Paradise for plant lovers

02:26, Jul 23 2012
BRIGHT SPOT: Rhododendron arboreum in full flower amoung the mists at an altitude similar to the top of Mt Cook.

In the east of Bhutan, where few tourists visit and thus toilets between towns are almost non-existent, al-fresco facilities are the order of the day, when you can be on the road for eight or 10 hours just to cover about 200 kilometres.

In a country where there is still more than 70 per cent of the original forest cover, this shouldn't pose too many problems in terms of finding a discreet spot.

However, being at least 2500 metres up in the Himalayan foothills means that for most of the time, there's a sheer drop on one side of the road and a cliff face on the other.

USEFUL TREES: Daphne bark is soaked ready for making into paper in Bhutan's capital, Thimpu.

In springtime, especially above about 3000m, these same mountainsides are ablaze with rhododendrons - maroon, purple, scarlet, candy pink and white. Some species favour boggy gullies which, coincidentally, are one of the few places that can be accessed from the road.

This is why it is possible to find oneself communing with nature underneath the floriferous boughs of rhododendron species over which home gardeners would go weak at the knees.

I can't think of anywhere else in the world where necessity so perfectly combines with botanical research and scenic beauty.


RHODODENDRON ARBOREUM: This can grow up to 12m high, so it's not always easy to find a specimen to photograph.

The Bhutanese love their rhododendrons too, although they often pick large sprays of flowers to wedge in the bumper bars, or the radiator grills of their vehicles.

Tourists clambering up hills or slogging through swamps to photograph the flowers still afford passers-by a great deal of amusement. It's the equivalent of Kiwis chuckling when we see tourists taking photos of sheep.

On this last trip, I popped out of a thicket of rhododendrons where I had merely been taking close-up photos only to encounter a jeep with flashing lights and an entourage of shiny four-wheel-drives.

bhutan yak
HIGH LIFE: A yak and her baby among the rhododendrons about 3500m above sea level in Central Bhutan.

It was conveying the country's most senior religious figure, the Je Khenpo (chief abbot), home from a trip to the east. We were all surprised to see each other. These things do happen in Bhutan.

Rhododendrons flower in the Bhutanese Himalayas, to the east of Nepal and Sikkim, during at least a four-month period. Some species begin to bloom in March. Others are still in flower in June. There are about 50 species in the country, including several unique to Bhutan.

Seeing rhododendrons in the wild is a different experience from viewing them in a botanic garden or specialist rhododendron garden. Rhododendrons can grow up to 15 metres high in the Himalayas, sometimes higher.

They are truly tree-sized, so consequently they don't always grow close together. This also means that sometimes the flowers are enticingly out of reach.

During this last Himalayan spring, I was in remote eastern Bhutan travelling west and approaching the summit of 3800m Thumsing La ("la" means pass).

In New Zealand, tree lines can be as low as about 950m, so it always amazes me that even well above the 3000m mark in Bhutan, you are still in luxuriant forest.

To say the road winds up to the pass is somewhat of an understatement. The average speed on the open road in Bhutan is about 20kmh, because it is so mountainous, the drops are vertiginous and the road is tortuous.

There are only about two stretches of straight road longer than 500m in the whole country and one of these is the road alongside Bhutan's only international airport runway.

Every time we hit those straights the bus reaches speeds of up to 45km. It's a white-knuckle ride. I reckon the bus driver's nostrils even flare a little with the horizontal G-force.

Most of Bhutan's rhododendrons grow above 2400m, the bulk probably above 3000m, with some smaller species even growing at up to 5500m.

The wild rhododendrons on the hills surrounding Thumsing La grow among tall fir cypress and hemlock trees. The latter are a member of the pine family and have nothing to do with the poison hemlock plant.

The first rhododendrons we encountered flowering in profusion at this height were waxy white, with splashes of deep red in their throats. Growing several metres high, they were hard to photograph until we made a bathroom stop and could struggle up a gully to get a closer look and identify them as Rhododendron falconeri.

