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Shola forests and flora of Velliangiri Hills

About Velliangiri Mountains

Velliangiri hills is a known to the others as a pilgrimage center and people see it as “sacred”. For for plant lovers like me, it is a paradise of plant diversity! The Velliangiri hills constitute of different varieties of forests that occur at different altitudes. As the hills ascend, the vegetation changes.

It is said that the entire Velliangiri hiking trail consists of seven hills. The first hill and the foothills are covered in dry deciduous forests. The first hill is the most difficult one as it is full of steps and is really challenging to complete!

The second hill is covered in bamboo forests. The third hill is covered in a mix of deciduous and semi-evergreen forests. At the end of the fourth hill, we are almost at the top of the mountain range.

Towering bamboos in the second and third hills!

The fourth hill is where we come out of the forest and at the end, we come to open grasslands. So, it is a mix of semi-evergreen and deciduous trees and grasslands. You can start spotting the high altitude plants as you reach the top of fourth hill. The fifth hill is full of grasslands and bordering it, are Shola forests! The sixth hill is the same terrain and vegetation and it is in the seventh hill where there are true high elevation Shola forests.

The seventh hill of Velliangiri hills where there are pristine Sholas and grasslands amidst you!

The above photo is on the 7th hill and there are dense shola forests towards the right of the trail. It is really an exciting sight to see those forests that appear like cauliflowers arranged over one another. But imagine them as colored cauliflowers! One can see a variety of shades of green, white, red, cream when looking at the canopy of the Shola forests. The canopy is so dense and closed allowing only a very little amount of light inside.

Characters of Shola Forests

These forests are the life-givers to the people who live in the plains below. The sholas are interspersed in the grasslands here and there in the depressions in the terrain. The trees are short, stunted, not exceeding 20 meters of height, highly branched and densely leafed. The trees in the shola forests are all covered in epiphytes of all kinds – Moss, Liverworts, Selaginella, Ferns, Orchids, Impatiens and other epiphytic flowering plants. It rains for almost 8 months a year here and the each shola patch creates a climate of it’s own. The shola forests altogether create their own weather by breathing out more water vapour which condenses and falls again as rain.

These forests are also shrouded in fog for the most of the year whenever it does not rain. The epiphytes on the trees help condense the water vapour present in the air and it trickles down. The soil in these forests are really special as they are mostly made up of dead leaves that fall throughout the year from the evergreen trees above. You can only witness this if you got a chance to get into a shola. You cannot see your foot when you walk in a shola forest as it would be buried deep in the leaf litter and that makes the soil so special. It acts like a sponge and absorbs the water that it gets through rain or condensed mist. Since, these forests are found in the slopes mostly, the water that is retained in the soil begins to flow out of the forest in a trickle (Due to gravity? or The soil loses water being unable to hold anymore? May be both!) The trickles join to produce streams. So, it is a thumb rule of shola forests – a stream in every patch of shola. No matter how big or small the patch is, it will have a stream coming out of it!

The Shola grassland complex is an interesting eco-system that looks after itself. We just have to watch them from a distance without ever interfering their harmony. The plants that occur in Shola forests are brilliantly evolved and they have placed themselves so beautifully that they cannot exist if they were in other places. They cannot even exist elsewhere because, the conditions are just not right for them. They have to be in their place to survive. Let me explain that a bit more with some examples…

Impatiens generally like shade and moisture. Most impatiens found in the shola forests are found along the streams. They love a constant supply of water, the moisture, shade and they use the water to disperse their seeds which are carried away in the stream and germinate and grow when they get a hold somewhere in the path. Hence, they are found along the streams!

Impatiens elegans

This impatiens is found along the streams in shola forests. If not along the streams, they will at least it should be a trickle of water which should have brought the seeds there! Impatiens elegans is endemic to Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This one was found in the Anamalai Hills of Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

Impatiens maculata

This is particularly a beautiful Impatiens species found in the Anamalai Hills. It is endemic to Tamil Nadu and Kerala and it is an endangered species. It is strictly found along on the streams in shola forests.

Impatiens maculata – Spotted balsam

Impatiens goughii

These are also strictly found along streams or trickles where there is a continuous supply of water. They need continuous water flow and moisture to thrive.

These Impatiens are some best examples for the fragile nature of the Shola species. They just cannot survive out of their environment!

