Encounter: A monsoon brush with Cobra Lilies

A not-so-pale view of hills
I woke up to the sound of rain pounding the tin roof of the rented shack and the remnants of a nightmare lingering on. I dreamed that the mountain looming above us has suddenly sprung a gigantic waterfall, which is nonchalantly carrying my shack to the valley below. Though I am still cozy inside the sleeping bag, it is impossible to get rid of the feeling that the cold mist is out to get me. The bed beside the sleeping bag is damp and cold and the moment the shack’s door is opened the fog starts creeping in looking out for dry pockets, if any remain.
We are in Chopta and this is August. The Himalayan monsoon has made the place its own and we are part of the package. We have come here to bird and over the next few days we will be intimately acquainted with cold rain, rolling mists, tenacious leeches and precarious roads, often all four at the same time. It drizzles from dawn to dusk and pours at night time. The only birding afforded is a few brave moments in the drizzle and a short gift of sunshine usually in the evenings.
But in the special way that that Himalayas give back to a battered traveler there are rewards for those who endure (which we do).
A meadow teems with monsoon gifts

The trees are ghostly shapes overgrown with ferns and moss

There is the swoosh of an unseen Lammergeier approaching through the mist, restless tits and yuhinas flitting about the oak tops, yellow-breasted greenfinches taking off in a whirr from a snow patch in the meadow, Himalayan woodpeckers with their perfect Y markings, and the gorgeous rufous-bellied niltava in a feeding frenzy that a brief sunshine affords. There are plump but remarkably agile rufous-gorgetted flycatchers chasing winged quarries in dark glades, flower-draped meadows where we literally had to wade through scent, verditer flycatchers reminding us of the colour of the skies we could not see, a group of Himalayan Tahr on an impossible ledge, trees draped in dark-green wet moss which the white-tailed nuthatches rip apart hunting for grubs, the iridescent blue green-tailed sunbird with its purple sash glowing in the setting sun, slick black lichen-spattered crags, mist-soaked dripping ferns bursting out from crevices, and the mesmeric cobra lilies.
Cobra Lilies are in plenty and we are captivated. They grow below dripping rocky crags, besides brooks, at meadow edges and by the roadside. On first appearance they seem like some strange hybrid form of plant and snake and, as we get used to them, the feeling gets stronger. They are a mephistophelean prank of nature, a fitting substitute for the cobra in an environment too cold for it. Over the next few days we locate two species, both of which are hypnotically charming and no matter how many times we come across them, they have the power to stop us in our tracks and take closer awe-inspired looks.

Arisaema propinquum

Arisaema propinquum

Arisaema propinquum flowering

Arisaema tortuosum or Wallich’s Cobra Lily has a remarkable resemblance to the cobra’s hood. It grows to a height of about 30 cm and has a dark purple hood (spathe) striped with whitish green and a beautiful nettled pattern. The spathe ends in a short pointed tail much like a cobra with its tongue in check. The fruit is like a cob of corn, green at first and maturing to a bright orange red in fall much like a smoked-out painter’s psychedelic rendering of corn.

Arisaema propinquum flower

The species is named after Nathaniel Wallich. Wallich was born in Copenhagen in 1786 and landed in the Dutch outpost of Frederiksnagore (Serampore) in Bengal in November 1808 where he was appointed as a surgeon. After the British ran over the Dutch colonies in India, Wallich after a brief stint in prison was appointed as assistant to William Roxburgh, the East India Company’s botanist in Calcutta. This afforded him the opportunity to visit and study the flora and fauna of the subcontinent especially of Nepal and Burma (almost 20 species of flora and fauna are named after him including the Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallichii). Later, following a stint with the Asiatic Society he was permanently associated with the East India Company’s Botanical Garden at Calcutta, where he served from 1817 to 1846. During these years he published books, undertook expeditions, assisted plant hunters who stopped by at Calcutta and undertook a trip to Assam to evaluate the prospects of growing tea. He is remembered at the Kew gardens where his collections are held and a herbarium is named after him.

Arisaema jacquemontii

Jacquemont’s Cobra Lily is more slender and serpentine. What it lacks by way of true likeness to the cobra’s hood it makes up with its extremely delicate shape and elongated, lightly winding acute apex of the spathe, and its gregarious nature. A cluster of Jacquemont’s Cobra Lilies has the surreal feel of slender green cobras dancing in the breeze with their long unforked tongues out to catch the raindrops.
A cluster of Arisaema jacquemontii
Arisaema jacquemontii or Jacquemont’s Cobra Lily is named after Victor Jacquemont, a French botanist and geologist who travelled to india in 1828 on behalf of Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle and died in Bombay four years later aged 31. He was in the court of the charismatic Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh (the famed owner of the Koh-i-Noor diamond employed at least four Italian and French mercenary generals who had served in the Napoleanic wars in Europe) and records indicate that he travelled to Ladakh and Himalayas among other places. Several plants are named for him, including Acacia jacquemontii, the Himalayan White Birch (Betula jacquemontii), the Indian Tree Hazel (Corylus jacquemontii) and Afghan Cherry (Prunus jacquemontii).

The Cobra Lilies (normally used for the Asiatic species) are also sometimes referred to as Jack in the Pulpit. They belong to the genus Arisaema which (as per the website rareplants.de) “is made up of more than 250 herbaceous species, which are distributed throughout temperate to tropical areas on all continents with the exception of Australia, Europe and South America. Their main distributional range is located from the western Himalayas, southeast to China and Japan, whereas in North America only two to three species and in Central America some two species are known at present. The majority of Arisaema species grow in humus-rich, well-aerated soils in mountain meadows and slopes as well as open spots in lowland to high altitude woods, few species grow in pure loamy soils in sunny rock crevices. In general immature species are male, with maturity they change their sex to female. Several Cobra Lilies switch sex almost every other year in order to store enough energy for fruiting the following year after their male phase.”
Sex change is the peculiar characteristic that this genus possesses. According to the Wikipedia entry on the genus “Arisaema plants are typically male when small, and female or hermaphraditic when large, with a single plant capable of changing sex based on nutrition and genetics, and perhaps changing sex several times during its long life (20 years or more).”

The species is hardy and survives in temperatures as low as -18°C using the two pronged strategy of planting the adult tubers and corms deep down to prevent freezing and adaptation for using the winter snow for insulation. Chopta, which is situated at 2900 meters (9514 feet) and gets snowed out in the winters, is probably among the best places for these (another being the Valley of Flowers near Badrinath). The sub-continent is home to almost a dozen Arisaema species with one — Arisaema tortuosum or Whipcord Cobra Lily — distributed in the peninsula and Western Ghats.
I have avoided mid-monsoon visits to the Himalayas in the last few years and have not come across the cobra lilies since but autumn treks have consistently rewarded me with the sight of the bright orange cobs harbouring the black seeds. Its function accomplished, the hood would have withered off, but it is not too difficult to imagine it. An uncannily accurate feeling of the first encounter almost always follows.

Text by Sahastrarashmi (thanks to K S Gopi Sundar for identification help)

Photographs of Cobra Lilies by K S Gopi Sundar /Sahastrarashmi
Other photographs by Sahastrarashmi

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