It’s the tail end of the south-west monsoon. The north-east rains are about to begin. The gap between the two is very short this time. I’m sitting by some Impatiens plants in the shola habitat of the Sanctuary’s plant conservation area.The petals of each and every Impatiens flower glisten from the last shower, and the whole slope above me is backlit in the morning sun. There are several different species of Impatiens here, some on trees, some on rocks, some growing tall and shrubby, others that are annual, among grass. I watch them dipping their leaves in the warm breeze. They seem to thrive in large gregarious huddles. They also snuggle up with mosses, grasses, orchids and all kinds of other plants. I watch the dazzle of colour, pinks and whites and crimsons and reds, offset by greens of every hue.
Impatiens flowers are notorious among botanists for their so-called changeable characters. J. D Hooker, who attempted the first classification of the species within the genus in the early 1900s complained that they are a ‘terror to botanists’ and ‘deceitful above all plants, and desperately wicked’. And this too at a time when only 158 species had been described by botanists of the day. Now, over 850 species are described, mostly distributed in the tropics, from Africa to India, South Asia, southern China and Japan. The fact that there are only a handful of species found in America and Europe, presents a puzzle to phylogeneticists studying the group.
I perch on my rocky ledge and wonder how Noah would have dealt with the Impatiens. How would he have decided on what is a kind, in his mission to have on board the ark, two and two of every kind? How would he have distinguished between different species in what’s arguably the largest genus in the whole world, at 1000 species (including the ones not yet described but still being debated). And would he have allowed them to multiply on board, and to further speciate too?
I’ve had a lot of problems with Noah, and not just because of his high handed choice of limiting the lucky ones to only two per kind, but also for all the assumptions he must have made about sex and biology, about what constitutes a minimum viable number, and whether individuals can exist outside of mixed species communities, in other words, whether there can be meaningful conservation if individuals removed from habitat.
For if I were Noah, I would, in a heartbeat, choose my personal friends and family (human and nonhuman) of course, but then I’d assume each of them would want to make their own further choices, and I’d acknowledge the interdependency between all of us, that is, between all creatures: animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria; and then I’d leave it up to everybody, to gather all those who they felt a belonging with. All this assuming that I, and I alone, had this choice, which of course begs a whole other series of questions on how any of us has the right to choose the fate of another. The ark concept, on closer look, is quite fraught, and needs to be rethought for those of us who work in conservation, and those of us who use the word ark as a metaphor to describe these refugia, and those of us who think of our captive breeding and ex-situ conservation centres as arks, where we-in-control, exercise choice, restriction, and the power to include or exclude one or the other. Which is not to say we don’t have limitations on what we can or not do (especially considering how the wild world is being further rapidly decimated).
We acknowledge at the Sanctuary, that these choices are born out of space and time constraints partly, but much more out of our own abilities or lack of. Cultivating specific plants such that they happily grow into populations, and into communities, takes a long time, and the learning curve is very steep. We have to make sure we don’t lose any in the first place. If things work out, then it leads to better skills for growing other similar plants. Besides, we have to encourage habitat growth at the same time as well, which in turn leads to conditions that other plants prefer, and these together, sound horticulture, combined with habitat rehabilitation or restoration is a far more effective way to support the plants we bring in through our search and rescue operations for rare and endangered species.
To complete the Noah issue, I would also have a problem on deciding on kind, or species, as a (taxonomically defined) discrete entity, when, pretty much everyone I see on this slope, is cohabiting in community, and I see the influence of environment on the bodies of each, and the behaviour of each, and how these so called discrete characters, are actually quite flexible, and certainly in the case of the Impatiens, they seem to be very flexible for they seem to be speciating under our very noses! The point being, these Impatiens are happy with these grasses, and these mosses, and these Wendlandia trees. And that perhaps left to themselves, they have entirely another approach to the question of who is necessary, not on the basis of kind only, but on the basis of community.
