A Summer morning in Kuwait, one of THE HOTTEST countries!! – Part 1

July 19th 2015….. When I told my husband I want to take some pictures one morning & write about a summer morning… he just gave his usual calm soothing smile with a warning don’t get arrested… you will not be able to tolerate the heat!!

I did not realize how lucky I was as I could not have chosen a better morning for the weather God was little gentle. When I left the house at 5.35 am, my mobile showed the temperature as sunny 34 degree Celsius. Only thing I missed was the scores of Doves flying around pecking on the grains/rice scattered by some bird lovers & bathing/drinking on the pockets of water collected from the car wash before it evaporated. Also did not realize how the material for the article would just roll in front of me…

Kuwait is one of THE hottest countries in the world & this year it is been bad, really bad. And it’s one of those years I did not miss the warmth of summer… last week it was worst & on Wednesday at 15:09 one of the temperature display towers showed 52 degrees & yet another tower showed 50 degrees at 15:14. No way in 5 minutes within 2 kilo meters radius the temperature would fluctuate so much unless it starts snowing….It’s hard to know the exact temperature recorded as mobile, car, towers, media, meteorology department, your body, everything tells different readings… however you would really know it’s bad when the pavement/road practically throws heat back at you or the tap water is almost boiling… make you jump out of commode!! Last week my body told me it touched 55 degree Celsius…

Most people have Eid holidays & the roads were practically deserted. I live in an area called Salmiya, a favorite place for Indians where about half a dozen schools are located dotted with n-number of restaurants & stores selling Indian vegetables, fruits & other stuff catering to everyone’s need. In case you did not know when Indians are out of India they are very patriotic & prefer Indian stuff!! The desi term NRI (Non Required Indian) makes them crave for their Motherland!! It’s a joke but has some truth in it too…

When I passed Amman Circle, scores of daily wagers were either standing/sitting on the pavement under the shadow from the buildings, some with their tools & most with a packet (may be water & sandwiches). I had no heart & also have no right to click their pictures & peek into their privacy. What was amazing is that one-side was occupied by Iranians (known for their physical strength – I have seen average built old men carrying large air-conditioner units on the back & climbing the stairs. I wonder what their secret is) near “la baguette” & the other side near the temporary mosque was lined with East Asians. Birds of same feather…. I was not sure if everyone was hired every day & the logic of why an Indian would come here to work as labourer braving the heat when he could almost make the same amount working as a labourer back home had no answer!!

As I crossed the street I saw this car parked arrogantly on the bend… & that brought the thought of arrogant drivers (attributed to practically all nationalities). With the ever increasing number of cars it is getting from bad to worst. As I passed on I came across the 2-watchmen washing the cars with hoses… an act which boils my blood. Wasting the resources as if there is no tomorrow, using-misusing-abusing the generosity of the country which supplies the desalinated water (Kuwait has no natural resources & also rain fall is negligible) at reasonable price. One consolation is that compared to yesteryears it’s reduced drastically as Municipalities has issued strict instructions against the wastage of water.

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The other thing which makes me angry is the sight of garbage bins & its surrounding. Probably Kuwait has the highest per capita cleaners & domestic helps. Still I feel it’s very dirty thanks to the wasteful nature & ignorance of the general public. The amount of food of all kind wasted is unbelievable. In summer it crosses the limit because it tends to get spoil faster. The untied garbage bags are thrown outside the bin, anything & everything from cardboard boxes to wooden boxes to furniture to mattresses to construction material is discarded. When the fruit-vegetable shops throw the half spoiled stuff, someone who needs tries to pick out the usable ones & mess up too. How much a government can do… Cleanliness should come from within… a human should behave like human… one can exhibit only their true nature that’s what I can say.

As I walked further saw this gentleman walking his 3-dogs. Unlike the majority of Kodavas, I am not a dog person as I had bitter experience with them when I was young. {It’s a very funny & nasty experience; I will write about is some other time}. I am told that most countries in the Middle East do not encourage having dogs (pets) at home. I asked him can I take a picture & he agreed, I told him my daughter loves dogs… which is also true but I wanted it for my article!!

