Rhododendron heights

This is meant to be extremely literal: red rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum) in its native Himalayas grows at altitudes between 1500 and 2500 meters. This means that almost all of Kumaon is at the right altitude for this lovely blood red flower. Micro-climates can cause upward or downward fluctuations in this band. Human effort also brings it down to gardens at somewhat lower altitudes in India, but not to the plains. Climate change can also cause upward migration of the tree, but as as tourist you would not be able to disentangle the effect of micro-climate and global warming.

After several years, we’d come back to a hotel outside Almora which has a large area of jungle around it. We woke late, did a little birdwatching right from the balcony of our room. When we walked down for breakfast I was surprised to find no flowers on the rhododendron. Just a month before we’d been to a similar height and the rhodos had not started flowering. Early April is smack in the middle of the season. “Monkeys,” explained the person we asked. “They come and eat the flowers.” I found one flower which they had missed. That’s the one you see in the featured photo.

Discovering Marianne North

While looking for books on the wildflowers of Kumaon, I came across a mention of Marianne North (b 1830, d 1890). I knew little about her although she is famous enough to have a whole gallery devoted to her paintings at the Kew Gardens. I looked at a few examples, and realized that I’d missed something very special. The Victorian age was a time when the biodiversity of the world was under great scrutiny. Charles Darwin, and Alexander von Humboldt before him, were merely the most famous of explorers. Marianne North became one of them when she journeyed twice across the world, keeping painted records of what she saw.

I don’t have the time now to get a copy of the folio of her paintings of the flowers of Kumaon before I leave on my next holiday, but it is one that I intend to get (this post is a reminder). She lived at a time when botanical illustrations were in high demand, as Europe woke to the riches of flowers from across the world. Many of today’s common garden flowers in the temperate zones of the world are wildflowers of other continents. I will see and taste whole groups of them, rhododendrons, primula, magnolia, gentian, on my travels soon. Taste too, because wildflowers are used for flavouring food in Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it.

Himalayan wildflowers

Our senses are poor servants. Even colour sense, which is the most acute as it is the most important for our purpose, is weak. We have, it is true, definite names for many colours, but how many of us recognize them when we see them? But our colour names are few in comparison with the number of shades we wish to distinguish, and that is the measure of our vagueness. … Thus, we do not match flower colour, we merely indicate its quality; only haberdashers match colours.

Smells are even more indefinite. Some are indistinguishable from tastes, or the two are so involved that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. But there are only five primary tastes- sweet, bitter, saline, acid and pungent- not one of which can be confused with any smell; it is only when we come to deal with flavours that, again resorting to analogy, we get into difficulties. … In fact, we can do little with smells except classify them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘aromatic’ and ‘foetid’.

It is this capital difficulty which prevents people from attempting to say much about scent in flowers and leaves.

I quote from Frank Kingdon Ward’s book, The Riddle of Tsangspo Gorges

Poison anemone

I have been paying more attention to wild flowers since my trips to Kaas in the last couple of years. It took some time to identify the very ordinary looking flower that I saw on the grassy verge of a mountain path on the way to the Great Himalayan National Park. It is probably the ratanjot (Anemone obtusiloba). This turned out to be special in two ways. Firstly, it is mildly poisonous, since it contains an oil (called protoanemonin; such an inventive name!) which causes severe stomach irritation when eaten, and also local irritation if it touches the skin. I am happy not to be a compulsive sniffer of flowers. The Young Niece is not so careful, but this was growing so close to the ground that she didn’t stoop to examine it. In the perpetual arms race between plants and grazers, this anemone seems to have the upper hand now.

Secondly, it turns out to be extremely variable, with yellow, white or blue flowers. When I read this out, The Family asked “What causes the different colours in the flowers? Is it the soil?” A little searching led me to web sites on gardening which seem to indicate that the colours run true for plants. It is genes and not external factors which affect the colour. That’s a little bit like skin colour in humans. But the flowers seem to be even more variable than in colour; apparently they can be twice as large, or even change in shape somewhat. Since the plant grows across a wide altitude belt, from 2000 to 4500 meters, this seems to be a strategy to attract a very diverse set of pollinators. I was surprised to look at the photo and see that I captured one of these pollinators in the frame. It is a bee which is just enough out of focus for me not to be able to identify it.

But perhaps the biggest surprise to me was that the root of this plant is used in Himalayan home remedies. In Nepal it is mashed up and the paste is eaten to relieve coughs and colds. In the region of Kedarnath a decoction of the root is used as a cure for diarrhoea. I found a paper which investigated its effect on several common soil bacteria, and found that it inhibits the growth of several. This potentially useful plant has developed a defense against grazers, and seems to be surviving climate change till now. Sometimes in your travels you can come across unsung heroes.

The original rose

I’ve seen the Himalayan wild rose all across the northern mountains. My hard drive has photos tagged “HWrose” taken over the last ten years in the eastern Himalayas (Bhutan, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), the middle Himalayas (Uttarakhand), and from the western Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh). One of this last group you see in the featured photo. The bushes range in size from a little less than my height to somewhat taller than me. When I pointed this out to The Young Niece, she said “Really?” and smelt one of them. I’d not thought of doing that ever before, so I took a little sniff, and, sure enough, there was a faint aroma. Now a quick search told me that I should properly call this the Himalayan musk rose (Rosa moschata).

This rainy weekend was the perfect time to sit down and read about the history of roses. It is a complicated history, with lots of characters, and many twists and turns. The first suspects are the Chinese roses, with wonderful names like Old Blush and Tea Roses. But I found that the evolution of scent in these roses have nothing to do with the musk rose. So I changed track and decided to focus on Damask roses. These have been used for centuries in the production of attar; rose water (gulkand) is used in food, and the petals are often used in sweets. It is said that this came to India with the Mughals. Indeed the Baburnama, reputed to be the first autobiography in Islamic literature, speaks of Ferghana with its roses and Tulips. In Europe this rose is called the Castilian rose, but its likely origin is Central Asia. Indeed there are stories of Romans taking this rose to Europe, and also of European religious crusaders taking it back from Damascus.

From here the search quickly led me to a paper on the triparental origin of Damask roses. Through a wonderful series of observations and deductions, the authors of this study find that the Damask rose was cultivated through at least two hybridizations. The first step was the pollination of the ovule of Rosa moschata with the pollen of Rosa gallica. As a result, the bush and the leaves retain the form of the musk rose. Soon after this, the ovule of this hybrid was pollinated with pollen taken from the Central Asian variety called Rosa fedschenkoana.

The mountain rose which The Young Niece taught me to smell is truly the mother of roses: the rose of Babur, the roses of York and Lancaster, the roses which by any other name would smell as sweet.