Since we walked through fog for many hours, I couldn’t admire the scenery. I went back to my favourite eye-exercise, looking at plants and flowers. So this is not an exhaustive survey of the flora of Singalila ridge, not a treatise on the key plants in the ecology, but just the things that caught my eye. If I wanted to put a gloss on it, I might call it listing plants along a transect. Our path descended from Tonglu, a little above 3000 meters, to Chitre, a little below 2500 meters. The flora changed considerably over this descent.
At the upper end of our walk, just below Tonglu, we saw many thistles. It was past their autumn period of seed dispersal, but a few stray silk chutes still clung on to the spiny seed pods. I like to take photos of thistles in summer, during their flowering, and autumn, during seed dispersal. This was the first time I’d seen so many in winter, and I realized this is another good season for photographing thistles. I’m not expert enough to recognize the species from its seed pod in winter. Somewhat lower down I thought I noticed the leaves of an Indian globe thistle.
Less common, but still abundant were the rhododendrons. Kunzum told us that the slopes are red in spring with their flowers, so these must be Rhododendrum arboreum. At the highest part of our walk they grew in single stunted bushes. Lower down they were little forests of short trees. They had begun budding already. I’ve seen seed pods of Rhodos before, so I was very puzzled by these completely different structures on the tree. Rhodos do not let their seeds fly away in the breeze, so what were these plants? I think they are another plant growing in the wind shadow provided by the Rhodo, but I don’t know what they are.
After Meghma we began to see oaks, the Quercus leucotrichophora or Himalayan white oak. They are called banj in the western Himalayas. Kunzum didn’t have a name for it. Growing on them was something that looked like a species of Tillandsia, perhaps even Spanish moss. I was a little hesitant to give it that ID, but then I remembered that this ecosystem was disturbed heavily in colonial times. Pineapple, the most well-known member of the family Bromelaceae, is now grown extensively across Asia, and perhaps no one remembers that it is an exotic. So it is possible that Tillandsia, another member of the family also travelled far.
As we descended the number of species of larger plants definitely increased, and I began to see more and more things that I did not recognize. This plant is certainly in the large family Asteraceae, which bear complex flowers. To recall what is a complex flower, think of a sunflower. Each “petal” is actually a flower all by itself, and its center consists of individual small flowers. They’ve all fused together into what we usually think of as a single flower. This family is so large that I have trouble identifying them all. Any help is always welcome.
Then there were these interesting plants. The first had leaves like a holly. Kunzum told us of a person who’d identified it via Google Lens as Indiana Holly. I don’t think that is a valid identification. All these machine learning algorithms are coverconfident and jump to conclusions. They have trouble telling people that they are not sure what something is. The false holly was entwined with a bush that Kunzum knew of. He scraped the bark with his thumbnail and showed the bright yellow colour of the stem inside. He told us that it was the plant that is used locally to make the yellow colour for religious paintings. The flowers belong to the same plant.
Then, just before we made the final descent to Chitre, we saw two lovely plants. The flowers were growing on a banj tree, but they are clearly not oak flowers. They were a wild orchid. I don’t know the species, but it should be easy to identify since there aren’t many that flower in winter. Next to it is the final puzzle plant that I saw. I hadn’t seen a pine with such long needles in the Himalayas before, but Kunzum was quite certain that many grew around Darjeeling. Later I saw a type specimen in the Lloyd Botanical Garden. It is an exotic, Pinus patula, commonly called the Patula pine or the Mexican weeping pine. With so many exotics, this ecosystem will never go back to what it was before the 19th century botanists came here.