Aroma of deep fried falafel, hot fresh chapattis/paratas were teasing my nostrils. On the sandy ground men were playing football, construction workers were busy (they cannot work later as it gets too hot). It’s noteworthy that: Never ending construction… Ever increasing rents… an unusual phenomenon unique to Kuwait does not match the theory demand & supply. Every rule has an exception!!

As I entered the Rumaithiya Park about a kilometer plus I realized that I had seen so many things, then came the sight of the small group of Indians doing yoga… & laughing practice. As I walked further there were men playing football in the covered court, the cricket players (luckily with tennis balls) had not arrived yet guess mostly because their ground was wet. Then I saw my all-time favourite sight, the sprinklers & the birds & green grass. The sight of birds particularly sparrows brings me immense joy as it is almost extinct in Kodagu. The long stem of palm flowers swayed in the mild wind… spreading the mild smell of its flower (I don’t know if I imagined it) some still had its dry leaves & old dry black berry intact. The dry leaves provide shelter to birds & keep them away from dust storm. The cats were stretching on the grass & one cat had managed to catch a black dove & I was surprised the cats still hunt their prey. There are so many people bring & keep food for cats… so most of the time it seems like the cats does not have to work at all… like some spoiled kids!! Loads of black-yellow insects were around even after watching for a while I could not make out if it was honeybee or wasp…

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FACE to FACE with the largest bunch of flower I have ever seen….

It was few years ago that I first I heard about the Jade Vine, from the legume/bean family & its multinational cousins. I learnt this from my plant guru, the late Dr Achaiah, a walking encyclopedia. I was tagging along with him once so that I could fetch some wild mushrooms. Looking at the bunches of maroon outer & little red flowers hanging around the mango tree, I said these are lovely & looks like the ornamental pieces of a chandeliers. I came up with a suggestion… may be you should make a structure in different sized circles to support the vines to create a natural chandelier & we all can sit under it & drink coffee… he said your wish is not my command you don’t eat my head run along now!!

We both always agreed to disagree on everything yet I followed him ignorant, enthusiastic & eager to learn & he was glad someone was willing to learn… so he explained to me about the four different vines among the many around their mansion.

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The second one he told me about also with maroon outer & yellow flowers but with a different look altogether. It had no flower but I knew what he was talking as many of my relatives had it in their homes. Both had their own beauty & the first one is pretty simple like a homeless person goes unnoticed most of the time (figure 1). The second one little more attractive & makes its presence felt once a while (will post the picture when available). I was trying to impress with him with my knowledge of flowers quoting the silver oaks & the orange bunch flower we see at Mysore university campus & then told about the burgundy sausage tree flower. He said that’s all on trees & I am talking about the vine.

Finally when I saw the other two little vines supposed to be floriferous from pea family. They were growing on a pillar, and were actually imported costing a small fortune….   A flower which is going to look like the flower of pea.. & wondered if it is really worth it? They were the Jade vine & Red Jade vine (aka scarlet jade vine & New Guinea creeper) scientifically known as Strongylodon macrobotrys & Mucuna bennettii respectively. Then I mentioned the purple Wisteria flower hanging like grape bunches, also from pea family, which I saw in Niagara Falls the sight of which is enchanting in some Hollywood movies & serials. All the vines are evergreen.

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After that first time I saw these flowes, on every subsequent visit to Ashok’s place, I searched for the flowers in vain & finally when I came across the pitcher flower in the nearby pot, wondered what the jade vine would really show case? Finally August… 2014 I got lucky, after a long wait met the fully bloomed Red Jade flowers & the buds of Jade vine.

The RED JADE, she was a beauty in her own rights….. she mesmerized & practically forced me to stand motionless & admire her. Even the pouring rain & cloudy weather could not dampen her spirit & beauty. She was already a month old & in full bloom, a cascading cluster of brilliant red-orange pendulous flowers which looked as if someone had meticulously chained them together to form a raceme…. I have never seen such perfect wholesale orange colour in my life other than the saris… Individual translucent flowers are clawed & the formation looks somewhere between flame of the forest & its cousins coral tree & panivala flower. Her perfect texture with absolutely no blemish on her celluloid boat shaped body which almost gives the feeling it’s not natural & plastic(ky). My husband said it reminded him of the cock’s head & its beak & for me it reminded the beak of a parrot.

