God’s Own Gardeners

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Where does the rainforest end and the garden begin?” asks Suprabha Seshan rhetorically, wending her way up a leaf-littered trail through a dense patch of forest. On the slope above her shrubs, trees and ferns vie for space, edging each other out in their rush to capture sunlight. In the dappled shade below, orchids and ferns grow precariously on tree trunks, their delicate flowers adding the finishing touches to this three-dimensional forest garden.
A few decades ago, this patch of land in the Nilgiri mountain range of the Western Ghats of Kerala was barren. Like in other parts of the Ghats, the evergreen forests of this area had been cleared to make way for plantations of tea, cardamom, coffee and ginger.
Cultivation and increasing population pressure have been edging out the region’s endemic inhabitants — 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 species of mammals, 508 species of birds and 179 amphibian species — which make this one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Less than 10 percent of the Ghats’ forests remain intact.
It has taken the gardeners and botanists of the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary more than 30 years of pain – staking work to nurse back this patch of forest to a point where the inklings of the original forests have started appearing. “It would take at least 150 years for an ‘original’ forest to grow back,” says Wolfgang Theuerkauf, 65, a reticent German who set up the sanctuary in 1981, “but even in 15 years some trees have reached a girth of 0.75 m.”
The sanctuary, a 63-acre ‘forest garden’ and refuge for the beleaguered plants of this region, is an experiment in ‘restoration ecology’, the art of recreating the immense complexity and diversity of lost forests. Here in Gurukula, a small team of 10 residents has created a microcosm of the Ghats, which now harbours over 2,000 species of orchids, ferns and trees — more than a third of the total found in the Western Ghats. “The challenge,” says Seshan, 46, director of the sanctuary, “is to compress the diversity of 1,200 sq km into this space.”
Of the sanctuary’s total area, 40 acres have been set aside to regenerate without any intervention, except for the occasional removal of invasive species. Paddy fields and vegetable patches that cater to the residents occupy a little over an acre. A small section centred on an airy, tile-roofed dining area contains greenhouses and display areas for endemic and exotic species. This area is the sanctuary’s ‘school in the forest’, to which thousands of children from schools in the district and researchers working on projects come to learn about the shapes and habits of plants. The plants here come from across the world — there are orchids from the Philippines and ferns found in the Amazon.
A whole row of staghorn ferns, with their majestic green antlers sprouting upwards, hangs like trophies from rectangular boards of bark suspended in front of the dining area. These, Seshan points out, are epiphytic, growing on trees, but collecting their nourishment from their surroundings (rather than the host). In the case of the staghorn ferns, this comes in the form of leaves that fall into a tiny basket that the plant has at its base. The humus that forms when the leaves rot is what the fern lives off.
The nursery for orchids is similarly festooned with orchids from all across the country. An emerald green Malabar pit viper lies camouflaged around the moist base of a Dendrobium barbatulum, an orchid native to the Ghats. For a fleeting moment, the violet spots on the cupped part of the orchid’s white flower look like the head of another concealed snake. “It’s poisonous but not lethal,” Seshan says walking calmly by, “we always find a couple here.”
A massive sheltered bench in the nursery is devoted to carnivorous plants — there are pitcher plants, some with large deep pitchers, others with small curved ones. Some have lids that keep water and debris from falling into the pitchers; others seem to have dispensed with them. Alongside them sits a line of sundews, delicate-looking plants that trap insects in a glutinous liquid that coats their leaves.
The sanctuary now has 600 species of orchids, of which 300 are from southern India and 100 are endemic to the Ghats.
But the heart of Gurukula’s experiment lies in a five-acre patch. Here every single tree, every fern and flower, every shrub, is meticulously tended to and documented. The habits of species here — the amount of water they need, the level of shade or sunlight they grow best in, how wind exposure affects them, and their growth trajectories — are monitored.
Here the gardeners have introduced orchids and ferns onto trees, securing them with string to tree trunks, till they attain their own toehold. Plants in this patch are pollinated by hand until populations attain densities where they can become self-regenerating. Hundreds of species of impatiens, delicate flowers with languid leaves, have been transferred here from the nursery, where they are grown from seeds. They have spread out, inhabiting nooks on the forest floor, peeking out from between rock surfaces.
