Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Diwali !

This has to be one of the most celebration-filled weeks in India. The Diwali week has already started and everyone is in a festive mood .

There are quite a few legends attached to the festival of Diwali. It is the homecoming of Lord Rama, prince of Ayodhya and considered a reincarnation of the God Vishnu, after an exile of 14 years. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil . It is also a welcoming of Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, prosperity and good fortune. Three very good reasons to make it a favourite among young and old.

Today, the homecoming aspect was very much on top of my mind as I went shopping for diyas with my daughter. It was a bit late to be doing this but she had been away for some days on a school trip so I kept putting it off till she got back. Diyas are little clay lamps that are filled with oil and are lit at night all during the Diwali week. They are as symbolic of Diwali, the festival of lights, as the Christmas tree is symbolic of Christmas in western countries. In the days before apartment-living, they were placed all around the home so that at night when they are all lit up, the effect is truly magical!
In these modern times, electric lights intrude upon the cosy glow of the diya but can't quit dim the magic.

I broke away from tradition this year as I didn't want to have a lit diya toppling over into the apartment below us . The Fire Brigade in Mumbai is overworked as it is without my adding to their problems! So, this year, I substituted the flame in the diya with fiery-bright yellow and orange marigolds. I've placed these little marigold diyas all around my tiny balcony in my apartment and on a few ledges in the rooms.
A pity you cant see them at night but they're really flamboyant during the day. Maybe some day they'll have fluorescent marigolds!

Outside, however, all the trees along the roads are strung up with tiny little lights . Isnt it amazing how a few little lights can change the entire night landscape? 'Magical' is the word that keeps coming back to my mind every time.

At night, every little shop by the roadside is filled with all kinds of lanterns of every material and design, hoping to entice even the most disinterested shopper to forget the R word for the moment and splurge on a gorgeous bit of light and all the hope that it signifies.

Gorging on sweets, visiting friends, decorating homes .... now what have I left out? Fireworks!But, of course! Diwali without fireworks is unthinkable for just about everyone I know.

Sparklers and rockets are old-fashioned now. Instead, each year there seems to be some new fireworks with fancy names. It was the Telephone (a cracker which zips up and down a wire) a few years ago and then there was the Butterfly( a cute little thing which actually flutters up off the ground before coming back to rest again in a flash of lights) ... I wonder what's new this year? I hope its not anything noisy!

And so my friends, have a wonderful Diwali ! Enjoy yourselves, keep safe, think positive, dream big, and in the spirit of Diwali, get in touch with an old friend whom you haven't spoken to for a long time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Go Bananas!

For all my friends living in non-tropical countries, here's a riddle. What's red, thick and shiny and looks like a famous rock-star's lips ? Your clue is in the photo above.
Ummmm, no-o-o........ actually that's the bract of a banana flower. If you did guess right, come on over and I'll share some of my banana wine with you.

That's how the bract opens up, revealing one line of white/cream flowers underneath each one. Incidentally, these flowers in the photo above, are male. The female ones which develop into the fruit are found higher up the stalk.

When I was a child, we used to sip up the sweet nectar found in the flowers. There's such a tiny drop of it that it hardly seems worth the effort but children know differently, dont they? And, so it seems do bees and other nectar-loving creatures, even these huge wasps in the photo above.
I saw a sunbird sipping on one the other day but it was too precious a moment to disturb by going for a camera.

Who can fault such excellent packaging? Each bract tightly fitted over the flowers until its moment arrives to unfurl. The banana flower dangles like a pendant at the end of a long stalk. The fruit is found growing higher up on the stalk and after the last 'hand' or tier of bananas have formed on the bunch, farmers cut off the dangling flower and stalk. This is meant to conserve all the nutrients into developing the fruit instead of getting wasted on the now-useless flower.

Useless? No way! That flower would soon find its way to the kitchen and be transformed into a very tasty vegetable dish. Hmm, only magic or a very determined housewife could transform a flower into a vegetable!

There was just no way I could cut this one off... I couldnt reach it even if I stood on a stool! Not all my banana plants are so tall though. This is just one of my shooting stars!

