Posted by: cochinblogger | February 20, 2019

The Name of the Rose

I sat at the table, trying to read the face of the bank manager seated opposite me as he spoke on the phone. What was his mood like? He seemed alright. There were no telltale signs of tension that I could spot. I was apprehensive because the purpose of my visit was unusual. I had a question to ask him about his bank that had nothing to do with banking. I had entered his room tentatively, had smiled my greeting, had been invited to take a seat. And here I was.

He put down the phone and looked at me inquiringly. I cleared my throat and arranged my face into what I hoped was a disarming smile. "Err … I've come to ask about a plant growing in your compound." He looked at me quizzically. "It has bright orange flowers. Would you happen to know its name?" He took it well. "Hmmm … some plants were sent over by the regional office for the inauguration. I will have to check with them. But let me see which plant you're talking about." He rose (pun unintended!) from his chair, and I accompanied him outside. The plant had grown over the wall, and the branches peeped out into the street. They were studded with brightly colored orange flowers that looked strangely artificial, as though a skilled craftsman had fashioned them out of wax. The manager took in the scene for a full minute. Finally, he said "I will write to the office and ask them. Give me a couple of weeks. " I thanked him and left, happy.

To identify plants and trees, I have several resources that usually get the job done: Kehimkar's Common Indian Wild Flowers, Karthikeyan's Discover Avenue Trees, and Srinivasa's Discover Garden Climbers. There is the wonderful Flowers of India website, where one can browse flowers by color. There is Google Search by Image. There are nature forums where one can post a photo and request an identification. And last but not least, there are knowledgeable friends to consult. I'm never in a hurry. There is pleasure in lingering over the problem, and I enjoy the thrill of the chase. In this case, for my orange flower, Google Search by Image turned up the name of a variety of rose. It looked similar, but I needed confirmation. Hence, the visit to the bank.

A few days later, at a family gathering, I met a horticulturist. This was too good an opportunity to miss. I pulled out my phone and showed her the orange flower. "Oh, that's a cactus flower," she said. A cactus? Those spiny plants that grow in the desert? I couldn't think of a less likely candidate. My plant looked nothing like a cactus; it was a right proper shrub, luxuriant, with spreading branches bearing leaves and flowers. "Isn't it a rose?" I asked.

"A rose?? Does it look like a rose? Did you notice the leaves? That's not a rose. It's a cactus flower. I don't remember the name. Give me a few minutes." She reached for her phone, and a little later, I had my identification: Rose Cactus (Pereskia bleo). "So, there is a rose in the name," I observed. She was not amused.

Later, I examined the shrub more closely and saw spines on the thick, dark green branches. They were more blunt projections, bony knobs, than true spines and were easy to miss from a distance. A strange plant, this. It was a cactus alright, but it certainly didn't look like one. I learned that it is one of the oldest cactus species, which is why it has true leaves. In later cactus species, the leaves became modified to spines. The home of the Rose Cactus is not the desert but the jungles of Central America, and I could imagine a brilliantly plumaged bird perched on its branches.

Two weeks later, I dropped in at the bank. I had my identification, but I was curious about what the bank manager might have found. As before, he was alone in his room, talking on the phone. I entered and tried to catch his eye. He was frowning as he spoke, looking out of the window. It seemed to be a tense conversation. I began to back out of the room, when he put the phone down and noticed me. For a moment he looked at me blankly. "Ah!" he said. "I wrote to them, but there was no reply." He turned to a letter lying on the table. The frown reappeared on his face. I hesitated. Should I tell him what I had discovered? He had picked up a pen and was writing rapidly.

I turned around and left the room, a little sad — for he would never know the name of the rose.

Photo: Close-up of an orange Rose Cactus (aka Leaf Cactus). The inset (extreme right) shows the knobbly branches.

Scientific name: Pereskia bleo

Where to see it: (1) Rama Varma club, near the entrance. This specimen is in its prime. (2) Maharaja's Stadium, M.G. Road entrance, near the metro station. Enter and turn right. You will see several juvenile plants.

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