Plants

By now it should be obvious that the sanctuary is about plants and for plants. They seem to like it here!

There are at least 2000 native species living in the garden, the swampy valley fields, the hillsides and by the stream: 40% of the native flora of the Western Ghats, ranging across at least 100 different botanical families, including every rainforest life-form: woody climbers, soft climbers, giant trees, epiphytes, tubers, herbaceous annuals, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, aquatic plants and succulents.

There are also a number of species from other parts of India and elsewhere in the world. If you include these and the farm crops, there are more than 2500 plant species growing here, perhaps even 3000.

We're still trying to find out who all live here.

It all began with one plant in the late 70s. A single epiphytic orchid, fallen from a tree, drew our attention to life in the canopy. We had the sudden realization that there were plants up there that did not need soil. We then saw there were many different kinds of epiphytes living in a diverse community high up in the treetops that were never seen on the forest floor.

From this first simple observation, we began to feel our way around the many special environments that make up these forests, and how each is composed of a particular community of plants. Our eyes opened to the wonder that the rainforest is an extraordinarily complex world filled with special beings inhabiting special places within the whole. Our eyes then opened to the tragedy looming upon these beings, with the wholesale destruction of all these fragile and beautiful places.

First an orchid, then other orchids, then the ferns, then the impatiens, the begonias, the aroids, the asclepiads, the acanths, the palms and on to dozens and dozens of other groups of plants, over thirty years we took our time to learn.

Here are some plants that have been important to us for one reason or another. People often ask us what our favourite ones are. The honest answer to that is, each of us has a special affinity for a particular group, or a genus, or species, and also individual plants. Also that all these, across the categories mentioned a each group, have played a crucial role in deepening our love and understanding of life.

Another point to keep in mind: this website is being written by only one of us, the biases running through most of the descriptions here are those of its writer. Talk to more of the Sanctuary gardeners and you'll learn more.

Orchids: This family of plants (the Orchidaceae), is one of the half dozen plant families that started us off on our journey as plant conservationists. Biologists will tell you, orchids arrived relatively late in the evolutionary scheme of things. They are a hugely varied family ranging from the outrageously ostentatious to the humbly inconspicuous. Did you know that (roughly) one in ten flowering plant species throughout the world is an orchid? That is, of the 300,000 named angiosperms, approximately 30,000 are orchids.

Many are highly specialised, living only in very specific habitats and conditions or having evolved symbiotic relationships with particular species of insects. They seem to be particularly prolific in cool tropical mountainous areas, where there is year round cloud cover and mist, and lots of rain. In the Sanctuary you might come across some 700 species of orchids. Those that don't belong to these mountains are restricted to the orchidarium, and the ornamental areas of the garden. Those that belong to these mountains will be found in myriad niches all over the land.

The orchidarium at GBS is like a large living library where it is possible to explore the extraordinary variations within this one family. Visit the orchid section in the photogallery. Here is an article we wrote many years ago on the orchids.

Ferns: We love ferns at GBS. Most of the 300 species of south Indian ferns (and their allies: the lycopods, horsetails and whisk ferns) are here in the fernarium and all over the Sanctuary. Ferns are ancient plants going back some 400 million years, reaching far into the primordial past to the times of the first forests. Along with mosses and liverworts, they are a critical indicator of the health of our rainforest as they are moisture dependent and cannot tolerate either low rainfall or loss of shade cover.

At the fernarium many topics in plant evolution are explored with visiting students. All the significant plant groups are present here: alga, mosses, hornworts and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms (gnetum, cycad, conifers). Here is an article we wrote many years ago on the ferns. Visit the fern section in the photogallery.

Then there are the aroids (family Araceae), of which two genera Amorphophallus and Arisaema have many species in the Western Ghats. The world's largest inflorescence, the Amorphophallus titanum from south-east Asia also grows at the Sanctuary. Visit the aroid section in the photogallery.

One of the most beautiful endemics of the Western Ghats is a member of the African violet family, the Gesneriaceae, called Rhynchoglossum notoniana. During the height of the monsoon the deep green of the forest is offset by the extraordinary blue of this plant which can be found on cliffs, by rivers, along waterfalls. Didymocarpus, another genus in the same family, with pale blue flowers, grows on rocky surfaces all over the mountains.

We all love the Impatiens, and refer to them constantly in our classes, our writings, our analyses of different environments. They have some of the most spectacular flowers we've ever seen. They belong to the same genus as the busy lizzie you are all familiar with. Moroever, it is a genus with at least 100 species found here. Over 90% of these are endemic to the Ghats. One other reason they are interesting for us, they seem to be speciating far more rapidly than other genera. This Impatiens, an epiphyte, is a rare and endangered endemic species now well established at GBS. ' for an article on the Impatiens. Visit their section in the photogallery.

Other special and interesting plant genera include: Begonia (Family Begoniaceae), Sonerila and Osbeckia (Family Melastomataceae); Crotalaria (Family Fabaceae), the Strobilanthus genus (family Acanthaceae) with more than 50 species growing at the Sanctuary; the Ophiorrhizas (family Rubiaceae); the Exacum (Family Gentianaceae.. The Lamiaceae (mint), Poaceae (grasses), Urticaceae (nettles), Solanaceae (eggplants), Ascelpiadaceae (Ceropegias), and the Asteraceae (sunflowers) have large numbers of species growing here too. Visit the plant photo gallery and watch this section.

There are over 150 species of mosses and liverworts growing at GBS as they are crucial to the growth of other tender plants. It took a bryophytologist from Calicut University to give us the botanical names for this intriguing group of ancient plants, as we've too busy to work on their taxonomy. We've just been recognizing them by eye, so that we can grow them!

There are over 100 species of trees native to the land. Ranging from mature evergreen forest species to pioneer hilltop species, they range through dozens of families. We are still learning their names. It is simply impossible to cover all the plants of the Sanctuary in this website, apologies to those omitted!

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Plant gallery.

Watch this section, or go to Dispatch from the Plant Underground for more news about plants.