Saturday, December 18, 2010

Orchid stars ... and some extras

My orchids are the superstars in my garden right now. Never mind that the nights have become decidedly chill ... by Mumbai standards, that is. My orchid divas are still dazzling me and showing that they still have what it takes. Oh yeah!

And the older they are, the more flamboyant they get. Like this Dendrobium orchid which has been with me for 10 years or more. Definitely long in the cane, but have you seen such long spikes of spectacular blooms on any fresh young things?

This one got dislocated from the coconut tree where it had been living when a heavy coconut leaf lopped it off. So it was hastily tied on to this cashew tree because it was bursting with buds due to bloom any day. And I definitely did not want to miss out on that!
My usual banana fibre ties were too flimsy so some coir ropes were brought in to help out. That still left something wanting. These lo-o-ong canes were too big for their own good. So, finally they had to be propped up with a slab of rock.
Oh the ignominny!
I definitely have to do something before this diva starts sulking.

Did I say something about 'fresh young things'? This would be one of them. Fresh-faced, pure as a ... well, a white orchid, and so very pretty!

I can't think of any space, no matter how ugly, that hasn't taken a step into the sublime just because of its association with an orchid. Like these iron spikes over a fence. No one notices those because they're too busy being dazzled by the orchid. Now that's called star quality!

If you thought all Dendrobiums looked alike, then take a look at this one. The colour's familiar but if it looks all twisted out of shape, then you've got an antler-type dendrobium orchid. I guess this would be a perfect match for all those wildlife buffs out there. But honestly, doesn't it look a bit like an avenging angel?
Just a bit?

If you thought the dendrobiums are the only ones out there, then you haven't seen my friend, Spathaglottis. One of the most common orchids grown in Mumbai, I think novice orchidists are comforted by its terrestrial preferences. After all, growing a plant which doesn't need soil can seem so unusual . And confusing.
The Spathaglottis, though, thrives in that medium unlike the Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, Cattleya and others of that ilk.

But commonplace they are not. The Spathaglottis still knows how to spring a surprise. Its multiple hues, if not its ease of cultivation, are enticement enough to make the gardener go back to it again and again.

Yet if you're going by the variety of colours, there could be no one to beat the Phalaenopsis orchids for sheer drama. Purity of shape and theatrical in colour ...

... spotted, speckled, striped and in blocks of colour, the Phalaenopsis is the drama queen par excellence!

Yet every good show must have its villain

and the faithful friend. So too does our orchid.

And like every good Indian film, we just can't do without our glamourous Dancing Girls. Jai ho!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Flying zebras, shimmering dragons and other garden creatures

This is one of the best times of the year to spot the local inhabitants of my garden. Especially the flying kind. The air is heavy with the unheard flutter of wings. Damselflies are always welcome. So very colourful and, even better, they have an insatiable appetite for bugs even bigger than themselves. I wonder where they pack it all away?

And, the high-fliers are loving this season too. Everywhere I look there are a zillion dragonflies on the wing, darting and swooping , like flying shards of shimmering glass. As I walk in my garden I almost feel as if I'm walking into a cloud of dragonflies but I have yet to feel even one brush against me. Mumbai could do with some drivers like these!

I bet you didn't know I had zebras in my garden! Oh yes, meet the Zebra Blue. One look at those wings and I'm sure you'll know how they got that name, right? The 'Blue' part came from its upper wing colouration.

The Brazilian Button Flower (Centratherum intermedium ) is a huge hit with the butterflies. I just have to linger near them and sure enough, there are always some of them visiting. This is one low-maintenance plant that really multi-tasks. Always filled with flowers and always thick with butterflies!

And if you see these flies hovering over your flowers, bring out the champagne! The syrphid flies are invaluable in the garden. Its larvae, you see, have a decided penchant for snacking on aphids and thrips! And just as good, the grown-ups are pollinators of several species of plants, including certain orchids.
And you thought all flies are villains? This one only has the blood-shot eyes to fit the role, everything else says 'good guy' about him!

Do you remember the Greater Banded Hornets who are regular visitors to my Pink Cassia tree at this time of the year? Well, they're back and so are the attendant hordes of flies and butterflies and other freeloaders.

