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Green scorpions in your backyard

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MYTH It was believed that the flowers turned towards the sun
MYTH It was believed that the flowers turned towards the sun

The Indian turnsole grows in wastelands. Its odd-shaped flowers have a charm of their own

Indian turnsole, Heliotropicum indicum, is a coarse, aromatic, hairy herb. This annual grows about three feet tall and is globe-shaped, with dull green foliage. It is found growing wild in dry, wastelands, degraded lands and alongside sewers. While the four-inch leaves, with unequal halves, are not noticeable, the 20-odd scorpion flowers stand out. Helio means `sun' and trope means `turn'. Together it means `turning towards the sun' thanks to a myth that the flowers turn towards the direction of the sun. The plant is native to Sri Lanka and India and belongs to the family Boraginaceae. A remarkable anatomical character of the family, mostly of herbs, is the occurrence of stiff, single-celled hairs, erect and slanting with granular walls and rounded base. The rough surface is caused by epidermis cells, with cystoliths of calcium carbonate concretions. The hairs effectively filter fine airborne pollutants and soil. The inflorescence is in the form of scorpoid cymes.The flowers are two-ranked and small on long spikes, pale blue in colour with five spreading corolla lobes. The fruit is dry, indehiscent with the characteristic combination of nut-lets in pairs. The seeds yield an essential alkaloid while both the leaves and seeds are used in medicine.The plant flowers throughout the year and attracts milkweed butterflies and, for this reason, is cultivated in butterfly gardens. Similar to it is Heliotropicum pereevianum with fragrant lilac blue flowers. It is an introduced garden plant in the hills.One-foot seedlings of Heliotropicum indicum grow in large numbers around the mother plants. Collect them during the rainy season with balls of earth around the roots and plant them immediately in rows two feet apart or near walls. Watering is necessary. Once established, the plants take care of themselves. The odd-shaped inflorescences on rotund bushes have a charm of their own.J. MANGALARAJ JOHNSON

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