Myristica Swamps: Living Museums, Fragile Ecosystems
Myristica swamps are one of the oldest and extremely fragile ecosystems on the Indian subcontinent. Once they were found in huge networks along the water courses through the primeval forests of the Western Ghats, but millennia of exploitation has rendered them limited on less than 200 hectares today.
Thanks to social activism of various kinds, most citizens are aware of the idea of conservation of cultural heritage, even if they haven’t really warmed up to it. As a result, everyone knows that it’s evil to harm our monuments, but then every once in a while, an uncouth Romeo and a wannabe Juliet choose to immortalize their breathlessness in terms of scribbling on walls of protected monuments.
So we can appreciate the antiquity of buildings, but what stops us from respecting the sanctity of various ancient species of living beings? Most of them have been around for far greater a time than human beings (who are older than not a few million years).
Maybe the fact, that these species will continue to exist like ever, acts as a dampener, but then there are countless species on the verge of extinction. Clearly, man keeps what his kind made over and above everything else. Rest everything is just a resource – for us to tap and exploit. Does that remind you of Rio+20 declaration?
Myristica swamps, once found in vast swathes of Western Ghats, represent many such unfortunate species. Whatever might be their historical status, today they are found in no more an area than two sq km (yes, in a country measuring 32.5 lakh sq km).
You may ask what’s special about these trees. Let’s say what’s not. They are like those monuments –haunting, storytelling and mesmerizing – of course for trained minds. To those who study botany, they are the oldest living flowering plants, or in other words one of the earliest ones.
Myristica plants belong to the plant family of Myristicaceae, which has about 18 genera and 30 species. There are many well-known trees in this family, including the common nutmeg plant. But myristica plants found in myristica swamps are rare; also, these swamps also have many rare plants of other species.
Though a class 5 kid will always draw a plant with flowers, leaves, stems, roots, etc., but that’s not how all plants are. Ha, you may say, “I have seen many non-flowering plants, like moneyplant.” A majority of plants around you, including moneyplant, are flowering though – even those big trees that you never see flowering (they bear so unappealing and small flowers that you don’t even notice).
Non-flowering plants include many of your humble algae, bryophytes like mosses (very small plants, usually found in damp areas), pteridophytes like ferns. All these are non-vascular plants i.e. they don’t contain plants vessels (xylem and phloem) for transportation of food and water.
That is the order in which plant life evolved. Then evolved gymnosperms – the plants that bear cones (you might have seen many of them on hilly areas). Angiospermae or flower-bearing plants came much later and that was the time of a revolution in the Earth’s evolutionary history. You wouldn’t have many fruits and vegetables, if it were not for these plants (not even roses, much loved by Romeos and Juliets). Quite expectedly, along with these plants, many animal species, dependent on fruits and seeds, also came into being.
Western Ghats have a compelling elevation from the sea level, which results in water during the rainy season going down the hills quickly. This process is important for nutritional recharging of these forests. In olden times, these swamps formed a network along the water courses through the primeval forests of the Western Ghats. Over thousands of years, they were converted to rice fields, areca gardens, and coffee or rubber plantations.
These plants have adapted to live in such inhospitable environs over millions of years. Since these forests are swamps in literal sense, with thick canopy, little sunlight and fierce competition for space and nutrients, myristica swamps have stilt roots that help the plants in standing on soft soil. Over the time, these supporting roots, emanating from plant stems, take the place of tap-root. In addition, the plants are adept at surviving in low oxygen conditions. Due to anaerobic respiration, many alcohols and resins are excreted by these plants.
Myristica plants, as we said, are one of the oldest living specimens of the flowering plants. They are, therefore, living museums in their own accord. But there are far more compelling reasons for us to be worried about their disappearing act. According to a research work done at the Kerala Forest Research Institute, these swamps are home to:
- 65 rare tree, and 72 shrub and herb species
- 23 per cent of butterflies, 11 per cent of spiders, 8.4 per cent of fishes, over 50 per cent of amphibians, about 20 per cent of reptiles, 26.6 per cent of birds and 6.6 per cent of mammals found in Kerala
That may sound like a lecture on plant and animal classification, but sadly that’s the first stepping stone to realize the extent of damage being caused to such habitats. In fact, ignorance of such concepts often results in denial about the ongoing exploitation.
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