Brahma Kamala – Uttarakhand

Now why am I writing this you might ask? Well my good old dear Mrs.Midnight Flower is often mistakenly called as Brahma Kamala, including a major website where the picture of midnight flower is shown as Brahma Kamala. However both the flowers are poles apart…. calling them same is no justice to both the flowers as both are unique in their own way. It’s as if we identify Sahara desert same as Himalayas.

Since I have not seen one, to touch & feel a Brahma Kamala & visiting valley of flowers is in my bucket list since ages!! It is scientifically known as Saussurea obvallata which comes under Sunflower family, Asteraceae. It is the state flower of Uttarakhand, is one of the most famous & beautiful flowers seen in the Himalayas & in the Valley of Flowers National Park, a Unesco World heritage site located in the upper expanses of Bhyundar Ganga near Joshimath in Gharwal. This region is known for the variety & rarity of its flowers & plants. In 1982 the Indian Postal Department has issued a postal stamp to commemorate this beautiful Himalayan flower.

This is supposed to be a perennial growing plant and the flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male & female organs) & pollinated by insects.
The thick curved roots of these plants are supposed to be used as local medicine for paralysis of the limbs, cerebral ischemia & uro-egenital disorders. In Tibet this plant is called Sah-du Gph-ghoo & the entire plant isused in medicine. It is supposed to taste bitter.

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I never had the privilege so far to see this unique flower so far & I’m using this picture from the internet. Also I have included some extra information so that those who never heard before will get to know the place.
Uttarakhand, a breath takingly beautiful place is often referred to as the Dev Bhumi (land of Gods) as it is home to some of the Hinduism’s most spiritual & auspicious places of pilgrimage & worship. Popularly known as Char-dham Yatra (four highly sacred destinations) where thousands of Hindu devotees pay their visit to wash away their sins in the urge of salvation & spiritual redemption. This exalted trip was being initiated in 8th Century by the great reformer & philosopher Adi Shankaracharya. It compromises of:
Yamunotri (origin of River Yamuna). It is the only place where the devotees can find both the amalgamation of hot & cold environment. The Himalayan environment is purified & freezes with the cold tides of the glaciers of River Yamuna & the sides are remained warmed up with thermal springs which are known as Kunds of Goddess Shakti),
Gangotri at Uttarkashi (3,200 mts above the sea level – origin of river Ganga through the prayer made by king Bhagirath believed to be the sacred source of purity & sanctity),
Kedarnath (at Rudraprayag district at an altitude of 3584 m above the sea level flanking around the river Mandaki) & Badrinath (at Chamoli at an altitude of 3415 meters in the Garhwal Hills on the bank of Alaknanada River).

Uttarakhand is also home to the oldest National park of the Indian subcontinent, the Jim Corbet National park which hosts the Bengal tiger. Ancient rock paintings, rock shelters, paleolithic stone tools (hundreds of thousands of years old), & megaliths provide evidence that the mountains of the region have been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are also archaeological remains which show the existence of early Vedic (c. 1500 BCE) practices in the area.

Sheer Magic of creation….

Witnessing both the side of the process of creation with naked eye….

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We called it the Midnight flower, and I saw the flower for the first time when I was in middle school. The fine silky texture of the spotless white petals almost gave an illusion of transparency. We had a vine in the pot for quite some time which grew from a small shoot to a tall lanky-gangly stemmed plant & one fine day it had many light carmine red buds formed along the edge of the leaf-like stem . The plant usually begins to set flower buds in July through September & it can be just a single one or as much as the leaf can accommodate. My mother, an avid gardener had managed to get a small cutting from somewhere. Since we saw it for the first time, as kids we used to wonder what is going to pop out of it. We watched it daily to gauge when it will bloom. Then the small little buds became bigger, swelling up dramatically in its shiny reddish shade.. so we still waited wondering if it was red flower or what… then Mum, in her colourful enthusiastic way, explained to us that it was going to be a beautiful, out of ordinary white flower with carmine red coloured outer petals the size of a dinner plate but only one problem we have to wait for it to bloom at night… as it is a midnight bloomer & the full flower will open only at midnight. by morning it will die… we could not understand the logic.

The nocturnal bloom concept was new to us. We knew of the fragrant parijatha (Nycanthes arbortrisis with small flower with snow-white petals & a orange-red pipe stalk) which opened in the evening.. with the full bloom at night & fall down in the morning, but it still would be opened & the scent would be still there for us to see and smell. Moreover in the evening its half opened too. So what is so different about this flower? This easy to grow, fast growing tropical plantdid not appeared capable of producing such stunning breath takingly beautiful blossom!! Even by appearance the stem does not look having the capacity to hold a single flower of such large dimension let alone FIVE or more at one go.

