Perhaps it would be difficult to believe now that a few of hundred years ago the entire state of Kerala, from the Western Ghat Mountains to its coast, was completely covered with a carpet of lush evergreen forests! But that was true. Some vestiges of it can still be seen in the form of sacred groves all over the land. Though tiny fragments, they still harbor many evergreen tree species like Hopea, Bombax, Palaquium, Dipterocarpus, etc.
But whatever remains is still very rich and diverse – 4800 flowering plants, 5 gymnosperms, 256 ferns, 600 mosses and liverworts, 350 algae, 4800 fungi, 800 lichens. These make up 23% of the Indian flora. The numbers are very impressive when we realize that Kerala forms only 1.8% of the Indian subcontinent’s land mass!
There are about 925 species of trees in Kerala of which 327 are endemic to Western Ghats; 40 of which are found only in Kerala.
What is really unique to Kerala is the rare shola-grassland ecosystem that is found nowhere else in the world (some patches are also found in other parts of Western Ghats). These are patches of evergreen forests in the folds of grassy hillocks above 1300 m. Some are very small, hardly an acre, others extend from ten to twenty sq.kms. Soil structure, high velocity winds, lashing rains and land geography – these have played an important role in the evolution of this ecosystem.
Small rivulets originate from these sholas, there is perennial flow of water here - birds, insects, rare orchids, wild balsams or impatiens abound in different micro habitats here. Like a huge sponge, the shola forest mops up all the rain water and then release them as little streams that eventually become big rivers. The sholas thus play a very crucial role in nourishing the plains.