya from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners, who took this oil commercial. He formed a company C.K.Sen & Co Ltd in 1878, with Jabakusum Taila as the first product. It became an instant hit. Its inherent qualities were assisted by smart marketing—it was positioned as ‘The Royal Toilette’ and ‘By the appointment to the Princess of India’ (no one seems to have asked who that would be!). It was the first hair oil brand in Asia to have a commercial film ad.

Even today, some people dry the flowers and steep them in coconut oil and use it for their hair. The leaves and flowers are also used as the base of hair packs and shampoos.

The humble hibiscus has several medicinal uses as well—it is a laxative as well as a diuretic. It is used to treat colds, fluid retention, stomach irritation and a number of other ailments.  There are claims that it may help to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Hibiscus tea, made by steeping the flowers in hot water for five minutes is a popular drink and home remedy.

In the Philippines, children use the flower to make bubbles. The flowers and leaves are crushed until the sticky juices come out. Hollow sticks or straws are dipped into this and bubbles are blown. 

The hibiscus flower is worn by girls in Tahiti and Hawaii. Traditionally, if the flower is worn behind the left ear, the woman is in a committed relationship. If the flower is worn on the right, she is single.

The hibiscus is a national symbol of Haiti, and the national flower of many countries including the Solomon Islands and Niue, South Korea, Malaysia and Hawaii.

With all this, we seem to tend to take the hibiscus for granted just because it is so common and easy to grow. I never knew of a hibiscus which did not take wherever it was planted. Even a ten-thumbs like me can plant and see a hibiscus bush flower.

Hibiscus come in various colours, with red, pink, white, yellow, orange, multicoloured ones being most common. There are even purple hibiscus. In many cases, the colour of the flowers of a hibiscus bush will change with changes in temperature, hours of daylight etc. For instance, the hotter it gets, the brighter the orange and yellow flowers bloom.

There is something special in the bush outside your house. Marvel at it!


Indicator Tea

Those who have gone through high school science will remember lab-experiments involving indicators. Adding a drop of phenolphthalein and noting that critical point at which the colourless liquid in the flask turned a bright pink. Or when the litmus paper turned red or blue. Remember how critical it was for our grades to observe these colour changes correctly? As a B.Sc Chemistry student, indicators played a pretty large part in my life!

Those colour changes are what my experiences with butterfly-pea tea took me back to. This tea has been much in vogue for some time now. But keeping in character, I am of course about two years behind the trend.

This in spite of having the creeper literally at my doorstep. Planted there to supply flowers for my mother’s puja– the shankpushpi flower is specially a favorite of Lord Shiva–it has proven itself a hardy survivor of my spurts of inept gardening. It grows and flowers and flourishes. The indigo-blue flowers are equally beautiful on the plant and in the puja.

Clitoria ternatea commonly known as Asian pigeonwings, bluebellvine, blue pea, butterfly pea or  Darwin pea, is known for its blue flowers, though there is a less common white variant. In India, it is called shankpusham, girikarnika or aprajita.

Here it is used mainly for worship and to some extent in Ayurveda, mainly for de-stressing, and to boost memory and brain function.

The use in Southeast Asia is more varied. It is an integral part of many Thai, Malaysian and Burmese recipes as an ingredient and as a colouring agent, and is very widely used in Chinese medicines.

Which brings me to the visually-stunning butterfly-pea tea, which is a wildly popular drink in those countries (and now the world). Made by steeping a handful of flowers (fresh or dry) in hot water, the resulting tea is a lovely blue. Squeeze a lemon into it, and it turns pink or even violet—taking you right back to your school lab! It is basically the same phenomenon—a change in pH resulting in a change in colour.

Research on the use of Butterfly Pea in managing Alzheimer’s has been ongoing for some time now. The latest is a research study from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, published in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which takes forward the hypothesis that extracts from this plant ‘can help in neuroprotection and prevent progressions that cause the ailment’.

So go ahead and plant a shankpushi in your garden or a pot—only making sure that it gets enough sun. It is not at all difficult to grow—my creeper sheds seeds all around, and each week, I find tens of little plants wanting to curl around the nearest support and climb. It will do well in most soils, even enriching them, as it is leguminous and will fix nitrogen. Apart from watering it once in a while, you don’t need to do much.

And in return, it will add beauty to your garden, adorn your puja room, help you make conversation-piece teas, salad additions and coloured rice. And hopefully also boost your brain-power. A winning proposition all around!