Finally the day came & we got the pot inside the living room so we can enjoy it as long as we wanted… my mother’s enthusiasm was contagious & even my dad was a willing partner in the whole drama. Even some of our neighbours were there! Telephones were not common & we were the ever ready message carriers about the imminent D-Day blossom!

It started opening up filling the room with fragrance. The buds began to open around 8 or 9 pm… (And be wide open by midnight). What a sight…. Luckily not one or two but five bloomed that day… When they are ready to open, they do so in dramatic fashion, literally before your eyes – you can practically see the movement of the flower. As if the whole process of birth & death is enacted right before your own naked eye in just one-third of a day!! A divine spiritual experience, believe me it’s worth witnessing the large (about 11 inches long & 5 inches wide), funnel-shaped, white flowers at least once in your life & it is worth losing a little sleep.. Perhaps that’s why people call it Brahma Kamala named after the creator. Everyone was spellbound & calling everyone around sharing the joy – come & see or did you see this & that. It was as if a new baby had arrived at home… & we all even took torch & try to look inside…. And I refused to go to bed without seeing the full bloom only to fall asleep on sofa… morning when I woke up the flower had already closed… making me so very sad… Mum said she tried several times to wake me but I would not budge… it was an electrifying moment.. as if the time stood still & seemed like the full moon had appeared in our living room… I cried my heart out.

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Each bloom lasts only for one night & by sunrise the flower is spent. So I had no choice but to wait for the next one. Back in those days, we all were very active children & there was no TV & the longer we were awake mother would make us study more. So we all learnt from small age to sleep early… hence I could not keep my eyes opened!! . We did see it again, but the enthusiasm & the magic was not the same as the first time…. Something like the first kiss! We children were the happiest because we would also get sweets/chaklis or something to eat too. The blooms appear intermittently during the summer months. Some plants bloom every year, while others have an alternate blooming cycle.. However, for years we continued the practice of waiting for it to bloom with the torch & sharing the joy! Eventually grew out of it like a child out of toy, becoming midnight flower Sanyasin!

A colleague of mine from Rathnagiri (Alphonso land) told me when they were little boys they knew the unique qualities of the flower & would say, if anyone can manage to put a flower in a case with a currency note or gold or diamond, the box would be filled with multiple of the same on its own… in other words sheer magical. I am sure there on too many different experiences around.

Years later in July 2013, the same drama was enacted far away from India at my neighbor Shruthi Cariappa’s house. Unfortunately I could not re-live the nostalgic memory as I was on vacation. Many of their friends were invited & there was dinner later it seems… a photo was posted on the facebook too. Many of the pictures posted here are from them. The timing is shown earlier my guess is that perhaps the plant brought from India has its biological clock set to Indian timing!!

There is also supposed to be another similar flower (selenicereus) in pulish-pinkish magenta. I never had the previlage of meeting…the pretty lady.

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Details on the flower, the plant, and growing it:  Epiphyllum oxypetalum (DC.) Haw. Commonly known as midnight flower, Dutchman’s-Pipe Cactus, Queen of the Night, Orchid Cactus, Jungle Cactus, Night Blooming Cactus, Night Blooming Cereus. In Kerala it is called Ananthasayanam or Nishagandhi flower. Ananthasayanam – infinite bed/seat – where Vishnu is sleeping on the Aadishesha, the thousand headed snake floating in the ocean of milk & the hood of Adishesha shielding the Lord. I was told by colleague that in Kerala this flower is considered sacred & this rare bloomer is usually welcomed by lighting a lamp. As it blooms in the evening, people consider it as a divine visit.. As the divine personality of God would visit us by a whisper of air or a butterfly touch, this flower blooms with an unusual divine fragrance around midnight& shuts off by morning. The inner core of the bud has the shape of a sleeping Sree Ananthapadmanabha (Maha Vishnu). Traditionally it is believed that menstruating ladies & non-veg eaters are not supposed to touch the plant. And it is said to bring good luck & wealth (lucky bamboo & money plant has a competitor!!)

