Ian Lockwood


Father Matthew’s Shola Tree

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Hidden jewel and a giant at that….Beilschmeidia wightii in the Kukkal shola. It was first identified by Father K.M Matthew in the 1980s. Finding it in the vast Kukaal shola seemed like an impossible task but in April we managed to stumble across it perhaps more by accident than design.

Botanists who describe the structural characteristics of sholas often emphasize their relatively low canopy height. Shola trees are known for their stunted, gnarled morphology that many species have as a result of their exposure to fierce winds in the upper altitudes of the Western Ghats. Most cloud forests do indeed have short canopy heights of 15 meters or so, as compared to the towering 50meter trees of lowlands tropical rainforests. However, there are exceptions and one of them was first noted by the esteemed botanist and plant taxonomist Father K.M. Matthew (1930-2004). Working out of the Angalade institute at Shembagagnur he was a prolific documenter and guardian of the sholas and other forests of southern India. He played a key role in the founding of the Palani Hills Conservation Council  (PHCC) and was a major supporter and mentor to the Vattakanal Conservation Trust.

This last April I accompanied Bob & Tanya of the VCT on an exploratory hike to find Beilschmeidia wightii in the Kukaal shola. This is a very large shola covering a large basin area on the western border with the Anaimalais Tiger Reserve – not quite the classic “patch shola” that you find in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats. I had doubts about finding a single individual but was keen to get out into the hills and forests. Kukaal shola is widely known for its enormous, blood-thirsty leeches. However, it was undergoing a rare and brief dry spell and we shed relatively little blood. Remembering directions from two decades earlier, Bob, Tanya and I meandered along wood-cutting paths and then climbed up a slope following one of the larger streams. The forest was fairly dense and populated with a variety of tree and shrub species that we are familiar with from the temple path. At some point I saw it from a distance and as we approached realized that this had to be Father Matthew’s tree. It was indeed very, very large and towered far above…perhaps 30 or 40 meters.  In some ways it was similar to Bombay Shola’s “500 year old” Syzygium densiflorum, only its trunk was not half rotted out! The girth was large-it would have taken 4 or 5 of us to make a ring around it,  though we need to return to make more exact measurements.  For now, the idea that all shola trees are short has been definitively put to rest. We trust that somewhere Father Matthew is smiling down on Kukaal and the Palanis.

A veritable needle in the haystack? Looking over Kukaal shola as we get our bearings to look for the mystery tree.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-07-14 at 3:06 am

2 Responses

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  1. I just saw this and loved the photo and the write-up. One wonders exactly how old these trees are, although going by recent research from other tropical forests they must be several centuries old. Cheers from the Anamalai hills!

    T R Shankar Raman

    2012-10-19 at 2:47 am

  2. I heard about it from B and T. Thanks for the great photo. Wow.

    Bruce DeJong

    2013-04-07 at 8:11 am

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