Josna Rege

147. Hollyhocks and Hornworms

In 1960s, 1980s, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on May 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Gulmohar, or Flame of the Forest (photo courtesy of Ranjeet Jagtap)

Every year when the gulmohar tree, or Flame of the Forest, bloomed, the entire Hijli campus in Kharagpur was a riot of color. I derived so much pleasure from its flowers, not only aesthetic, but also tactile. Their long red stamens captured my imagination, and I conceived a game in which two opponents, each holding a stalk, locked heads of those rich, powdery anthers until the winner succeeded in pulling the head off her opponent’s filament. The mature seed pods of the gulmohar tree were also a source of fun. They hardened and rattled when dry, and became play-swords and percussion instruments.

Gulmohar stamens (wanderingmist.com)


Shak-Shak (photo by Dinesh Valke on flickr)

The profusion of brilliant blossoms gave me another idea: couldn’t we find a way to make Holi dyes by soaking and grinding them? I never succeeded in this endeavor, but I see that nearly half-a-century later, people are using gulmohur flowers and leaves to make natural dyes for Holi and starting to investigate gulmohar flowers as a source of natural dyes for other purposes as well.

The hibiscus, showy and ubiquitous, was another flower that I tried, but failed, to put to practical use. Its common name, shoe flower, gave me the idea of using it to polish my school-uniform shoes, which were perennially scuffed and dusty. Alas, while it crushed the beautiful red blossoms, it failed to impart any lasting shine to my black lace-ups.

I wasn’t only destructive, though. One of my favorite flowers were antirrhinums, or snapdragons. Like so many children, I delighted in pinching them gently but firmly between thumb and forefinger so that their mouths opened and shut. Both in India and in Greece there were the trees, varieties of mimosa, perhaps, whose feathery compound leaves closed up if you so much as brushed up against them. Of course I did, and never tired of watching them draw together defensively.

Through the long summers in Greece, when the heat melted the tar on the roads, I found endless fascination in natural life. When we went to the seaside, I played with the sea cucumbers, making their pods snap like bubble plastic. In Athens I played in overgrown urban plots, part cultivated, part wild. The stands of hollyhocks were strange giraffe-like plants, with their long, woody stalks covered in short, rough hairs, their dry leaves, which always semed to be full of insect-holes, and their green geometric seed-pods. The flowers themselves seemed incidental to me.

Greek poppies

Flaming red poppies grew everywhere. The flowers quickly bloomed and were as quickly blown, but the seedpods lasted, and it was fascinating to watch them dry and burst open, and sometimes to pry off the cap and squeeze out the thousands of tiny seeds.

It was only much later, in America, that I would be introduced to dried poppyseeds sprinkled on bagels and cream cheese. And not having been introduced to The Wizard of Oz, either, I knew nothing of the soporific properties of opium poppies.

The small creatures that lived on the plants also gave me pleasure. I was especially fond of common garden snails, and could lie on my stomach for hours watching them moving slowly and steadily forward under their spiralling shells, their bulbous-tipped antennae stretching ahead of them, a narrow glistening trail in their wake. Like the mimosa leaves, they too would close up defensively, no matter how lightly their shell was tapped.

©National Trust Images/NaturePL/Chris O’Reilly

It wasn’t until I was an adult living in the United States, when work, not play, was at stake, that I began to see these little creatures as my adversaries. Not snails, but slugs, were our enemies in the garden in Winchendon, especially in the battle over buttery lettuce leaves, both of our favorites. It’s funny how likeable snails are, and how unlikeable slugs, even though the former are just slugs with their shells on the outside. Even the snail’s lightly sticky, glistening trail, so magical to me as a child, is loathsome slime when it emanates from a slug.

I’m not going to spoil this idyll with a litany of garden pests, but there is one creature whose life is so bound up with the plant it loves that it embodies the old adage, You are what you eat: the tomato hornworm. If I could only erase the traumatic memories of my seven-year war with hornworms in Winchendon, I could see myself taking as much pleasure in their plump succulence, as close to a green tomato as a living being can get, as I did in the progress of snails as a child.

tomato hornworm

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  1. Josna, This was lovely to read. Your descriptions reminded me of Clear Light of Day, especially Tara’s fascination with the snail. It’s true that the slug is not lovable though. I battled them in my garden, but I couldn’t kill them–they were too big and seemed like small animals, so I captured them and transported them to a park. Not terribly logical as I crushed ants and spiders without mercy. I’m finished grading. I hope to have more time for reading your blog.

