Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Biodiversity falls by the Wayside

Wild grass sways in the mist in my (Mandovi) backyard

A drive down the countryside from Panaji via Old Goa to Ponda and beyond throws up a flurry of floral wealth by the roadside. The scarlet crowns of ratha pushpa (described in local lingo after chariot dome that the bouquet resembles - botanical name: clerodendrum paniculata), and white bracts of mussaenda, to name just two species, cry out through the sylvan throng.

Unlike some other Indian states, Goa may not boast of sanctuaries or parks, but it has the rare distinction of having 33% of its land under forests! Of note is the large belt of the Western Ghats with its rich tropical flora and fauna. Lesser-known, but not any less productive is the midland lateritic plateau region of Central Goa. Barren and arid as it may seem through the year, come monsoon, viable roots and seeds stir inside earth’s womb procreating a carpet of wildflowers.  To witness this stunning transformation we went to Chorla Hivre in Sattari taluka on Goa-Karnataka border.

Sonki - senecio grahamii
Host of golden grahamii at Chorla

As we trekked through bushes to reach the plateau we came upon lichen hugging and hanging from trees and boulders sprouting moss and ferns, exuding a tropical feel. After the luxuriant vegetation the open expanse seemed starkly divergent with tiny wildflowers brushing the terra firma. The landscape was simmering with flowers on wings - butterflies - soundlessly knitting in and out of the real thing. One particular one, the size of a small bird, was teasing us by flying into our faces but not being still enough to be photographed! Black with blue bands, this was the breath-taking beauty - the Malabar banded peacock. Yellow flowers of sonki (Graham’s groundsel or senecio grahamii) greeted the eye and like Wordsworth’s daffodils gladdened my heart. There were pepper-size white puff-balls, flower-heads in mauve and many other species of wildflowers, but I would be lying if I said we encountered an array of bewildering hues. Wildflowers as tiny as peas and pepper pods need to grow in utter profusion to be seen as a lush tapestry. Perhaps, we were a tad late in the season to capture that phenomenon. But let me also say this: to observe wildflowers in their amazing diversity one should glean the plateau minutely.

This plateau in the Chorla Ghats is a special showcase of Goa’s back-wood biodiversity. We were on the edge of the hill (on the Karnataka side) smack by Goa’s Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary overlooking the Sahyadri range in Maharashtra. Incidentally, we were told that this was pit-viper, tiger, sloth bear and gaur territory! And even as we were digesting the information, the mist stole from all sides engulfing us, leaving us alone with our wild imagination.

But when in Goa, you don’t have to necessarily go to exclusive locales to experience biodiversity. Urban pockets in and around Panaji, too, are hospitable terrain for endemic flora signifying richer backyard biodiversity.  Our Mandovi hill is a case in point. I have seen white heads of “tutari” (Rhampicarpa fistulosa) here that botanists are moaning the loss of, elsewhere. Rosmarinifolia impatiens or rosemary-leaved balsam is in abundance and the rare gloriosa lilies, few and far between. And, of late, four months after the onset of monsoon, the green vines of ipomea hederifolia that had swamped trees and shrubs earlier, are sprouting ‘scarlet glory’.

Balsam - Rosmarinifolia impatiens 
Scarlet glory - Ipomea hederifolia

Yellow bells of wild hibiscus (azanza lampas) belong to the jungli bhendi, I discover. I also learn that the common mallow considered an invasive weed in Africa, Australia or the US, has been recognized for its medicinal merit in India. In this context, I recall, how my househelp in Kenya was stumped when I cultivated aubergine in my kitchen garden. She told me that in Nyanza province of Western Kenya where she came from, the brinjal was considered ‘waste’ and inedible! By the periphery walk, I have seen the wild ancestor of snake gourd or padwal (trichosanthes cucumerina) from the cucumber family flourish.  The importance of wild flowers dawned upon me when I encountered an encyclopaedia in the form of much-revered botanist Nandkumar Kamat. Not only are many wildflowers of medicinal value, but they also constitute a gene pool for crops or cultivated plants. India is an inexhaustible repository of traditional knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants such that it can put Western research and documentation to shame.

Gloriosa lily - rare plant
Flowers of Jungli bhendi

For long we have been relegating wild flowers and grasses to infamy as weeds and wasteland. We have been hacking away at them and clearing spaces for planting exotic species under the virtue of ‘gardening’ and ‘greening ‘. This time, I am not going to plant seasonals in precise flower beds or plant alien trees in my modest garden. I am glad that I have inherited a patch which does not sport manicured lawns but is speckled with wild grass. I have planted some indigenous shrubs such as caesalpinia pulcherrima and scarlet ixora at the edges to attract butterflies. I'll watch the wayside grass grow wild and sway in evening's gentle breeze and I'll watch the green bee-eaters and black drongos feast on dragonflies. Like my inspiration, naturalist-author M.Krishnan suggests somewhere in his book, “Of Birds and Birdsongs”, I’ll not indulge in gardening but just sit back and watch bugs, butterflies and birds.  For once, I’ll let backyard bio-diverse wealth flourish.

Spider web at Mandovi
Wildflower amid dewdrops

Crotalaria retusa

Ixora shrub sustains life - in my Mandovi Garden

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful Padmaja. I envy you for living amidst open spaces and wilderness within easy reach. Goa may be famous for its beaches but the diversity of birdlife and other flora and fauna along the W Ghats is very fascinating. You've captured the essence of it all so well. Thanks for sharing.