As a plant-lover, I’ve become accustomed to visiting forests and places which are far-removed from cities, towns and human habitation altogether. City flora, while stunning, fails to enthrall me because of the artificial feel to it; planted trees and gardens rarely display the splendour that the scrub, deciduous, and rainforests of Karnataka do.
There is however one exception that has time and again surprised me: Turahalli. Not too far from the heart of Bengaluru, but just far enough to retain some sense of the wild, Turahalli makes for a perfect getaway for birders, butterfly enthusiasts and a whole horde of other naturalists. The small forest is surrounded on all sides by the ever-expanding city. It is roughly spread over 590 acres, and contains hidden treasures in the form of snakes, wild hare, many species of birds, insects and of course, the one resource that supports all fauna: plants.
At times, I have been amazed at the diversity of plants that occur here in spite of the anthropogenic pressure that the place faces in the form of dumping of waste and garbage, tree-felling for wood by the locals and fires during the summer that burn away a considerable number of budding plants and insects alike.
From afar, the forest may look quite unremarkable, what with apartments, cultivated fields and plantations surrounding it; one might wonder what Turahalli actually holds in store. To the untrained eye, walking in its lush grasslands during the monsoon and post-monsoon periods may yield very little, but hidden to the eye, the scrub forest brims full of herbs and shrubs. These plants bear beautiful flowers whose colours meld into the background of the scenery, visible to a great extent only to the multitude of insects and birds which are attracted to the nectar, and in turn pollinate the plant and disperse its seeds.
During August each year, Turahalli experiences the mass blooming of Habenaria roxburghii, a stunning terrestrial orchid. These ephemeral beauties flourish in the grass-covered areas of Turahalli and last for about a month, after which they disappear leaving behind leaves that are pressed flat on the ground and hidden amongst the grass. The leaves remain hidden synthesising food and storing it underground, as reserve for the next season. These plants face stresses mainly in the form of grazing by livestock, which depletes the plant of leaves before they can store enough food to prepare for the next season.
The rocky boulders of Turahalli abound with wild fig trees which support a multitude of lianas, one of them being Opilia amentacea, which produces ornate and vibrant flowers during the peak of summer. This liana in Turahalli, as I have explored it, is located only in one location in the northern end of the reserve forest, protected by the nerale-mara (Syzygium cumini) and a fig tree (Ficus tinctoria subsp. gibbosa) on one side, and large boulders on the other.
Byttneria herbacea, an herb, is one of the commonest plants of scrub forests. It forms large mats in the shaded as well as open areas of the forest, and remains in bloom almost throughout the year. But alas, its spectacular flowers remain hidden on the underside of the plant and hence, are rarely observed. The flowers attract a multitude of beetles which feast on them, and also tiny flies that presumably pollinate the plant.
This next plant is, at least for sentimental reasons, a pleasure to find, because of its name – Indigofera karnatakana. A member of the legume family which flowers towards the end of the monsoon, its fruits are dispersed at the start of summer, after which the seeds germinate at the onset of the following monsoon. Sadly, before the dispersal of seeds can take place, most of the fruits that form on the plant are ravaged by fires set by the locals, in February and March every year, at Turahalli.
A relative of the common garden Ixora, this wild species, Ixora pavetta, blooms in early summer. It is a small and very commonly distributed tree of Turahalli, which makes for a spectacular view not only due to its beautiful flowers, but also due to its intoxicating fragrance and the sheer number of insects it attracts. Again, sadly its flowering and fruiting coincide with the annual fires, and these short trees are burnt to a crisp – flowers, fruits, and all! However, some individuals do escape the fires and flourish in parts of the undisturbed scrub pockets in the northern region of the reserve forest, where they are more abundant compared to the southern end, which is for the most part covered with Eucalytpus plantations.
We have all seen the common garden lilies that are planted outside offices, in botanical gardens, and as hedge plants, but here is one that blooms in the wild just after the harsh summer, when the forests receive their first showers at the onset of the monsoon. This large herb, which goes by the name Crinum asiaticum, produces splendid flowers from its underground bulbs. The fresh blooms are followed quickly by leaves, which can be observed quite easily as the plants tend to grow in open, grass-covered areas, in the sun or partial shade. These lilies dot the landscape for a short while and then remain hidden amongst the tall lemongrass (Cymbopogon sp.) for the rest of the monsoon and post monsoon seasons.
A visit to this small scrub forest for the purpose of ‘plant watching’ (a term which is rarely used!) is well within the realm of possibilities for any busy-body, on a Sunday. The forest is located off Kanakapura Road, at a distance of 20 kms from the Majestic Bus Stand. The many trails that criss-cross the small hill are sure to enchant anyone who wishes to get away from the hustle and bustle of corporate life. Monsoons are especially sure to reward all those who wish to see the short-lived herbs, which range from being as small as a fraction of a fingernail, to as large as 8 feet tall. However, those willing to brave the heat of summers will find themselves amazed at the mass blooming of the trees of Turahalli.