Poppies that take you high

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Tabish Qureshi and intrepid band of flower-spotters trek to the most remote locations on earth. All for the simple pleasure of sighting and acknowledging the existence of rare blooms.

I still remember my excitement on seeing the Baobab tree for the first time. Endowed with a short, squat trunk and a disproportionately narrow crown of leaves, these trees are known to live really long — even thousands of years. This sighting happened when I was with a group of friends, strolling along the banks of the Yamuna, not too far from its confluence with the Ganga. We had not really planned on seeing a rare tree, known to be a native of southern Africa. As the number of these trees in India is really low and there are many legends around its migration to India, it was a moment of personal discovery. Though the Baobab is well known and recognisable, we did feel, at the moment of seeing it for the first time, as though we had made a discovery.

Now, if one such moment could give so much pleasure and excitement, how would it feel to be privy to the discovery and documentation of thousands of flowers?

This is a question I would like to ask Tabish Qureshi, a Delhi-based physicist who has created (and maintains) a website called >Flowers of India.

Tabish’s effort is outstanding, for he has collected and catalogued 1,500 photos of Himalayan flowers alone; the website displays information of around 4,800 species in total. What started as a personal endeavour undertaken by him and Thingnam Girija, from Manipur, now involves contributions from several people — from Maharashtra, Kashmir, Pune and many other places. The website, Flowers of India, has stepped into its second decade, and its size is only growing.

Tabish is a professor of physics at Jamia Milia Islamia, Centre for Theoretical Physics. He is quite the nature-lover, and his exploration of the landscape started when he was a postdoc in Chennai and used to go bird-watching. At the time, when trying to identify some trees, he had to look up reference books and found that there were no pictures. At most, the books contained drawings — difficult for a young or uninitiated person to use the books as field-guides.

The team frequently runs into flowers that are so rare that identifying them by name is quite a challenge.

Later, when he joined Jamia, he was completely taken up with the horticulture department and their garden, which had very beautiful flowers that he could not name. This was not so unusual or uncommon, as he found out by asking people. One day, he spotted a beautiful white flower in his neighbour’s garden and had to really hunt to find out its name. It was none other than the Nargis — extolled in poetry, architecture and art, yet anonymous in the city. He then got into the habit of consulting books and websites to find out the names of the flowers he saw around him.

Naturally, flowers, though limited to zones of growth, are oblivious of borders, and his search did take him to websites such as >Flora of China, and he found the Chinese had done a brilliant job of cataloguing their wildflowers.

The need for placing flowers on record is definitely pressing as, increasingly, urban dwellers are losing the sights and sounds of nature that came so easily to their ancestors. “Manipuris have still not lost this touch. Even children are able to identify many more plants there,” says Tabish.

In 2005, when he got a digital camera, it was a turning point. He got the idea of starting a website which would showcase the flowers of India. Soon, Thingnam Girija and a few students from Jamia joined him in this venture. Their first trips took them to Nainital and Mussoorie and later ventures would take them to the Himalayas. Some of the most pristine slopes of Ladakh, they found, are home to rare and precious flowers, like...

...Russian Sage


...Kinnaur Violet:

Their stints in the Himalayas have been so fruitful that they now have more flowers in their list than the books which are the authoritative field guides on Himalayan flowers, the volumes by >Polunin and Stainton. While the two volumes have, put together, 1,284 flowers with pictures, the sections on Himalayan flowers of Flowers of India have over 1,500 descriptions with colour photographs. “Of course, there are a lot of flowers in the two books which our site does not have [yet]. But there are lot of Himalayan flowers which are on our site, but are not there in the two books. For example, there is quite a common Himalayan wildflower called Nepal Geranium which is found in the hill stations of north India, which is not even mentioned in Polunin and Stainton,” says Tabish.

Advertisements are a strict no-no, as the Flowers of India continues to be a not-for-profit venture. It is no longer just the work of Tabish, Girija and few people from Jamia, there are many contributors and Tabish is not comfortable with making money out of their efforts. In fact, all their trips are also entirely self-funded.

