Episode 14: The Secret Life of Plants

National Geographic Explorer Nirupa Rao marries art and science to catalog and capture the magic of the unique flora of India’s Western Ghats.

In her studio in Bangalore, India, Rao mixes her own watercolor paints and illustrates plants based off her field sketches or reference photographs. She can finish a typical illustration in one week.
Illustration and desk by Nirupa Rao

How do you capture the image of a 150-foot-tall tree in the middle of a dense rainforest? If you’re National Geographic Explorer Nirupa Rao, you pull out your paints. Rao draws from the centuries-old practice of botanical illustration to catalog and celebrate native plant life of the southern Indian rainforest, introducing new audiences to the wonders they hold.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music. 


PETER GWIN (HOST): I’m looking at what you might call a classic National Geographic image. It’s a scene of one of the rainiest places on Earth, and it’s monsoon season. It’s somewhere deep in a rainforest. There’s a lush tapestry of thin, brown tree trunks and rich green leaves rising out of a swamp. Sunlight filters through a white, misty haze, and I see two monkeys perched on a tree, looking right at me.

This scene is set in a tropical rainforest called the Western Ghats in southern India. And since we’re National Geographic, you might assume this image is a photograph. But it’s not. It’s a watercolor painting made by Nirupa Rao. 

NIRUPA RAO (ILLUSTRATOR): I've been to the Western Ghats, like, practically every holiday since I was a kid. 

GWIN: Nirupa is a National Geographic Explorer and an artist who specializes in botanical illustrations—drawings and paintings of plants. She hiked to this swamp with a botanist named Siddarth, who also happens to be her cousin. In Nirupa’s painting, the swamp looks serene. But in reality, it’s a habitat for one of the deadliest snakes on the planet: the king cobra. 

RAO: To reach the swamp we had to trek through waist-high water and there were leeches everywhere. There was a leech in my eye at one point, and Siddarth very casually told me that, “Oh, you have something in your eye. Let me just take that out for you.” Um… 

GWIN: Oh man. You’re not selling this.

RAO: Yeah.  

GWIN: (to Rao) So water up your waist, leeches in your eyes, and king cobras lurking everywhere. Sounds like a great vacation.

The Ghats are one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots. The mountains here are older than the Himalayas. About one in six of the world’s tigers live here plus almost a third of Asian elephants. And there are animals you might not even know about, like the gaur, also called the Indian bison. It’s a huge, muscular type of cattle with U-shaped horns.

And the Ghats are also home to something like 5,000 different plant species. And for the plant lover, this cobra-infested swamp is actually a gold mine. The dominant tree here belongs to the Myristica genus. That’s the same genus as nutmeg. And these swamps are known as Myristica swamps. The stands are so dense that when Nirupa and Siddarth look down, all the roots seem to fuse into a single, tangled knot. 

RAO: Wait, wait, wait. Show me. So the root tree could be—

SIDDARTH MACHADO (BOTANIST): Could be that big one. There’s two trees. So actually you probably won’t be able to figure out exactly which tree these roots are from. 

RAO: Yeah. 

MACHADO: There could be several such … (fades out)

GWIN: Those gnarly roots lift up the trees, like stilts, which is actually a crucial adaptation for soft, swampy soil. Nirupa says the rainforest is full of little innovations like this. Sometimes they’re wily. Sometimes they’re beautiful. But each one shows just how clever plant life can be. 

RAO: People tend to see plants as boring because they are, you know, fixed in the soil, they can't really move, and then they're not anthropomorphic in any way like animals are. We can't really relate to them. But in a way you could think of that rootedness as a source of creativity or ingenuity because they have to resort to all of these pretty out-there methods to achieve whatever they want. 

GWIN: To make that world come to life and reveal its many surprises, Nirupa paints it in vivid, painstaking detail. What emerges is a rainforest where plants can take on many different guises. They can be parasites. They can be carnivores. And they can even be cold-blooded killers. 

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

You may think National Geographic is all about photographs. Well, we’ve also hired artists to bring the world to life for more than a hundred years. For Earth Day we honor that tradition by exploring the hidden kingdom of plants with an adventurous painter who brings it all to life. We’ll hear about the family botanical legacy that inspires Nirupa and why—in a world dominated by 4K video—handmade illustrations still have plenty to teach us. 