Incidentally, if you're wondering why the leaf behind the flower in the photo above is all slit and tattered, blame it on the wind. Otherwise, the leaf is large and is often used at traditional meals as a plate.

Yes, you read that right. The clean leaf is cut into more manageable sizes, washed and the food is served on it. At the end of the meal, it is thrown away onto the rubbish heap to decompose and add to the fertility of the soil.

Simple! No washing dishes, or drying them, or worrying over chipping, or even silly things like matching crockery!
I found a photo in Kitchen Mishmash which is quite descriptive. Take a look!

Oh, and the leaf is also used to grill fish. The prepared fish is wrapped in banana leaf and cooked. The charred banana leaf gives such a delicious flavour to the fish that just can not be replicated without it.

I love seeing the leaf unfurling from the tight roll into a funnel and then into a broad expanse.

We cut the banana bunch when the sides of the bananas start smoothening out. When it is raw, there are thin rib-like lines running down the sides of the banana. By the time it starts ripening, this rounds out and the ribs disappear. That's when you know that it's time to cut it down. Wait too long and either the bats and crows get the fruits. Or, by the time you do cut it, the fruits start stripping off the bunch and you're left with a mess!

The banana plant will yield fruit only once so instead of cutting the bunch down, we cut the whole plant at the base . The bunch of fruit is carried off and the pseudostem is slit open to get at the core. This is again used to make curries. Very messy, and murder on the hands, but tasty in its own way.

In almost all Indian homes, a sweet, ripe banana or plantain often rounds out the heavy, spicy meals. It is excellent for digestion and for a sweet tooth too. And it looks so vibrantly colourful too.

I've got about 50 banana plants of different varieties growing in my garden. Sometimes 7-8 of them are harvested within days of each other and I go berserk trying to dispose of them. How much can one family eat?
Bunches are pressed into the hands of friends, relatives, workers and anyone who happens to visit. Recipe books are desperately consulted and tried-and-true recipes surface. Banana cakes, desserts and tea-time snacks are my stand-bys in this time of desperation. Next in line is my banana wine, potent enough to have me babbling all my secrets to anyone who'll listen. Jams and syrups are possibilities but I've never ventured there yet.

If you have a few extra bananas getting over-ripe, you may want to visit this site or this . Between them, they've got about 5000 ideas for you to decide what to do with them!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Orchids - an update

I just had to share this with you.

Now that the monsoons have withdrawn from Mumbai, it's as good as raining orchids here. The other day I came across some more of my blooming orchids that I wish I had shared with you in my previous post Orchids - Tie them up!

This Dendrobium orchid in the photo above, is growing on a Teak tree. The banana fibre that tied it on to the tree has long gone and now the roots are clambering all over the rough bark of the tree.

The Teak tree is also one of those made-for-orchids trees. Tall, with rough bark, and since we keep the lower half of the tree-trunk clear of branches, it gets plenty of flower-inducing sunlight. Perfect! Its almost like an incidental bonus that it could give timber for a lot of lovely furniture in about 20 years time.

Another favourite 'made-for-orchids' tree is the coconut tree.

The coconut tree in the photo above featured in my previous post too but I think this is a slightly better photo, right?

Want a closer look?

Its called Dendrobium Yupadeewan. I think... I lost all the tags back in the days when I didnt know better. But after checking up on some sites, I'm quite sure thats what this beauty is called. This is one of my most reliable 'show-off orchids'. Extra-long spikes with plenty of blooms and oh, such a breathtakingly gorgeous combination of colours which the camera just couldnt capture!

The orchids in the photo below are grown on another Teak tree ( yes, I do have a few of them. I did tell you that I wanted beautiful furniture, didnt I ? )

The small purple coloured orchid is one of the most prolific blooming ones I've ever seen. Each plant has about 10 - 15 blooming spikes cascading down. Now why on earth didn't I click a photo showing all of it? Next time, I promise.

The white one on the left is Den.Emma White, another of those very prolific-blooming orchids. There's something so pure and serene about it, isnt there?

I thought I would leave you with this photo today. Something to make you really consider adding dendrobiums to your must-have list, if you havent already put them in.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I was actually nominated ?!!