It is supposed to be a tropical orchid cactus native to Central & Northern South America but it has been cultivated all over the world perhaps because it is unique. It’s an erect/semi-erect, branching cactus, can grow up to 20 feet tall with cylindrical stems bearing elliptic, leaf-like, scalloped, dark green stem/branches. These plants are very easy to grow even as a houseplant. Simply place each leaf cutting (roughly two to four inches in length) – cut end down (can root either way) vertically into some well-draining sandy potting soil. Pack the soil tightly around the leaf to remove any air pockets & make sure the whole bottom of the leaf has good contact with the soil. It should be rooted with three to six weeks. Root-bound plants tend to bloom better, so don’t repot your plant very often. Since it is a cactus water sparingly but regularly & make sure not to allow water to stand as it will rot. The soil should be allowed to dry between watering. Like vanilla if you stress the plant a bit, the flowers are better & bigger in size but quantity will be less. (But you should know what exactly you are doing). It will usually take two to three years before you have a plant that begins blooming. The plants are supposed to bear small, 4 inches long, oblong, purplish-red, angled edible fruits very similar to the pitaya or dragon fruit. But I never saw any in our plants at home or at our neighbours may be because the cooler weather condition or a particular species of pollinator required like vanilla which was absent or there was no chance of pollination as we always took the plant inside the house.

Amazing Mother Nature……. Witnessing the process of cycle of creation with naked eye!

If I tell that one can witness the entire process of cycle creation (including death) with our naked eye in the span of 8 hours, without a camera, how many would agree with me? Probably None… have I gone bonkers?  Well I am indeed nuts… but over Mother Nature… the most beautiful lady in the entire universe.. I don’t mean the bikini clad size 34-32-36 inch…. Hmmmm… She is a mystery which we mortals cannot understand in our life time. By the time we learn to love and try to understand her, unfortunately it will be time for us to kick the bucket. Anyways if we look around and if we have patience, Mother Nature has provided us with a chance to witness everything… only we have to learn to put two into two together. We all agree that God almighty is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, no gender. God is beyond any attributes of form, colour, shape, yet is the most compassionate, full of love, kindest of kindest, friendliest of friendliest, beautifullest of the beautifullest, most merciful, etc., etc., left to one’s own vocabulary of imagination. Yet we cannot see, smell or feel God because our antenna is not tuned properly. God is not limited or belong to one individual but we all the entire creation in the universe belongs to God almighty. God is something only you can experienced…. Perhaps a highly evolved soul can see or hear god… since I don’t have any friends or family in that ranking I really can’t tell how it works!!

However it’s very easy to see God in our day to day life. We can see God with the beautiful things all around us like the trees, flower, different living beings including us the perfect machinery ever created, the melody, as only a beautiful entity like God is capable of creating such vast beauty. We can smell the beautiful fragrance through flowers, leaves, etc. We can see the power in the form of earth quake, flood, the sun, moon, river, ocean, each and everything. When we think of god in general always look up… may be mentally picturing a place beyond human imagination as we are not even capable of comprehending the existence of such a place. Our physical powers are limited and we cannot even stretch our hand beyond 6 to 6.5 feet on our own… even if we jump!! And our mental power is limited to picture only what we know or seen or heard!! Going back to basic, god almighty has manifested to make us bird brains understand in the form of Mother Nature. She is the God with attributes. Without her donation, tolerance, patience we cannot survive in this world. She nurtures us from birth to death and when we are dead again she accepts us… no matter who we are. She also has mechanism to teach us everything provided we are willing to learn… it is said that you can take a horse to water but can’t make it drink… so inspite of the presence if we are not willing to understand then we cannot simply say that it is not there.

So what is that the cycle of creation I am talking about… well you have to see my next blog… when I first saw it years ago I was in middle school but it took all these years for me to understand the beauty of it… (And now I’m officially a grandmother as of 09/10/2013!!)

I dedicate this article to the entire female species of the universe whom I consider the manifestation of Mother Nature  in a lesser form…… the one who is capable of playing a major role in creation and nurturing the living being. perhaps the only certainty after birth and death…..

Love & Romance…. Two faces of the same coin! (9/9)

The splendid Taj Mahal exudes romance; Laila-Majnu & Romeo-Juliet made romance eternal and provided it with unforgettable depth. Majnu (meaning mad) is the nick name given to Qais, yes one becomes practically mad & acts like as though the lovers are the only humans left on earth!

Remember Tom Cruise love struck shenanigans on Oprah’s sofa? (Watch it here if you haven’t)One can blame it all on chemicals in the brain… in that state the whole world seems like you’re the proverbial kid in a candy store! My doctor friend (love marriage) would say you can talk, walk, sleep & eat love. Everything is fair in love (& war). Love is blind & Romance is deaf & both are dumb (clearly, Tom Cruise gets speechless!) It’s something thats so very beautiful & tingling!! Love is intangible, just a feeling that cannot be explained, nor can you make someone else understand or experience through your experience. It is like the scent of musk which cannot be hidden: it’s beyond control & will express itself somehow or the other. The beauty of Love is that it is an unplanned natural process & no one has control over it. It is almost always instantaneous, a random act that cannot be bought or sold like a commodity or force someone to fall in love. There is no age bar for Love/Romance & it goes hand in hand. However, in a human relationship there is no Romance without Love but there can be Love without Romance.

