Annatto (Bixa orellana L.)

Mysore is a famous city in Karnataka. It has a rich history and also pleasant climate. Due to this there are always flowers everywhere. It is city of gardens. There are numerous monumental buildings and temples. Near by is the Sangam where Cauvery river segments again merge. Also the famous palace of Tipu Sultan and his fort which was surrounded by a deep moat on all sides. But he was killed there.

I came across these shrubs first time in the campus of CFTRI Mysore. The institute is doing  research to increase the yield of flowers and seeds. Seeds are used as natural dye for food coloring. Seed coating contains carotenoids which impart red color and terpenes give the scent.

The trees are natives of South America. Small numbers grow in Karnataka and adjoining states of South India. Flowers come in bunches and have tough spiny hairs. When you open the the flower case, inside are seeds and your hands will be colored red with the dye. South Americans used it for many purposes like lipstick, body painting and medicine. I took some photos.

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Seeds inside the flower
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Shrub with flower
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Bunches

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Frustration Principle

When we observe the trees and plants around us, we find that even the plants of the same species bear different sizes and shapes. In fact no two trees are alike even if they are growing near one another. This is the result of the intense competition and many traits that trees have to face and acquire.

Every tree tries to reproduce to propagate its lineage. For this it produces seeds. But this is not the end of the story. The seeds have to be broadcast away from the tree preferably to a place where the parent tree does not have its influence over the resources required for growth. To scatter the seeds the tree shall in ideal case try to grow very tall and branches at the top.

Now take its another trait. Every tree has to harvest the sun energy. For optimal absorption of the energy the tree shall desire to have the design in which branches shall be horizontal and non-overlapping. This way every leaf will act as a energy cell.

Third trait is mechanical stability. For this the tree shall want minimum horizontal branches because the branches shall try to destabilize it.

Now as the saying goes no one gets the complete world. The foremost truth about the life is compromise. So when all the traits compete simultaneously there is compromise. The mixing ratios of the traits is the result of the helplessness of the tree. This behavior has been called “Frustration Principle” by biologist Karl Niklas. Niklas used computer models in which he kept the two traits constant and varied the third one. The results were as expected but when he mixed the traits in different ratios the final shape of the tree was like we see in reality around us.

This can be compared to smart cellphones which have a camera also. Although camera does good work but it cannot replace the stand alone camera. Similarly we have gadgets which can do many jobs but they are good for picnics where it is not the refinement but collection of many tools which come as handy but are not as perfect in quality as the individual tool shall be. But then who wants to take a lots of tools for picnic?

Raktika: The bright seed of Gunja

Raktika or Rati, seed of Gunja vine, was used in ancient India as a unit of weight for weighing the precious metals like Gold. The seeds have the quality of having almost identical weights. It is generally taken as 0.118 grams but the consistency over the different times is doubtful. The standard varied from time to time and place.

Gunja is also the name of girls in India. Remember, Actress Sadhana Singh was called by this name in the super hit Hindi movie called “Nadia Ke Paar“.

The botanical name of Gunja is Arbus Precatorious. It is vine which spirals on the trunks of the trees. The seed is bright red with black spots like ladybirds. The seeds contain a potent toxin called which is called abrin and consists of proteins which are dimers and called abrin A and abrin B respectively. It is very lethal. The unit B attaches itself to the cell. Once inside the cell, the A chain deactivates the 26S subunit of Ribosome. One moelcule is enough to deactivate up to 1,500 ribosome.

Manu defined the weight units in ancient India as follows:

5 Raktikas = 1 masa

16 masas = 1 tola or suvarna.

4 tolas =1 pala

10 palas =1 dharana.

Thus Raktika or Ratti was the smallest weight unit.

Besides, the Raktikas were used to make beads and ornaments.

The seed is also known as Jequirity, Crab’s Eye, Rosary Pea, John Crow Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Akar Saga, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie  Bead in different parts of the world. It is, as one of its names suggests, used as rosary beads. The seeds are used in Andhra and Tamil Nadu in the medicine called Siddha medicine. For this purpose, the toxin arbin has to be deactivated. It is done by boiling the seeds with milk which helps in peptization of the proteins.

