A hothouse flower

Do plants need a hothouse in India? Sure, I’ve seen strawberries been grown inside rows of plastic tents, but that must be to conserve water, I thought. But then in Darjeeling’s botanical garden, in December, I saw plants flowering. Unfortunately this interesting flower was unlabelled, an unusual thing in a botanical garden. Perhaps it is so common that everyone in the world except me knows what it is called.

Not having a clue, I’ll have to depend on you to supply possibilities. This was a potted plant, less than waist high. I liked the appearance of the leaves: leathery, with a reddish brown underside and as hairy as the flower.

Note added: Thanks to two readers, Sujata and Bama, I began to look at the genus Begonia. Although I don’t have a photo of the flowers spread out to look at their inner structure, in order to strengthen the genus identification, their suggestion does look viable. Moreover, there are multiple species of Begonia native to the eastern Himalayas which are very hairy. Some of these would find their way into a collection in Darjeeling’s botanical garden.

Two cacti

Some corners of the greenhouses in Lloyd Botanical Garden had a lot of light. As I knelt to take photos of cacti, between shots I wondered at the forms that these strange plants take: the eight-armed spiral of the one in the featured photo, and the symmetric radiation of the bush below. How did they come about?

The slow processes of geology, the breaking and joining of continents, the raising of mountains, the closing of seas, all change the earth’s climate. And these changes break open old ecologies and their dependencies, giving new spaces for change. About thirty million years ago, in the high noon of dinosaurs, the Andes mountains began to lift up. The warm wet winds from the Pacific were blocked, and on the continental side the land turned into a desert. It was here that the cacti evolved. Then, about 4 million years ago, when the isthmus of Panama formed, one group, the prickly pears took the opportunity to move northwards. But it was the formation of the rift valley in far away Africa which finally created the species that could give cacti a way to spread across the world, to the sunlight in front of me.

Plants of Singalila

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.


About a third of the way down we came to the village of Meghma. It seemed very appropriately named, since it loomed out of a sea of clouds as we approached. A small forest guards’ checkpost stood on the road. They’d taken down our details when we went up, and now we had to tell them that we were on our way down. The guard was very considerate, perhaps he’d not met many walkers our age. Were we okay? How far were we planning to walk? Could we reach before sundown? Did we want to sit down? Call our vehicle for a pickup? We thanked him and walked along.

The Singalila ridge runs north to south, with Nepal lying to the west. The Family recognized a lichen encrusted stone slab as a border marker and took the photo you can see above. The villages are tiny. The whole area is a protected bioreserve, slowly recovering from the intense capitalist assault that was the British empire. People who had lived there earlier continue to have the right to live and utilize the ecosystem, but new settlements are not allowed. We saw little temples, prayer flags in plenty, and a field of chortens protected by a gate.

Tamso ma jyotirgamay

The houses were weathered and beautiful. I was intrigued by the shape of the chimney. Why is the top three branched? Perhaps an engineer who reads this blog will be kind enough to explain. There is heavy rain here, so the sloping metal roofs of the old buildings make sense. The flat concrete roofs of the more recent buildings did not seem appropriate, they probably need a lot of maintenance. As a city dweller, I always wonder about the lives of people who live in such remote and isolated places. How do you cope when you can’t just pop out to buy some eggs? What if the nearest school is thirty kilometers away? How would you deal with an emergency when the nearest doctor is four hours away? People manage, so there are ways. We walked on through the fog, as it waxed and waned.

The plot, the fog, thickens

We walked bravely into the fog after lunch. With the sun hidden now, the wind that blew over the ridge felt colder. I pulled my cap down over my ears. The world was strangely quiet due to the fog, and the woolen cap cut out sounds even more. With sight and sound cut off, the world seemed to shrink to a little space around the three of us.

Kunzum turned out to be great company, with a lot of stories to tell. As we wandered over the slopes he began to tell us stories of missing people. When you are in a dark jungle at night, nothing is more soothing than ghost stories. And in our present situation, stories of people lost on the Singalila ridge was the perfect entertainment. When we came to the seat at the edge of a cliff I thought we were going to sit there and listen to his stories, but he actually wanted us to assess a path down that cliff.

