A morning’s walk

Cold and clear, the morning was perfect for a walk. We pushed aside a dry thorn bush which served as a gate in the wall next to the road and stepped on to the steep path which led up to Messar Kund. The gate was very close to our hotel in Munsiyari. We had figured that it would take us an hour for this walk, and we could be back in time for breakfast.

There was a gentle climb to start with, as the stony path rose through a mixed forest of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) and Rhododendron arboreum. At this height the rhododendron was still putting out new leaves. It always amazes me that the colours of spring are those of autumn in reverse. The new leaves start off bright red, and, as they get the sun, they slowly begin to produce chloroplasts, and change to green. In between, the red and green mix to give wonderful yellows. In autumn as the chloroplasts die, the reverse change occurs.

The path kept getting steeper. We stopped above the trees to get this lovely view of Munsiyari. On a clearer day we would have seen the Panchachauli massif from here. I admired the forest: a mix of oak and rhodo, on this slope, with the long needled chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) on the neighbouring slope. It wasn’t only the rhodo putting out new leaves, the oaks were doing that too. There was still some smoke down in the valley, but here the air was clear. We took off our jackets and put them in my backpack. A few sips of water, a handful of nuts and raisins, and we were ready to climb again.

The next part was steep, and looking at it, I stowed the camera in my backpack. There were white and yellow wildflowers growing between the stones, but I didn’t stop to photograph them. Suddenly, after a short steep walk, we were at a meadow with a beautiful clear lake beyond it. The ground up here was damp. The previous night’s rain had been heavy, but it had successfully doused fires and cleared the smoke from the air. The air was crisp, cool, as the sun peeked over the treeline above us. We sat on a stone above the fall and looked out at the valley below. The view was interrupted by branches.

I walked around the huge boulder at the edge. Two different kinds of lichens grew on it. The dark green one was flecked with colour. I suppose this is the variety of lichen which can leach minerals from stone and bind it to organic molecules. They are an essential part of the cycle of life out here. The amazing shape of the white lichen probably tells us that it has been growing on this rock for a long time. I looked at the rock carefully; it had round eye-like inclusions which made me think that I was looking at an example of Augen Gneiss. That would make it among the oldest rocks in this region, formed almost two billion years ago. The lichen is a mayfly in comparison.

It was much faster going down. We stopped to watch a white throated laughing thrush search for food. It was manic, we kept losing sight of it in the flurry of leaves it scattered as it looked below them for food. It is a species in search of genus; it was once the Garrulax albogularis, then became Pterorhinus albogularis, and recently has been renamed Ianthoconcia albogularis. The shifts in name reflect the ferment in classification of birds due to the ever expanding data on genetics. It seems to like the middle heights in this season; we’ve seen the bird quite frequently in the last two months at heights of 1500 meters and above. We were down very quickly, less than the hour we had estimated. Time for us to scatter leaves; time for our breakfast.

Changes

Flowering of the Rhododendron arboreum, the tree Rhododendron, is said to be extremely temperature sensitive. My own experience also verifies this. Four years ago I found that the second week of March was too early for flowers at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (altitude 2500 m) in Sikkim. But when I was in Yuksom (altitude 1780 m) the previous day, the red Rhododendron had been in full bloom. I verified it this year again. At Kolakham (altitude 1980 m) in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal I could see Rhododendron buds in early March, but in Latpanchar (altitude 1500 m) they were already in full bloom when I went there the next day. When we reached our hotel outside Almora (altitude 1604 m) in early April, there was only one blossom left among all the trees on the grounds. But twenty kilometers away, just inside Binsar National Park, at an altitude of about 2200 m, hillsides were dotted with the red of flowering Rhododendron. These mountain roads are extremely slow, and you may take an hour to travel thirty kilometers. So when we plan trips to view Rhododendron flowers, we focus carefully on details like this.

Altitude causes another strange change. Over most of its range R. arboreum has deep red flowers, sometimes deeper than the red of blood and wine. But as you climb to over 2500 meters in altitude, the same species will produce flowers which can be any shade of pink, and even white. The red flower in the slide show here comes from Binsar National Park, from an altitude of perhaps about 2200 meters. The rest come from the highest point of the road above Munsiyari, perhaps at an altitude of just under 3000 meters. I don’t have words for the variety of pinks that you can see.

It pays off to look closely at the flowers with these lighter colours. Unlike their dark red siblings, they show characteristic spots and stippling. On my first trip to Sikkim I’d been entranced by these details on flowers I had seen in Yumthang valley (altitude 3500 m) late in the season, in early May. Are these a different subspecies? There is a recognized subspecies called the Rhododendron arboreum cinnamomeum, but this is easily identified by the bright cinnamon colour of the underside of the leaf. These variant plants were not of that subspecies. The colour changes were not due to soil conditions, either, since you could see differently coloured flowers on trees in the same slope, sometimes growing so close that their canopies touch. Each tree had flowers of a single colour. Someone would have to do more field work to check whether the colour remains the same from one year to the next, and whether it changes if the seed of a tree is planted at a lower altitude. It is quite possible that this has been studied in the last three hundred years, and a better scholar than me will able to dig out the details.

Drinking rhododendron

The western Himalayas have the wonderful drink called Buransh. In Kumaon this would translate to Rhododendron. Interestingly, the plant has different names in other regions of the western Himalayas (for example, in Himachal the local name for the plant is Bras), whereas the name of the drink is the same. This probably means that the origin of the drink is Kumaoni, and it has recently spread across the mountains. The Family usually buys bottled Buransh from village cooperatives when we travel in the mountains.

The recipe is terribly simple. Take a kilo of the petals. Carefully separate them from the rest of the flower; the nectar is poisonous, and causes your blood pressure to fall, sending you into shock. The locals throw away the stigma and anthers too, and wash the petals thoroughly. So I assume that the pollen is also dangerous. Perhaps it is best not to make it at home until you learn from a Kumaoni family what to do. When I was trying to figure out this recipe, I was reminded of certain mushrooms you see in markets in Finland and Sweden. The vendors refuse to sell it to people who speak English. This is not xenophobia, but a safety measure. The mushrooms are poisonous unless you know exactly how to cook them. Using Rhododendron in the kitchen is similar to cooking these mushrooms: if you know what to do it is safe, otherwise it can be very dangerous.

So, back to the recipe. Take a kilo of the petals. Clean them thoroughly. Put them in about two liters of water. Bring this to a boil, and leave it simmering for about thirty minutes. Strain through a fine mesh, crushing the pulp to extract the flavour. Mix sugar to taste in the warm water. About three quarters of a kilo of sugar is usually needed for every kilo of petals. The juice is ready. If you preserve this in a fridge it might last two to three days. The shelf life can be extended by adding citric acid. If you add this, choose the amount judiciously, otherwise you can overwhelm the delicate flavour of the flower.

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.