Agasthya 6.2 The 'Northern star' of the forest
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Those who had a chance to walk deep inside the wet evergreen forest of KMTR during February to April, could have easily walked past the inflorescence of Balanophora fungosa albeit some shutterbug mistook it as a fungus. Other than the flowers, it has no green visible part to qualify it as a plant. The actual plant is simply the underground tuberous structure attached to the roots of a tree or a shrub nearby. Once in a year the tuber burst into several inflorescences that protrudes above the soil and stands like the 'north star' in the dark forest floor laden heavily with litter. This inflorescence appears as sparkles because of their fiery red or yellowish orange color.

It was during my maiden trip to Kakachi when I and my colleagues first stumbled upon a Balanophora. Dr. Bawa and I, the two trained botanists of the group, slipped into the world of taxonomy and quickly realized the attrition of group size. Enamored by the curious morphology of Balanophora, Dr. Bawa quickly put me on my assignment to study its reproductive biology.

The first month of the next two years I spent time in locating the populations which were clumped but scattered far away from each other in a radius of 5 kms. By late January through February, when flowering started, I got busy in recording anthesis, i.e. the time and process of unfolding of blossoms, nectar secretion and its quantity, and its animal visitors. After recording the male/ female ratio of the plant at population level, I started documenting day and night visitations of the pollinators and predators by either crouching or sitting in the cold and wet forest floor. My constant companions during those cold, dark and anxious nights were Kannan, the assistant, and my fears that were borne out of expecting the odd visit by a giant tusker, a gaur or for that matter, a tiger. Today when I see my younger colleagues employing camera with intervelometer to record seed predation and other nocturnal habits and activities in the forest, I can't help but get nostalgic about those 'dog nights' on the forest floor.

Interestingly, the male plant had lot of pollen and female inflorescence secreted copious amounts of nectar which flowed down and collected in the bracts. Male flowers opened during the wee hours of the morning. During our day time observations, we recorded hollow nesting bees (Apis cerana) mostly on the male flowers, as they robbed the pollen from male plants, while seldom visiting the females. The nectar, opaque and musty, appeared as dew in the early morning but turned into big globules by midday, and rolled down by evening, to be collected in the bract. We also recorded fruit flies (Drosophila sp.) on dehisced anthers as well on the female inflorescence. Compared to the bees, the fruit flies seemed sedentary and inactive as we observed them sitting on for hours at one location while in few cases they sat almost through the night on one same location in the inflorescence. Later when we found that the heroic pollinators were none other than these tiny Drosophila, we were not surprised since they visited both the male as well as the female flowers. I still grope in the dark about the fact that Balanophora invests such spectacular inflorescence but only to attract a few fruit flies to pollinate the flowers.


Editorial Team
Editor: Allwin Jesudasan
Associate editor: Rajkamal Goswami
Editorial Review: R. Ganesan, M. Soubadra Devy, T. Ganesh
Design and presentation: Kiran Salagame

Volume 6,  Issue 2
      April 2012

A S H O K A   T R U S T   F O R   R E S E A R C H   I N   E C O L O G Y   A N D   T H E   E N V I R O N M E N T

The 'Northern star' of the forest
- R Ganesan
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