More after the break.

OK, let’s play a little game. Next time you’re in a car and you stop at a red light, look out the window. In the traffic around you, how many different cars can you name? I bet you know most of them: VW slug bug, a Tesla, ‘78 Trans Am with the T-tops, anyone?

OK, now forget the cars. Let’s play again. This time, focus on the trees along the road. How many species of those can you name? How about the flowers or grasses you see? Can you name any of those? Yeah, I’m gonna guess that round two was harder. I actually played this with my kids. They failed horribly. I’m a bad parent. But the good news is, it’s not just me. According to some researchers, many of us modern humans suffer from a syndrome called plant blindness. 

RAO: There's no way that our eyes can digest everything that's in front of us, and consequently because—in the modern day, we tend to view plants as extraneous. We filter them out and we just—we simply don't notice them.

GWIN: These days, plants need us more than ever. The Western Ghats alone have more than 200 threatened plant species, and around the world tens of thousands of plant species are at risk of disappearing forever. So there’s this disconnect between humans and plants at this crucial moment. We need someone who can help us bridge that gap and remind us how much humans and plants need each other. And that’s where Nirupa Rao comes in.

RAO: I mean, everyone draws when they're a kid, and I just never stopped.

GWIN: Nirupa grew up in Bangalore. It’s a booming city of more than 12 million people in southern India. But it’s nicknamed the Garden City of India, and it’s near the Western Ghats. Even though Nirupa doesn’t have formal botany training, botany runs in her family. It all started with her great uncle Cecil. 

RAO: My mum's uncle, Reverend Cecil Saldanha—he was a botanist and he was the first to document the flora of our home state, Karnataka. 

MACHADO: And I'm not sure if you've spoken to Nirupa already, and she might have brought up the fact that we had an uncle botanist.  

GWIN: This is Siddarth Machado. He also has the botany gene. He’s working on his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, and he’s Nirupa’s cousin who took her into the swamp earlier. Growing up, Siddarth vaguely knew his great uncle Cecil, who was a Catholic priest. And Uncle Cecil would show up to family events, like weddings and funerals.  

MACHADO: And I just knew him as the priest. He did my—he said the Mass for my sister's first Holy Communion.

GWIN: Father Cecil died when Siddarth and Nirupa were still pretty young. But once Siddarth got to college, he realized there was a lot he didn’t know about his great uncle.  

MACHADO: I was in the botany department of the university, which—he actually founded that botany department. And I was doing a taxonomy class, and they were like, There's this priest who's done some pioneering work for the state. And he said, Father Cecil Saldanha, and I'm like, Oh my God, that's my uncle! And that's literally when it clicked. And I was like, Wow, I have not known this person at all. 

GWIN: On top of being a priest, Father Cecil was a botanist. And not just any botanist. Starting in the 1960s, he led expeditions into the Western Ghats to catalog plants. With the help of a Smithsonian grant, he published a definitive botany textbook—one that set a new standard for research in his and Nirupa’s home state.

RAO: My mom kind of witnessed this whole thing unfolding, and so she would tell me all of these stories of, you know, these scientists coming in from the Smithsonian and the local collaborators and the team of field workers who’d go out on these exploratory hunts and stuff, and, you know, it just seemed so exciting and adventurous.

GWIN: So because your family has this sort of, you know, legacy of botany, do you feel any pressure to live up to this? Was there any sort of—I mean, did that sort of have any sort of effect on you going into this direction, botany?

RAO: Well I'm a botanical artist who's studied neither botany nor art, so I think the pressure is off. (laughs)

GWIN: Nirupa and Siddarth wanted to keep their great uncle’s legacy alive, so starting in 2016 they teamed up. According to Siddarth, the details in Nirupa’s illustrations have a way of capturing people’s imaginations. 

MACHADO: You're drawn into it because you just realize there's so much effort that's gone into creating this picture. And then it makes you more interested about why would you take the effort—to put so much effort in to make something so beautiful? So I think that way, illustrations are just way more powerful than any photograph could be. 

GWIN: And on top of that, sometimes Nirupa’s brush can depict things that photos just can’t. Coming up, we’ll explain how she captures trees practically impossible to photograph and what made her set up her sketchpad in the middle of a busy road. 

More after the break.