Some of their most enthusiastic contributors are Prashant Awale from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Dinesh Valke who send in pictures of flowers from the Sahayadri mountain ranges.

The team frequently runs into flowers that are so rare as to not be identifiable easily. While it is somewhat easy to locate the generic name, given the experience they have gained, the specific name is a big challenge. Prashant once sent in a picture of a beautiful flower from Mizoram. Unable to identify it by themselves they had to contact John Wood, a botanist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences. He did identify the flower. And, what’s more, this flower hadn't ever been photographed live earlier. This was the...

...Spotted Strobilanthes

Another flower they could identify broadly was a type of balsam they found in Manipur. Since they could not identify this plant, they posted it on the website in the unidentified section, and, after 8 years on the list, the plant was identified as...

...Meebol’s balsam

This flower was thought to be found in Manipur only, but is found in plenty in China.

The team frequently has to brave the monsoons, keeping in mind the flowering seasons, and many of the flower pictures show the beautiful plants beaded with water droplets. Yet, spots like the Valley of flowers hold riches beyond compare. It remains the team’s favourite spot, and they are struck by the diversity that exists in the small 2 km X 3 km spread of the valley.

The Valley of Flowers is a perfect backdrop for a quest for fresh fauna. Tabish Qureshi, Thingnam Girija and Ulysses make good use of it to take a snap.

Their explorations are neither easy nor without a bit of drama. For instance, to reach the valley of flowers, one has to go to Joshimutt near Rishikesh and then trek 14 km uphill. On their second trip, the river Alakananda was so shallow that they could wade across, ignoring the iron bridge. A couple of days later, when they returned, the river was in spate and the army had arrived, insisting that people cross the weak bridge one by one. So, while Girija made it across, the bridge snapped before Tabish and Ulysses Singh, who accompanied them on the trip, could make it across. Tabish had to cross the river holding on to the broken rungs, which swayed so violently he found himself hanging upside-down at times. Only after crossing was he able to escort Girija to safety, while waiting for Ulysses to come across the next day after the bridge was mended.

Here is what crossing the broken bridge looks like...

Laughingly, Tabish also shares a photo of Girija in Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh, taken at an altitude of over 3,000 metres, with a wild yak behind her that she did not know of.

Thingnam Girija poses in front of a yak in the hills of Tawang district, Arunachal Pradesh.

Tabish has many interesting stories of discovery to narrate: “One interesting flower is the Mountain Balsam ( Impatiens monticola) which is >found in China. One of our flower hunters from Manipur, Thingnam Sophia, found it growing near a newly discovered waterfall in a place called Leimaraam in Manipur. Again we had lot of difficulty in identifying it. All the >Impatiens species found in India are listed at the official site of Botanical Survey of India: Impatiens monticola is not in that list. So, this is a species which is supposedly not known to be found in India. Yet, Sophia found it growing wild. On being told by us that it is a rare species in India she made another visit there and brought a full plant and cultivated it at her home in a pot,” says Tabish.

Another flower of interest is the Himalayan Blue Poppy ( Meconopsis grandis). This is found at high altitudes (3,000-5,200 metres above sea level) in the Eastern Himalayas. “We found it growing in Tawang district in northern Arunachal Pradesh — close to the China border. It is a rare and celebrated flower,” he adds.

While waxing eloquent about the beautiful Siroy Lily, he narrates how they found another rare Himalayan poppy. “While on our way to Bumla Pass [China border] in 2013 we found a poppy-like flower growing high in the rocks. I had to climb the steep rocks to reach it. None of the books lists any Himalayan Poppy species with white flowers. Talking to some experts in Europe we found that it is a very rare species, Prain's White Poppy ( Meconopsis prainiana).

It is a matter of personal pride for the team that what started as a small, isolated effort has grown into something that many people from all over India contribute to. Not surprising, then, that the contributors page on the Flowers of India website opens with a quote from a Sahir Ludhianavi song which, translated, reads:

I started all alone towards the goal; people kept joining, and, soon, it turned into a caravan.

(All photos courtesy Tabish Qureshi, Flowers of India)

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