Anarkali At My Window

BFCA646E-31A4-47A9-AB75-B961DD704B3ELockdown has certainly make us more observant and has given us new ways of looking at things. There is a pomegranate tree whose top I can see from my window—and considering I spend eight or nine hours working in that room, it is very central to my vision! It is currently flowering, abuzz with bees, and fruits have started forming.

I have always wondered why Anarkali*, the beauty who stole the to-be Emperor Jahangir’s heart and brought him to loggerheads with his father Emperor Akbar, was called so. Was the flower so beautiful that our most famous beauty was named for it? I never did think so.

Well, my recent close encounters with the tree and flowers have given me a greater appreciation of the beauty of the flower. Bright waxy orange blossoms which stand out against the green of the leaves, and a nice shape. And bees drawn to them by the dozens, as maybe men, young and old, were drawn to Anarkali (one version is that she was part of Akbar’s harem, and that rivalry between father and son for her favours was at the heart of the dispute).

But maybe more than just the beauty of the flowers, it is the associations that the ancient fruit has, that makes the pomegranate so much part of the imagination. It is one of the few fruits which is mentioned in the texts of many religions.

Starting from ancient Greek mythology–in the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, lord of the underworld, the pomegranate represents life, regeneration, and the permanence of marriage.The story is that one day while out gathering flowers, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken down to his kingdom. By eating a few pomegranate seeds, Persephone tied herself to Hades.

Pomegranate is mentioned in the Vedas and is an important part of Ayurveda. It is a symbol of fertility and abundance, and one of the nine fruits offered to Goddess Durga.

In Buddhism too, it is significant. The Buddha received many valuable gifts from wealthy disciples. But it is said that a poor old woman’s gift of a small pomegranate was the one that delighted him most. It is also said that he once offered a pomegranate to the demon Hariti, which cured her of her alarming habit of eating children.

It finds a place in Zoroastrianism too. In Persian mythology, Isfandiyar eats a pomegranate and becomes invincible.

In Islam, the fruit is considered a symbol of harvests, wealth, and wellness. Legend has it that each pomegranate contains one seed that has come down from paradise. Along with olive, dates and figs, it is one of the four sacred fruits in Islam.

In Judaism, it is believed that each pomegranate has 613 seeds—one for each of the Bible’s Commandments. The Song of Solomon compares the veiled cheeks of a bride to the two halves of a pomegranate.

1A6133BD-4C41-49AA-BA38-4EED5DB8E6ADThe pomegranate is a symbol of resurrection and life everlasting in Christian art, and the pomegranate is often found in devotional statues and paintings of the Virgin and Child, as in Bottecelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ shown here.

I shall delight in the beauty of the pomegranate flowers for now. I shall try to get a few fruits before the parakeets get them all. And I shall let thoughts of all the health and prosperity they will bring me help me through the Lockdown!


*Anar= Pomegranate. Kali= Flower


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?


Sweet Potato Garden

First it was Green Tea.

Then Quinoa.

And now, the latest magical health food—the humble Sweet Potato.

All these years, I knew of only two ways to eat it. Boil, peel, cut, eat. Or roast, peel, cut, eat.

Now the net has tens of recipes. Outnumbered only by articles which list the benefits of eating sweet potatoes.

IMG_20190311_091629__01So were we excited when someone told us a super-simple way to  grow them! Just cut the bottom half off (cook the rest!). And put this bottom half into a container of water, partly submerged in it. Put the container in a place with good light (outside for a few hours is good). Don’t forget to change the water every 3 days. And you will see magic in a week! Small leaves in shades of green, red and purple, then more leaves. Growing lush and tall


Once you see enough leaves, plant this in the ground or in a pot.

And voila, you will have your own sweet potato farm!

Be green, have fun, eat healthy!


PS: Apparently, bandicoots and rats love sweet potatoes. So I think the first part involving the container is the easy part. Who knows what will happen when we put them in the ground!?! But we will be optimistic.

PPS: A joint project of Anuradha, Sudha and Meena.

Pomelo in My Yard

I marvel when I see the pomelo tree in my yard. It is no higher than 6 feet, and doesn’t have very strong branches. More a bush than a tree, almost. But the number of fruits it bears at a time, and the size of those fruits! I spanned one of the fruits on my tree and the circumference was upwards of 18 inches! And a tree may have up to 20 fruits at any given time. I really wonder how the tree takes the weight!

Pomelo or Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis is the largest citrus fruit, and all other citrus fruits have apparently been hybridized from this. The pomelo tree shares ancestry with the grapefruit.