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It is said to be from New Guinea, I nick named her the middle class beautify, who is here to showcase her beauty & strength… the influence she can have on society!! The striking bright red-orange flower in full bloom could stay around two months (or more). So when the bunch starts blooming from one end to the other, it blooms till the entire bunch is bloomed then is still fresh.. so I guess it’s there for quite a while.

And then I saw the Miss Universe…THE JADE VINE, one of her kind challenging everyone one nearby… the colour of the bud blue/green or turquois or jade or copper oxide or somewhere near aqua… something so uncommon… sorry I am lost & have absolutely no idea! I have seen NATURAL green roses & orchids but absolutely no memory of jade coloured flower. One has to see it to believe its magnanimous size, unusual colour & smooth surface like a baby’s butt… I had to catch hold of my best friend’s handy man Kutty who is 5.1 feet to pose with the bunch so that I can remember the size. It’s almost 5 feet along with the top of the stem as the buds starts from few inches in a bunch. It is still growing like Lord Hanumanji’s tail in Sundarkand of Ramayana, as if to challenge me for questioning her worthyness!! Sadly it seems like the life span of jade flower is shorter than that of the orange & it started falling early… may be the mother is tired of over demanding child!!

Also known as emerald vine & turquoise jade vice, said to be native to forest of Mount Makiling on Luzon, the largest & most northern island in the Philippines (Tayabak), is also found in Hawaii, Jamaica, some warm humid strips of South Africa, etc. It’s hard to say where ANY PLANT species originated as no one has ever explored the entire Universe. Just because someone comes across a particular plant at a particular location at a particular time, they say it’s originated there. It’s like Christopher Columbus calling new world as India & calling the natives Indians!! Moreover they end up putting such difficult scientific name or sadly change the name after the person supposed to have dis-covered… oh boy!

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Guess she is not that hard to grown but one has to be patient enough to wait for at least 2 years. Even though the growth seems to be little slow in the beginning, as the vine gets strong foot hold, under healthy conditions the large woody climber creeps generously & if not trained it would climb at its own whims & fancy. Sky is the limit seems to be the mantra for the growth of all the vines. Tender leaves are fragile & it looks glassy & dark somewhere between purplelish (reddish-brown/black) & then it turns to green. The stem is dark brown with finely peeling bark.

Fortunately I got the chance to see both of them this year. This is the second bloom of the vine & absolutely no idea if it is going to have any pods or the seeds this year too. Last years the vine bore few small bunches & no seeds. Ironically even though the tiny little black-ants were milling in & out, I could not see any sign of sweet attraction of the bees or other insects including wasps & not sure if it attracts any birds with long beak like humming bird or nocturnal pollinators like the bats. Since it is not native to South India & with ever dwindling bugs & little birds, whether it calls for hand pollination like the vanilla (see my earlier article) or will it be able to produce pods & seeds has to be seen in time. It is advised to plant male & female vines side by side… well I really can’t identify them!! Sorry folks we cannot give you a plant as this cannot be propagated by cuttings it seems.

Even though I wanted to spend more time with the flowers, I had to bid good bye soon but I am definitely planning to monitor the flower in 2015 from beginning to end, record it & also will write about it along with the pictures in different stages to those who are interested. But if Mother Nature will favor me with a bloom that size in 2015 is a big question mark!! It is said that coffee grounds (used coffee powder) increase the number of bunches… How proud my plant Guru would have been to see the flower if it had bloomed an year earlier…

Note: Unfortunately rather sadly the jade bunch was cut by a naughty child who was visiting just before it bloomed. Hope the vine will be kind enough to grace one more large bunch in the near future.

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One man against all odds….

Can someone do everything right in this world? What is the qualification or what kind of parenting is needed to teach a young one right from the wrong? Well one just has to be human & have the determination of harmonious coexistence with Mother Nature as well as thier fellow creations. Read on about the phenomenal contribution for human kind by a single person, Jadav Molai Payeng, from a humble background. Positive energy of these kinds of souls is enough to keep the Universe pulsating.

