When I think about the rainforests, tall, lush, green trees flash in my mind. In school, we are taught that rainforests are unique, they sequester carbon and support rich biodiversity. Yes, those primates and flying squirrels. To me personally, rainforests are the artsiest landscapes on this planet. By simply walking down a moist evergreen forest, I get all my inspiration to paint and sketch. Would you agree with me if I said that the unique structure of the trees and the colours make the evergreen forest an artist’s paradise? Let me paint a picture for you – the South Indian Jewel Orchid, Anoechtochilus elatus, is a ground-dwelling orchid that caught my eye on the Green Trail. It bears white flowers in the months of November and December. This orchid is characterized by golden veins on bottle green leaves. I saw three such leaves shooting up from the forest floor.
Leaves have fascinated artists for centuries. My eyes chanced upon the colours on the forest floor. There was a carpet of red, yellow and brown leaves on the floor. Some were decaying. I picked up a red leaf and it immediately broke down into smaller pieces. The floor was cushioned with all such leaves and pieces. The thick layer of leaves under my feet felt more like a soft mattress. Ever wondered why there are so many shades of browns (in other words- leaves) on the forest floor? Evergreen trees do not simply shed their leaves. There has to be a reason for all the shedding. As I contemplated these deep mysteries of the forest, I turned around to find a primitive tree. Nageia wallichiana or the naked-seeded tree (gymnosperm) was standing right behind me. It was flanked by a bright orange mushroom that I failed to identify. I have known that leaves in the rainforest have pointed tips – otherwise called the dripping tip. These dripping tipped leaves allow rainwater to drip down to the ground much faster. But there are those trees that break this rule. For example, the Calophyllum austroindicum. This tree is a tall tree like every other tree in the forest and has tiny, sclerophyllous leaves. The leaves are thick, not pointed and instead have an elongated heart-shape. Why it doesn’t follow the dripping tip pattern is something that I have not yet understood. Is there anyone who understands the philosophies of the rule-breakers?
The rainforests may be appealing to the eye but danger lurks behind every tree. When I walked the pristine, evergreen forest at Kakachi of Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), I quickly realized that this forest like any other wild patch is not forgiving. The forest is ruled by vipers, elephants and tigers. Despite the dangers, each tree had something magical going on. The long buttresses for example! They were nothing like I had ever seen before. If they were to suddenly come to life, they’d swallow me whole. In short, they were huge and if I wanted to, I could climb on them. A number of lichens grew on the trees and the buttresses. Palaquim elliptium is a dominant tree in the forest. Its wood is unique and is extensively used to make shingles and other building material. Similarly, Cullenia exarillata is another tall, evergreen tree. This tree has characteristic scaling on its bark. It bears dark-brown, spiky fruits that are food to arboreal mammals like civets and bats. If you look carefully, you’d also see squirrels take a bite. The tree is recognized as a keystone species and is majorly pollinated by macaques and bats. Experts have told me that the occurrence of bats in the forests of Kakachi is rare, therefore this tree is pollinated majorly by macaques. The Lion-tailed Macaques use their sharp canines to break open the fruit. The reward is 8 to 9 delicious seeds. The macaques also feed on the flowers of this tree. I was surprised to know that birds do not feed on these flowers. The reason is that these flowers are not typical flowers with free-flowing nectar – something that birds find interesting. Instead, the flowers have a musty odour and a large basal part. The nectar is contained in small pockets called nectaries. Birds cannot get their way into the nectar but macaques and other mammals can.
Appreciating these subtle nuances of the forest have left a deep impression on me. Before I knew it, I’d spent more than 3 hours inside the jungle looking at it from a wide lens of ecology and art. By now it was noon, time to start walking back on the Green Trail. As I prepared myself to leave the forest, I craned my neck to look above at the canopy one last time. I saw the dense canopy part slightly to give me a glimpse of the clouds – I was standing at the edge of the forest.
I might be leaving, but in the enchanting forest, the magic continues…
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PS: This article was first published in the Agasthya Newsletter by ATREE, Bangalore. Don’t forget to check out other interesting pieces from the Newsletter – A Deluge of a Different Kind and Privilege of Being an Ecologist are my favourites.
The Green Trail is named after noted biologist Stephen Green who studied the critically endangered Lion-tailed Macaques.