Once you’ve noticed them, you’ll realise that they are everywhere. They will make you fall in love with their kind. You brush past them on walks, glance right through them on commutes, taking their life-giving presence for granted. We’re referring, of course, to the many plants and animals that call our city pavements and waysides home.
Fig saplings peek out and grow through the concrete, wild grasses sway life into tarmac and tiles, pollinators buzz with the morning traffic, and spiders settle down for meals on street-side strips of greenery. Our tropical metropolises are cradles of life for a rich diversity of animals that live alongside humans. Despite our best efforts to create walls of concrete and steel between the natural world and us, nature unfailingly finds a way to remind us that we are a part of it — part of its design, process, and beauty. We are just one among many forms of life that exist on this planet and together we form an intricate ecological tapestry. From time-to-time, it behoves us to take a step back and admire some of the threads of this tapestry, as they peek out of cracks and crevices.
The pavements along city roads in India are more than mere paths for human feet. Delightfully, nature has a way of finding its footing in these spaces. In its own quirky way, it makes the rapidly concretising and bustling Indian cities and towns a little bit more bearable and down-to-earth. Colourful and not-so-colourful small flowers, herbs, shrubs, creepers, and grasses reach up through our pavements and paint a stroke of green through the grey of the city.
Stop for a moment to observe the unfussy Calotropis gigantea, Leucas aspera, and Nerium oleander shrubs growing effortlessly on waysides and open plots of land, and you will spot a mind-boggling diversity of organisms. Praying mantids peeking in and out of flowers and grasshoppers lazing around. Always-in-a-hurry ladybird beetles and ants march up and down stems coaxing their aphid collaborators to provide “honeydew” in return for keeping them safe from predators. These plants are also busy with buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies — all important pollinators for them. The flowers of C. gigantea are considered by many to be a personal favourite of Lord Shiva and offered in prayers to Lord Ganesha, which is why the plant is often spared the slash and chop that other “unwanted” plants face growing naturally on sidewalks.
There is a rich diversity of plants on our pavements and waysides, and they set the stage for examining some incredible animal behaviours and interactions. As “spider evangelists”, our journey to awareness and love for the natural world around us is a familiar one. When we combed the streets of Bangalore for non-human life, delightful spiders greeted us. We amused and unwittingly stressed the humans in the street as we gracefully lay on the pavement for pictures. We watched a female jumping spider (Telamoni a dimidiata) chomp down a more diminutive jumping spider (Rhene) we’d spotted earlier. Several metres away, a male T. dimidiata slowly relished a freshly caught moth. An ant-mimicking praying mantis scuttled away when we got too close for comfort. We even met the apex copycat — the aggressive ant-mimicking spider assassin Amyciaea forticeps, that had just captured a weaver ant for brunch.
Vacant plots of land, we found, are often taken over by “weeds”, invasive species like Lantana camara, Parthenium, and various creepers, much to the confusion and contempt of two highly invested groups — ecologists and native plants. It is worth noting that the catastrophic ecological effects of invasive species like Lantana are a result of human dispersal. However, many species of birds and insects feed on the fruits of such invasive plants, while other birds and butterflies come to their flowers for nectar.
Unfortunately, the term “weed” extends beyond invasive species to native ones that simply grow wild, unfettered, and free. When native plants are dubbed “weeds”, they are unapologetically uprooted to make way for garden varieties. Amidst a growing awareness and sentiment to move away from trying to domesticate our natural environment, a lot is being written about how the term “weeds” is problematic. Many groups around the world are now documenting the wild “weeds” and vegetation that grow when streets and waysides are left alone or not heavily sprayed with weedicide. Wild vegetation allows for complexity and layers of habitats and ecological niches. This in turn harbours a diversity of organisms that visit, hunt, and take up residence in these niches.
As our country rapidly urbanises, chasing the carrot of economic development, it is important to recognise and understand the delicately complex ecosystems that concrete cities are built on. Glorious wild native grasses, shrubs, herbs, and creepers that are important natural habitat types for biodiversity are routinely slashed to make way for more exotic manicured lawns and topiary trained trees. These new-age “green spaces” that have mushroomed in our IT offices and neighbourhoods include water-hungry lawns and pretty-to-look-at but ecologically non-functional flowering shrubs. They are regimentally trimmed, weeded, and sprayed with insecticide to fit the narrative of “well kept” urban greenery. “Do not step on the lawn” signs seem to be symbolically applicable to all forms of life in these spaces.
The road ahead for native vegetation and animals in our cities could be one paved with ecological common-sense, tolerance and mutual respect. At a broader level, perhaps we could set aside open plots or strips of land in our residential localities, gated communities, complexes, and malls for wild plants to root and flourish. Allowing a variety of different native plants to thrive on waysides will naturally attract rich local biodiversity. Dedicated strips filled with wild plants running beside our walking spaces can transform otherwise drab roads. Residential colonies could turn small spaces around houses, street corners, and even parapets into delightful refuges for nature. Much of this flora and fauna is already trying to reach us through the cracks, nooks, and crannies in our streets.