New Flowers In The N.W. Himalaya
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by Margaret and Henry Taylor

The following article appeared in the January 1998 edition of the Rock Garden and is reproduced here by kind permission of the authors. To view the associated illustrations, click on the highlighted links within the text. All photographs were taken by the authors.

Come with us on our recent trip to India. Good weather and fourteen keen pairs of eyes discovered many new plants.


On the grand trunk road leading north from Delhi towards the mountains, we congratulate ourselves on having that great rarity, a cautious Indian bus driver. Each time our bus peters to a stop, we leap out to encourage it with a push start. Truth dawns, this bus does not enjoy the best of health. After covering 110 km (half our projected journey) in seven hours, we cruelly abandon it on the Slushy Berm (fortunately Indian road signs are in English ) and pile into two small jeeps. Luggage and folk cram on top of each other prompting plenty of happy joking. Jolting over the potholes gradually we seem to fall silent. Daylight wears on and we cheer ourselves by imagining photos of the sun setting over our objective, the Rajah's palace recently converted into a hotel. Rain sets in. After twice bumping across a shallow river bed in the dark, I become attached to the view over the tailboard of the jeep - being car-sick. A friend sitting beside the driver tells me I am lucky, he can see our driver stamping on non-existent brakes whenever we meet a vehicle or cow with no lights. As there is no MOT in India, lights and brakes are optional extras adding a spice of adventure to nighttime travel.

Next day there is no problem, on a good bus we reach Manali at 2000 m in the centre of the mountains, ready to stretch our legs up the Manalsu Nal. At around 2300 m our lily expert is thrilled by hundreds of Lilium polyphyllum nicely scented in shades of white to deep rose and spotted rose to purple. This lily clearing in the spruce forest is on a steep fertile slope occasionally frequented by blundering cattle which knock over stems. A horizontal Cardiocrinum giganteum has turned its top 50 cm upright to pose perfectly for a photo. There is attractive deep pink veining on the inside of the flowers. Cautleya spicata is a new find resembling a yellow roscoea but with a rhizome smelling strongly of ginger.


Our first stop at 2550m is to look for seed on Primula sessilis, here growing at its upper limit (Fig.101 p.380) and thus probably hardier than from its original low altitude introduction. By the way, Manali at 2000 m gets around two metres of snow in winter, as this northern end of the Himalaya is much colder than the more southerly regions often favoured by flower people. P. sessilis flowers very early in spring and seeds prolifically around on its dripping wet cliff, but in July when we visit, seed capsules are hard to find. A little higher at the start of the old walking track there are lots of purple Roscoea alpina in the turf, with an occasional pure white one.

The bridge below Marhi has always been a good stopping point; in a moist shady area where the snow is not long gone, among Primula denticulata and P. macrophylla we find a pink primula relative, Cortusa brotheri. Amid bright blue Polemonium himalayanum in tall ungrazed herbage, someone spots Fritillaria roylei. Once we get our eye in we see lots of the green bells with their brown chequering. Then in turf on top of a huge rock, well out of reach of sheep or goats, we find the crowning glory a group of splendid Cypripedium himalaicum.This stands about 20 cm tall with a deep rose pouch and cream upper petals veined with pink. Also in this area there is a particularly good dwarf form of Rhododendron lepidotum with large flat cerise coloured flowers on a plant only 15 cm tall. From flowering plants we can collect old dry 'empty' seed capsules which actually yield good viable seed.


Af'ter a day exploring above the summit of the road, testing our fitness at altitude, we leave Manali to go trekking. With Prem and his men, our longstanding friends, we motor over the Rohtang La and down into the dryer rain-shadow Lahul region. We are met by ponies at the road end ready to carry our camping gear and food (including 300 eggs) over a high walking pass, the Hampta Jot. Actually we take a week plant hunting and making our way on foot back to Manali.

Dropped by our vehicle at our first camp site at 3350 m we are well fed by Panchok, then scatter in all directions to explore. Close to our tents in coarse gravel there is an attractive but puzzling pale yellow crucifer later identified from a pressed specimen as Chorispora macropoda. On steep turfy banks there is the lovely blue 15 cm Geranium regelii. This makes an excellent garden plant for a sunny situation although it can be double the height in cultivation.

Next morning we set off in a cold drizzle (on the dry side of the mountains !), but as the rain clears, our subdued party cheers up on seeing an area of Androsace sempervivoides in all shades of pale to deep pink. We walk on to camp near Primula rosea in ripe seed. Exploring a hillside above our tents we meet a family of herb gatherers. The main plant they are collecting is called Kurru in Hindi which forms part of our Latin name Picrorhiza kurrooa. The root is dug then dried and fetches good money in Delhi for use in herbal medicine. We show our Hindi family our 'Flowers of the Himalaya' - cries of delight from the children when they recognise some of the flower pictures.

A rest day here at 3800 m produces Primula macrophylla moorcroftiana also a few white P. minutissima amongst thousands of the standard pink. Plants of Paraquilegia anemonoides are spotted high on a cliff above camp and a few woolly Waldheimia tomentosa are seen in bud beside a stream but not a single open flower.

Next morning 'Bed Tea' is at 5.30 am, as we need an early start to climb over the top of the Hampta Jot at 4270 m. Bir Singh and Shamshir take turns with the ice axe to cut footholds up the steep snow. We are in luck with sunshine all day, not the usual mist and drizzle between 10am and 4pm. There are brilliant views of snow-covered 6000 m Indrasun and Deo Tibba (Fig.94 p.359).

