April 22, 2023

Native Flora Nurseries in the Nilgiris: the Reality of Management and Challenges


In the image: From Left to Right: Shivanna, Aradkuttan and Harshavardhini at the Keystone nursery in Kotagiri

This post is written by Harshavardhini Angappan, Restoration Ecologist at Keystone Foundation

The Biodiversity Conservation programme at Keystone runs several verticals – looking back at the 30-year history of the organisation, pollinators have been a constant focus. Monitoring human-wildlife conflict is a much newer vertical that is increasingly gaining importance, and so is ecological restoration. I write this feature at a crucial time as the team busies itself with the construction of a conservatory at Keystone’s office campus in Kotagiri, the heart of the blue mountains. The expansion of our existing nursery has been necessary as restoration gains public attention as a pressing need in this landscape. 

Keystone has been active in restoring degraded habitat patches in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) since 2006. Our projects are peppered across a diversity of spaces, from grasslands and forest patches to government schools, tea factories, tea estates, private properties, and revenue lands. The preliminary and most crucial first step in beginning any restoration project is growing plant materials. Aside from the nursery at the campus, Keystone team members hailing from across the NBR have set up countless nurseries in their towns and villages, nurturing native flora important to the people and biodiversity of the microregion. Maintaining nurseries is a true test of patience, requiring gentle care over long periods of time. Most of our nursery managers are not formally educated but rather often possess valuable traditional knowledge, and put in hard work to develop skills and cover gaps in their learnings. I spoke to two members of the restoration team, Shivanna and Aradkuttan separately, who manage nurseries in Punanjanur and Bikkapathimund respectively, about their journey interacting with native flora and their love for nurturing plants.

Harsha: How were you inspired to work on building/managing nurseries? How can nurseries benefit your community?


I am from Shrinivasanapura colony in Punanjanur Village. I studied in a boarding school during my 8th, 9th and 10th classes. Our classes used to consist of conversations on agriculture and nurseries. This exposure at a young age got me interested in nurseries. I’ve lived in my village for 28 years, and once I graduated school I started working at Keystone. Between 2008 and 2013, I believe I have built my expertise on nurseries, with my colleagues teaching me techniques on managing nurseries and helping me gain my footing in the early years. Preserving trees – particularly fruit trees – is vital to my community, and we care deeply about conserving them. The nursery that I’m currently taking care of has been up and running for the past one and a half years. The previous nursery was situated in a different location – it was active for around five years. We had to transplant most plants from the old one to this new nursery. 


I am from Bikkapathimund. I’ve been working with Keystone for the last 18 years. Initially when I first started working here, I used to oversee beekeeping activities for close to three years. Although before joining Keystone, I used to work for the forest department which gave me exposure to plants and nurseries. That’s how I was first inspired to work on managing nurseries. My community has been interested in medicinal plants which are beneficial to them. They also believe that nurseries are important owing to not only the environmental impact, but also their cultural significance, which continues to inspire me.





In the image: Shivanna pointing out the importance of the specie for the community. (left) Aradkuttan separating the slips for grasses to plant in new nursery bags

Harsha: How did you build your knowledge of nurseries? 


 I’ve never had any formal education on botany. I’ve learnt all that I know through my practical experiences over the years. My colleagues played a huge role, sharing their knowledge on seeds and nursery management. Last year, I attended a Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary training. I also spent much of my time observing plants and their flowering seasons and discussing my observations with colleagues. 


My knowledge on botany was close to nothing when I first started working at Keystone but some friends in my village gave me insights. On my own accord I felt compelled to read books on scientific names of plants, which deepened my understanding. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend many trainings in Kerala and Kodaikanal on nurseries. Even within Keystone, my former colleague taught me a lot.  


Harsha: What are some of the challenges faced while managing nurseries and working on eco-restoration projects? 


During my years of running a nursery, there have never been any insurmountable challenges to my work, except the occasional interference of unpredictable rain and the aftereffects. Another may be attempts to gain the support and trust of communities for restoration projects. 



In my experience, the biggest challenge in establishing a nursery is employing labour to take care of the plants. This affects the timeline of restoration projects – it is quite the task to find labour. Another problem that arises is the internal conflict between groups of people who have differing opinions on restoration. Some see the benefit it has, but others believe that it depletes water levels and instead increases human-wildlife interactions. 

In the image: The diversity of flora in the Kotagiri nursery.

Harsha: How has the local community responded to your work, and what does it mean for the future?


Most of my fellow villagers are positive towards the work our nursery does. People in my village are supportive about planting trees like gooseberry, as these are in demand. They also request us to plant more shade trees, which replenishes the groundwater. They are interested in growing patches of thick forests for aesthetic appeal. I think a future where such needs are met, and the community is made happy is something I envision.

In the neighbouring schools in and around my village, there is a huge demand for planting different trees, due to the empty spaces that need to be filled. Schools encourage the children to spend time in nature and the activity of birdwatching. My colleague and I often go to these schools and give them orientations to nursery management and botany. The students are often excited to carry out these activities in their homes by running kitchen gardens. Usually, they drag their parents to our nurseries once they attend our sessions.


Over the years, I’ve helped establish several nurseries – one near the old police station in Kotagiri town, and the neighbouring nursery (close to our campus) known as Happy valley. One of my observations is that open spaces are harder to maintain and that’s why it is essential to invest in fences around these spaces. My community has been receptive to my work, but those with additional knowledge on plants understand how nurseries improve groundwater levels. While most people respond positively, those that lack awareness are passive towards the work that we do.

I’ve realised that invasive species are degrading native Shola patches which is why I think nurseries are vital in saving these nearly endangered Shola species in the coming future. 





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