Daphniphyllum neilgherrense

This phenomenon can be seen right from the point where the Shola forests start from the grasslands. The Daphniphyllum neilgherrense is a tree that is found only along the borders of Sholas. They are excellent pioneer species. The name “Pioneer Species” is given to those species that establish themselves first and conquer a landscape. D. neilgherrense grows happily in the borders of the Sholas and it can withstand great variations in temperatures during the day and nights. But the other shola species cannot tolerate this variation! They are hence great trees that help in Shola regeneration.

Daphniphyllum neilgherrense trees at the border of a Shola in Velliangiri hills. The Shola starts with this tree from the grasslands nearby!

 Characters of Grasslands adjoining the Shola Forests

It is an entirely different story when it comes to the grasslands adjoining the shola forests. It is a perfectly balanced ecosystem of the forests in valleys and grasslands everywhere else. The grasslands occupy wherever the Sholas cannot establish themselves or in short, they cannot exist there! There are several reasons attributed to it.

The Sholas maintain their temperature almost constantly throughout the year when compared to the grasslands. While the temperature can fluctuate from as low as 0 degrees celsius to 40 degrees celsius in the open grasslands, the sholas maintain a constant temperature of 10 to 20 degrees celsius. The moisture also decreases so much in the grasslands during the daytime while the Sholas remain damp and moist throughout the day . This is one major reason why shola species cannot survive out here in the grasslands.

Second, the soil variation between the grassland and the shola. There is a great variation in the composition and nature of soil present inside the Sholas and the grasslands. In the Sholas, the soil is particularly rich (and possibly one of the richest in the World!) mainly constituting of dead leaves from the evergreen trees above. This makes the shola soil a great sponge that can absorb a lot of water and retain the most of it. While the soil in the grasslands is poor in nutrients and cannot support trees in it. It’s water retention capacity is also too low. So, only grass, the incredible survivor can live out there.

Third is the frost and cold winds, which can kill off any Shola species easily. The Shola grassland complex is usually found in the highest elevations of the Western Ghats (above 1600 Mean Sea Level) and these regions can get really cold and is mostly windy and covered in fog for most of the year. Any seeds of the shola species getting dispersed in the grasslands may not sprout at all. Even if they sprout, their leaves will be damaged by the frost and cannot survive successfully in the open grasslands. While the grass and other grassland species are resistant to frost and only they can survive there.

Flora of Shola Grasslands

It is no doubt that the Sholas are incredibly rich in biodiversity but the grasslands are also no less in it. They have their own biodiversity of flowering plants. A few of the grassland species found in the grasslands of Velliangiri hills are –

Fabaceae

Indigofera cassioides

Crotalaria sp.

Lamiaceae

Leucas ciliata

Pogostemon benghalensis

Pogostemon Sp.

Euphorbiaceae

Euphorbia rothiana

Malvaceae

Urena lobata

Melastomataceae

Melastomata sp.

Commelinaceae

Commelina sp. probably Commelina wight

Acanthaceae

Strobilanthes kunthianus

or Neelakurinji, that flowers gregariously every 12 years truning the hills blue. Thereby, the reason for the name “Nilagiri”, meaning Neelam – Blue and giri – Hills in Tamil.

More Kurinji flowers

Other grassland species that I have to identify yet!

Plant ID credits – Dr. Ravichandran

It was a great trek overall and finding a lot of endemic species and there were less exotic and invasive species here in the Velliangiri hills as compared to the Nilgiris. Yet, they have to be protected for a sustainable human life as well as to preserve the biodiversity…

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EndangeredWestern Ghats

Shola Forests – Everything you need to know about!

Shola forests are tropical Montane forests found in the valleys separated by rolling grasslands only in the higher elevations. They are found only in South India in the Southern Western Ghats. The shola forests are patches of forests that occur only in the valleys where there is least reach of the fog and mist. Other parts of the mountains are covered in grasslands. The trees never grow on the mountain tops. This is such a unique landscape formation that is native only to the southern Western Ghats. The word Shola is derived from the Tamil language word சோலை (pronunciation: cÕlai) meaning grove.

