The passionate climber

anand pendharkar Having a green soul and a grandiose desire for a massive garden is something that few suburban Mumbaikars can afford. Luckily for me, spending seven years in Dehradun in the ’90s allowed me to experience the rare pleasure of basking in the gentle Himalayan sun, reading a Ruskin Bond, Tolkien, Kafka or Marquez. For a nature freak and bibliophile, there is no bigger ethereal pleasure than sprawling in a garden full of larkspurs, gerberas, geraniums or under the shade of a litchi tree, listening to a maroon oriole or Indian treepie cackle in the backdrop. In addition to that, a pot full of lightly flavoured lemon and fresh pudina tea would seem like a burst of colour on a white canvas.

And then you wonder how deathly Mumbai might seem in contrast.

The passion flower climber
The passion flower climber

But this sub-tropical city never stops to amaze me with the natural diversity it offers the naturalist within me. The moist, warm and equable coastal climate, supported by a four month monsoon season, makes growing greens seem like the most natural thing to do here.

On returning from Dehradun, the first thing I did was to redesign my window sills with box grills to allow shrubs, herbs and climbers to grow. I started with Aloe vera, ferns and perennials that would survive my long travel absence, but have graduated to growing indigenous herbs, seasonals and host plants which attract butterflies and birds. So, currently I have a huge variety of plants, viz. many shades of lilies, Ixora and Hibiscus, Jamaican spikes, curry leaves, green Aboli, Plumbago, money plant, Tulsi, Acalypha, Adulsa, Asparagus, Adenium, Epiphyllum, elephant ears, spiral ginger, saplings of custard apple, Mahua, Jamun, red silk cotton, Umbar (fig) and a dozen other assorted shrubs.

But then a climber-covered grill, with dozens of flowers barely allowing the sunlight to enter the house, has been my dream. Among all the flowering climbers, the passion flower has topped my list. Last Tuesday was my herpetologist friend, Kedar Bhide’s birthday. I have made it a practice to gift plants to all my friends. And while I was rejecting the typical varieties, my familiar nursery owner’s eyes suddenly brightened. To my utter delight, out he brought a bunch of passion flower climbers. Funnily, to urge me to pick them up, he backed up the sale with information that the plant has very attractive flowers.

Not to be outdone, I informed him that the plant is locally called Krishnakamal thanks to its odd but charming, blue and white flowers. They flowers display a bunch of peculiarities, viz. green bracts, fused petals and sepals forming a perianth, a fan of fibrous corona, a gynandrophore and multiple stigmas and styles, all in different colours. The Krishnakamal is also known to be a host plant for several butterfly species, and famous for its delicious offering — the passion fruit. Sweet-sour ice creams and juices of passion fruit combined occasionally with Kiwi (fruit) seem to be the rage in Southeast Asia and South America.

The plant’s Latin name Passiflora and related English name Christ’s crown originate from the words ‘passio’ (suffering) and ‘flos’ (flower), relating to the crucifixion of Jesus described in Christian theology as
the Passion of Christ. The pointed palmate leaves, tendrils, perianth (fused petals and sepals), multiple stigmas and styles, blue and white colour, all relate to symbolism in the crucifixion.

During my tours of Mumbai’s parks and nurseries, I have encountered many species of the passion flowers —the yellow flowered Passiflora minima at Byculla zoo; red flowered P. racemosa; the edible fruit P. edulis and the commonest, blue and white P. incarnata.

Having planted a pair of climbers at home, I’m waiting for them to cover my grills with tendrils, flowers and leaves. It won’t be long before the butterflies come to lay eggs on the leaves and sip nectar from below the bracts. As for you, don’t you think it’s time you went looking for the passion flower climbers to dress up your window?

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