So you’ve said a formal adieu to winter with a riotous Holi. But did you rope in your plants into the colour play?
Most of us prefer to keep our inanimate interiors clean and take Holi out to the garden or balcony. From there, it’s a matter of metres and minutes before the celebrations extend to our plants. Lead oxide, copper sulphate, aluminium bromide, mercury sulphite…the inventory of a chemical laboratory comes home on Holi. Most of us know these can cause skin problems and eye trouble, perhaps lead to organ damage and cancer. As awareness spreads, we keep our pets away from chemical colours, but our hapless plants often take a huge annual dose of chemical infusion.
Chemicals that irritate your skin will not lie easy on delicate leaves either. Apart from discoloured leaves, you could be left with wilting plants, and even some that give up the fight. Unfortunately, most of us would not immediately notice the setbacks suffered by the plants, but that only makes the threat insidious, not mild.
Mixed with a base of silica, chalk or the established carcinogen asbestos, the powder colours used during Holi have sharp acids and alkalis, heavy metals and glittering mica or even powdered glass. Oil-based colours are often made with engine oil— something you’d never ordinarily consider spraying on your skin.
Holi hazard: The festival of spring can be a death trap for plants.
Govind Singh, director of the NGO Delhi Greens, says: “There is no denying that the chemical colours, even grease…used in Holi (are) is harmful to one and all. Plants are sensitive to these just as we are and the toxins in these chemicals affect them, especially in the liquid/solution state.”
Actually, it’s a no-win situation: Even if you play with dry colours, chances are the plants were watered before the coloured dust was swept off. And even dry colours coat the leaves, choking the stoma (pores that help the leaves exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen as the plant breathes). Indeed, even if you don’t water them, Singh says, “if the dry colour stays on the leaves too long, the toxins from the chemicals can become available to the plant due to the water vapour in the air”.
It is still more dangerous when the chemical solution percolates down to the roots, from where it is sucked up and distributed all through the plant. This season, give home-grown edibles a miss—be it vegetables, salad greens or even flowers such as nasturtiums and their seed pods (used in salads such as caper berries).
“Prolonged exposure to water with a higher chemical content can also affect flowering,” says Singh.
You might think your garden is safe if you played with organic or natural colours. But the powders can still block stoma and retard photosynthesis. Some organic colours use talcum powder, which also leaches moisture from the plant.
If you haven’t already, dust your plants clean at once. Use a feather or filament duster rather than cloth. Keep the movements light so that the powder falls off, rather than spreading across the surface of the leaf or getting rubbed in. If that doesn’t work, try patting it off the leaves with a damp cloth.
As for the fallout on the ground, most Holi colours are not biodegradable and can sit in the soil for a frightening number of years. To dilute damage, douse the surroundings with water, making sure it drains off neatly and taking care not to drown the roots, especially for plants not fond of water, such as succulents.
Another tip, this one for next year: Castor plants, great absorbers of pollution, are traditionally sacrificed in Holika-burning bonfires. In northern India, they have been planted along riverbanks, sewage lines and garbage dumps. Why not grow them in public spaces and on traffic islands in your neighbourhood? (Not in homes or parks, perhaps—they are poisonous.) Inspired? Local forestry departments and nurseries should be able to help you get hold of some.
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
Write to Benita at firstname.lastname@example.org