I have rather mixed feelings about hornets and that's not just because of their nasty sting which can be fatal on occasion. On the plus side, they hunt bugs and many insect pests. On the other hand, they also hunt bees and that's definitely not something I'm happy about.

But again, every year at this time they descend on my poor Pink Cassia and nibble at its bark until a syrupy sap froths out, driving the butterflies crazy. Scenes like this of Common Nawabs jostling with the Common Evening Browns to get a sip of that elixir are everyday affairs.

Which is probably why little Treefrogs hop indoors to get away from all that hustle and bustle!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Orchids and almost-winter

My garden is awash with orchid blooms right now. The summer-to-monsoon climate swing triggers this deliriously happy bloom-time for my orchids and I'm thoroughly enjoying it!

They're all over the place. In pots, on trees... everywhere. And I have to admit, these dendrobium orchids look their glorious best tied or 'mounted' (as the technical term goes) on to trees. But obviously, that's their natural comfort zone!

My dendrobiums have been mounted on just about every tree that has a reasonably rough bark (forget guava trees!) for them to glue their roots to. They absolutely love the teak trees and mango and ... they're not fussy. So long as the bark is rough and the canopy gives them enough shade at noon while not cutting off all that lovely sunlight at other times, they're happy.
True, you can't move them indoors when you want to but just the sight of all those beautiful arching spikes filled with blooms makes it all so very worthwhile, doesn't it?

We're racing towards, Diwali, the festival of lights and laughter. The Calliandra has been giving me goosebumps of anticipation everytime I see its scores of red sparkler-like filaments lighting up the garden.

The end of blistering-hot October is in sight and I'm already getting a peek into almost-winter. That's what we have here in Mumbai ... almost-winter. Not as cold as you would associate with the word 'winter' but definitely not sweaty-hot, either. A beautiful, exhilirating chill that makes you feel so glad to be alive and gardening!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The butterfly farmer

It's a boy!
If you've been wondering what I've been up to lately, well, I've been raising butterflies. In my apartment garden, of all places!

(warning : this post is photo-heavy. It is also definitely not for the squeamish )

I had moved most of my plants to my other garden before the monsoons because the apartment is too close to the sea and all that salt spray flying around in this season is bad news for them. Just 2 pots were left behind. One was a pot which originally housed a small curry leaf plant and I later planted a passionfruit vine in the same pot. Well, the vine took off like a rocket, climbing all over the grilles. So I let it stay.
Actually there was no option. It had conquered the kitchen window, and there is no way I can move that pot without severely pruning the passionfruit vine!
The curry leaf plant, though was not so happy with the situation. Now in the shade of the vine, it settled down to a life as a runt.

Then recently, I saw that my kitchen window had a visitor. A Common Mormon (who doles out these names, I wonder) butterfly was hovering around my Curry Leaf plant.
Now this is one butterfly that I would like to see more of. It is large and has such dramatic-colouring , especially on the female. However, it is also one of the most frustrating to photograph since its upper wings are always in motion.

Voila! A perfect pearl laid on the newest leaf. And several more to keep it company.
I think butterflies have a sense of order. They like to lay their eggs on the new leaves so the newly-hatched caterpillars can munch on tender food (think of baby food!) and work their way up.

On the third day, it hatched, barely bigger than a baby's eyelash. All bristly and quite frankly, very ugly!
I'm continuously amazed by the ingenuity of Ma Nature. Here was an abandoned baby, all alone in the world (except for his six brothers and sisters on some other leaf, but they don't count... they're too busy eating!). But looking the way he does, which bird or lizard would even consider eating him?
Incidentally, that leaf is less than an inch long so you get an idea of how tiny he is.

About four days later he is much bigger but still quite yucky looking in that gross 'bird-poop' stage.Ingenious!
He can just lie there on top of the leaf, exposed to every insect-loving bird but not one can work up an appetite or the inclination to snap him up. And that, in spite of there being several birds with nests full of hungry, demanding babies close by!

A few days later and a whole lot bulkier, Common Mormon Junior suddenly decides he has had enough of disguises and hiding his true colours. So he decides to do away with his 'bird-poop' look.