Then the question is what is Love or Romance? Do we have the chicken and egg? Is it the same in totality? I am not sure if Love & Romance are two different things or the same… guess it’s a mindset & varies from circumstances to circumstance & time to time & persons to person. However, all said & done I guess they are interchangeable faces of the same coin! It’s an emotional attachment or involvement between two people. It results in a chemical process triggering the chemicals in your brain to kick in & you feel an emotional high, exhilaration, passion, & elation. Like my colleague put it, “Romance is the expressive & pleasurable feeling from an emotional attachment towards another person associated with Love”

Then is it limited to human beings alone? In general Romance is the name given by us humans for expressing the Love between two sexes. Yet the word is rampantly used in varies forms… Only individual perception differs. It is there all around us from a small bug to the greater beings… for those who want to see & feel, the air is filled with Roooooomance………. in anything you like a beautiful flower, misty morning, gleaming dew drop on the grass, muddy smell from the first shower, a nice fragrance, full moon, the fresh air of the mountain, sound of the ocean, birds, country, etc., etc., which really recharges anyone. So again it comes back to the chemical factor: all that we have to do is open our eyes & ears to see/hear it. That’s why the Romance is in the air… murmuring the sweet nothing.. just look up & smell it… gather it…pull it down.. and bag it! One of colleagues scream there is no such thing as love and romance. Any one says there is I will hit them!!

In an era where the divorces are increasing in an alarming rate a couple could get few tips from certain reptiles… why reptiles.. Well we are not very different from them: they shed their skin like we do. Come-on everybody fill your life with Roorooomance not with neigbour’s partner but with your own. Romance & courtship is the most important thing… it makes the Love strong & bonding… & you will feel good about yourself. Up until 80s, a majority of people had arranged marriages, some even meeting for the first time on the wedding day!! Does that mean love-romance was absent from their life? Love can be gradual too & changing into Romance is a choice, an art where you are the artist. Paint it red, blue whatever your favourite shade is. By the way upto 80s the percentage of happily lived ever after was indeed higher!! Common getup & rekindle it in 2014. Don’t wait for the snakes to knock on your door. It’s the tool which spells the beginning of happily lived ever after!!

I would like to conclude my blog for the YEAR 2013 which saw too much destruction in too many ways with this most beautiful romantic picture… (This picture was supposed to be the concluding part of my coffee series… but 2 more is still pending, but I had to share it!). I found this picture posted a couple of years ago by an unknown source on the kodava.org site… What timing & presence of mind to click such an amazing picture…

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WOW (positively) in case you are wondering what is the red & green spread on the ground? Well its fresh coffee beans of course… don’t worry the beans were not contaminated… both of them were so caught up with each other… & normally they don’t harm you unless they smell danger from you… don’t you think COFFEE is kind of romantic… I find the flowers romantic & the snakes find the beans romantic… (We are cousins!!) what about you? At least have a coffee on me… try full bodied Nespresso Indriya which is the blend of the marriage between Arabica with a touch of Robusta Coffees which probably came from the same yard, the bed of Romance of Mr. & Mrs. Snake!

A big thank you for all of you for reading my blog & encouraging me to write…… I have expressed my opinion on love & romance, but it differs from person to person. I would love to have your comments & thoughts on this.

Wish all my Readers a Very, Very Happy NEW YEAR….. A snaky Romance & a big god bless you… lots of Love… be romantic & get lost in the Love/Romance… high time to recharge and rekindle and bring back the sparkle. This year for the second time in my married life, I will be celebrating my New Year over Skype with my husband even that is kind of romantic… he will sit there blowing fish kisses.. waiting for each other to close the Skype… hum if we can feel it why not you?

Food for thought…… Happy Super Mother’s Day! (1/3)

I’m grateful to all my readers who have been my inspiration and have crossed more than two thousand two hundred views! And to add to it, me a budding blogger received a pleasant mail from Mr.Blake, the Black Ivory Moghul himself! (See the comment on that article!)

Going to take a break from coffee and do a bit of philosophy. I have a short series of articles where I’ve tried to blend Mother Nature with Prayer, Humanity, and Violence. The last one is a short story.