The origin of the name ‘pomelo’ is uncertain. My mother used to call it Bablimass, insisting that this was the Tamil name. Probably a corruption of pampa limāsu, which means “big citrus”

Coincidentally, there is a GI link to the pomelo. The Devanahalli pomelo is a variety of pomelo (Citrus maxima) grown in the region around Devanahalli taluk, Bangalore Rural District, India and locally known as chakkota.

The Devanahalli pomelo is protected under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act (GI Act) 1999 of the Government of India, under the title “Devanahalli Pomello”.

The Devanahalli pomelo has a unique, sweet taste, unlike other local varieties which have a bitter taste. Five decades ago, this plant was crossbred with local varieties, and it was nearing extinction. A few old Devanahalli pomelo plants were identified in the area and then propagated widely, thanks to which the variety has been preserved.

A story goes that Mahatma Gandhi tasted this fruit when he visited Nandi Hills near Devanahalli. He liked its taste and suggested that the authorities conserve this variety.

I wish the pomelo in my yard was a Devanahalli pomelo. But due to the special soil conditions at Devanahalli and its GI status, mine is not and cannot be!

So though I am not more than 20 kms away, sadly mine is a Rajanakunte pomelo, not a Devanahalli one!

I only ever tasted a fruit from my tree once, and did not particularly like the taste. Oh, if only I had a Devnahalli Pomelo tree!

So near, yet so far!


It’s Getting Hot, Hot, Hot!

Chilies have been on my mind since my visit to the Agriculture Mela last week, where this picture was taken by my friend. And then, another friend who went trekking to the Northeast brought me back the super-hot special chilies from there. The blog today is more an excuse to share the picture, than anything else! But now that we are on the topic, here goes:


The chili is the fruit of a plant belonging to the genus capsicum of the family Solanaceae. Capsicum is aptly derived from the Greek word ‘Kapsimo’ meaning ‘to bite’. The plant originated in South America, probably in Peru, and was domesticated as early as 5000 B.C. Christopher Columbus carried chili seeds from South America to Spain in 1493, and from there they have spread across the world. They were introduced in South Asia in the late 15th/ early 16th century by the Portuguese, and today we cannot imagine any of our cuisines without them (except maybe Kerala!).

When we talk of the heat of chilies, a reference to the pungency is natural. But how is pungency measured? The Scoville scale is a measure of the pungency (spiciness/heat) of   spicy foods, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This is based on the concentration of capsaicin,  the alkaloid responsible for the ‘heat’.  The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, whose 1912 method is known as the Scoville organoleptic test. Originally, the SHU rating was given based on this test, which got people to taste and rate. But obviously, this was quite subjective. Today, liquid chromatography is used. The unit of measurement remains SHU.

The hottest chili in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Trinidad and Tobago. This pepper is rated at a 2,009,231 SHU.

India’s hottest, and World Number Four, is the Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper) from Nagaland. On the Scoville scale, this measures a whopping 1,041,427 SHU.

Some other special chilies of India:

Kashmiri Chili: Known more for its colour than its spice.

Guntur Chili: The Guntur Sannam S4 is the chili responsible for the spiciness of the famously spicy Andhra cuisine.

Birs’ Eye Chili Dhani: Grown in the Northeast, this tiny chili packs a very spicy punch.

Kanthari Chili: These chilies grow in Kerala and become white when mature.

Mundu Chili: Grown in Tamilnadu and Andhra, they are small and round, with a thin skin. The are not too spicy, but have a unique flavour.

Jwala Chili: Grown primarily in Gujarat.

Byadagi Chili: This chili grown in Karnataka are long and have a thin skin. When dried, they have a crinkly appearance.

Maybe next time you are at a restaurant and want to sound very well-informed, you can ask the waiter what the SHU level of a dish is!


PS: Thanks Anu, for the pic, and Sudha for the chilies.


Lemon Tree Very Pretty, or The Recalcitrant Citrus

Those who grew up in the ‘70s would remember this song. It went something like this:

‘Lemon tree very pretty
And the lemon flowers are sweet
But the fruit of the lemon
Is impossible to eat.’

I grew up in Delhi, and in my youth had not seen a lemon tree. So I took the first few lines of the song to be true. But I always wondered about the last two lines. Sure, we didn’t eat the lemon, but we couldn’t get by a day with it! The rasam, the dal, the nimbu paani, the lemon rice, the zing needed to cover up any insipid dish. The lemon was irreplaceable.

A few years ago, we moved to Bangalore. And for some reason, the price of lemons soared that year. Considering we use about 10 a week, my veggie budget soured. Having a small plot at the back of the house, I decided to grow my own lemons.
The next day, I marched off to the nearest nursery. The nursery-wallah sold me a lemon tree (over the years, the feeling has grown that he actually sold me a lemon, but more on that!). He assured me it was a hybrid and would start flowering the very year. ‘Pluck out all the flowers this year’, he said. “Then next year, you will get a good crop.’

