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")