My search for people working on Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (TDEF) led me to the Auroville Botanical Garden. Started 10 years ago by Walter Gastmans, Auronevi Pingel and Paul Blanchflower, it is a 50-acre, man-made forest comprising 250 species and growing.

With a degree in Forest Ecology from Scotland, Paul is the garden's full-time director. When they first started to work on the garden, there were thousands of self-propagated Acacia auriculiformis, an Australian species that is an excellent pioneer tree for foresting barren lands.

Most of these were cut down, leaving just enough to provide shelter for the native saplings that were planted amongst them. As Paul points out, this is a forest that regenerates in the shade and most of its nutrients are locked in the canopy. So if the forest is gone and the soil is poor, considerable investment has to be made to ensure that the native saplings survive. This is where the Australian acacia works wonders by not only enriching the soil with nitrogen, but also providing a suitable microclimate for the native trees to flourish. Once the saplings take hold and reach a certain height, the acacias are taken out.

Auroville is a massive seed bank of TDEF species. During the early years of planting, several Aurovillians travelled to tiny patches of remnant forests and sacred groves for seed collection. These have grown into trees, cross-pollinated with individuals from other forests and the genetic diversity of the resulting seeds is probably richer in Auroville now than elsewhere. So, when the Botanical Garden was to be established, Paul didn't have to go far to find seeds.

Besides being a repository of native trees, the Garden is also a large open-air classroom for schoolchildren. They spend the day exploring a labyrinth (check it out on Google Earth), learn how plants cope with the lack of water at the cactus garden, and discover that grasses provide 50 per cent of our nutrients, besides roofing and other construction materials.

Paul also plans to start propagating native species as houseplants that require little water and remain green even in the dry season.

I asked Paul what he saw as the future of TDEF — was it destined to hang on in tiny pockets, no longer in touch with compatriots in other parts of the range? He recalled his visit to the 300-acre TVS factory in Hosur, which he is landscaping. About 30 per cent of the land area is set aside for vegetation and 10 per cent for water bodies alone, which has attracted a large number of painted storks and other migrants. Bullet wood and other deciduous trees have already been planted, and Paul has plans to plant native fruit-bearing trees to attract more birds.

Generally, most afforestation programmes have used hard seeds as they are more resilient to heat and are viable for a long time. Seeds of forest fruit trees are not only more difficult to collect but also to germinate; their oils attract insects that bore into them. Although they pose a propagation challenge, the rewards are the numerous species of birds and other animals they support.

Other landscaping projects of Paul's include the Hyatt in Chennai where he's experimenting with a mixed species hedge. He declares that although he's not a ‘TDEF extremist', he tries to create a relationship between local varieties of plants and his clients. When he started work on Mahindra Resort, south of Puducherry, they weren't particular about TDEF, but now after winning environmental awards, the company has begun championing the conservation of a very rare forest type.

Since visiting the Garden, and now that summer is upon us, I'm thinking of ridding my garden of water-guzzling exotic houseplants and replacing them with local species. And, I would urge you to do the same — try to source local saplings and plants rather than foreigners such as raintree and gulmohar.

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)