Little Flower Farms is an oasis of calm in Vagamon, Kerala. With this aerial view of the urava (pond, in Malayalam) comes a sense of the lushness of this part of the Western Ghats. Among the plants growing here are (seen in this image): Diospyros buxifolia (Box-leaf persimmon), Hopea parviflora (Malabar ironwood), Bambusa (bamboo), Bentinckia condapanna (hill areca nut), Podocarpus gracilior (African fern pine). Photo: Govind Nair.

Rewilding in God’s Own Country: The Little Flower Farm Story

To enter the 7-acre expanse of Little Flower Farms is to experience life in the lush forests of the Western Ghats. Nestled in the popular but relatively calm hill station of Vazhikkadavu, Vagamon, the property sits 1,200 metres above sea level, straddling the Idukki and Kottayam districts of Kerala. The land, once part of the shola grasslands, was converted into a tea plantation in the 1990s, spread over 2.5 acres. Over time, it was reduced to a grassy hill dotted with a sparse array of trees, shrubs, herbs and climbers, mostly fire survivors. 

‘Our actual goals of owning the land were afforestation, promotion of biodiversity and environmental consciousness. Of course, job opportunities for the local people were a by-product,’ says Kochuthresia Thomas, 72, who bought the property in 2001 along with her husband, the late KJ John. ‘He was instrumental in the ways in which the space evolved from barren terrain to a biodiverse sanctuary, an engineer with a passion for farming,’ she says. At the time, Kochuthresia was a botany professor at All Saints College, Thiruvananthapuram. Thanks to two decades of dedicated rewilding by the family, Little Flower Farms now boasts a lush landscape. The property is home to over 500 plant species, including pachotti (Symplocos racemosa), pullani (Wendlandia thyrsoidea), vatta (Macaranga indica) and thondi (Ficus hispida, or Eramu naaku in Malayalam).

Forested and restored Little Flower Farms, seen from above here, spreads across a hillside in Vazhikkadavu in Vagamon, Kerala (1). Its dining area is covered with trees, as seen in this aerial shot: Elaeocarpus tuberculatus (warty marble tree), Ficus hispida (hairy fig), Calliandra calothyrsus (spiked powder puff) (2). The property is full of lush, dense foliage—look up close to admire its varied foliage: ferns, lily, iresene, alocasia (3). Photos: Thomas John (1), Govind Nair (2), Antony BM (3). 

‘Rewilding is about starting on a clean slate, with no reference to what the landscape supported historically, and trying to bring it back. In my opinion, rewilding should be based on reconciliation ecology—introducing very ordinary species that easily colonise and perform their function in the ecosystem,’ says Dr M Soubadra Devy, a senior fellow of the SMS Foundation Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Reconciliation ecology is often more meaningful than recreating the species that was growing there earlier, as can be seen in this case.

Currently managed by Kochuthresia’s son, Thomas John, and his wife, Rekha Thomas, the property also features a homestay to sustain their conservation efforts. In 2012, Thomas, who had worked in investment banking and had lived in Bengaluru, New York and Thiruvananthapuram, decided to move to Vagamon for good, employing members of the local community in his tourism venture.

All in the family: Kochuthresia Thomas and her husband, the late KJ John had a vision (seen in the top image in 2003), in the early days when there was little cover for the land that currently makes up Little Flower Farms. Their sons took on this mission with their mother, seen as a team in this image from the early 2000s; Kochuthresia Thomas (far right) with her sons, Joseph (far left) and Thomas (centre). This legacy continues today: (bottom) Kochuthresia Thomas (from right to left), Rekha Thomas, Thomas John and Joseph John. Photos: Thomas John (1 and 3); Kochuthresia Thomas (2).

Today, people from all over the country visit Little Flower Farms, drawn by an active social media presence showcasing stunning vistas and inviting meditative spaces. When The Kodai Chronicle visited for three days, we met a pilot who had travelled from Kolkata to spend a day and night at the property, inspired by the Indian band When Chai Met Toast, who shot a music video here. We spent most of our time swimming at nearby waterfalls and in the property’s own rustic outdoor pool. On dry land, we savoured long communal meals featuring classic Malayali dishes such as beans thoran (stir-fried French beans) and olathu erachi (fried beef) with novel touches like soursop and starfruit, and photographed the gorgeous flowers and plants that fill the farm.