Much better! Our Common Mormon has gone green with a vengeance. The old dark skin is left behind while he tries on his new avtar.
By the way, did you notice how big he has become? These older leaves are much bigger than the baby leaf he was on in that initial photo.

Hmmm .... looks like even baby (okay, teen maybe) butterflies have issues with facial hair. And hairy legs. But seriously, I had no idea!
And did you know they looked like this? I didn't!
This photo was taken immediately after he had moulted so there was a break from the non-stop chomping. He almost looks vulnerable, doesn't he?
I am fascinated by his eyes. Who knew baby butterflies have what look like a cluster of pin-point eyes?
I'm in total awe when I discover things like this.

Major house-shifting took place in the next couple of days. I woke up one day to find five of the caterpillars missing from the curry-leaf plants. I suspect the work of some sneaky mynahs which had been hanging around the last day or so. Someone should really teach them the difference between good bugs and the bad!
So that day I got a big leafy curry-leaf twig from my other garden (there's a jungle of them there so I can get as many as I want), put it in a vase of water and transferred the remaining two caterpillars indoors. Sure I had to keep adding new leafy twigs every day but it was worth it! It helped my curry leaf plant in the apartment garden recover a bit too.
Quite frankly I doubt whether I would've let them go on chomping their way to obesity if they had tried it on any of my prized plants. Curry-leaf plants are common here and easy to grow. Plus , my other garden has so many of them that I can easily replace them.
If I were to try raising any other butterfly, I think I would buy multiple host plants so I could reserve 1 or 2 just for them to munch on.

One of them still managed to disappear and I have no idea how. Maybe he fell asleep and let go of the twig and couldn't find his way back later. I think that must be it because I found the last one doing the same and looking comatose and he had to be helped back up the twig later.
Nine days later, this is what I found. He had definitely gone to sleep. Or was very close to it. He scrunched himself up accordion-like and even wove himself a safety-harness so he wouldn't fall off, I guess.
Doesn't he look like he's snoozing in a hammock?
And the eyes ... look at the eyes. They definitely look asleep, don't they?

The next day I couldn't find him. I went into full-scale panic and hunted frantically. Then I spotted him. See if you can.
No? Look closer at the lowest set of leaves on the left, he's the hanging 'leaf' closest to the twig. He'd metamorphised again!
I'm running out of synonyms for ingenious. Seriously!
One good thing, though. I don't need to keep replacing the curry leaf twigs with fresher ones. He's not going to be eating anything more. Definitely not for a long time.

A look from another angle at the Common Mormon pupa. He's still got his safety-belt on!
Don't you think there's a resemblance to Batman here? And I can definitely see what looks like the outline of his adult legs.

Then, on the ninth night after he turned himself into hammock, he started changing colour to a dark blackish-green. For a minute I thought I had killed him. Maybe I had left the air-conditioner on and it got too cold for him?
But no. Then I noticed that the space between the rings or segments at the top were widening. Sure sign that there wasn't much time left for his coming out party.
Oh great! This looked like an all-nighter but there's no way I would miss out on this.

Close to midnight, I looked again and saw what looks like his wings. Can you see it? I can even see the dots / scallops at the tip of his wings!
This is so exciting!
Every once in a while there are tiny little jumpy twitches that tell me that my butterfly is in a hurry to come out too. This is infinitely more fun than staring at a motionless chrysalis which I've been doing the last few days. But since that's all that's happening for a very long time, and maybe because I'm long past the age of sitting up all night with a baby, I take long breaks. Awake, but inspecting the chrysalis every hour to check if anything new has happened.
Absolutely nothing really noticeable except for a gradual darkening of the butterfly in the chrysalis (which has by now become almost translucent in areas near the 'Batman ears' so that I can see exactly where the head starts). This is definitely not good for an impatient person.

And then around 6 in the morning, I go to the table where the vase with the twig is kept ... and there he is! Hanging delicately from one of those by-now leafless twigs, waiting till his wings are firm enough to open and he can take his flight into the new world.
After maybe an hour or so of just hanging there and building up his strength, he is ready to flap open his wings. And later, to crawl onto my fingers.
This has to be one of the most amazing moments in my life. To hold a butterfly , or rather, to have a butterfly hug my fingers ... pure magic!