Lots of Sparrows and Losing the Sparrows

This was in Panvel Mumbai

It is a happy augury that lots of sparrows are seen these days on the trees, windows ledges of our house, The sparrows were becoming very scarce and the world was forgetting about them. I bet many of our children today having seen the bird. There is an incessant chirping to be heard in the early morning. It is hint from them that they are hungry and requesting for the food. We scatter the rice, Bajra and Jowar in the bottom of our windows. Lot of sparrows vie with each other for the food. They push and shove. Soon the pigeons also land and scare the sparrows. Similarly the squirrels come especially for Jowar. Sparrows dart away and scatter like bullets at the slightest sound or arrival of anyone of us nearer the window.

In the morning they are so desperate for the food that sometimes they forget that we are scattering the seeds, they come darting and get scared and without landing maneuver to fly away to safety on the trees branches in front of the house. The credit for all this goes to my wife who never forgets to maintain the uninterrupted supple of food from the market. In the summer, she arranges the water in small containers for the birds whose throats have parched in the scorching sun. They quench their thirst and eat food. There is plenty of seed and they don’t have to forage for food here and there.

But here up in North India where we were born and grew up before moving away for earning the bread for our families, once plentiful sparrows are gone somewhere away. About 35 years ago, there were so many sparrows living in our homes and in the evening there ensued a great cacophony in the boughs of the mulberry tree which was in the open space of our home. They fought with each other to occupy the best perches. They made nests inside the houses which were not pucca houses and raised their chicks there. I am very much surprised that there is not a single sparrow to be seen here now. On the contrary, hundreds of mynahs flock to sit on the ledges or supporting rods of the platform roofs at railway station in Chandigarh. So much so that if you go there to catch a evening train, you will hear a deafening noise of their quarrels for claiming the best beds for the night. Difficult to understand the changes occurring in the surroundings.

When Bamboo Flowers!!!

Yes, bamboo species called Melocanna Baccifera blossoms copiously approximately every 48 years. While the blossoming of flowers is heralded as spring and is the nature’s way to be happy and show the joys to the world, flowering of bamboo is considered the coming of an calamity in the North East states of India. This variety of bamboo grows densely in Mizoram, Manipur and adjoining Burma. Bamboo is a natural resource extensively used in the construction activities to build scaffolding. It helps in the conservation of soil with its strong roots and also beautifies the landscape of the area.

So, why the flowering of bamboo considered as ill omen?

When the bamboo flowers, whole bamboo jungle is filled with flowers which lead to the formation of copious quantities of seeds and signals the death of the tree. It takes many years for the new bamboo trees to grow. Since the area experiences heavy rains, with the soil having become nude, there is heavy erosion of fertile upper crust of soil.

The floor of jungle is now full of bamboo seeds which are packed with nutrients especially the proteins. Rats from the nearby places are attracted to the seeds like iron fillings towards a magnet. They gorge on these seeds and gets very hefty and indulge in the procreation. There population increases exponentially. After cleaning out the seeds, the hordes of the rats turn their attention on the provisions stored by the people living nearby. In the matter of days, they eat up every thing creating the famine.

Due to the shortage of food, the inhabitants are forced to eat anything they find in the jungle or contaminated left over food and fall ill. Thus along with the famine, a epidemic visits the people. In the past, due to the casual attitude of the government, people revolted against the state.

Many of us have heard the story of pied piper of Hamelin which charmed the hordes of rats which had made the life of people a hell and lured them to their death. May be such a pied piper was there also when these disasters occurred. But no cheating with him in the payment for his services as the governments generally do, otherwise it can invite his wrath and he can lure the innocent children and take them with him.

Human Crops

On the platforms of Victoria Terminus station in Mumbai, in the evening time, human crops sprout, grow and are harvested within minutes. Harvest after harvest is taken away in the trains every 3 minutes. The human crops having assorted type of plants germinate and mature within a wink. The platform field is empty barely for a moment and it seems that it has got some preternatural power of fertilizing and is sending forth bumper harvests and harvests of humans. The platforms become so much fertilized that thick crowd of human plants jostled with each other. The harvests are unloaded at different places away from the station. Then these scatter. The journey for some has not ended yet. Again they have to catch some bus or auto to reach their home. By the time, they arrive home, they are so exhausted and tired that after taking the food they hit the bed and rise again in the morning and become like seeds and packed into the trains and transported to VT station and reach their offices beyond VT station. Again they are sown at platforms, become crop and harvested and loaded to trains and come back.