The winners of the 2008 Blotanical Awards have just been declared a few days ago. When I visited the site to find out who the winners were so I could buzz over to congratulate them, I was stunned to see a familiar blog name on the list .

The Urban Gardener has actually featured in the Best Asian Blog category ! It squeezed in at fourth place but ... I didnt even know that it had been nominated!

I'm so embarassed. My mother always claimed that I walk with my head in the clouds and with no idea of what's happening around me, but really...

So, to all of you who took the time and trouble to actually vote for The Urban Gardener, thank you so much, and may your blooms increase! I'm sorry if I appeared ungrateful because I didn't appreciate your efforts earlier, but I just didn't know. Please ignore my blushes and accept my thanks .

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Orchids - Tie them up!

Though most people grow their dendrobium orchids in pots, they're happiest when they're clinging onto something. They're epiphytes after all and have evolved into doing their best on a tree trunk. So if you have a reasonably tall tree with some bare trunk on it, do your dendrobium a favour, tie it onto that trunk and watch your dend take off! They don't even really need any extra medium as other plants need soil.

I have more than a few orchids tied onto almost all the trees in my garden. The coconut trees are fantastic hosts. They're tall with plenty of lovely bare, rough trunk and all the leaves are right on top which means that there's sunlight available when the dends need it, and at noon, the coconut leaves throw enough shade to keep it happy.

Water doesn't accumulate at the roots because it's just bare root against bare trunk. So there are very few chances of rot. Which is something that an orchid grower is always thankful for. And hey! there's no room for pests!

When I'm tying a baby dend. onto a tree, I place a small wad of coir under the roots so that it encourages root growth and gives the dend. something to sink its roots into, so to speak. I usually tie it on with a strip of banana plant fibre onto the tree. The whole idea is that by the time the dend. is big enough to take care of itself, the coir and banana string would have naturally decomposed.

The angle that the dends are fixed to the tree also mean that there's a very aesthetic, graceful curve to the flower spikes.

And of course, its a far better sight to focus on than just bare tree trunk! Especially when its loaded with blooming spikes.

Of course, there are some negatives too. Like, you can't move it around or take it inside (unless it's tied onto a piece of driftwood or log instead of a tree) when it's in bloom... and you want to show it off just a little bit.
And, if it's tied onto a cooconut tree, falling nuts and leaves can chop off various parts of the plant. Also, my local coconut buyer is very reluctant to climb these trees to harvest the nuts. What with me hovering around to see he doesnt harm my 'kids, and him having to manoeuvre around the mounted orchids, I dont really blame him!

Watering can become another issue. Since the roots are exposed, they tend to dry out faster than those in pots. So, in summer I make sure I hose them down liberally and also thoroughly drench the surrounding tree bark. But dendrobiums have a good storage system in their pseudobulbs, so they wont dry up and die overnight for lack of water.

Its not just the dendrobiums, phalaenopsis and oncidium orchids too can be tied on to trees (orchid growers call this "mounting" , as in "the orchid was mounted on a small log"). So far, I've succeeded in growing dendrobiums and oncidiums this way. The phalaenopsis is going to be next.

Oh, and did I mention that this works for epiphytic orchids ? Dont try it on your terrestrial or ground-growing orchids like Spathaglottis, okay? Well, if you have about hundreds of them, you could always experiment in the name of Science but .... there's a reason why they're called Terrestrial, right?

This particular gul mohur tree is home to an oncidium (or, Dancing Girls as they're known locally) as well as to myriad other dendrobiums. Its a perfect complement to my orchids as they each bloom in turn . In summer when the tree is in vibrant colour, my orchids are silent and reserving their strength. Then comes the monsoons, and the winds and rains whiplash all the gulmohur petals off. That's when the orchids come into their own with the rough bark and feathery gulmohur leaves as the perfect backdrop!

(a close-up view of the Dancing Girls)

True, you cant carry them indoors, but they'll make your feet follow them outdoors for sure!

(Almost all these photos were clicked in my non-digital camera days . The photos from my old point-and-shoot were scanned into my computer and then uploaded here. I could have waited to click better photos but I was too impatient. Please bear with me? )