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If a picture speaks thousand words, Mother Nature speaks infinitely to those who want to see or listen. This was the two hibiscus flowers (Dasavala poo or Chembarathi) on the same plant in my home garden on the morning of Saturday, Sept 29th 2013. This exquisite translucent white flower species (delicate/silky/supple like baby’s butt) is not a hybrid but a native variety hence no human influence. The plant is around 20 years old & bears white flowers most of the time. Rarely, you can see a touch of pink here & there but I’ve never seen a perfect blend like this before!!

To summarize the way I look at: The white part of the flower is the God almighty, the pink in different hues symbolizing us human beings (& perhaps our religions), blending in perfect harmony. Mother Nature is telling us that if all the religions (& humanity) are like beautiful precious pearls, GOD almighty is the thread that holds the pearls together in a beautiful string. While a string of pearl is cherished / admired by everyone, a single pearl just sits in the vault of a miser waiting for its chance to see the daylight once in a blue moon!! IMG_4815

Prayer is the most powerful tool on earth & mass prayer can send vibrations far & wide if it is done for peace. In the time of crisis the first thought that comes to any normal mind is the prayer. No matter the colour, creed or religion, prayer is a prayer, for the very spark of life that makes us alive is the spark from God almighty which is common in any creation. Let us pray in unison, stand together to help us in Conserving/Preserving mother of all mothers, our Super Mother. Drawing the strength from God & peaceful mind (from payer) let us work towards our goal.

On the contrary Violence is against the laws of nature no matter in any form. Animals kill to eat not for pleasure/fun & once their stomach is full they wait till the next meal to kill again. Animal killing is to balance the nature but human violence is the dark side of humanity & to fulfill the rotten egos & psyche of individuals. Violence from a disturbed mind is as bad as an atom bomb. Atom bomb when dropped is not selective on who it kills, but cause massive destruction to the entire creation.

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Then again just pray & do nothing is also not sufficient. Mahatma Gandhi aptly said that, acts of kindness to a single heart are better than a thousand heads in payer. Sympathy & its big sister Empathy are the back bone of humanity. Unfortunately we humans come together only at the time of crisis, otherwise it’s my way or highway!! Be it a large crisis or an individual crisis, human reaction is the same. Be it the Westgate Mall in capital city like Nairobi or a small University town like Bloomington (Indiana) or any small office in the Middle East, every one opens their heart & mind & willing to do anything possible. May be in any form/kind – blood, prayer, food, anything at all….. This shows that humanity is not extinct after all. I SALUTE THOSE WHO STAND UP AT THE TIME OF CRISIS & SHOW THEIR TRUE BEAUTIFUL COLOURS. However, not only during the crisis but also in normal or happier times we should learn to live in harmony with Mother Nature & the entire creation. Even though we don’t realize, everything in Mother Nature is inter-connected. We may not be related but we can verily relate to one another.

Preserving Mother Nature is nothing but saving ourselves & our future generation in return. Sadly, because of our ignorance & selfishness, knowingly/unknowingly we have been using, misusing & abusing her, as if sucking out juice from the sugarcane. Time is running out, we don’t have all the time to make each & every mistake & learn from it. High time we join hands & work for the welfare of the world. Let us learn from the past mistakes… & act now. Let us learn to live in harmony & coherence. We can do it & we should do it… The trillion dollar question is, should we wait for the bigger crisis or disaster to come together? How much time do we really have remaining? Clock is ticking… like the time bomb….

Marriage between Wild honey & Burga (Kopak or silk cotton) tree

The Mysore – Mangalore road is a route I have traveled during every other major holiday since my college days. Today things are different, traffic has increased a hundred fold & also I hardly travel by bus. Traveling by bus has its own charm: You see the world around you from a heightened perspective, & enjoy more than in a car. Mountains look closer, valleys looks deeper, shrubs looks smaller & trees seems to run faster too! 😀

My husband is my official driver who just loves to drive, or rather, does not trust anyone else’s driving!! I love to watch Mother Nature & for the last several years I have been noticing many tall Buruga trees, especially on the Hunsur-Kushalnagar stretch. Depending upon the season, it either has flowers, young leaves, or just barren. One particular tree close to Koppa, always catches my attention because of the number of wild honey combs hanging on it. One time, we even stopped the car to count about 220 or more: some full of honey, some abandoned combs & some fresh – half done & some are almost falling apart! A real sight to behold! Every time we are about to approach the area, my husband, starts: “your tree… your tree….. “ & we count until it becomes a dot in the rear view mirror! (How lucky I am to have my own tree in words…. Hahahaha). So unless & until it is really late & dark outside when we cannot see the hives, we never miss the tree – we will say “the treeeee”