Before she worked with Siddarth, Nirupa showed the power of her paintbrush in a book called Pillars of Life. It focused on trees in the Ghats.

RAO: Most of these trees are really, really tall. So they may be, like, 140 feet tall.

GWIN: A hundred and forty feet—that’s about the same as a 14-story building. These were a type of tree called wild durian. To see the whole thing in a camera lens, you’d have to stand pretty far away. But in the rainforest, that tree is surrounded by other trees and plants, so without cutting down a huge swath of forest there’s really no way to photograph only the tree by itself. 

RAO: But with illustration, we could, you know, even combine different specimen of the same species, or we could, you know, study the buttress up close, or climb up a hill and see the crown rising above the canopy. 

GWIN: Actually, getting the right vantage point is an art unto itself. As she was scoping out one of these wild durian trees, Nirupa realized the best angle came from a road median, smack in the middle of two lanes of traffic. So Nirupa grabbed her sketchpad and a little desk, and she set up shop right there in the middle of the road. 

RAO: Believe me, like in a rainforest, you'll take what you can get, right? If you find that vantage point, you’re just going to accept it regardless of how inconvenient it is. So it's just a little stool and a sketchpad and someone standing over with an umbrella, and it gives, like, a whole new meaning to the term “desk job,” I think. But also very amusing for these school kids who are just like, What is this girl doing?

GWIN: Nirupa says the stories about her great uncle Cecil taught her to treat plants as a source of adventure. The Western Ghats are definitely an adventurous place. According to Siddarth, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the forest can be really disorienting. 

MACHADO: So I'm not sure if you've ever been to a rainforest, but if you do have the fortune to go there, it's incredibly loud. 

(Sound of Western Ghats rainforest)

MACHADO: So the first time I really did get to see the forest was—I finished my master's degree and I was just starting my first research project. And I thought I knew plants back then. And when I entered the rainforest, it was very overwhelming. I didn't know what was what, and everything was just green. You sometimes don't even see flowers because it's—like, you know, rainforest flower trees that many of them may have tiny flowers—it's just green leaves. So it's very hard to make sense of things. 

GWIN: An untrained eye can also miss out on how ingenious some of that plant life is. It’s easy to picture plants as stuck in one place, never changing. But Nirupa wanted to show how creative they can be. She and Siddarth named their project Hidden Kingdom.   

RAO: It's this whole kingdom of plants that's hidden in plain sight. The idea was to tell people that all around us, we do have all of these amazing plants, and you don't need to only think of the Amazon or something as this cool place. We have it all around us.

GWIN: Some of the plant adaptations you find in the Ghats are almost otherworldly. You’ve probably heard of the venus flytrap—y’know, the plant that eats insects. Well the Ghats have their own carnivorous plant. It’s called the sundew. It looks like it has fresh dew drops on the end of its leaves. But those are actually balls of sticky mucus that trap its prey. 

There’s also a plant that behaves like a parasite. It’s called a ghost orchid. Unlike almost all other plant life, it doesn’t need sunlight. In fact, it doesn’t even have chlorophyll, the lifeblood for most plants. So instead of green, most of the plant is a pale, ghostly white, and it forms a symbiotic relationship with certain fungi to steal nutrients from other plants. 

And then there’s a plant that’s really ruthless: the strangler fig, which is in the ficus family. From the moment they sprout, strangler figs are competing with other trees around them for sunlight, food, and water. And since mature trees have tall trunks and deep roots, the fig saplings don’t have much of a chance. 

RAO: It would take a long time for a young ficus sapling to grow to the top of the canopy and reach the sunlight. 

GWIN: So strangler figs figured out a cunning shortcut. Their seeds are dispersed by birds. But instead of falling all the way to the ground, the seeds nestle in the upper branches of mature trees, and the strangler fig will start growing right there on the other tree’s branch.

RAO: It’ll send its shoots up to the sky and its roots down to the ground and all the while sort of strangling the host tree, often to death. And that's why it's called the strangler fig. 

GWIN: Even though the strangler fig is brutal, it’s also an important part of the ecosystem. Sometimes the host tree rots away. And that leaves behind a hollowed-out trunk, which turns out to make a good home for animals. 