All these are purely personal thoughts that arise as I marvel at the daily work of plants, and the daily work of my colleagues at the Sanctuary. The spectacular achievements of Laly Joseph, in growing more than 100 species of Impatiens are evident firstly in the exuberant responses from the plants themselves. Laly’s ability to recognize similarities and differences between related plants, and her ease with modern taxonomy, as well as her own set of mnemonics derived from 25 years of close association with these plants, and a lifetime in this place, is a whole study in metacognition in itself, for it comprises an extraordinary memory for Impatiens biogeography across the Western Ghats, an awareness of their conservation status, a fine apprehension of their ecologies in each and every place, as well as hard skills in cultivating them so that they grow well in a living habitat, which, though primarily of their own making, is supported by techniques born from her understanding of what conditions they prefer.
Various scientists have been trying to understand historical biogeography, speciation and diversification in the Impatiens genus for southern India, and also at a global level. By evolutionary biology accounts 100 species in a narrow mountain range, signifies a very high level of diversity. These scientists want to work out a tree of relationships (phylogeny) to see which of the forms would be the most ancient, the proto-Impatiens, the one from which all others arose. They also look at the genetics of flower colouration and they collect leaf samples from as many species as possible to formulate what are called molecular protocols. Their field studies also look at pollinators that like the Impatiens. A very good friend of ours, Dr. Bhaskar, has written a monograph on the south Indian Impatiens, the most comprehensive and exhaustive work to date.
But what defines the Impatiens? Here are some simple and straightforward clues to the genus : Herbaceous or shrubby plants, with fleshy watery translucent stems (which occasionally can be woody), prominent leaves which are also soft and membranous and usually toothed at the edges, bright irregularly shaped flowers with 3-5 petals, often spurred, and fused stamens forming a cap over the ovary. It’s the springy action of the seed pod or the capsule that gives the genus its name (old folk name: Touch-me-not from the Latin noli-ma-tangere), the way it explodes on being touched, when ripe, so that the seeds may disperse widely. Erasmus Darwin, great grandfather of Charles Darwin has a verse on this peculiarity, in his long poem ‘The Loves of Plants’, published in 1791.“With fierce distracted eye Impatiens stands, Swells her pale cheeks and brandishes her hands, With rage and hate the astonished groves alarms, And hurls her infants from her frantic arms.”I’ve never understood how he got away with that, perhaps because he was Erasmus Darwin!
And for those who like to muse upon the meaning of flowers, Impatiens, in traditional European flower lore, signify “ardent love”. Further, the family Balsaminaceae derives its name from the word balsam, meaning: liquid resin or resinous oily substance. Chambers also provides the following interpretations for balsam: any healing agent; fragrant (balsamy). The word balm, incidentally, has its roots in balsam, which itself has ancient roots in the Greek word : balsamon.
Someday I would love to know more from our Paniya neighbours and Kurchiya neighbours about plants like the Impatiens. There are so many parallel and intertwined taxonomies still alive in places like Wayanad with its rich human diversity, that to tease out one would be a lifetime’s study.
The Impatiens have presented a problem to taxonomists for two reasons primarily: they make very poor herbarium specimens because of the succulent and watery nature of their tissues; they are indeed highly variable in nature, hybridizing rapidly to form all kinds of intermediate forms which bridge the gap between species that are often very distinct, and this over relatively short periods of time, within our experience for instance.
In our work in plant conservation we deal not only with this variability of plant form but also with life histories, ecologies and preferences – big and small. So, of course we are continually brought face to face with the link between plants and time and space (the crux of biogeography): the past in the present as it were, through form and hue, the sense that there are aeons of time rolled up in one curve, one shape and then its relationship to the land that we, the plant and us, together inhabit today. And in evolutionary biology terms, this movement and adaptation of beings across the planet, over vast stretches of time, leads to the endless variety we see around us.