Today, I checked my curry-leaf plant again. There are 3 new baby caterpillars on it. Here we go again ... I'm loving my new role as a butterfly farmer!
Or should that be butterfly nursemaid?

I must add, if anyone is lucky enough to witness the emergence of a butterfly, please do not handle the butterfly in any way. You are likely to damage its fragile wings and leave it crippled for life.
(The second and third photos were taken from an earlier post, "A gardener's dilemma")

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Upwardly mobile vegetables

The monsoon vegetables that I had planted are all yielding beautifully now. I had not realised just how many 'upwardly mobile' veggies seem to love this season in Mumbai.

So many gourds and other climbing vines were planted this time that my vegetable patch looked like a mini-construction site with criss-crossed bamboo and coconut-leaf ribs lashed together with banana-stem fibre . Until, that is, the vines started shooting all over the place, climbing up the supports and across the trellis in any way possible. Then it started looking like a jungle!
A very pretty jungle, though, with all those eye-catching flowers. Some of them pretty enough to be grown just for the blooms instead of the vegetables.

This climbing habit does not mean that apartment gardeners have to avoid growing them. The window box-grilles found in most apartments in Mumbai are perfect for them. Pot them up in a sunny window and let them climb all over the grilles. A couple of rods placed across the box-grille make a great trellis for them. And they grow so fast that you'll have a green curtain in no time at all!

A view from over the trellis gives it such a deceptively peaceful air. These bottle gourd flowers hardly give any indication of how big (or heavy) the vegetables can become.

And here's a peek under the trellis. This one is a baby (with fuzz and all) and still growing. They love the monsoons with the constant moisture in the air. But give them too much and you'll see some very disgruntled plants! Luckily my vegetable patch is situated on a slope which means that all the excess water flows off . It carries away quite a bit of the soil too but I'm working to fix that.

Quite a few of my American and European friends who garden were quite surprised that anyone would eat gourds. Most of them grow gourds for crafting and don't know whether to believe me when I tell them that tender gourds are very tasty when cooked. On the other hand, most of my Indian friends are absolutely shocked that I would actually allow perfectly good gourds to dry up just so I could use them for crafting !

The one gourd that I'm not too keen on is the bitter gourd which is a perfect reflection of its name. On the other hand I would definitely grow it for its pretty yellow flowers and interesting foliage. The knobbly vegetable does look quite quirky too, doesn't it?
To make up for its very bitter flavour, Nature seems to have loaded it with medicinal qualities that make sure it'll end up in every kitchen. Did you know that it is a great regulator of blood-sugar levels? Or that it is used to treat cholera in the early stages? Or that there are reports of it being used to treat tumors and certain disorders of the blood?

But here's the rub : if they're loaded with pesticides and other toxic chemicals, all those wonderful medicinal qualities aren't worth a paisa! I personally prefer to grow all my fruits and vegetables as naturally as possible, leaving it to the wonders of neem and natural predators to keep pests under control.

However, one natural predator had me sweating while trying to harvest these bitter gourds. One end of the trellis on which these bitter gourds and bottle gourds were growing, collapsed under all that weight. Which meant that I had to crawl under a 4-foot high trellis for about 7-8 feet before I could reach the vegetables hanging in the middle.

I started off very casually but after I had taken my second step I suddenly remembered that this is cobra territory! Surely I would see one if there were any around?
See them? With all those vines and weeds covering every spare inch of land? Not a chance! And what was worse was that just behind the trellis was where we had piled up all the rocks (vine-smothered now) found while clearing the vegetable patch. Just the kind of place where a whole brood of snakes would love to hang out and raise a whole community of little baby cobras.

Now, I usually get along quite well with snakes. We have a deal. I stick to my space and they stick to theirs and in between when they come to my garden to gulp down some rats, I even cheer for them. But I could just picture myself bumbling and crawling along straight into their nursery and in my nervous mind I had already stepped on at least 3 of them. And, I kept screaming at myself, "just what the **** *** do you think you're doing?!". In my mind, of course, my throat was too dry to let out even one tiny squeak.

