As a five-year-old girl, I would look out of the window of the taxi that took me to school each day. We would pass the same area daily, and the view should thus be the same – the city waking up, and its houses, cars, roadsides, gardens, trees. But each day’s thrill was in noticing new things next to the fixed, unmovable ones.
A bird nest I could now see because a big semal tree had dropped its leaves over spring, a dog in a red collar piddling on a wrought iron pole, a vine growing with a profusion of dusty pink flowers in the height of summer. I was too young to know the names of roads, but I delighted in recognizing the same places each day in the big, bad city of Delhi. Between ages five to nine, various flowers impressed themselves on my mind.
The first was the red of a tall tree with spikes on its trunk. The second were the dusty pink flowers, growing like long chains along green, heart-shaped leaves. The flower was all over the New Delhi area, and I noticed it because it rarely grew in gardens. It was usually outside them – twining on walls of abandoned plots, growing along the tops of hedges on the sides of the road, spreading long sprigs of cheerful but muted pinks like a chain-link fence. It seemed to do just fine with neglect – in fact, it seemed to glow with pride at the fact that it could grow outside a garden.
I could tell plants growing outside gardens were tenacious, but I didn’t know the name of this plant. Each year, the vines would spread a bit more, sprinkles of the beautiful, defiant pink more evident. It wasn’t the big buildings that marked my recognition for places, it was the unnamed pink flower.
Years later, I learnt the name of the red flowers on the spiky tree – that was a Semal, an iconic Delhi tree. But the other pink flowers nagged at me – growing in between gaps of photographic memory. Three years ago, I decided to find the vine, though I hadn’t seen it in Delhi recently.
But how do you find something that has no name, with only the picture painted by a young child? Did the flowers really grow like a link of chains? Were the leaves really heart-shaped, or was that my rose-tinted imagination? If the vine grew so much back then, where was it now? Could it even be a foreign species now wiped out?
On a detour after work one day, I went back to the roads near my school. I went through two books on flowering garden vines. I went through close to 500 pictures. Gardens love vines, and there are many to choose from. There is the generous Allamanda, with a broad flower which is yellow or purple. There is the nearly indestructible Morning Glory. There is the Aparajita which grows indigo-coloured flowers shaped like conch shells, and there is the Rangoon creeper which grows clusters of sweet-smelling white flowers that turn to blush pink. I also found the woody creeper currently in favour in Delhi – the crimson-blossomed Clerodendrum, that creates deep arches of flowering, thick vines.
Three days of searching later, I thought I found what I was looking for – Antigonon leptopus, the coral vine, considered a weed in some parts of the world. The vine is from Mexico and grows profusely. It doesn’t care for nourishment or mulching or how much dust falls on it – which explains how the vines escaped from and thrived outside watered gardens.
The day I found the name, I went to a nursery to buy a coral vine. Three nurseries I visited didn’t have it. It was a long search, but I finally got the plant from an online store, tiny things arriving in duct-taped cardboard boxes. I was confident the plants would thrive on a dose of neglect and careful tending. I had bought two plants, for two sections of the house, facing morning and evening light each. Initially, the plants threw out long tendrils, which grew into woody sections, the leaves swelling in size almost daily. I moved the plants to the direct sun, where I had seen them grow without flinching, as a little girl.
Abruptly, the leaves dried up and fell off. The brown, woody stems looked dead. Where was the hardy plant I remembered?
I moved the plants back to the shade, unwilling to plant anything else in the pots, watering occasionally. Nothing stirred in the pots. But weeks later, after the worst of the summer loo had passed, new leaves emerged. For nearly three years, the vines grew in size, but would also shed all their leaves and look dead each time the plants were stressed. I finally understood what the young vines needed – they had to keep their roots in shaded moisture and their leaves fully exposed to the sun. They were like little girls in a sheltered taxi, with their heads popping out of the window, looking out at the world.
Yesterday, the coral vine flowered for the first time. This wasn’t the wild profusion of the vines growing in dusty Delhi streets, filling the eyes with pinks. This was a careful, raw-looking bud, with just two flowers looking out. Not as dusty a pink as I remembered – perhaps because monsoon imbued a colour saturation, or perhaps because I can’t replicate the roadside neglect of the vines I saw.
But it felt like victory. The sweetest kind. Perhaps one day the vine would flower enough for birds and butterflies to drink its nectar and nest in its eaves. For now, it was enough that in the absence of a real name or photograph, something could be pursued and almost birthed into existence. And what was a weed for some, was a tenacious reminder of freewill for another. The shining determination of never staying in pots, but walking like a wandering, curious child all over the city. I have learnt Antigonon leptopus is one of the best sources of food for bees.
A little bit of childhood meant a garden that could not be strolled into again, but was brought alive by an old memory, a newly learnt scientific name, and two tiny flowers. I’m no longer five, but the coral vine remains just as magical.
This first appeared in my Slow column here.