It was 1979 & floods had washed a great number of snakes onto the sandbar of a remote region near Kokilamukh of Jorhat in the state of Assam, around 350 km from Guwahati. One day, after the waters had receded, while walking home to Aruna Chapri village of Majuli district, a 16 years old youngster from Mishing tribe found the sandbar dotted with the dead reptiles. It did not take much time for the smart tribal teenager Jadav to realize that the snakes had died on the sand in the heat, without any tree cover. The kind, helpless teenager sat down & wept over their lifeless forms. His young mind wondered today snakes & tomorrow the human race could perish & wanted to stop this carnage but how? He spoke to elders & said what if one day we all die like snakes? They smirked & said don’t be a fool that won’t happen & gave him 20 bamboo seedlings to plant on the sandbar. He religiously planted them on the dry sand after building a fence hoping one day they will grow big, it would be green, fertile & attract birds & animals.
Call from the Mother Nature was too strong for the young soul & once back home the young mind thought, I could not just ignore the situation like others. So what if nobody is interested to help me? I myself should try to do something. That was the turning point of his life & he never looked back. Meanwhile in 1980 when the social forestry division of Golaghat district launched a 5 years tree plantation scheme on 200 hectares at Aruna Chapori, about 5 km from Kokilamukh, he started working as a labourer. After the completion of the project, even after other workers left He chose to stay back.

Thus began the greatest journey of hope ever known to mankind, with a single seed of dream germinating in the beautiful mind of a single individual maturing into a gigantic tree against all the odds!! With the spirit & hope of seeing greenery &, birds & animals he started planting…. & planting… & planting… 35 years on & he is still planting. After all man is a creature of habit!!

He gave up schooling & willingly accepted a life of isolation, he started living on the sandbar & single handedly started planting seeds & seedlings on the sand bar & spending his days tending the burgeoning plants. His mission became his religion, he gladly chose Mother Nature as his teacher, sandbar as his class room & trees as his classmates. For him the mantra was: “Tvameva Mata cha Pita Tvameva, Tvameva Bandhu cha Sakha Tvameva, Tvameva Vidya Dravinam Tvameva, Tvameva Sarvam Mama Deva Deva” {Nature is everything – mother, father, brother, friend, knowledge, wealth, etc. Everything is connected & is inseparable from her. The word ‘dravinam’ in the beautiful Sanskrit has several meanings as: wealth, strength, valour, gold, wish, the basic material from which things are made}. There was nobody to help him but the determined young man would not give up. He proved that with true dedication anyone can turn from ordinary to extraordinary & unique. The proverbial say “God helps those who help themselves” proved right in his case.
Jadav quoted to a news reporter: I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected & planted them. I also transported red ants from my village, & was stung many times. Red ants change the soil’s properties. That was an experience, Jadav said, laughing. Soon, there were a variety of flora & fauna which burst in the sandbar, including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino & Royal Bengal tiger (at least five tigers, one of which also bore two cubs). Besides apes & several varieties of birds, including vultures there are rabbits, deer, etc. After 12 years, we’ve seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. “Deer & cattle have attracted predators, claimed Jadav. The forest has become a migratory route & a sanctuary to a herd of around 100 elephants, which generally stay for around six months & often destroys the crops. They have given birth to 10 calves in the forest in recent years. There were times when the angry villagers beat up Jadav blaming the destruction of their paddy fields by the elephant’s. Villagers, whose homes had been destroyed by the pachyderms, wanted to cut down the forest, but Jadav dared them to kill him instead. Jadav has dedicated his life to the upkeep & growth of the forest. He treats the trees & animals like his own children. Seeing this, we, too, decided to not to trouble him, added an elderly villager.

The unparallel achievements of this gentle soul is far too greater & beyond belief/comprehension. Yet it’s a fact – that’s what the modern world seeks… the so called proof. After a few years, the sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra was transformed into a bamboo thicket. More than 35 years on, once-barren sandbar became a sprawling forest covering an area of 1,360 acres (550-hectare of which about 300 hectares of bamboo), rich in bio diversity attracting many animals & birds. It’s now home to thousands of varieties of trees including valcol, arjun, ejar, goldmohur, koroi, moj & himolu & an astounding diversity of wildlife.

