Life beneath the dead leaves

Photo Credit : Sagar nambiar

I believe forests to be entities that have their own intelligence. They have a system that has had millions of years to perfect itself and reach a point where every process and component both organic and inorganic has a part to play. We Humans however are prone to meddling, especially with those things that we do not fully understand. Forests have suffered greatly at our hands. In addition to chopping and hunting we have also introduced species that do not belong and removed things that do belong. One such thing is leaf litter

I have seen man made ‘forests’ and ‘gardens’ that have been completely cleared of their leaf litter. This is not done out of any malicious intent but out of ignorance and a flawed sense of aesthetics. It is easy to label leaf litter as something barren and lifeless. Indeed it is composed mainly of dead and decaying matter. I can tell you however, from experience that the leaf litter in a forest is one of the most exciting places.

To understand what I am talking about you simply have to find a patch of leaf litter and sit down quietly for a few minutes and listen. You might hear the sporadic rustle of a skink crawling through what I like to call reptilian expressways; passages and tunnels invisible to the human eye. You might hear the slow, slimy crackle of a snail sliding over the leaves. Or you might hear whispering footfalls of an army of marching black ants.

Photo Credit : Sagar nambiar

There are many that call this layer home. Millipedes, beetles, woodlice, slugs and worms are just a few. These creatures are detritivores and perform a vital role for the forest. They feed on dead biomass, breaking it down into smaller materials. Microbes and fungi then take this process forward breaking it down still further till finally you get what is called humus. Humus is the nutrient rich dark layer found bellow the leaf litter. Plants get their nutrients from this natural compost.

For some, the leaf litter is their hunting ground. If you take a walk in the forest in the early morning, you might sometimes see pea fowl or jungle fowl raking up the leaf litter in search of little critters to peck on. If you are really lucky you might even see the elusive Pitta that forages in leaf litter; flipping leaves with its beak in the hopes of surprising some hapless beetle or worm. Spiders also hunt here. Wolf spiders, who do not believe in building webs prowl through the leaf litter, actively stalking their prey just like their namesakes. I have often walked out at night with a head light and been treated to the light show created by spider eye shine reflected back at me as they crawl over the fallen leaves.

Some moth larvae descend from their host plants to pupate inside leaf litter. They knit little camouflage, tent like capsules which hide the vulnerable pupa from predators. Safe under the blanket of insulating leaves, some species may even pass into a state of hibernation emerging only after months. Another creature that makes use of the leaf litter’s insulating properties is the King cobra. It is the only snake known to build a nest, which resembles a deceptively normal pile of leaves inside which the eggs are laid.

Leaves and twigs spread around the base of plants are called mulch. Mulch, in addition to decomposing and turning into compost also protects the soil from harsh winds and sunlight, preventing moisture from escaping too quickly. The leaves also protect the soil from the effects of excess rain; slowing down runoff and reducing erosion. I have walked in areas where the leaf litter has been cleared and the effects are painful to see. Immediately after the rain the ground looks almost wounded with heavy gouges from erosion. And during a dry spell it can become cracked and parched.

So Leaf litter should definitely not be seen as something lifeless or useless. Its presence is crucial for the forests well being and also provides hours of pleasure for both casual and serious observers alike.

Sagar Nambiar

(About the author: Sagar is an aspiring writer and an avid nature enthusiast. He has a degree in Chemistry, Environmental Science and Zoology. He has been part of survey of amphibian diversity in aggro forests of Karnataka’s Western Ghats, conducted several awareness talks on identification of common snakes and role of reptiles in the ecosystem)

The leafless beauty, Indian Coral tree

Photo Credit : Dr.Anish Andheria : Photo of a White-bellied Treepie on an Indian coral tree – (Erythrina variegata )


Surely one of the most surreal sights one can witness while walking through the forest is the Indian Coral Tree. Leafless in winter, the tree takes on a ghost like appearance with its light grey almost white bark, disappearing and reappearing through the evening mist. The trees appearance takes an even more macabre turn when in early summer it sprouts scarlet buds that are needle like and resemble the blood drenched claws of some otherworldly beast. However, when these buds bloom and the tree is covered in delicate flowers it looks like it bears a resplendent, ruby crown.