This looks like a forest, but in its execution and detail it’s a garden, an immensely complex one.
How this patch of forest has grown over the past 30 years, the interventions that have succeeded and those that have failed, how well the forest here mimics the mosaic of an evergreen forest and where it differs — have instructed Gurukula’s lesson on ‘How to Grow a Rainforest’.
“The first trees to appear on the edges of areas that were clear-cut are species like ligustrums,” says Seshan pointing to a medium-sized tree. But soon other species start burgeoning from seeds and remnant roots left in the soil.
A natural progression ensues, with “ligustrums weakening in 3-4 years, and eventually being replaced”. Syzygiums, a family of trees to which clove and jamun belong, appear. As the density of the canopy increases, native jackfruit trees that require shade during their initial period of growth take root.
Over time, the emerging canopy starts stratifying itself into layers. Trees, like those from the elaeocarpus family that form the very top of the canopy, shoot straight up from the ground, branching out horizontally only once they are above other trees. “It’s up there in the canopy that the greatest diversity of orchids is actually found,” remarks Seshan. This, ironically, is where the conditions are the harshest — the winds most buffeting and the rains most pounding.
Every few years the gardeners at Gurukula assess all the species in this area, creating, in effect, a time-lapse snapshot of the forest. “We find that some people like the shade,” says Seshan, smiling at her own intended anthropomorphic reference, “others like harsh sunlight.” “Some do well in indirect sprays of water, others need a steady stream.”
In its welter of habits and temperaments, this forest is, for a gardener like her, like children in a school — each with an individual quirk, aptitude and fancy.
In a slightly higher part of the sanctuary, near the apogee of a hill, Theuerkauf is trying to plant the shola grasslands of the Ghats. These are usually found at altitudes above 1,200 m, far higher than Gurukula at 750 m. So why even attempt it? “There are two other grasslands on the neighbouring hills,” says Seshan pointing to a hill across a valley, “which according to local legends have been around forever.”
So the team is trying to see if it’s possible to create high altitude grasslands found in other parts of the Ghats. “It will,” Seshan says, “allow us to rescue species that are fast disappearing from areas like Ooty and Munnar.”
As part of this effort, patches of grass are occasionally burnt to mimic natural fires. This, says Laly Joseph, the sanctuary’s most experienced fern cultivator, fertilises the soil and gives new species room to take root.
Abutting the grassland, a landscape of rock is being created for Western Ghat species that grow on rock surfaces and cliffs. In the two years that it has been evolving, Theuerkauf has learnt some important lessons. “We’ve found that we need to use large boulders instead of small rocks in the construction of our habitats,” he says. Small rocks heat up faster, and the air pockets between them dry out the roots of these plants.
Even feeding these plants has been challenging — with too much organic matter, termites (which are not a problem at higher elevations) appear on the surface. If soil is used instead, it often collapses, suffocating the plants. The solution lies in using “a mixture of twigs and compost so that the roots penetrate quickly”, after which they can be provided additional nutrition in small amounts. A similar level of detail, care, and learning from endless trials has gone into the propagation of every different species of orchid and impatiens in the sanctuary. For each, different compositions of leaf mould, fibre and stones are created depending on the nutrients and drainage they require.
Testaments to the skills of Gurukula’s botanists emerge in the form of large brown-gold fronds of the tree-like Cyathea crinita ferns that are growing in the artificial stone cliffs above a small secret pond in the sanctuary. These ferns, one of the most endangered in the Ghats, have multiplied here, and now almost shade the pond. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) credits Gurukula with having “established an ex-situ cultivation protocol” for them.
The true test of a forest, the bellwether of its health, is the appearance of ferns. It can take a rainforest up to 15 years to reach a stage where the foliage and the microclimates in different parts of the canopy are right for their appearance.
On the trail that leads through the five-acre, intensively managed patch of forest, there are tantalising, occasional glimpses of them. Oak-leaf ferns, so called because their fronds resemble oak leaves, have started appearing on the upper reaches of tree trunks.
There aren’t as many of them as are found in old-growth forests, but their presence is evidence that India’s oldest experiment in forest restoration is on the right track. “We need a change of mindset,” says Seshan emphatically. “We are always talking about amazing animals. It’s time we started talking about amazing plants.”