Above: Impatiens grandis
In the monsoon the Impatiens are everywhere. With more than 100 species in these mountains, it’s like having 100 species of the Panthera genus in the same area. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the Ghats in this season and not see them, and what’s fun is that there are special ones to each of the plateaux and peaks and ranges within the whole range, and different species at different elevations, and also lots of different types of Impatiens, from annuals to perennials, and stemless ones, to shrubby and epiphytic ones.
I love meeting different species of Impatiens in different parts of the Western Ghats, there is something about them that seems to give a very special character to a place, almost like the yellow browed bulbuls and the slaty headed scimitar babblers, which to me, are inextricably part of waking up here everyday.
Why only the Impatiens speciated in this “rapid” way is still a mystery, but they do indeed seem to love cool wet places, they are clearly tropical mountain plants: orophytes. They tend to congregate in altitudes over 1000m and they love high rainfall.
We’ll await the findings of evolutionary biologists: why did so many species come about in this mountain range, and do they go back to an ancestral single one that was common to the mountains of Africa and India, and is it that, over the sixty million year drift, the mountains grew hot and cold, grew higher, were isolated from other mountains, and that this mountain building process, went hand in hand with the speciation of Impatiens?
Some scientists insist we have to go deep into the cell, to find the conclusive factor to explain the endless transfiguring beauty of Impatiens variety, and how after all this time, and all this circumstance, one genus should attain such richness. Others say, something in the environment reciprocates with something in their genes, that the two play upon each other, that a twist in the chromosomal structure of the Impatiens group leads to their mutation under stress, especially under stress from excess or insufficient water. One theory goes that the size of Impatiens chromosomes is affected by the amount and periodicity of moisture available to the plant. And this in turn leads to an unusual degree of hybridization between species. As gardeners we don’t dwell too long on the why question, we have so many other more pressing issues to deal with, but we all love to hear good stories!
Laly knows their biogeography really well. She and I made a table some 15 years ago, long before we got a computer. We did two versions of this table, so we could see all the species on the left first column, and against each all the places and all their ecological preferences, and their conservation status, and horticultural details. In the next table, we had all the places from north to south in the left column, and then for each place, all the species found there. This was our first handwritten database, and was really interesting, because we could see clusters of subgroups within the genus, and then see how these clustered in particular places.
I remember almost the exact moment I got hooked by them, traveling up a winding road up the steep Nilgiri escarpment, how suddenly my attention was commanded by them, because I had learned to see them. Those roadside succulent weedy plants with pretty pink flowers, that I just glanced at on previous journeys now began to turn my head. In that mountain area alone there were some 38 species, all endemic to that locale, found nowhere else in the Western Ghats, let alone Asia or the world.
All this thought on a group of plants, is just to demonstrate the surprises in store when anyone starts to engage with the natural world. I’m presenting the Impatiens as a synecdoche, that is, using a part to talk of the whole.
For conservation gardeners at the Sanctuary, the genus signifies: a particular complex of physical, climatic and evolutionary factors, without which we would not have the Impatiens in such diversity and abundance; the abundance of sweet water, both atmospheric and ground, cascading down rock slopes and vertiginous cliffs, and in gusting deluges from the sky; the beauty of a season, a magical monsoonal beauty, with meadows and dark sholas and mossy tree trunks coming alive in a blaze of colour; the intensely contrasting phases of dry and wet, leading to peculiar stresses on Impatiens physiologies and growth preferences; and of course, the presence of all kinds of other beings, from butterflies and birds and frogs, to mosses and orchids and grasses and if you look further, to tahr and sambhar and tiger and elephant.
The Impatiens genus also signifies the decades of collective time given over by various botanists, Hooker and Gamble and Fischer and Wight and Barnes and Bhaskar, who were all mystified by the taxonomic slipperiness of the group!
But mostly, Impatiens signify most profoundly, home. Like for young Maya in the picture above, for me, home is where wild balsams grow free.