Numerous Birds flock to feast on these blossoms these include; Mynahs , Drongos, flowerpeckers and sunbirds. Another common visitor is the Vernal Hanging Parrot that feeds on the flowers while hanging upside down; the green feathers of the small bird contrasts beautifully against the bright red of the tree in bloom. A similar play of colours can be seen when Parakeets alight on the tree but they come in flocks of up to six or seven individuals at a time and briefly there is a pleasant noisy confusion as the birds gossip while they eat.

Woe to the weary traveller who decides to use this tree as a rest stop though. The pale bark is lined with rows of curved spines. These spines however make the tree very hospitable towards vines and creepers. This fact is often taken advantage of by farmers who use this tree to grow pepper, vanilla and betel vines.

The tree is very fast growing and can be propagated by simply planting a freshly cut branch into the ground. The broad leaves which grow back in the latter, hotter part of summer provide shade and when the rains begin, they provide shelter. These leaves are then shed during winter when shade and shelter are no longer required and on the ground, they act as mulch which protects the ground from desiccation during the dry months. In addition to this the leaves enrich the soil with vital nutrients when they decompose.

The Indian Coral belongs to the leguminous family of plants. This family possesses a unique ability, that of nitrogen fixation. The tree forms a symbiotic relationship with a group of bacteria known as Rhizobia. It is these bacteria that actually fix the nitrogen and the tree in return furnishes for the bacteria, living quarters in the form of root nodules, and provides the bacteria with nutrients such as sugars and other compounds. Nitrogen fixation is a process by which atmospheric nitrogen is made available for use by living organisms. Fixing by soil bacteria is one of two means by which this is accomplished the other being lightning strikes which break the inert nitrogen molecules allowing them to then dissolve in rain water. This fixed nitrogen is then made available to be utilized by other plants when the leaves are shed and broken down in the soil.

The flowers are mostly pollinated by birds and soon turn into pods. The fleshy parts of the pod are consumed by many animals, especially arboreal mammals. The seed however is ignored and not eaten by anything as it is toxic. Therefore, if the seed is not dispersed by some animal that has perhaps, carried a pod some distance away from the tree then its only option is to fall to the ground directly below the parent tree. This would be fine; however, the tree does not do well in shade and hence grows poorly under its mother’s canopy. So, the tree has evolved an ingenious strategy to combat this problem it has evolved to grow nearby water bodies like streams and lakes and sometimes even beside the sea shore. The tree can withstand high moisture levels in the soil and can even survive in waterlogged conditions. By doing this the tree ensures that at least some of its seeds are dispersed by water. The seeds too have evolved for this as they float and are resistant to salt water. By travelling through water in this manner the tree has colonized many of the areas in its range. Surprisingly this tree which grows near water bodies and is typically found in areas with moderate to high levels of rainfall can also endure periods of drought like condition for months at a time.

So this forest beauty, in addition to serving highly important ecological functions is also a truly versatile wonder.


-Sagar Nambiar

(About the author: Sagar is an aspiring writer and an avid nature enthusiast. He has a degree in Chemistry, Environmental Science and Zoology. He has been part of survey of amphibian diversity in aggro forests of Karnataka’s Western Ghats, conducted several awareness talks on identification of common snakes and role of reptiles in the ecosystem)


FLOWERS OF INDIA- Erythrina variegata-Indian Coral Tree

ARUNACHALA LAND- Erythrina Indica-Coral Tree

Tropical Plants Database, Ken Fern. < id=Erythrina+variegata>

Under the canopy of grandmother trees

Under the canopy of grandmother trees
Under the canopy of grandmother trees
Photo Courtesy – Sushil Katre. This land was completely covered with invasive Lantana till 2008.After Forest First restored this area, it is now teeming with 150 tree species, several species of birds, insects, reptiles. The canopy and several inches of leaf litter is an ideal habitat for leeches and frogs.