In one of the interview Jadav said locals recently killed a rhino which was seen in his forest at another forest in Sibsagar district. He revealed that he lost around 100 of his own cows & buffaloes (his only source of income) to the tigers in the forest, but blames the people who carry out large scale encroachment & destruction of forests as the root cause of the plight of wild animals. Jadav talks like a trained conservationist. “Nature has made a food chain; why can’t we stick to it? Who would protect these animals if we, as superior beings, start hunting them? Jadavs enthusiasm never ends there & is ready to manage the forest in a better way & to go to other places of the state to start a similar venture. Now his aim is to spread his forest to another sand bar inside of Brahmaputra. He is both the seed & tree of hope, desire & in true sense an inspiration to the mankind. You are right Mr.Shahrukh Khan when you kept repeating like a trained parrot; “don’t under estimate the power of common man” in the movie Chennai Express!!
Jadav, nicknamed forest man of India, who is now 51, still lives in the forest sharing a small hut with his wife Binita & three children (two sons & a daughter) & makes a living selling cow & buffalo milk. They support & help Jadav in his mission. Asked if he regretted giving up school, calmly said: Five of my classmates/bench-mates have become engineers; one is a sales tax superintendent, all of them well settled in city living in lavish flats. But I still live in jungle where I have always lived yet I am the happiest man in the world. Again calmly adds there could be no one happier than me.

He has a message to the world: says the education should be changed in such a way that each student has to plant two trees. Thus they would produce their own oxygen. If they are unable to do so, they should fail their exam. He hopes that people in Indian & everywhere starts making this planet greener. Then it would be a very beautiful world to live in. I am sure of it says he.

The locals call the place ‘Molai Kathoni’ (Molai’s santuary) after its creator’s nickname/pet-name. It took him more than 30 years to be recognized by the government. Luckily the forest department also named it “Molai woods” instead of naming after a politician sitting thousands of kilometers away or after a so called explorer who cannot even spell the local word!! What would you call him a wild life activist or environmental activist or a true conservator of forest or a gifted son of Mother Nature? In this chaotic world where everyone is screaming & attending conference after conference on global warming & ending without any solution, surely farsighted Payeng is a beacon of hope & perhaps definitely deserves world honour more than anyone!! Solutions are what we seek & constancy is what we need. He surely fits in the imaginary (which almost seemed real to readers) character of Elzeard Bouffier created by the French author Jean Giono 1953 when he wrote the epic tale The Man Who Planted Trees with the intention of making his readers fall in love with trees.
The whole saga of Jadav’s extraordinary feat was unknown to outside world till 2008. It was when forest department officials went to the area in search of a herd of about 100 elephants that had retreated into the forest after a marauding spree in the village of Aruna Chapori, about 1.5 kms from the Molai forest, they were surprised to find such a large dense forest in the middle of a sandbar. Elephants also had destroyed Payeng’s hutment & it was then that Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) Gunin Saikia met Payeng for the first time. ACF Saikia said to reports that it is perhaps the world’s biggest forest in the middle of a river. We’re amazed at Payeng who has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero.” There are proposals to declare the area a conservation reserve under provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Writing about him brings me great joy & his feat an enigma, beyond my perception & understanding capacity. I think, this simplest of the simple, humblest of the humble indeed the greatest soul to walk on earth in both 20th & 21st century. He proved to the world what a single beautiful mind can do even without the use of guns, bombs & looting. Perhaps one day when he is gone the signature left behind will be worth more than million Nobel prizes!! A true soldier in his own rights &, both the cause & effect of his mission, a mission impossible to others. May god bless him with long healthy life. Makes me wonder if he is a freak accident of creation or a cursed heavenly gardener on earth?? Living on the banks of Brahmaputra, He truly is a Brahmaputra (son of Brahma). “I would gladly say it only happens in India”!! Hope one day every Indian will feel the same way as I feel – truly honoured – just to hear about him & will be cherished as he truly deserved to be.

He was awarded President’s award by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who spoke to him for one & a half hours. On April 22nd 2012, Jadav Payeng was honoured at a public function arranged by the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawarlal Nehru University for his remarkable achievement. He shared his experience of creating a forest in an interactive session. A locally made film documentary The Molai Forest, produced by Jitu Kalita who lives near Payeng’s house was featured. In the month of October 2013, he was honoured at Indian Institute of Forest Management during their annual event Coalescence. Jadav Payeng & Molai forest have been featured by Aarti Shrivastava in 2013 film documentary Foresting life. Jadav Payeng & Molai forest have been featured in William Douglas McMaster’s 2013 film documentary Forest Man.

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.

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!