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Chronicles of common flowers

Updated on: 23 June,2024 07:23 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sumedha Raikar Mhatre |

A new taxonomic field guide reveals the overlooked beauty and medicinal worth of the dayflowers of the Western Ghats threatened by reckless urbanisation

Chronicles of common flowers

A sketch of Murdannia semiteres, and the real thing, also called the called Sahyadri dew flower

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreIndigenous Indian names for dayflowers present lyrical echoes—an intimate connection between language and landscape. Jal bhu, Krishna ghas, ekbeeji kena, daldali kena, os-boond phool underline the Hindi prosody, whereas bechka and badishep evoke Marathi phonetics. Arale hullu calls forth Kannada; Kanchat lends itself so much to a Konkani rhythm. Each word is not just a local substitute for a dayflower variety; it forms part of a rich lexicon which reflects the enduring everyday presence of dayflowers in the Indian subcontinent.

No wonder why these common ephemeral half-day flowers find their way into the maalraan (grasslands) described in Bahinabai Chaudhari’s (1628-1700) abhangs and Vinda Karandikar’s poems. Modern-day travelogues in Maharashtra document the bloom of wildflowers in Tamhini and Malshej ghat. The floral riches on the Kaas Plateau have mesmerised various authors like social activist Anil Awachat and ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

The Commelina badamica and its habitatThe Commelina badamica and its habitat

Like dayflowers, their local names too have a vibrant connect with India’s collective heritage that transcends regional divides. It is precisely this uniting power of these common flowers that prompted Dr Mayur Nandikar to make a special appeal to readers to contribute to a repository of names, folk lore, limericks, family customs and allied information on Commelinaceae (dayflowers) plants. The famous botanist has just released a taxonomic revision and field guide titled Commelinaceae of India, designed and published by Parambi Plant Research and Education Foundation, Pune. The 220-page journal-sized colourful book, written by Dr Nandikar in association with Dr Rajaram V Gurav, is dedicated to “plant taxonomists and fellow enthusiasts who appreciate the silent stories that nature tells through its pressed and preserved treasures.” 

The authors relied on extensive visits to natural habitats, museums with herbarium specimens, biodiversity facilities and botanical gardens to study the ecology, cytology, threat status and diversity of the transient blooms. The deep exploration shows in the line drawings of the fascinating morphology of the family, reflecting growth habits and details like stamens and seeds.

The Commelina badamica and its habitat

British botanist Dr Henry Noltie praises the book as “a magnificent monograph of the Indian members of the Commelinaceae family” with commendable photographic documentation, especially considering the fact that the dayflower beauties are under-documented in India, despite being highly endemic to Western India. The book therefore addresses a gap in academia, and also attracts lay readers.

Over 100 colourful illustrations and photos capture day flowers from different corners of India—Cyanotis karliana first discovered around the Karla caves, Commelina benghalensis with the Bengal connection and Murdannia saddle peakensis reminiscent of the national park terrain in Andamans. The field guide awakens us to the wilderness of earthy dayflowers which add to our surrounding beauty, also delink us from the exotic exported variety of flowers we vie for. It invites us to the roofs of coastal houses in Konkan, hilly areas of Vishakhapatnam, margins of the Lohit forest division, and along the banks of the Kukadi river valley near Junnar!

Cyanotis AdscendensCyanotis Adscendens

A culmination of Dr Nandikar’s 15 year-long research, the book updates information on African and South East Asian Commelinaceae, focusing of course on nomenclatural and taxonomic novelties in India. It accounts for 131 recognised taxa covering 516 binomials—plants described in genus name tagged with descriptive species name. The book brings nomenclatural clarity to the taxa—for instance, like Murdannia sahyadrica which is named after the Sahyadri hill range, a biodiverse hotspot. The taxonomic novelty, found in abundance on Sinhagad and the Morjai plateau, was earlier slotted as a species. Dr Nandikar and Dr Gurav recategorised it as a sub-species under Murdannia semiteres.

Unfortunately, Murdannia sahyadrica doesn’t have an identifiable local name; it’s colloquially called Sahyadri dew flower. “I am hopeful one day I will find some local anecdote around it. After all, what’s a flower without a local address,” says the indefatigable Dr Nandikar who completed his doctorate in Taxonomic Revision of Indian Spiderwort (Commelinaceae) in 2013. His post-doctoral fellowship at Goa University revolved around the genus Grewia (flowering plant).

Dictyospermum ovatumDictyospermum ovatum

He says that the fleeting dayflower beauties are underrated medicinal wonders, which offer numerous untapped health benefits. The cleistogamous weedy Commelina benghalensis (Kena in Marathi; also called cat’s ear because of its two conspecific petals), produce underground flowers and fruits. Their leaves are cooked in vegetables or added to crunchy fritters. The species has been a food source historically, but is also used in the treatment of stomach disorders, headache, snake bite and leprosy. Commelina diffusa helps in managing urinary disorders and bladder infection; Cyanotis tuberosa treats worm infestations in cattle; its root paste has curative powers for liver issues. The fungicidal agent in Murdannia simplex is well-demonstrated. The book brings alive the easy-to-get restorative plants, provided we care to locate them. Many flowers are added as flavours and colours to savories and salads. Some flower petals infuse pep into herbal teas and tonics.

The humble dayflower bloom also has a precious connection with the monsoon, which Commelinaceae of India vividly illustrates. For instance, Murdannia edulis, a widespread dew flower with a thick tuberous root, sprouts immediately after the pre-monsoon showers or summer rains, on the open, moist forest floor and in the form of undergrowth in partial shades. Its seeds disperse during the heavy July rains. The lilac-blue flowers, which seem like a carpet on the dry floor, are a sight to watch at Borivali’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Interestingly, the species prevailed on elevations, like in the Himalayas; it was first identified by British botanist John Forbes Royle, who chose the name Murdannia in honour of Murdan Ali, a plant collector and keeper of the Saharanpur herbarium. The journey of the species from the Himalayas to Mumbai is illuminating; equally fascinating is African species Commelina imberbis, an African species, now seen at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, Belgaum, thanks to minority ethnic groups in India with African descent.

Dr Mayur NandikarDr Mayur Nandikar

Commelinaceae plants in India have adapted well to the monsoons. The abundant pour in the monsoons supports the flowering and seed production of the flowering plants, such as Murdannia dimorphia or Cyanotis fasciculata; in fact the species have developed strategies to maximise their reproductive success during the rains; they exhibit synchronised flowering to ensure cross-pollination; also they produce seeds that can withstand the dry season. A rare and interesting Commelinaceae in the Western Ghats, which births live during heavy rainfall months, is Belosynapsis vivipara. The plant germinates on the moss-covered tree trunk of the mother plant.

While the book is written by two botanists, it is meant for anyone who cares about a deeper cultural connection with the transient flowers of life.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text.  You can reach her at

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