Monday, February 23, 2009

Eating Crow ... or maybe not !

Be honest... would you like to see this barrelling towards you at full tilt on a lonely road?
It looked menacing, waving two pointy tentacles at me (loaded with poison, I'm sure! ). There were even more tentacles, all tightly rolled up . A mask that Batman would've loved, slashed across its face and it just kept marching full speed at me.

Didnt it know fear? After all, I'm about a zillion times its size and could squish it to a very messy pulp. Aaah... but there were those tentacles .... extra-long, pointy and bright red at the tip. Just like the poison arrows of all those Amazonian tribes that I've seen in every encyclopaedia in the library !

But on second thoughts, maybe it does look a bit comical. Like a little ol' lady in a frilly, scalloped skirt and with her hair up in curlers. And don't miss those clogs that she's clumping around in!
She just kept going round and round the same pot. Maybe she had lost her way and didn't want to admit it.
But I've got to admit that her tentacles still have me worried!

After a lot of research (thanks Wiki!) I found that I was absolutely right to be worried about her. Or rather, I should have been if I were a bird or other predator.
Apparently this caterpillar of the Common Crow butterfly prefers munching on plants like Nerium oleander, Ficus and others with poisonous latex in them. These toxins are stored in its body and later, even in its adult stage, the toxins make it totally inedible and persona non grata among the predators.
Clever! They're more or less the butterfly equivalent of the infamous Vish-kanyas!

Who are Vish-kanyas? They are literally the 'Poison-girls' (vish = poison, kanya = girl). Indian legends go into graphic detail about girls (almost always beautiful and seductive ... obviously!) who were fed small doses of poison every day until a mere touch or kiss from them was enough to kill.
Stories abound of Chanakya, the very clever and shrewd prime minister (he could've taught Machiavelli a thing or two!) of King Chandragupta, who used these Vish-kanyas to get rid of their enemies.
On the internet I even found a claim that Chandragupta had sent some of these seductive Vish-kanyas to Alexander the Great when he invaded India. Whether it was to aid him or to kill him was not clear.
Then again, I found it on the Net so I'm not too sure ... maybe a cupful of salt is called for here, unless some of my more knowledgeable readers can tell me different?

But coming back to the Common Crow butterfly, it is so confident about its immunity from attack that it has a very slow, lazy flight. Which makes it one of the most easily photographed butterflies in my garden.

Just one thing bewilders me ... what on earth made them call this butterfly a Crow ? Can you see any resemblance at all to the bird in the photo below?

Saturday, February 21, 2009


A very short post this time ... is this what you had guessed when you saw the last photo in my previous post ?
Just about everyone guessed it was the inside of a flower . You just can't fool a gardener, can you? ;)
And all who guessed it is an orchid, you're absolutely right. So, take a bow ... Kerri, Kanak, Lona, HelenJ . And yes, though I'd already announced the answer, you too Rajee, Happy Mouffetard , Raji and Lostlandscape. I'm positive you knew the answer and I goofed by publishing the answer too early.
But the one who takes the crown and gets to be called Garden Goddess here is Lisa (Michigoose) ! You're absolutely right, Lisa, it is a Dendrobium orchid bud . How on earth did you get it so right ?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Take a closer look

Have you ever noticed how things look so totally different ... almost unrecognisable ... when you get a really, really close look at them?
The photo above is of an unfurling French Marigold. I had not quite realised that they unfurl tightly curled layer by layer until I saw this one.

This is how it looked when fully open . The Grass Yellow butterfly was a bonus :)

And this? A very green pineapple which toppled over and continued growing sideways instead of upright.

Who would guess that a cheery yellow gerbera would have a ring of spikes and curls at the centre ?

It isn't just teenagers who have to battle a pimply face. Except, in an anthurium, it would be its raison d'etre ... a well-pollinated spadix with dozens of little baby anthurium-hopefuls in the making.

A wide-eyed look can melt anyone's heart ... or scare the tail feathers off a hungry bird. Depends on who's looking at this Peacock Pansy butterfly.

Now guess what's in the photo below if you can.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love is in the air !

In Mumbai, the winter chill is on its way out but the summer heat has yet to show up. Perfect!
Every hue is brighter now, every scent more fragrant. Just what is it about this season that makes every creature fall that little bit more in love with life?

Everywhere I look I see twosomes busy building nests or just hanging out, like these two. I found these dragonflies hanging from a Dendrobium orchid flower spike . Or were they holding it up?