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My curiosity & obsession with Mother Nature also helped me to realize that the wild honey bees are comfortable building their honey comb on only a chosen few buruga trees. A couple of kilometers before we approach ‘the treeee”, there are two Burga trees about a kilometer apart: one with three honey combs & one with just one. The bees must be getting comfortable with those trees too. Hum. I wish I could talk to the bees & ask them why are they so comfortable with this particular species of tree, & why only some of them! Why the marriage with the spiky burga tree? Is it because it is too tall or too spiky for the predators or deciduous or simply because of the copious supply of nectar from its flowers when they bloom?

When I was talking to my brother, Japs, I was told that in the coffee estates, most of the wild honey combs are built on burga trees or wild jackfruit trees. And olden days the natives would tie a thin rope to the end of an arrow, & shoot the arrow to the honeycomb. The honey will dip through the thread to a pot kept under the tree! (What an ingenious & harmonious dealing.) I never had the privilege of witnessing it though!!

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My love for the Burga tree could also be subconsciously linked to a feeling of nostalgia that takes me back to my childhood days. Growing up most of the mattress at home was made from Kapok fiber (cotton) which is from the fruit of the Burga tree. Unlike the hybrid tree cottons grown today, Kapok lasts for years & years without causing allergy or becoming powdery! The hybrid cotton becomes powdery within couple of years. So much for man’s intervention in Mother Nature’s creations! My mother, the late Patsy, like most Coorg ladies of the time, was a fanatic of Kopak Mattress. Back home in the Western Ghats after the rainy season, i.e. at the beginning of the summer as well as at the end of the summer, all mattresses are put in the sun religiously & it was really a fun time for us kids. Jumping on the mattress & pillow fights outdoor was extremely entertaining which usually ended only when mother was around shouting at us. Our giggling & fighting (what a combination) would never end & even would try to make small holes in the pillow so that the cotton escapes flies around us!!

Best was the time when it is put back on the cot… oh boy… the mattress used to be so soft & puffy… more jumping… the sun dried warm crispy smell as opposed to the monsoon mugginess before they were sun dried We always piled more than one mattress on the cot, & it used to feel like royal bed… a princess on seven layers of bliss! (We had multiple mattresses to support the 10’s of guests who come in during weddings & other social functions)

When the fruit of the Burga that contains the cotton is ripe & almost dry, it falls on ground after splitting, scattering the cotton all around forming vivid shapes & sizes. Eventually it would be carried away by wind forming more shapes & sizes. We would catch them & search for shapes like birds (I remember almost always finding a dove heads/necks!!), or collect few & stick it on others hair to make them look old, etc. Looking back I myself cannot believe that we used to have so much fun with simple things like cotton or jumping on the hay stack those days!! (Other fun activities were climbing the trees, hunting for exotic summer fruits & playing in the river. Wish I could relive them again on the green & pleasant land..) Those were the simple days when we were not chased by the gadget bhoooot (ghost)!

More information on the Buruga tree:

Stately Buruga (Genus: Ceiba & Species: pentandra) tree appears on the flag of Equatorial Guinea. It is said that the tree was sacred to Mayan people who believed that the souls of the dead climbed the mythical kapok whose branches reached into heaven. It is a colossal tropical tree (a very fast growing tree which can be taller than 200 feet) with palmate & compound leaves (5 to 9 leaf lets), deep ridges on its massive trunk, spiny, drought deciduous (shed leaves in dry season). The crown has an open umbrella shape. The tree is also called Java cotton or silk cotton which is famous for its wide buttresses. But the ones I have seen does not have enough buttresses…… guess the soil does not have enough butter (just kidding). Back home it grows wild in the forest & in the estates. The tree sheds it’s foliage in the beginning of winter & by beginning of January the top crown of the tree is covered by numerous marble sized green buds with plum colour sheen on them. By February, 5 to 10 cm long vibrant chalice shaped, flaming red flowers with 5 thick velvety petals curling backwards starts to bloom. Between February & March it paints the whole landscape in an enchanting red hue with striking blaze of crimson.

