A visit to Coorg – the land of wild orchids, coffee and spices

Coorg is a lovely holiday destination in the southern part of India. It beckons you with  its natural beauty and quiet old world charm. Known for its miles and miles of coffee plantations, a stay in the heart of the plantations, close to nature, was indeed refreshing and rejuvenating.  The discovery of wild orchids growing freely all over the plantations and countryside made the visit extra special for me.  Read on to learn about this beautiful experience.

I love travelling to places rich in natural biodiversity. While this post is about my visit to Coorg, I must begin by telling you about where it all began. My first trip of this kind was a visit to Sikkim in the North East Himalayan region of India.

Coelogyne nitida blooming on a tree in Darjeeling, West Bengal
Image: Col. Mohan Joseph

It gave me a first hand experience of seeing orchids thrive in their natural habitat. The highlight of the trip was seeing the Coelogyne nitida in full bloom. To know more about this visit, you can read my blogpost on the same. I will provide a link in the description.

Coming to my recent visit to Coorg, it was equally exciting.  I could absorb the beauty of its rich natural biodiversity, which is nurtured by the river Kaveri and several large lakes in the region.

The rich biodiversity is nurtured by several lakes, and the River Kaveri

The lush greenery of the wild forests and coffee plantations along with the cloud covered peaks on the horizon make for a picturesque landscape. But what took my trip to the next level was seeing native orchids growing on trees on the coffee plantations. As an orchid hobbyist and enthusiast, my joy knew no bounds in watching them closely, growing undisturbed all along the countryside.

The climate of Coorg is pleasantly cool, with plenty of rainfall, which feeds the rivers and lakes in the region. The terrain is hilly and the fertile land is ideal for the cultivation of coffee and spices such as pepper. I also came upon a mulberry tree that had berries 2-3 inches long and were lip-smacking delicious. Bitter sweet oranges are also grown in Coorg, which are used for preparing marmalade and to add tang to the native dishes.

Offering a blend of a rich historical past, verdant landscapes, friendly people and delicious cuisine, Coorg had been on my wishlist since many years, and so a family trip and stay on the coffee plantation was just what I needed to recharge my batteries.

On arrival, we stayed in a villa style bungalow that had an old world charm and elegance to it. Its Victorian decor  was thoughtfully preserved and suitably embellished with modern amenities that blended perfectly with its rich interiors. 

Enjoyed the old world charm of this accomodation

Built in 1890, it gave us a peek into life in the early 1900s that was marked by colonialism. The pictures lining the hallways, the grandfather clock and chandeliers hanging from the wood-panelled ceiling, the large dining table, the king sized double bed and large bedrooms, as well as the brass fittings in the bathroom, completed the period feel of the accommodation.

To add to the feel, it also had a quaint old styled bicycle with one very small wheel, which was a challenge to balance since the two wheels were not connected by a chain. So balancing the wobbly wheels was a tricky proposition. My son finally managed to ride it, albeit it being a shaky experience.

Coffee bushes laden with ripe berries

I had never been on a coffee plantation before and so I was excited to get a closer look during my morning walk. The robust dark green leaves with green berries growing in bunches all along the stem was indeed a beautiful sight. The berries ripen to a deep red and then they are ready to be harvested. I was fortunate enough to spot some bushes that had coffee blossoms on them. The blooms look like beautiful bunches of jasmine growing on a bush. We enjoyed sipping coffee made from the beans grown on the plantation. It was fresh, aromatic and rich in flavour.

Interspersed between the coffee bushes were pepper vines climbing on tall trees that protect the coffee plants from strong direct sunlight. The vines were laden with bunches of peppercorns that looked amazingly beautiful. A lot of the dishes we ate were spiced up with the peppercorns grown on the plantation.

Wild orchids thriving on trees, adding to the beauty of the surroundings

Besides these experiences, the  wild orchids growing in the region looked healthy and beautiful in their own way. They are native to the Western Ghats. Most of them looked like Foxtail orchids (Rhyncostylis retusa), Dendrobium, Coelogyne and Bulbophyllum species. I had the opportunity to film some of them up close, but most of them were not in bloom. I found only one orchid blooming and have pictures of the same. It is now identified by Mr. Sujith, fellow orchid hobbyist and a native of Coorg, as Liparis viridiflora, popularly known as the Bottle brush orchid or Coorg Liparis.

As an orchid grower, I always find myself trying to provide grow conditions similar to those which grow in the wild. So, every opportunity I get, I study their habitat. This time, it was no different. I noticed that orchids do not grow on trees with thick foliage. They grow on trees that allow a good amount of diffused sunlight to stream in on them. While they do not like sun exposure throughout the day, they grow in places that get a decent amount of diffused light for a period of 3-4 hours every day.