Others like this Common Crow butterfly seem to have have got in the mood too. What else would explain this perfect heart, the universal symbol of love?

These Pariah Kites that I had posted about a few months ago, have gone through one full cycle together. They built their nest on a coconut tree in my garden, hatched their egg, and now Junior has flown from the nest. They are still together, though. I see them gliding across the sky in a silky-smooth waltz and hear their skeee r-r-r-r calls piercing the distance as they loop the sky in tandem.

Do bees fall in love? If they do, then I think I know what this photo would be showing. A cocktail before a dance, maybe ? And then taking the long way home .

Obviously a full moon sets the mood for romance and a couple of crows can cosy up under its silver glow.

If Love is truly a many splendoured thing, I wonder whether this Handmaiden Moth could be a poster girl for it? She definitely has mastered the many-splendoured part of it !

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cashewnut Days

In my garden, the cashew trees are bustling with activity. There are buds to bloom, bees to invite, fruit to grow ...
Ol' ma'am Cashew is one busy tree !

It all begins in the lazy, wet monsoon days in June - July. Ol' ma'am Cashew stretches her limbs and relaxes. (Look carefully at this photo... can you see her 'face'? ) This is the first time in months that she's really free to do so, after all. So she tries on some new mossy clothes, rearranges her hair, drinks more than she should, maybe, and just ... vegetates !

Then comes the early December mornings with the first hint of chill in distant lands and Ol' ma'am Cashew steps out of her spa.
"Look at me ! I feel so fresh, " she seems to preen. And it's true, she and her sisters are sporting new leaves and buds.

With the masses of tiny flowers opening up, the Cashews become the most sought-after trees in my garden. Bees, butterflies, ants , they're all over the Cashew trees.

They're the oldest trees in my garden and I have no idea who planted them here. Most probably, they were self-propagated. I'm told that the Portuguese traders brought these trees from Brazil way back in the 16th century and planted them along the coast to prevent soil erosion. Cashew trees are perfectly okay with a bit of roughing it out and ran wild all along the coast. So my trees are probably the offspring of these Brazilians-turned-Mumbaikars !

The Cashew tree's ample girth is one of her most attractive features. Earth mother-like, she spreads her branches to cover as much area as possible. Just one of my cashew trees is almost as big as a tennis-court ! Short, squat and expansive she may be, but all the migratory birds flock to her as if they can sense her comforting shelter.

As for me, I love sitting in her shade on the blazing-hot, sunny Indian summer days. More often than not, I find myself running out bare-foot, following a pretty bird or butterfly, only to realise too late that while they can fly, I can not and the ground beneath my feet is like one huge bed of burning coals. I sprint to the blessed shade of the Cashew tree and have to call out to someone to rescue me with some footwear. And if there's no one around, I'll just have to take the long way around, following the shade of one tree to the next.

The flowers give way to tiny little fruits called cashew apple ( I haven't the faintest idea why ... it doesnt look, smell or even remotely taste like apples! ) and nuts which strangely grow outside the fruits. Did Ma Nature make a freakish mistake here? I can't think of any other fruit which has this odd arrangement.

Just as odd, perhaps, is the fact that the nut develops first before the fruit starts to fill out. At first, the nut and fruit, both have this liver-red colour. At this stage, the nut is just a hollow promise... there is no tasty kernel inside.

The next stage is the 'greening' of the nut where the kernel forms inside. At this stage (slightly bigger than that in the photo above), the tender nut is often harvested and sliced up. The pale white kernel is cooked into one of the most delicious dishes of coastal India. It's murder on the hands because the shell oil leaves a waxy coat that stains the hands for days and then starts peeling off in ugly strips. But oh, the taste ... ! It's the stuff that sweet memories , if not legends, are made of.

This stage also sees hordes of flying robbers invading my garden ! Flocks of parrots descend on my Cashew trees at all hours of the day, fighting over the delicious kernels. In the morning when I step out, I find chewed open shells and carelessly discarded cashew fruit carpeting the ground under each cashew tree. Very annoying when I consider that those nuts were to be eaten by my family and friends but the parrots are so entertaining that I really dont mind all that much. After all, there is more than enough for all of us.

This is the stage that my Cashew trees are at now. Soon, in a month or so, the trees will fill up with the big fruits. My trees are all of the yellow-fruit kind but some of my neighbours have the red-fruit cashews which look much prettier. But both varieties look fantastic when loaded with fruit... like a summer-time Christmas tree loaded with decorative yellow ornaments!