The Wildlife of Richards Town 3

Common Jezebel — Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

I am fortunate to live in Richards Town, a locality in Bangalore that has a good density of trees and relatively open spaces. The residents share this area with members of the animal kingdom on whose lives they have a direct impact. It is up to the residents to decide if this impact is to be positive or negative. The first step, of course is to be aware of our wild residents. In this series I present to you the wild residents of Richards Town.

The Common Jezebel

As mentioned earlier the Lantana bush on Cookson Road in Richards Town attracts a lot of butterflies and one of the most colourful of which happens to be the Common Jezebel.

The Common Jezebel Delias eucharis belongs to the family Pierdae which has among its members some of the most familiar of butterflies. The name butterfly is derived from members of this family which are predominantly White and Yellow and are thus also known as “Whites and Yellows “. Butter (butter like wing colour) and Fly.

The Pierdae is one of the smaller butterfly families in India, only 109 species of this family are found here. This is only 7.26% of the total number of butterfly species found in India. They are found in all types of habitats from arid grasslands to thick wet evergreen forests. Most of them fly close to the ground at the level of shrubs where their food, nectar, is most abundant. Every rule has an exception and in this case it is The Common Jezebel which can also be found flying among the tree tops in the tallest of forests.

The Common Jezebel has a wingspan of 66–83 mm and the upper side of its wings is white. It has bright yellow underside with black veins and a series of orange red spots on the margins. The females are more heavily marked than the males. It is one of the most prominent butterflies that visit city gardens. The Common Jezebel is found only in the Indian sub-continent but is quite common wherever it is found.

The Common Jezebel prefers to be in the canopy of trees but comes down to feed on flowers and shrubs. Nectar from flowers being the only nourishment it relishes. It is assumed that because of this behavior pattern, it has evolved a dull upper side and a brilliant underside so that birds below it recognise it immediately while in flight and at rest. Its bright colouration is a signal to predators that it is unpalatable. The Common Jezebel has unpalatable alkaloids in its body tissue which are accumulated by the larvae from the host-plants. Because of this protection it usually flies in a very leisurely manner. This does not mean that it cannot travel long distances at a stretch.

The Common Jezebel is at its most active during noon and afternoon. During the morning they can be seen basking on outstretched branches of tall trees with closed wings. They bask with closed wings as all the dark markings which absorb heat to warm their bodies are on the underside of their wings. With their wings closed these dark markings are exposed to the sun.

The Common Jezebel lays eggs in batches instead of singly. This is quite unlike the other members of its family. Each batch consists of ten to twenty eggs and is usually laid on the underside of leaves. They are oval, shiny and bright yellow in colour. The eggs of each batch hatch simultaneously and the caterpillars stay together in a disciplined fashion. The caterpillars first make a meal of their eggshell and wander off to the nearest leaf-margin where they devour the leaf, side by side, and then move on to the next one .However each caterpillar has a different growth rate and thus pupation does not happen at the same time and therefore the butterflies emerge over a period of time.

The host plants of the Common Jezebel are various species of plant parasites. They belong to the showy mistletoe family. They are small hanging shrubs that grow on branches of trees. These plants grow strongly on ageing trees particularly somewhere in the middle of old branches. One of them is the Honey Suckle Mistletoe Dendrophthoe falcate or Badanike in Kannada.

The Temple Tree — Frangipani

Trees, plants and shrubs are all important parts of the urban ecosystem. Without them there would be very little urban wildlife. It is impossible to separate the animal from its habitat and Bangalore has the privilege of having many varieties of flowering and non flowering trees. These trees comprise of both native and non native species that were introduced into Bangalore. Some of these non native trees have been in India for long that we take them to be native, some have adapted and flourished so well that we now call them ‘naturalised’.

The Frangipani , Champa or Temple Tree Plumeria sp is one such tree that was introduced into India. It originates from the warmer parts of America, Jamaica, Guatemala and Mexico. It has been cultivated in India for ages and has acquired local names in different parts of the country. It has even been assimilated into the myths and religious beliefs of our country.

The name Plumeria is from the French traveler and botanist Charles Plumier, there are thirty one identified types of this tree but the commonest of these are the P.alba and P.rubra.

It is a medium sized, deciduous tree with a smooth grey coloured bark. When the bark is pierced a white milky fluid oozes out. This milky substance gives it a few of its common names — Frangipani which is derived from the French word for coagulated milk and the Sanskrit name Kshirachampa which translates as the Milky Champa.

During the leafless phase the tree looks pale, ugly and gouty. But once it flowers it is transformed into one of the most beautiful of trees. The leaves are large, about a foot long, and are tapered or rounded at the end depending on the variety. They grow in spirals at the end of branches. The flowers appear in the middle of the leaf clusters. They are five petaled large and waxy. Of the two commonest varieties in India — the Alba is white with a yellow centre and the Rubra is deep pink with white petals. The flower was the favourite of the Emperor Jahangir who describes it as “a flower of increasingly sweet fragrance, it has the shape of a saffron flower but is yellow inclining to white. The tree is very symmetrical and large, full of branches and is shady. When in flower one tree will perfume a garden”

The tree has the ability to bloom even after being uprooted. Because of this ability it has become a symbol of immortality and is planted by both Buddhists and Muslims next to the tombs of their dead. One of its common names is the Graveyard Tree. Due to it being a symbol of immortality the wood of the tree is used by Buddhists to carve the image of the Buddha.

In Hinduism it is considered to be one of the holiest of trees and is planted near temples (hence the common name the Temple Tree). The flowers of the tree are offered to the gods. It is sacred to Kamadeva the God of Love and it is considered inauspicious to cut it.

The tree is used widely by man, a perfume is distilled from its leaves, the root- bark is a strong purgative, and the milky juice is used in the treatment of rheumatism and skin diseases by mixing it with coconut oil. The bark is used in the treatment of diarrhea.

There is a legend associated with this tree. Long ago there was a King with two wives. The older wife was unable to bear children and conspired to kill all the children borne by the younger wife. She substituted a monkey for the new born children and over the years seven sons and a daughter met the same fate. All of them were buried outside the palace wall and the younger queen was banished from the palace.

As the years passed seven handsome trees with beautiful fragrant flowers grew outside the palace walls, along with these seven there was one smaller, delicate tree. The fame of the trees grew within the kingdom and it was quoted that only the younger queen could pluck their flowers. The King heard about this and asked his gardener to bring him some flowers. When the gardener returned empty handed the King along with the older Queen went to see them. As the older Queen approached the branches of the trees drew back sharply and the cry Murderer was heard. Astounded the King went up to the trees and their leaves nuzzled his face and they asked him to bring their mother to them. When the King enquired about their mother he was told the truth. The older Queen was banished from the kingdom and the younger Queen reinstated. The trees were brought up as their children. The large tree was the Champa and the delicate one Parul.

I wrote this series for our neighbourhood newspaper ‘In & Around Richard’s Town’. While they were written almost ten years ago they still remain relevant today.

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Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa

Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.