 

These origin of these forests, however is still under debate. Some suggest that these were a result of the indigenous people who lived here have controlled and maintained the growth of grasslands by constantly burning them. But samples from the soil of the mountains proved that the forests existed way before the humans evolved. In 1984, deep bore samples were taken from the mountains of the shola forests and they were analysed. The result was that they contained the same material that the soil was made today (which was a result of the grass) and hence it remained a grassland thousands of years earlier than the humans came to earth!

Occurrence:

The Shola forests are generally said to be found in altitudes above 2000 metres of sea-level. Although they are found from altitudes higher than 1600 metres. Shola forests are a native only to the Southern Western Ghats. They are found only in the high altitude mountains of the states Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu. Nowhere else in the world exist such a kind of forests.

 

There are several hypotheses that explain such unique occurrence of grasslands and forest mosaic. Some suggest the grasslands were mad-made and controlled by fire and grazing. This theory also suggests that the periodic fires ensured that no trees grew in the mountain tops restricting them only to the depressions between the mountains.

 

Another theory suggests that the reason why the forests could not survive the mountain tops was due to the excessive frost that exist there. The frost does not allow seeds of the Shola species to germinate or the seedlings cannot survive the extreme frost. The leaves of the plants get damaged and they cannot sustain there. Whereas, in the depressions between the hills, the damage caused by the frost is a lot less compared to the open hill-tops. The Shola trees can grow and sustain well there.

 

Shola forests on Chembra peak, Wayanad, Kerala, India.

Flora:

The grasslands consists of different species of grass and mostly the following species are seen widely,

  • Chrysopogon zeylanicus
  • Cymbopogon flexuosus
  • Arundinella ciliata
  • Arundinella mesophylla
  • Arundinella tuberculata
  • Themeda tremula
  • Sehima nervosum.

The Shola forests are very rich in bio-diversity when it comes to plants. There are at least 25 types of trees that dominate these forests in the Nilgiri Hills.

At least 25 types of trees are present in the major sholas of the Nilgiri Hills.[11] The dominant trees in this type of forest are Michelia niligarica, Bischofia javanica (bishop wood), Calophyllum tomentosa, Cedrela toona (Indian mahogany), Eugenia (myrtle) spp., Ficus glomerata (atti or cluster fig tree or gular fig tree) and Mallotus spp. Shola forests have an upper storey of small trees, generally Pygeum gardneri, Schefflera racemosa, Linociera ramiflora, Syzygium spp., Rhododendron nilgiricum, Mahonia nepalensis, Elaeocarpus recurvatus, Ilex denticulata, Michelia nilagirica, Actinodaphne bourdellonii, and Litsea wightiana. Below the upper story is a low understory and a dense shrub layer. There is a thick concentration of mosses growing on the understory and many ferns in the sunlit narrow transition to grassland. – Wikipedia.

Due to high isolation and unique climatic conditions, the Shola forests are characterised by high endemism. The species of plants and animals found here are native to this region (this climatic region to be more specific) and such species cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Shola forests of Brahmagiri Hills, Karnataka, India

Fauna:

These forests are rich in endemic species of animals where some species of animals have adapted to this unique landscape and are found nowhere else in this world. Several amphibian species are found only here and a few mammal species and primates are native to southern Western Ghats. Some of them are,

The endangered Nilgiri tahr (an Asian goat-antelope) is endemic to the shola-grassland, and its range is now restricted to a 400-km stretch of shola-grassland mosaic, from the Nilgiri Hills to the Agasthyamalai Hills.[9]Laughingthrushes, Nilgiri woodpigeons, shortwings, and some of the endemic flycatchers (black-and-orange and Nilgiri verditer) are some of the 300+ species of birds that inhabit this area. The area shows high endemicity and is rivalled only by the forests in northeast India; 35 percent of the plants, 42 percent of the fishes, 48 percent of the reptiles, and 75 percent of the amphibians that live in these rain forests are endemic species. – Wikipedia.

Large animals like Tiger, Elephants, Leopard and Gaurs are also found to inhabit the grassland-shoal complex.