We didn’t think our knees could take that steep path, so we moved on to the motorable road along the ridge for a while. This also descended pretty steeply, but not so much that we couldn’t talk about the person who came here to organize an expedition, collected money from several of his countrymen, and disappeared with the money while on a Singalila trek. The road here veers between Nepal and India. While there are counts kept of travellers on the Indian side, there are no checks on the Nepali side. I gathered that it is easy to disappear here, if you put your mind to it.

There goes the sun

Tonglu village was our destination on the sunny morning when we took a walk on the Singalila ridge. I thought the weather was perfect. Winter was setting in. The air was pleasantly cold as the climb warmed us up. In deep shadows we could see that the night’s frost had not yet melted, but the sun was warm on my back. As we approached Tonglu small signs of human habitation began to appear. An enigmatic fence in the distance marked out a circle where the forest department had planted seeds of local wild species. Human intervention is needed now to restore this protected ecosystem to its former self-sufficiency. We could hear water flowing nearby, a little mountain spring. A couple of cows grazed on the dry grass. A single horse was nibbling at the grass some distance from them.

I could see six or seven houses at the top of slope ahead of me. That would be Tonglu. When we reached them we found that was all. In 1868 CE, Tonglu was described in a letter by George Ernest Bulger, a Major in the British Indian Army, to Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was then “collecting” in India. Hooker was a close friend of Darwin, and would go on to receive a knighthood after he became the director of Kew Gardens. Hooker paraphrased a part of the letter, “The Lepchas and Sikkim Bhoteas, although still the most willing and cheerful people he has ever been out with, have learnt to drive a bargain as successfully as Hindus; he fears they are not so honest as the used to be.” The description is typical of its time, two people whose highest service to the empire was to rob, and eventually nearly destroy, the local ecosystem, regard seeking a fair wage as dishonesty.

Tonglu did not have a settlement in 1868, and was known only by the fact that it was the highest point on the Singalila ridge. But it was known well enough that Marianne North pitched her tent nearby in order to paint the local wildflowers. Even now the travellers’ home (photo above) is the largest structure on the hill. I suspect that the tiny hamlet has come up mainly to service this niche bit of tourism. In the time it took us to shuck our backpacks, and finish photographing the dining area of the travellers’ home, the sun had disappeared. A thick fog was blowing towards up from across the ridge.

We could still see a bit of the blue sky when we stepped out of the yard into the small clearing around which the other houses stood. I had time to get a photo of this cheerful green house with its prayer flags. But by the time we turned the corner of the travellers’ home and reached the small pond just outside, the sky had turned gray. The water of the pond looked black in the light. That’s what you see in the featured photo. That peak wasn’t much of a climb, and I was sure that from there we would get a good view of the village. But with the light being so bad, all our photos would look dull. You can tell that I’m more interested in photos than walking by the fact that this argument convinced me not to make the climb.

Instead we spent out time waiting for lunch to be cooked by walking around the lake. The peak which we did not climb was covered with prayer flags: lung-ta, wind horses. A small area at the base held another cluster of these flags. I don’t know enough about the local traditions and beliefs to understand why certain places are singled out for the lung-ta. Reflections in the dark water of the lake gave some photos which I thought could be interesting. “I hope it doesn’t rain,” The Family said. It would be a pity if our afternoon’s walk was to be a washout.

One cactus

What is a cactus? As I wandered through the greenhouses holding cacti and succulents in the Lloyd Botanical garden of Darjeeling, camera in hand, I had time to puzzle about this. We recognize them by their swollen stems and thorns. The thorns are leaves modified to prevent loss of moisture, and simultaneously as a defense against herbivores. I suppose in a barren land any plant is fair game, so prickly leaves and thorns are common in plants of arid regions. Cacti also flower, and flowering plants evolved later than the dinosaurs. Interesting, the way they catch light. Just the thing for some black and white photos.

