The specimens of this herbarium have been collected in the Pitchandikulam Forest of Auroville, Tamil Nadu in southeastern India.
Digital samples of plants found in this virtual herbarium include :
It is safe to assume that the entire Indian peninsula (except for areas with extreme environmental conditions), prior to the massive anthropogenic degradation, was a single forest entity. Even the most degraded and barren lands today were at some point in time covered by forests. This original forest cover was evolving in various stages of ecological succession in response to natural disturbances (cyclones, fires, opening of the canopy…). Its varied composition of species was adapted to the local ecological conditions.
More than 95% of the original forest cover of the whole of the Indian subcontinent has been destroyed during the past thousand years. More locally, the thick evergreen jungle of these coastal plains, once home to elephants and tigers, has been felled massively in the last 500 years.
All the forests of the coastal plains became densely populated areas. Cities and their unending sprawl, roads and highways, polluting industries, energy production and intensive agriculture (including grazing) are responsible for the severe degradation and destruction of almost all the forest cover.
Overexploitation and overgrazing gradually degrade the forest first into scrub-woodland, dense thicket, lower and discontinuous thickets and finally into barren soil. When repeated fires accompany these pressures, the grasses are favoured and the forest cover is progressively reduced to savannah-woodland, tree savannah, shrub savannah and finally to grass savannah.
The forests that remain today along the Coromandel Coast are tiny simplified and disturbed samples of the original ecosystems.
These scattered patches of remnant forests can be experienced :
Some of these minuscule relict tracts of forest have been preserved in far more advanced stages of the succession of species in the vegetation. They therefore have a more evergreen composition of species adapted to the local ecological conditions and indicative of less intensive anthropogenic pressure. Because these relict forests have been relatively less degraded, they show a unique species composition and physiognomy.
The local climate (with an annual average rainfall of 1200 mm) combined with the capacity of a mature forest to retain moisture and to create cooler microclimatic conditions explain the presence of evergreen species.
Elsewhere, the degradation by man has resulted in the formation of dry landscapes with harsh ecological conditions in which the surviving vegetation belongs to much earlier stages of the vegetal succession. Thus, it is predominantly deciduous and thorny due to extreme grazing pressure, repeated fires and prevailing aridity.
This is why these relict tracts of evergreen species are of incomparable value. It is these that have allowed Auroville foresters to spread their germplasm gradually on the Auroville plateau and safeguard the little remaining diversity of the local flora. Today, several of these once extremely vulnerable species are regenerating naturally in Auroville’s young forests.
Pitchandikulam Forest is one of the several replanted forests of Auroville, an international township inaugurated in 1968, inspired by Sri Aurobindo's philosophy and founded by the Mother (Mira Alfassa) in accordance with her dream of human unity. The dry and eroded plateau where the first Aurovilians settled turned from dusty red to green.
Pitchandikulam Forest was born in 1973. Plantations and restoration of the soil began in a sterile landscape with little to no information regarding the species that could be introduced successfully. After early failures, the biological productive capacity of the land was restored with no more than people’s energy and a bullock cart. Seedlings were introduced from the remnant patches of the almost extinct local forest into the increasingly shaded land. Nurseries were started to propagate local plant species.
Today Pitchandikulam Forest is a 60 acres, self-generating forest with a large diversity of flora (about 350 species of trees, shrubs and climbers) and fauna.
Over the years Pitchandikulam Forest grew into a wide organization that launches several projects in the fields of reforestation, medicinal plants, environmental education programs, social ecology, informative and naturalistic art.