Vulnerability and Current status:

These forests are extremely vulnerable to several threats. There are several reasons for the diminishing shola-grassland complex. They are,

  • The Shola tree species have one of the lowest regeneration rates. They do not get established very soon. They are generally slow growing and need more time to establish themselves and are very sensitive to climatic conditions which make them very vulnerable. Moreover, most Shola trees produce drupaceous fruits which are difficult to produce more number of seeds and there is less way to disperse them successfully.
  • These forests and grasslands are being cleared for agriculture. These forests are relatively easy to clear as they constitute mainly of grasslands and trees are generally stunted with no timber value.
  • Construction of hill stations is another major threat to these forests. These forests usually exist in higher elevations, these places are unfortunately have suitable climate to be made as Hill stations and tourist spots. Several hill stations in Southern India were established after the destruction of thousands of acres of shola forests. Some of them are, Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar, Coorg, Valparai, Kotagiri, Kodanad, Megamalai.
  • Mining activities are increasing in the Western Ghats for various reasons like Bauxite, Gypsum, Granites and various other rocks and minerals. This leads to habitat destruction of the flora and fauna of the Western Ghats.
  • hydroelectric projects and dams are a great threat as it submerges thousands of acres of forests. The Government even does such a folly and the dams are usually given up after a certain period of time as the reservoirs become of no use after prolonged silt deposition. Forests cannot get established even after the dam becomes inoperational as the silt is not nutritious enough for the forest species and the area remains a barren land.
  • South Indian tea is famous all over the world. This may sound like a great thing. But we are paying a huge loss for this fame and money. Millions of acres of hill-tops and slopes which were once covered in grasslands and shola forests are now barren tea plantations. They will just be green deserts in the nature conservationist’s eyes.

Tea plantations and Shola forests beside each other! – A beautiful irony

After all the above known and may unknown threats, there still exists patches of shola forests here and there. They thrive in silence in the protection of National forests and wildlife sanctuaries.

 Why are they important?

Why am I shouting so far that they are important? They are important because,

  • The shola forests have high water retention capacity than any other soil. These forests absorb the Monsoon rains and they retain them within their soil. The retained water is then slowly released in the year’s course and they form small streams. These streams join to form larger streams which form rivers that feed the entire civilizations in the plains down.
  • They are the source of water in rivers live Cauvery, Thamirabarani, Vaigai. These rivers are perennial and they never go dry like the Ganges in the North India. River Ganges is perennial because it is fed by a melting glacier all the year round. There is no ice in the Western Ghats and yet these rivers manage to supply water all round the year. The reason behind this is the presence of Shola forests.
  • They are the reason for moderate climates for several cities along their foothills. Example – Coimbatore, a city that is near the Western Ghats in Western Tamil Nadu. The city unlike other cities in Tamilnadu enjoys a moderate climate all the year round.
  • They are home to several endemic species of plants and animals. Endemic means that they can exist only in that specific region and not found in any other part of the world. Without these forests, they lose their habitat and they will eventually go extinct.

Shola forest and grassland complex in Grass Hills National Park, Valparai, Tamilnadu, India.

Unique Characters:

Sky Islands – The shola forests form unique regions called “Sky Islands” which occur only at higher elevations are usually isolated and separated from each other and the lowland terrain. The distance of separation may be from a few metres to several hundred kilometers. Each sky island may have a climatic condition that is unique to itself. This leads to a great endemism in plants and animals. They adopt themselves to that climatic condition and they evolve there. As a result, they cannot live outside the climatic region where they are supposed to exist! Surprising nature!

 

Examples of Sky Islands – Patches of forests that are separated by grasslands have unique characteristics!

Climatic climax – The shola forest and grassland complex has been described as a climatic climax vegetation with forest regeneration and expansion restricted by climatic conditions such as frost or soil characteristics. The soil characteristics widely vary between the Shola forest and that of the grasslands surrounding it. The soil of the grasslands are usually poor in nutrition and water retention and hence cannot support the shola species. Grass can grow even in soils with lowest nutritive values. While, the soil of the shola forests are highly nutritive and they have high water retention capacity. The top layer of the soil mainly is made of peat and leaf debris which when removed is very difficult to form again. This adds to the vulnerability of these forests.

Conclusion:

Shola forests are some of the unique gifts that was given to human beings. But we never know the value of things unless we damage it so much that we realise we cannot live without it. This is what is happening in this case and I hope there are steps taken to conserve these forests lately. But they are not enough to repair the huge damage we have caused to them. More awareness needs to be created among the public to join hands to save the unique gift given to us. I hope the Government and people will one day understand about these heavens and they will once again regain their cover over the Western Ghats.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know your ideas and thoughts in the comments!

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