The kapok tree occupies an important niche in the ecosystem of a rainforest. With the flowers comes the flock of colorful birds, wonder how they get hold of the scent of the blooming flower – its amazing? The sight & sound of the birds is a feast to the eyes & ears which has to be experienced!! The flowers grow in a circle of five unequal bunches with a bunch in the center. Yellow at the base, their red tips merge into the flower. The rich nectar in the flower attracts bees, birds & other insects which also act as pollinating agents. It has an unpleasant odour perhaps to attract the bats too. By March – April, it bears green pods which hang from the branches. The pods are woody, smooth & pendulous. As they mature, it will burst open while still on the tree after the leaves have fallen, from which the fluffy soft cotton escapes with the slightest breeze floating like fallen white clouds. Finally it splits completely & falls to ground. Just before it cracks, the pod is plucked & silk-like cotton kapok is collected. It also contains plenty of black seed that is covered by the cotton. The process of harvesting & separating the cotton from seed is manual & labour-intensive. The cotton is light, silky soft, elastic, strong & buoyant. If wet, just drying in the sun would bring it back to its original form!! The cotton is also used in stuffing cushions & pillows, upholstery, wadded cloth quilts, insulation, stuffed toys & tinder. During the Second World War these were popularly used in life jackets which known as Mae Wests. However, the fiber is not used for clothing because it is short & breaks easily so it cannot be easily made into thread like cotton. Now a day’s Kopak cotton is practically taken over by synthetic substitutes & it is hard to find decent kapok mattresses. Almost all the parts of burga tree have high medicinal value & is one of the special tress considered as a panacea.

(Part 1 of 2) – Read part two for the sad details of the death of a tribal woman….

The What, How and Why of Vanilla

I was at my cousin & best friend Prema’s house during the first week of Jan ‘13, sipping my piping hot coffee and enjoying the beautiful pristine surroundings & the crisp fresh air. The chirping birds, the colourful lotus in the pond, far away cry of peacocks & mist filled tranquil surrounding, always fills me up with calm & peace. On every visit there, I feel as if I’m seeing everything for the first time!!

All of a sudden, I could hear some commotion nearby under the pomegranate tree & saw both Prema & her husband Dr. Ashok busy doing something by the trunk of the tree. Curiosity dragged me there & I got the chance to witness the unique way of artificial pollination of vanilla. In my previous visit there, I had the privilege of clicking the wonderful pictures of the vine, buds, flower & beans of vanilla with the help of Prema’s niece Muth. When I showed the pictures to my friends & colleagues, practically everyone had no knowledge what so ever about how vanilla comes & asked me such questions which I had no answers too. I decided to ask Dr. Ashok who is a treasure house of knowledge on plants with a wealth of firsthand experiences. Upon my request as always Ashok patiently explained me the whole process briefly in layman’s terms. I believe that an experienced knowledge is better than the book knowledge!!

History

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid vine (I am sure most of you did not know that!), which grows in the form of a bean pod. It is said that Vanilla (botanical name: Vanilla planifolia) originated in Mexico with the Totonaco Indians, (it always amazes me is to how without any modern technology our forefathers understood the mysteries of Mother Nature?) who were conquered by the Aztecs who, in turn, were conquered by Hernando Cortez. Vanilla is pollinated by the Melipone bee in Mexico. Along with other plunder, Cortez took cacao beans & vanilla pods back to Spain. But he forgot to carry the bees!! He couldn’t conquer the beeeeeeeeezzz!!! 😀

Today, Vanilla grown in all regions in the tropical belts & currently Madagascar is the largest producer.

There are three main bean varieties, Mexican, Madagascar and Tahitian. Mexican beans are mellow and smooth with spicy, woody fragrance. Madagascar beans called Bourbon bean after the former name of Reunion Ile Bourbon are long and slender have thick, oily skin with a very rich taste and smell. It contains numerous tiny seed with strong aroma. Tahitian beans are plump, short and high in oil content. The skin is thinner, contains fewer seed and the aroma is fruity and floral somewhere between licorice, cherry and prunes. Natural vanilla extracted from high quality beans is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Natural vanilla extract is a mixture of several hundred different compounds in addition to primary compound vanillin.

In Madagascar, it is supposed to be pollinated by humming birds which is endemic to Madagascar. In Kodagu a very small percentage of pollination is done through ants & moths which come to drink the nectar at night. another variety of vanilla not much known is found in Andhra Pradesh, India, which does not have leaves & grows from node to node zigzag (may be one day I will post some pictures). Vanilla is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit known to man. Like other orchids’ seeds, vanilla seeds will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Hence the creeper is reproduced by planting the cuttings which already contain the fungi.