    • I taught CLD this semester, Maureen, and the students loved it. I find it so touching that you carried the slugs to safety elsewhere! None of us is terribly logical in this regard–I have no compunctions about killing flies and cockroaches, but hesitate when it comes to spiders. Why, you might ask? In part because of a picture book Nikhil had a child called Be Nice to Spiders! (They do eat flies, so it’s handy to have one or two up in a corner somewhere.) Congratulations on having finished your grading! I’m still slogging through mine, and yet I found myself putting it aside to write this story. Not terribly logical either!

  2. Hollyhocks! My father, Josna’s uncle, has some fine specimens of these in his garden from our late Uncle Charlie’s garden, and I have some in mine from Uncle Charile, via my father’s crop !! Exported from The Midlands to Hertfordshire and then back to The Midlands!

    • Jacky, if you send me a photo of them—either Uncle Ted’s or your own third-generation transplants—I can replace the hollyhocks on the blog with them. I love the idea of them traveling from Uncle Charlie to Uncle Ted to you. Who knows where they may travel next (nudge nudge wink wink)? x Jo

  3. Also the flame of the forest trees – i think are the same as the flame trees we had in zimbabwe.They made a wondeful impression there also and we had lovely hibiscus hedges, and also a season of jacaranda trees in blue/purple flower . .

    • I’ve looked them up and am pretty sure that they are the same—originally from Madagascar, but have now taken root around the world. We had hibiscus hedges in India too–so similar, Jacky. I don’t know if I’ve seen jacarandas in bloom, but I keep reading about them in books! They sound beautiful.

  4. I love your childhood attention to plants and small creatures. The flame trees are stunning. I was very much a city/suburban girl: roses, snapdragons (yes!), tulips, forsythia, and hostas in the garden, ants, slugs, worms, bees, spiders, and flies, that’s about it. One of my favorite memories: catching fireflies in our driveway, using glass jars with holes punched into the tin lids. We’d fill a jar to look at it and then let them go. It still feels magical when I see fireflies. Last year, I noticed a few over the big meadow next to the house, but they weren’t as prolific as our little driveway in Cleveland.

    I remain sadly ignorant about plants, recognizing only the common ones around here. The forsythia was out so early this year, due to the oddly warm weather. Yesterday was the most gorgeous day imaginable, so I took a walk along the bike path. There were all sorts of lovely flowering bushes that I couldn’t name. Next time, I’ll take a field guide with me and try to identify them — chip away at that ignorance bit by bit!

    • Fireflies in a jar—now that’s a summer idyll! Never got to do it, though I remember an illustration in a childhood poetry book. It wasn’t until we got to the States that I remember seeing fireflies, at least in large numbers. They remind me of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, especially when one strays into the house of a summer’s night.

      I’m no expert on plant identification, but I like doing it. A classroom teacher when I was seven first took us out to gather wildflowers, then helped us identify them. I still remember some of the names: Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw, Love in a Mist.

  5. Oh, your article reminded me so strongly of the summer holidays (2 months each year!) I and my siblings used to spend at my grandparents’ with a load of cousins, getting up to all sorts of mischief.

    Gulmohar remains one of my favorite trees I grew up watching–last time I went to India they were blooming in abundance, and nothing could have said “welcome home” better for me.

    I still have a hard time remembering the names of all the exotic flowering plants in the U.S, but have no such problems with recollecting all the varieties from back home. Go figure!

    • Thank you for your comment. Those l-o-n-g summers with all the cousins together sound blissful. And yes, just looking at the photographs of the gulmohars seems to bring it all back.

  6. Great pictures! I especially like the tomato hornworm. That was my favourite in India because it was always in the hydrangea bushes!
    I remember collecting some wonderful beetles from the May hedge at our neighbor’s house in Kench’s Trace in Shillong. That is going back – to the 50’s!
    Those beetles had wonderful multi-colored hard shells which turned out to be their outer wings if they flew away!

    Now that we have Sluggo (made with a naturally occurring iron compound) we can get rid of slugs so easily! They eat it voraciously and die quickly and don’t even leave a slime spot!
    What progress!

    • The photo of the tomato hornworm is the only one I took! Wonder what those brilliant and magical beetles in Shillong looked like? I love the way children can appreciate the beauty in what adults merely see as pests. And I know that you’re ruthless when it comes to slugs–I was thinking of you as I wrote that part!

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