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Monsoon magic in the backyard

Friday, July 06, 2018

As the rains rage, every corner of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park comes alive with spectacular flora, says Katie Bagli

Around the beginning of June, we Mumbaikars get to hear an uncommon metallic bird call—‘piu-piu-pee-pee-piu’.  It is the call of the Pied Crested Cuckoo, a handsome black and white bird with a crest on its head, flying from tree-top to tree-top, in search of a suitable nest to lay its eggs, as is the trait of all cuckoos.  This call uplifts the spirits of those who are aware that this bird is a harbinger of the monsoons.  Taking advantage of the South-west monsoon winds, it migrates from Africa all the way to India to lay its eggs.  Sure enough, very soon after, the monsoons arrive.

The much-awaited rains, an elixir of life, are joyously welcomed.  If, after the first few showers you are to visit the forest in Mumbai’s own backyard, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, you will get to witness the vibrancy of life, every nook and corner painting a kaleidoscopic picture under the magic monsoon spell.  Seeds that have lain in the apparently dead leaf litter make their presence felt by germinating suddenly and sending out fluorescent green shoots.

Soon the forest floor turns into a visual treat with carpets of wild flowers.  They form part of the short-lived ephemeral flush vegetation that delights us with a fashion show of colours and shapes.  A different floral species springs out of the earth almost every other week.

The very first flowers to emerge out of the earth are the trumpet-shaped Crinum Lilies, with their dainty skirts of pink stripes on white petals. Competing with them are the ground-hugging white lilies like the edible Chlorophytum, that remind one of snowflakes.  Locals cook them into some kind of stew.  Very soon, like globules of gold, the Yellow Ground Stars, make their appearance. 

As the monsoon rages and progresses, nature’s canvas gets painted with the most spectacular flora.  It makes one wonder at how much the earth has in store.  The Balsams, fields of pink, red and yellow, dazzle our eyes with their sheer poetry. 

The Cup-and-Saucer plants with their red cup-like fruits and green saucer-like calyx make one look forward to the Mad Hatter’s tea party of Alice in Wonderland. 

Several wild varieties of the food we stock our kitchens with, emerge around mid-monsoons: the delicate climbers of wild grapes, wild Turmeric looking very pretty with their bright yellow flowers and violet bracts and wild yam, bearing foetid-smelling male and female flowers separately on the same stalk.  After all, the forest is a gene bank of the wild varieties of foods.

Several climbers send out twining tendrils that hug the trees for support.  Among them is the Air Potato climber (Norvel) whose steroid-rich bulbils (bulbs that fall on the ground and give rise to new plants), as the story goes, rejuvenated the mongoose during its encounters with snakes.

Towards the end of the monsoons blooms the star of the show—the unique Glory Lily with its inverted chandelier-like flowers of flaming yellow and red.  These are collected by locals to offer to the elephant Lord Ganpati.  Unfortunately, the entire plant gets pulled out by its roots leading to it becoming rarer to sight each year.

Punctuating the monsoon’s floral display are the quaintest of mushrooms, most of which are poisonous—like the Shuttle-cock mushroom, the delicate Bridal Veil mushroom and Dead Man’s Fingers.  Tiny toadstools on tree barks make one wonder if there are toads or gnomes seated underneath.

This is only a fraction of what the monsoon’s magic wand can produce.  The list is endless and the secrets are many.  The forest fauna too has its role to play in the drama, but that is another story.  Four months of nature’s beauty to make man realise its generous bounty.  This splendid season seems to end all too soon and we fervently wait for it to start yet again.

Katie Bagli is a well-known children’s author with 18 books, and regularly conducts writing workshops

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