A blooming Bottle Brush orchid – Liparis viridiflora

Wild orchid blooms are generally small and may not be as impressive as their hybrid counterparts,but they have their own place under the sun  and add to the rich biodiversity of the region. Clearing up of forests for urban development and infrastructure projects has impacted the growth and proliferation of these orchids. Efforts need to be put in to educate the public at large and ensure these species are protected by the native people.

Moreover, as people gain awareness of orchids, it also becomes important to prevent them from collecting wild orchid species and selling them. This is already a menace in some of the Northeastern Himalayan states of India, leading to their disappearance from certain regions. As a conscientious orchid hobbyist, I always believe in buying orchids from plant nurseries and advocate the same to my fellow hobbyists. We need to conserve wild orchids so that their blooms can be enjoyed by our future generations. It is a legacy that needs to be passed down from one generation to the next.

But Coorg has more to it than its verdant hills, vales, water bodies and orchids. Adding to the rich biodiversity of the region is the Dubare Elephant Training Camp, where elephants are fed, sheltered and looked after.  Located on the banks of the Kaveri river, it is indeed a sight to go rafting and observe elephants that come to river to bathe. These elephants are trained and are people-friendly. Watching a baby elephant splash around and relax blissfully while the trainer scrubbed it indulgently was indeed a lovely experience.

Rafting through the calm waters of the Kaveri, felt like being in the Amazon basin. There were trees and green patches in between the waters. Clumps of spider lilies bloomed along the edge of the water, giving it a beautiful natural look. The branches create a natural arch, and it was lovely sailing beneath them.

It was also a trip on which I could observe nature at close quarters. In our busy urban lifestyles, we have very little time to observe the tiny wonders of nature. The Coorg trip brought me closer to the sights, sounds and beauty of nature. Whether it was a butterfly sucking nectar from the vibrant cosmos flowers, a cricket basking in the sunshine, the leaf-like camouflage of a grasshopper or the tiny ladybird that caught my attention, I revelled in the slow pace of life with a child-like glee.

The gigantic Datura flowers in full bloom at night

Come night, and I had the opportunity to watch the huge Datura flowers (Brugmansia suaveolens; common name: Angel’s Trumpet / Devil’s Trumpet or Angel’s Trumpet) open up with their heady fragrance. I used to always wonder why the Devil’s Trumpet flowers are always droopy and never bloomed to their full potential and beauty. On one of the nights on the plantation, I was drawn to their sweet floral scent and was amazed to find them blooming in all their glory. The large blooms were fully open and looked like large pink and white trumpets that caught the smallest amount of light and were illuminated  in the dark.  I realised  then that they are night bloomers and attract night time pollinators by spreading their fragrance.

Indeed, there is a method and purpose to every tiny thing that happens in nature. I was struck by the amazing detail with which each event or action is planned and perfected by nature over thousands of years.

Mushrooms springing up overnight on this branch

Similarly, I noticed how mushrooms sprang up within a single night. I remembered filming a wild orchid on a low lying branch in the evening. The next morning, there was a clump of mushrooms that seemed to have sprung up overnight. I was again struck by how nature can leave you constantly amazed. How can such complex organisms grow to their full potential within a span of twelve hours?

Whatever the underpinnings of this creation, I am awestruck by the rhythm with which each life form grows and proliferates on this earth. We are fortunate to be born on this beautiful planet and must conserve the beauty of its diversity so that our future generations can savour these wonders of nature. 

Pholidota imbricata or Necklace Orchid growing freely on trees on the coffee plantations

I had planned to film orchids up close, but it had rained heavily the previous night and the plantations as well as the trekking paths  were infested with leeches. After a few started crawling into our shoes, we gave up the idea and bolted back to safety. I had to drop my plans of filming more orchids.

Bulbophyllum sterile growing freely on this tree near Abbey Falls

However, I took some shots of orchids near the Abbey waterfalls, which provides a sunny, yet humid environment for orchids. The waterfalls is beautiful with crystal clear waters and is framed with rocks and greenery, which provide a great backdrop. I found some Coelogyne, Bulbophyllum and Dendrobium orchids growing freely on trees in the area. Unfortunately, I couldn’t identify the species, but that did not dim my excitement as I filmed some of the native orchids.

I would have loved to go on filming some from up close, but lost out on that opportunity as too soon, our holiday came to an end. But I made a promise to myself that I would go back one day, better armed,  to explore and learn more about the orchids growing in the region.

Soon it was time to leave this beautiful place and return to the urban landscapes of Mumbai. Coorg is remarkable for its old world charm, unspoilt natural beauty, friendly people and delicious cuisine. The people of Coorg are worshippers of nature and are fiercely protective about the unspoilt beauty of their sylvan surroundings. No wonder then that people from cities love visiting Coorg for the simplicity and beauty it offers.

Please leave a comment or a suggestion. I always look forward to hearing from you.

Please watch my YouTube video covering my visit to Coorg.

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