I looked out of the window every morning to check on the flowering so as to quickly pluck them out, lest they jeopardize the long-term fruiting. After several months, there was one bud. I plucked it out.

Along came the next year. Oh, the anticipation! I waited and waited for my tree to flower. Every time I picked up lemons from the vendor or the super market, it was with a sense of ‘Listen, I am paying your price now. But you are not going to take me for a ride for too long. Just wait till my tree starts fruiting.’
It was a case of the milkmaid and her castles in the air!

My tree did not flower that year.
Or the next.
I shared my sob story with anyone and everyone who would listen.
Then a friend told me to beat the tree with a broom, in the night! She said that it was a well-known remedy for such recalcitrant lemon trees! I got home and googled it, and sure, there were lots of people talking about this. Quite a prevalent urban myth! Many posts suggested that it was the beating with the broom that was at the core of it. The beating at night, they said, was so that the neighbours didn’t think the perpetrator was mad!
Nothing to lose, I thought, and did the needful for a week, in the dead of night. Though I have to admit, I couldn’t bring myself to beat it very hard!
A month or so after that, I went to a Krishi Mela. Lots of agri-related people and enterprises had stalls. I picked a couple of likely looking ones and shared my woes. The first listened, asked me a few questions, and declared that there was no hope. I just needed to pull out the tree and plant another one. The next stall guy told me the problem was completely solvable, and sold me a few soil tonics and leaf sprays, which he assured me would fix it.
I followed the instructions. And also beat the tree once in a while for good measure.
And lo and behold! The tree flowered. Rather generously. At last, I thought! Whether the beating or the tonics, one or both seem to have worked. I didn’t care which!
The flowers turned to fruit. But my days of waiting are not over. The fruits haven’t grown bigger than a large marble, in two months. My neighbour’s tree in the meanwhile is full of large, yellow fruit.

Believe me, the lemons look much bigger in the pic than on the tree!

I look out of the window every morning and think: ‘The lemon tree is not a particularly pretty tree. Nice enough but nothing spectacular. The flowers are nice too—small and white. But again, the anar next to it has prettier flowers. But the fruit of the lemon is what I want, but will I get it?’
Will I be  a sour loser this year too? Well, at least I will try not to be a sore one!

The Pelican Has Landed

Raghu often lectures in various places. One of his favourite places to do so is the Silver Oaks School, a unique school in many ways. When he went for a talk there a few years ago, they gave him a potted plant. It looked pretty nondescript. We just left the pot on the verandah and watered it occasionally. But then, a few months later, it burst into flower! The flower whose pic you see below! Pretty exotic! It never grew very much but gave about 2-3 flowers a year, and were we proud of it! All our visitors made quite a fuss over it. We asked the gifters the name of the plant, but they didn’t know.



20180415_091803And then we moved to Bangalore, and decided to plant it in the ground. And were we in for a surprise! It was a climber, and boy, did it climb. It climbed to the first floor and went all over the terrace rails and roof. And flowers? About a hundred a year! Huge purple ones, with yellow centres. And very cute kind of seed pods—they burst into a parachute shape when they were dry. Our house became known for this creeper which was all over the roof.

Everyone was fascinated with the flowers, though a lot of people were a bit uncomfortable—as we sometimes are, especially with some types of orchids.

Then a friend decided to do a bit of research, and told us it was a Pelican flower (Aristolochia grandiflora). With that lead, we did our own research, and figured this was Aristolochia littoralis, a sort of cousin of the Pelican flower.

Apparently, these flowers are called Calico flowers (because they look like cloth?). Or Elegant Dutchman’s Pipe, because the flowers look like Sherlock Holmes’ pipe (now why would that be? Holmes was not Dutch to the best of my knowledge. But he may have been elegant, I concede.)

A lot of people had commented that our flower looked kind of carnivorous. But actually, it is not. Apparently, it is pollinated by flies and it does trap the fly inside to ensure pollination, but lets it out in a day or two, when the job is done. So machinating yes, but carnivorous no (sensitive readers, please excuse my anthropomorphism).

Nor do the flowers smell of dead carrion, as the books say they do. At least, ours don’t!

This plant, which is a native of South America, is an invasive species in Australia. But hopefully, not here. A lot of friends asked for the seeds but they couldn’t propagate it, so while my plant grows and grows, at least it is not spreading.