Here the rhododendrons were growing on very small hummocks in what was effectively a bog. The only way to reach them was by leaping from one spongy hummock to another, trying to avoid the ankle-deep water in between.

It seemed the opposite conditions to how we would grow rhododendrons at home.

Higher up, drifts of bright-red Rhododendron arboretum appeared and at their feet were clumps of mauve drumstick primula, Primula denticulata, or Himalayan primrose.

These were in flower prolifically over much of Bhutan in spring. Children pick them by the handfuls while walking to and from school.

(Few if any children get car rides to school in Bhutan. Even school buses are uncommon in rural areas. In Probjika valley, there are still primary-aged children who walk three hours each way to school, six days a week).

Further to the west in central Bhutan among a tract of forest in pristine condition, tree-sized Rhododendron arboretum were smothered in lolly-pink flowers.

Others had tight clusters of butter-yellow blooms. The undersides of their giant leaves were furry brown.

While we stopped to take photographs, a herd of skittish yaks passed by. There were several cute calves among them, some pure black and others piebald.

Keeping a watchful eye on them was a woman yakherd, a semi-nomad, who was spinning yak hair with a drop spindle as she walked along the road.

Once over the pass into the Probjika valley, home of the children who put in six-hour walks to and from school every day, the ancient forests gave way to tracts of dwarf bamboo interspersed with thickets of Rhododendron thomsonii with their rounded, green, glossy leaves and bright-red bell-shaped flowers.

Fringing the bamboo was a species of euphorbia ( Euphorbia griffithii) with bright-orange flowers. Although this is available in some New Zealand nurseries, the sight of it growing wild seems to regularly cause outbreaks of horticultural lust among green-fingered Kiwis.

Probjika is one of the only glacial valleys in Bhutan and because there is an underlying layer of clay on the valley floor, it is very poorly drained.

Rhododendrons are one of the most common plants on the southern lower slopes of the valley and again they seem to congregate where water flows just centimetres below the grass cover.

Even for the non-botanically minded, plant spotting in Bhutan is fascinating because every area seems to have a different array of flowering plants.

This was my first visit to the Haa Valley, the westernmost valley in the country, on the border with Tibet. Once a sensitive military area because of its strategic location, Haa was out of bounds to tourists until 10 years ago.

It's another high valley at about 2670m and the pass that connects it to Paro, the site of Bhutan's main airport and the arrival point for most visitors, is considered to be the highest motorable pass in the country at 3810m.

There, drifts of the lily of the valley shrub or Pieris formosa were flowering, the only place I saw it on this trip. A few kilometres away, the damp banks beside the road were studded with Primula calderiana, a beautiful deep-purple primrose.

It wasn't until this, our highest pass, that we spotted the last species of rhododendrons we had been hunting for - the orange-yellow cinnabarium, with its long, elongated, bell-shaped flowers.

On the high passes at the same altitude as the rhododendrons, the bare branches of Magnolia campbellii, with their giant white flowers, made bright splashes against the dark-green forest, as did the odd michaelia tree.

Our driver, Nado, would obligingly brake smartly, so that a volunteer, usually me, could be sent up a bank to bring back a flower from an otherwise inaccessible shrub. We found viburnum this way - a white and pink-flowered one, and another pure white. Daphne bloomed in dry clay soils under fir trees at lower altitudes.

In Bhutan, it is the bark of the daphne which is in demand, rather than its sweet-smelling flowers. The bark is used in traditional papermaking. It is soaked, pounded and turned into paper that is popular for gift-wrapping, but also for special deeds documents and sacred writing.

One of Bhutan's leading papermakers makes especially decorative paper by studding plain sheets with wildflower petals, but it is a leafy Himalayan native that often makes visitors do a double-take.

Cannabis grows wild in Bhutan and the Government runs yearly campaigns to uproot plants especially near towns in an effort to curb its use by young people especially, but the odd leaf or two still sneaks into the daphne paper.

Traditionally, it has long been used as a food for pigs. Apparently, on cannabis fodder they grow fat and happy.

The Timaru Herald