RAO: So I wanted to show how dense the foliage was around the tree, and the strangler fig is kind of depicted from an angle, like as if you're looking down from the ground up at it and the stangler sort of reaching up, like a hand grasping for the sunlight. 

(Sound of Rao sketching)

GWIN: In Nirupa’s illustration, the strangler fig is triumphant. The fig is completely overtaking its host tree. There are knotty branches stretched out at the top of the canopy and a clutch of leaves from other plants on the forest floor. In the epic struggle of survival of the fittest, this strangler fig came out on top.

RAO: So yeah, I wanted to make it really dramatic like that. And oh my God, my hands after that were killing me because I was doing all of these tiny, tiny details. 

GWIN: The strangler fig strangled your—strangled you, it sounds like.  

RAO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

GWIN: With each painting she makes, Nirupa carries on a rich legacy of Indian botanical art. She points to one Indian painter in particular. His name was Mansur. In the 1600s, the Mughal emperor commissioned Mansur to paint all kinds of wildlife. Mansur made one of the most accurate paintings of the dodo bird before it went extinct, and he’s said to have painted more than a hundred types of flowers in Kashmir, although only one of those paintings survives. 

(Sound of paper rustling)

At her home studio in Bangalore, Nirupa works on her next batch of paintings.

RAO: And now I'm going to start painting, starting with the trunk.

GWIN: During her field excursions, she only draws quick sketches. Her studio—complete with traffic and bird sounds wafting through the windows—is where everything comes together. 

RAO: So I’m using a combination of that original rough sketch that I did, in which I sort of noted all of the important aspects that I wanted to capture in the final painting, and then I'm using some photographic references as well. 

GWIN: Each painting takes Nirupa at least a week, and the process includes mixing all her own watercolors. For one recent painting, her palette had eight different hues of green and five shades of brown. Nirupa focuses as she paints a tree with big, leathery leaves. 

RAO: I think this might be a quicker painting. I don't have to paint, like, thousands of tiny, tiny leaves.

(Sound of paints and paintbrush clinking)

GWIN: But painting those tiny details? It’s worth it. Nirupa says illustrations have a way of making people not just aware of the plants around them but actually proud of them. 

RAO: I recall when I was printing one of my books that a lot of the guys who were operating the machinery—they came from the rural areas. And as each page came out of the machine, they would gather round to discuss how they'd seen that tree in their village. And they would be talking about which birds come to that tree, which fruit they like. And it was just, like, really cute to see them discussing all of these things together. 

GWIN: And that’s really her mission. To make us stop what we’re doing and look at plants for the amazing miracle each one really is.

RAO: I mean, that's what art is about in general, right? It sort of celebrates what we otherwise might take for granted.

GWIN: Hey, if you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s really the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

This Earth Day, celebrate our planet's beautiful, remote, and at-risk locations. Journey around the world to discover these environmentally precious places, meet the explorers dedicated to protecting them, and learn about the restoration initiatives to ensure their future.

Also, check out our show notes to see Nirupa’s paintings for yourself. She’s on Instagram @niruparao, and she’s always posting new work. 

We also have links to more stories about rainforests and the Western Ghats. Mountains in the Western Ghats are sometimes called sky islands. Each mountaintop is its own ecosystem, and that leads to incredible biodiversity. National Geographic Explorer Prasenjeet Yadav photographed these sky islands and how they let scientists see evolution in action.

You can find all that and more in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app. 


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Jacob Pinter.

Our producers are Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson. 

Our senior producer is Brian Gutierrez. 

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. 

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. 

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode. 

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. 

Our photo editor is Julie Hau. 

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Nirupa Rao. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

This Earth Day, celebrate our planet’s beautiful, remote, and at-risk locations—and meet the explorers protecting them—at natgeo.com

See Nirupa’s illustrations on Instagram, @niruparao. And check out her books Hidden Kingdom and Pillars of Life

“Sky islands” in the Western Ghats host an almost unbelievable array of microclimates—and a chance for scientists to see evolution in action. 

King cobras, which live in the Western Ghats, can "stand up" and look a full-grown person in the eye. Fortunately, they avoid humans whenever possible.

Also explore:

Rainforests have an unsung hero that keeps the forest healthy and functional: termites. Also, National Geographic’s resident artist, Fernando Baptista, brings stories to life by sculpting clay models, then using them for a drawing or stop-motion film. 

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.