Splendid slippers

A Latin mouthful, Paphiopedilum insigne, translates to splendid slipper orchid. That’s the name of this attractive orchid that I saw in the Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling. Later reading told me that when the 19th century botanical pirates introduced the orchid to Europe its popularity immediately created a huge demand for specimens. The result was that the colonial enterprise put a bounty on the plant, creating what was almost a gold rush. This has almost wiped out the plant from its natural habitat, which is the northeastern part of India, bordering Myanmar and the northeastern part of Bangladesh. IUCN classes this plant as critically endangered and others find field data to be inadequate to study anything about the natural history of the plant, since it has vanished from all but one or two spots.

This told me what an important role botanical gardens play in this world which is facing a critical loss of species. The splendid slipper orchid is the type specimen for the whole genus Paphiopedilum, the slipper orchids. Darjeeling’s botanical garden not only maintains a stock of the species, and participates in many scientific studies, but also replenishes local nurseries. This market linkage was set up as part of the colonial exploitation of Himalayan ecology, but now it has evolved into a more urgent role. The botanical gardens and their links to the market keep the remaining refugia of the orchid fairly safe by supplying the demands of the “orchid enthusiasts” who are responsible for the catastrophic loss of all natural sources of the genus. On the other hand, some argue that by feeding the market, they ensure that the supply of “orchid enthusiasts” is perpetually regenerated. You are free to pick a side in this debate.

Public art of Darjeeling

Darjeeling had taken the trouble to make the main tourist drag as interesting as possible. Not content with the charm of the old colonial buildings around the pedestrian section of Mall Road, the town had commissioned local artists to make public art. We stopped at the musical frieze on the large square called Chowrasta. “Is this place known for jazz?” The Family asked. Perhaps not exactly known, but we saw a poster for a jazz festival just past later in the day. And in the evening when we walked into Glenary’s for a drink we heard some live music. It is hard to make a living on music anywhere in the world (the number of concert pianists in the world is perhaps smaller than the number of living Nobel laureates), and Darjeeling is much too small to support a lively local music scene. It is clear from the frieze that bars are the main places which support music here.

The wall with the mural of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways marks the other end of the pedestrian zone. This mural crowds in all the high points of the town, including a portrait of Tenzing Norgay. We were told that the school of mountaineering he set up was worth a visit. But when we called, we found it was open to visitors only once a week and, sadly, not on a day when we were in town. The mural could be better maintained, we thought.

The fountain in the middle of Chowrasta was in much better condition, and we were happy that it was not gushing water in the cold. It had all the signs of being a late colonial structure. “Late 19th century?” The Family guessed. “Quite likely,” I responded, “Either that or early 20th century. Depends on when they built this square.” The Family looked around and said “More oblong than square.”


What’s not to like about bazaars in a new town? Walking around a marketplace warms the cockles of my consumerist heart like nothing else does. The sight of people hurrying into a bakery for jam buns, or window shopping for sweaters on a cold day, browsing books in a bookstore, or hurrying past a KFC without a second look, all that is designed to make you want a bit of that.

I can’t even pass by a vegetable vendor without stopping to prod the tomatoes, gawk at the yams, marvel at the radish or the number of strange greens on display. When The Family says we need to take some back with us, I don’t ask “Why?” I just calculate the number of kilos we might have available if we take all our warm clothes in our cabin baggage. I’ve developed this curiosity about tubers and leaves which are grown in different parts of the country and are not to be found in supermarkets.

I stop and take photos at sweet shops, even though I no longer taste all the kinds of sweets that I don’t recognize (I’m not my pre-pandemic self). In Darjeeling the sweet shops are Bengali. And fish? 2000 m above sea level, far from streams, the only fresh fish would be flying fish. But then right next to the railway station there’s a line of kiosks selling fish. Maybe it is iced and sent by train.

The zero waste store looked interesting. There were many kinds of envelopes, boxes, and bags made from recycled pulps and fibres. If only plastics and composites were as easy to recycle. As we found a stretch of downhill walk, we saw two people carrying large sheets of plywood on their backs. The sheets were anchored to their heads. I thought of the cervical problems that this could give rise to. Why don’t people use carts?