But the killer? The absolute irony would be if I was bitten by a cobra (sure death... there are no hospitals or anti-venom for miles around!) while crawling to pluck bitter gourd of all possible things!

This is one snake that I particularly enjoy, though. I love tender snake gourd sautéed ever so lightly. (Can you spot the beans growing in the background? Another of the upwardly mobile vegetables that love the monsoon season). This is a new type of snake gourd that I've grown for the first time. It doesn't grow 2-3 feet long like the usual snake-gourds but remains short and stubby ... more like a slug. Perfect for a dish for small families!
And how do you like its flowers? I think it looks like a particularly frazzled starfish with a very 'upwardly mobile' hair-do!

(Did you know that you can find The Urban Gardener on Facebook now? The link is on the sidebar. )

Monday, August 30, 2010

Passionfruit magic

It's here finally! My very own 'mmmmm!' moment.
The first passionfruits from my vine have ripened and I just had to share them with you.
Slice them in half and you'll see the most eye-catching combination of red, white and gold. I have to admit that the red and white looked so pretty that I was a bit reluctant to spoil that look.
For about 2 minutes !

Then I grabbed a spoon and got busy scooping up all that juicy, golden goodness. You just can't begin to imagine the flavour if you've never eaten passionfruit before.
Juicy, fragrant, sweet, tart, fruity flavours pop on your tastebuds and swirl around in a heady melange of sensory surprises. Summery fragrances seem to weave around your brain until you can't think of anything else.

There's so little of it, do you moan? But with so much concentrated juicy, sweet flavour who needs a watermelon-ful?
Each little golden smidgen is like a flavour-bomb bursting in your mouth and inundating you with flavours and fragrances till you're replete with the magic of it all.

When I was done indulging myself, I sat there wondering whether I should've waited and concocted some fancy dessert with it instead. You know the answer, right?
Naaah! Maybe another time.
Unless the passionfruit magic overpowers me again and forces me to stretch out for the nearest spoon instead.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A passion for Passionfruits

One of the most exotic (or should that be quixotic?) blooms ever! The passionflower lends itself to science-fiction just as easily as its fruit does to gourmet cuisine.

How else would you explain the inexplicably weird radar-like contraptions that pop up above it?
Or the squiggly filaments, like a tutu gone haywire?

If the stigma and anthers look like alien pieces of technology, the flavour of the fruit too is simply out of this world! A hint of tartness and a touch of sweet melding in the warm sunny days to make its own exquisitely juicy, fruity flavour.

And it definitely has its own very distinctive fragrance too. Very summery, and fruity and tropical island-ish, of course. Check out perfumes like Keiko Mecheri Passiflora which draw on the fruity notes of the passionflower.

I had got a few passionfruits as a gift and saved up one to dry and plant. It ached a bit to not scoop up all that juicy pulp but I told myself that it was in a good cause. So I cut it open and spread the golden pulp on a few layers of tissue paper to dry.

I wasn't too sure whether it would grow because I had been told that the red passionfruits are difficult to sprout. Either that was a myth or I was very lucky because I got about 30 - 40 seedlings scrambling for attention.

You have to be pretty quick to transplant them into their own space, preferably where they can climb, because those curly tendrils take hold of anything they find and are soon clambering all over the place whether you like it or not!

I thought I had found the perfect sunny spot near a chain-link fence for one seedling but the vine just leaped and threw itself all over a nearby custard-apple tree. After encroaching on all available limbs and surfaces, it settled down to blooming exuberantly. And now it looks like one of those exotic experiments with 2 different fruits growing on one tree!

But it's such an amazing transformation, isn't it? From exotic, almost architectural blooms to perfect globes of speckled green, blushing red to summery sweet ripeness.

And if you thought that you're the only one who enjoys passionfruits, meet the Tawny Coaster. This pretty orange butterfly loves to lay its eggs on the leaves of the Passionfruit vine. This one didn't even budge when I zoomed in close for a Macro shot!
I wonder whether its babies will get a taste of passionfruits when they're busy munching on the leaves. I don't really mind. So long as they leave enough for some fruits for me!