The walk up to the urava and viewpoints by the farm’s camp site all pass through this pathway (1); first, there is the dining area, and an open area for tea, drinks and contemplation (2). Little Flower Farms is a playground for children and adults both, they tell us (3). Photo: Thomas John (1-2); Antony BM (3).

Initially, the tree saplings the Johns planted either died or showed poor growth. The heavy mist and strong winds proved too much for the newly introduced plants, and water scarcity, with springs and wells drying up by February, was a huge hurdle, too. Another challenge was the annual summer fires, usually man-made, which affected the vegetation. ‘Our awareness of the prevailing environment was very limited,’ recalls Kochuthresia. The trees that managed to survive went on to provide shade and act as wind barriers in the years to come.

‘Gradually, experience taught us the necessity of improving the land to achieve our vision,’ she adds. The terrain was steep, the shallow soil subjected to periodic erosion, the fertile topsoil being washed away with every shower, causing major hiccups in the growth of newly planted saplings. ‘We modified the land, terraced it, built small and large boxes, and filled them with soil, plant debris, cow dung, compost and coir pith. Gradually, the earth showed signs of improvement. The laborious task of land-nurturing continued for years and still continues,’ says Kochuthresia.

Kochuthresia is what Malayalis call St Theresa, who is referred to as ‘the little flower of Jesus’—the origin of the farm’s name. During summer breaks from teaching at the college, she would visit the property with indigenous and exotic saplings. She enlisted help from the local community, who continued the work when she had to return to her job in Thiruvananthapuram. ‘We often accompanied our staff from the nearby locality on collection trips to study the vegetation pattern,’ she says.

Kochuthresia had clearly thought it through. ‘My association with trees and afforestation became more and more intimate during 1990–2007. While in Thiruvananthapuram, I had the opportunity to associate with a non-governmental organisation, Friends of Trees, whose prime objective is the promotion of environmental awareness, particularly for the conservation and enrichment of tree wealth outside the forest areas,’ she reminisces.

Once she retired from teaching in 2007, the family shifted base to live on the Little Flower property, where she could devote more time tending to the plants.

Vagamon is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Kerala, and a hub around which smaller scenic villages cluster around. Its residents are accustomed to its steep roads and stunning curves. Seen here: a beautiful sunset at ‘Eagle Rock’ in Parunthumpara, 6 kilometres from Peerumedu and 25 kilometres from Thekkady, near Vagamon (1); rolling hills on a cloudy day, around the town of Vagamon, which sees heavy rain during the monsoon, between June and November (2); the view from Little Flower Farms, looking out at the opposite mountains (3). Photos: Nesru Markmedia/ Shutterstock (1), Rahul Raju/ Shutterstock (2) and Thomas John (3).

From Dormant to Green

Little Flower Farms boasts a huge exotic collection, in addition to its indigenous species. ‘My mother loves leaf textures and colours. Here, we have more leaves than flowers,’ says Thomas. To counteract soil erosion on the sloping terrain, plants with strong rooting systems, such as reed bamboo (Ochlandra travancorica), were introduced. Plenty of spices are also grown here, including ginger, turmeric, galangal, mint, peppermint, basil, rosemary, oregano, lemongrass, all spice, pepper and pandan.

‘We tried planting several fruit species, but only species of Psidium (guava), jackfruit, Eugenia, Citrus, Physalis (cape gooseberry) and Passiflora (passionfruit) showed positive results. Vegetables other than gourds performed well during the dry season,’ says Kochuthresia. She also observed that ferns of diverse species grew in abundance.