A decade ago, I had the experience of walking inside some of the densest forests in Western Ghats – One droplet of rain touches the tallest crown of the canopy and diffuses into a thousand droplets after making a touchdown on tree crowns at different levels, to finally fall on the forest floor. It feels like slow motion frozen in time. The spongy forest floor that has many years’ worth of leaf litter, soaks up those thousand droplets coming down in slow motion, falling on every crown, every leaf and every branch. After quenching its thirst, the leaf litter lets the excess flow down as streams and rivers. A whole diversity of organisms awaits us beneath the forest floor.


The large buttress root of a Hopea tree harvests water and extends its roots down into the steep slopes of the mountains. The morning sun falls faintly through the dense forest canopy on the understory cane. A small exposure of the soil surface makes me trip and there I hold on to the  large trunk of a 300 year old grandmother tree that stands tall. I feel insignificant in front of so many such grandmothers who are nurturing the forests by sprouting a million seeds every year. The forest floor is full of seedlings of various heights and age, waiting for that opening in the canopy cover. The grandmother has to fall, releasing its nutrients locked up for centuries, for another sapling to grow into a tree. The fungal network below the forest floor is just another wonder of nature’s communication system. These dense forests are teeming with diversity of trees, shrubs, climbers, flowering plants and orchids apart from the largest diversity of insects, birds, reptiles and birds. These are ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years, untouched by humans. 


I realised that I’m standing in one of the degraded forest patches of Western Ghats. Due to the clear felling of the grandmother trees – Chopped by the British for railway sleepers and all subsequent Indian Govts for building roads, power transmission lines and hydroelectric power – large gaping holes have been created in the forest cover , which has invited some of the most troublesome alien invasive species in the world : Lantana camara and Senna spectabilis. The forest floor is devoid of leaf litter to soak up the rain, there are gaping holes and the sun lands harshly, evaporating all the water that falls – the result is a dry cracked up soil in summer. There are no grandmother trees in an area of 5 sq km and all you see is thorny invasive Lantana on the forest floor. Once in a while an Amaltas and Palash makes a guest appearance in between a thicket of Lantana to remind us of the native species that can pioneer. Large areas of forest land is covered by invasive and  a feeling of empathy flows out towards the tusker and primates that raided our farm a month ago. A true reminder that there is absolutely nothing for these mammals to feed on. Lantana and Senna is just a false green cover on the landscape that can offer no food to the beings that depend on that landscape. A by-product of the sin committed by humans for its greed for timber. 


A vision of a million sprouting seeds came to my mind while sitting in silence. It felt like a strong urge by those grandmother trees to plant darkness in the landscapes of Western Ghats and claim their lost spaces. The 150 diverse species that we conserve have diverse growth patterns. To trigger that process of inviting rain; to trigger a process of covering up the forest floor with leaf litter; to trigger a process of inviting leeches and frogs; to trigger a process of attracting birds and bees for nectar; and the cycle goes on, sprouting a million more seeds. 


Forest First started this journey of land restoration and habitat conservation a decade ago in 2008. In these 10 years of our journey we have restored sacred grove sites, planted diversity in Coffee estates, worked on forest land restoration and restored riparian buffer in Kodagu, Wayanad and Anekkatti. Those 150 diverse tree species will establish their territory on those degraded landscapes to once again attract pollinators and disperse wild edible fruits. This is the journey of tree species that can live up to more than 300 years. And these 10 years is just the beginning of that long and beautiful journey that nature is conspiring.


Meera Rajesh

(About the Author: Meera Rajesh has more than a decade of experience working with hill communities in restoration of forest lands and habitat conservation by conserving 150+ tree species of Western Ghats including RET. She works as a ‘Squirrel’ @ Forest First sowing seeds of environmental wisdom across communities.)