Planting

First a section of the vine with 6 or more leaf nodes, which has aerial roots growing opposite each leaf, is removed. The two lower leaves are removed, & lower area is buried in loose soil at the base of a central support. Vanilla climbs up an existing tree (a tutor), pole, or on any other support.  It can be grown in a plantation on trees or poles, or in an enclosed greenhouse, in increasing orders of productivity. The more the roots the creeper has, healthier the creeper is. So around the support, the creeper is planted almost bringing the creeper into a whole circle so that the creeper produces more roots. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support, & often growing down into the soil. The creeper needs 30% sun & 70% shade. Not much water is required and a spray (fogging) system is ideal. While planting make sure there is enough room to approach the creeper particularly for hand pollination. Its growth environment is referred to as its terroir & it includes not only the adjacent plants, but also the climatic conditions. Flowering season could be longer depending upon the care given the creeper & the terroir.

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Pollination

Growing vanilla is laborious especially because of the artificial pollination by hand. The vanilla flower lasts just about one day.In 1836, botanist Charles Morren by chance witnessed the black bees pollinating the vanilla flower & began experimenting with hand pollination. However, in 1841, a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Reunion developed a simple & efficient artificial hand-pollination method which is still used today. Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic & carry both male (anther) & female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-pollination, a membrane (a petal) separates those organs. So manually the membrane is lifted with a bamboo sliver (thinner than toothpick), then, using the thumb, transferred the pollinia from the anther to the stigma. The flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. You will not know if the pollination is successful or not in about a week. If after a week the petals falls off that means the pollination is not successful. If the petals remains intact even after a week, that indicates that the pollination is successful & the beans will grow.

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Maintenance

Between flower & plucking the pod it takes around 6 months. Neither the green pods nor the flowers have the flavor or odor of vanilla. The nodes which once yielded beans will not yield again. After harvesting of the bean you have to prune the creeper. When there is no rain (in Feb) you have to stress the plant by not irrigating them. Nip the tip of the vine so that the nutrients are used for the growth of the creeper. When you nip the creeper, new nod which grow is usually thicker & healthier than the original one!! Then if you irrigate, the nutrients are used for flowering.

Beans

When the beans are light yellow it is ready to pick (over ripping can cause the beans to split). The whole bunch may not be ready at the same time. Hence collection of the bean is arduous. Once plucked, put the beans in 60 degree temperature water between 5 to 10 minutes depending upon the size of the bean to arrest the processes of the living plant tissues. Remove from the water & keep it in a shade wrapped air tight in a woolen blanket to let the bean sweat. Next day (i.e. after 24 hours) dry it in sun for 2 to 3 hours. Once hot remove from sun, wrap again in woolen blanket & keep in shade for sweating. Repeat the ritual for 3 days & from 4th day shade dry till it is almost dried. It is important to massage the bean from one end to other to distribute the fluid inside evenly. This also makes the bean straight. To test the right curing, try to wrap the bean around your finger which should coil easily. Also if the curing is proper, vanillin crystals will form on the skin of the pod.  Cured vanilla pods contain approximately 2% by dry weight vanillin. On cured pods of high quality, relatively pure vanillin may be visible as a white dust or frost (what looks like sugar crystals) on the exterior of the pod. Almost the same methodology is used in large scale production. Beans of 6 inches & above, the bean is considered ‘A’ grade. Once dried the bean is dark brown in colour. After processing wrap 1 kg (around 60 beans) with butter paper & stack them in an air tight wooden box. Beans should be kept in a tightly-closed container in a refrigerated area. It should also be kept tightly-sealed, in a cool, dry place away from sun & heat.  This way you can preserve it for years together. Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf-life, & actually improves with age like a fine wine or liquor.

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The end result!

It’s hard to describe the highly valued flavour of Vanilla as different people describes it in different way like, pure, spicy, delicate floral, creamy, spicy, woody & fruity. It brings happy mood to majority of the people but there are very few who practically hates it!! (I did a small survey involving more than half a dozen different nationalities and got very varied responses from everyone!). Both natural & artificial vanilla is used for flavouring in baking, chocolate, ice creams, perfumes, creams, etc. Some use vanilla powder (ground vanilla beans) & others use whole vanilla beans. These whole beans can be rinsed after use, thoroughly dried, & stored for reuse. For maximum effect, people tend to cut the bean in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and use them. Instead of wasting the skin, powder them and mix with sugar so that you can flavor your coffee and tea with vanilla.

Artificial vanilla flavoring is a solution of pure vanillin, usually made either from guaiacol or from lignin, a constituent of wood, a byproduct of the pulp industry. Semi-synthetic vanillin is derived from the eugenol found in clove oil. However, today most synthetic vanillin is synthesized in a 2-step process from the petrochemical precursors guaiacol & glyoxvlic acid!! Bet most of you did not know that most of the vanilla you taste is petrochemical!