As her age caught up with her, Kochuthresia moved 6 kilometres away, to a house in Vellikulam. This new location, set on less elevated and more even terrain, allowed her to plant tree saplings that did not grow at Little Flower Farms. Over two decades, she has created a rich collection of indigenous trees, shrubs, herbs, medicinal herbs, fruit trees, tubers and spices here, and visitors can experience this space too.

Thomas now provides the guests at the homestay with food cooked using the produce from both the land spaces. Some of the harvested fruits and vegetables are quickly turned into juice concentrate, pickles and jam. ‘The only revenue coming in is from the homestay and camping. This income fuels everything—our reforestation, new planting, our commitment to the community,’ he says.

The family also stopped plucking tea in 2009, allowing the tea bushes to grow to a height of 15–20 feet. ‘We now have a tea forest of sorts,’ says Thomas. Along with the intercropping of rainforest vegetation, they plan to leave the tea plantation to remain as it is in the years to come. ‘The conventional way of afforestation and biodiversity is a Himalayan task. Plus, the tea plants also act as a barrier from forest fires and act as a support to pepper.’

Small farms across India have opened up their spaces to visitors and active engagement with their lush green offerings and produce. Among them is Little Flower Farms, which has an active Instagram account, which promotes tourism to this part of the Western Ghats. Visitors hail from all over the globe. Image courtesy Little Flower Farms.
Time at a farmstay means meals around the clock and conversations with residents who live and work on its lands. Guests who visit Little Flower Farms are hosted by Thomas (1) as well as a group of women, including (from left to right) Sini, Rekha, Shanthamma and Sindhu (2), who coordinate food, stay, waterfall visits and much more. Photos: Thomas John.

Hope in the Western Ghats

There are other such rewilding projects unfolding globally, undertaken by both private and governmental organisations to increase green cover. Created in 2020, the Global Rewilding Alliance says rewilding the Earth will ‘stabilize the climate, halt mass extinction, and reduce the risks of new pandemics’.

The Agasthyavanam Biological Park in Kerala covers an area of 31 square kilometres. It is located in the Agasthiyamalai range of the Western Ghats (seen here). The southwest monsoon brings the rain up to the ghats in Kerala, while the other side, located in Tamil Nadu, remains dry: the rain shadow region of Tirunelveli. Photo: PlaneMad/ WikiCommons.

Closer home, the Western Ghats are no different from other parts of the globe. ‘Agasthyavanam Biological Park in Kerala and Courtallam Eco Park in Tamil Nadu are also examples of rewilding efforts,’ says Dr Devy. Established in 1997, the former was set up near Thiruvananthapuram for the regeneration, conservation and propagation of a variety of wild animals, birds and plants. Although the area received good rainfall, it quickly drained into the Arabian Sea, causing the land to be barren for six months every year. Arrangements were then made to build small check dams to conserve water. The eco-park in Courtallam was set up over an extent of 37.23 acres in Tirunelveli district at a cost of Rs 5.73 crore in 2012. The farm belonging to the Tamil Nadu Horticulture Development Agency (TANHODA) has been converted to accommodate the park, featuring a fern garden, bamboo avenue, butterfly garden and a rock garden.

Little Flower Farm, while maintaining a low volume of tourists, has provided job opportunities to the community living around the land and has protected the landscape, thus setting an example of how we can take on the responsibility of preserving the Earth’s biodiversity. Yes, only government bodies can execute projects on a larger scale, but Kochuthresia and her family have, over the past two decades, shown that individuals—the same humans that take from the environment—can also provide remedies to the challenges that the planet faces. And that is perhaps the kind of restoration that the Earth can never have enough of.

To learn more about Little Flower Farms or to plan your stay, visit their website or their Instagram profile. Accommodation options include tent lodging between December and April, and four rooms that are available year-round (the latter starts at Rs 12,000 per night, all meals included). The closest railway station is Kottayam, which is 60 kilometres away, and the closest airport is Cochin International, 100 kilometres away.

This story was written with inputs from Rajni George.

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Previous Story

A Slow Walk Through the Nilgiri Hills 

Next Story

Hidden Spaces: Inside Kodaikanal’s Solar Observatory