In the short turf around the summit of the Hampta where the snow has recently melted there are extensive patches of Primula reptans with quite a variation in flower colour and size of white eye. It is jolly difficult to tell which are pin-eyed and which thrum as stamens and stigma are well down inside the slightly hairy flower tube; you have to tear the flower open to be sure. Nearby on rather crumbly cliff ledges there are little cushions of the pink highly desirable (but ungrowable?) Arenaria glanduligera.

Exploring above the pass we approach 4600 m to find another difficult one Saussurea gossypiphora (Fig.102 p.381) which looks like a ball of cotton wool on top of dark green spiky leaves. Here also we find Pleurospermum candollei, usually with showy white bracts but just occasionally in pink, an attractive umbellifer which should be quite amenable to cultivation. Next there is a fantastic purple blue 13 cm primula with an unusual widely flaring brown calyx. We have never seen a plant like it, but I deduce from the book that it may be Primula elliptica (Illustration on Front Cover). "Nonsense" says a knowledgeable friend, "I grow P. elliptica and it is nothing like this". We nearly come to blows. A month later an 'Authority' examines our pressed specimen and pronounces P. elliptica. Our 'friend' reluctantly concedes that his plant could be an imposter even though it derived from a good Seed Exchange.

While we excitedly photograph flowers and views our ponies pass. We follow trudging over snow and ice, then spot our tents already erected below. But what are those specks of blue on the cliffs to our right? Our fleetfooted 70 year old lady flits up the rocks "Yes it's Paraquilegia anemonoides". Here, scattered all around are large old plants growing in good fertile soil in rock crevices. This is sandstone rock, a quartz matrix with some minor feldspar and dark mica, no calcite, not calcareous as conventionally associated with paraquilegia, (a little piece of rock was brought back and studied by a geologist friend).


When camp is not being moved on it gives a rest for guides and ponies, but our plant hunters dread a 'rest day'; it can be exceptionally strenuous. Above our 3800 m camp site an enticing hillside promises lots of possibilities. On cliffs at the start of the climb we nod to the rather insignificant Snowdon Lily, Lloydia serotina. The turf we scramble up is full of blue and white Anemone obtusiloba, Potentilla atrosanguinea in shades of yellow and red, and the bright pink Pedicularis siphonantha. Also there is a plant looking very like a European Scented Orchid which turns out to be the equally scented Satyrium nepalense.

Now 400 m above our camp we meet a real beauty, Lloydia longiscapa. This grows on steep rich turf not on rock crevices like L. serotina. L. longiscapa has white, purple-streaked flowers with an attractive orange centre inside the bell. The dowdy greenish-white Swertia petiolata grows alongside.

Light mists come and go all day but we decide to split our group to cover even more ground. Those who climb highest find neat white cushions of Arenaria festucoides, more paraquilegia and Gaultheria trichophylla. A few plants of Saxifraga pulvinaria with small white fading flowers are seen high up on a cliff.

The other group makes two especially exciting finds. First a gorgeous clump of the pink Cypripedium himalaicum (Fig.99 p.379), previously seen on the Rohtang, but here on a rather more dangerous slope. Dangerous for its angle and because the plant grows near the entrance to a dark muddy cave.


Bare patches of soil with freshly dug herbage and claw marks are spotted, could there be a bear nearby? I (Margaret) declare that Henry will never believe that is bear, he will say that the scratch marks have been caused by a herb-gatherer's tool. "What about this then?" says the discoverer, pointing to a large pile of fresh animal droppings. Before retreating, this proof is collected in a poly bag to be later revealed to Henry and our guides at camp. After tea our 'naturalist' armed with his specimen and tape recorder confronts Henry and Prem. Roars of hilarity. "Yes sir, that is bear. Shepherd is coming summer up valley. Day, bear sleeping in rocks and night time, some shepherd-dog is very lazy, no good, bear looking chance take away sheep, make a picnic".


Next morning we pass a steep bank covered with Androsace muscoidea (Fig.100 p.380) scenting the air with honey. This dusky pink androsace has very short stems carrying two to four flowers in a head over silky silver leaves. The wonderful blue Corydalis cashmeriana is around here but usually only solitary stems, not growing in big clumps as in cultivation.

Where the valley widens there are shingle beds in the river full of good plants, including sheets of pink Androsace sempervivoides dotted with Leontopodium himalayanum. The yellow, on the water's edge is supplied by hundreds of Corydalis thyrsiflora, while in drier areas there are pale yellow balloons of Pedicularis bicornuta.


Branches of rhododendron supply fuel for our chai. Tea, sugar, cardamon and milk are stirred together in a large pot to make a very reviving brew. Nearby there is a smouldering fire in a pit with a roof of rhododendron branches on which is spread the fat tap roots of a jurinea being dried for later sale as Doop (incense).

A few of us climb the hillside to the source of the firewood, a thicket of 2 m tall Rhododendron campanulatum, long past flowering but with attractive rust coloured indumentum under the leaves. Again we find good seed in the old dry open seed pods of the previous year. In the damp shade of a rock the snowy white flowers of Saxifraga sibirica resemble the British S. granulata. A large turf-covered boulder has a colony of Androsace sarmentosa, the true species, which is straggly and hardly garden worthy. The much better plant cultivated in Britain under this name should now be called A. studiosorum which is found wild in the drier rain-shadow regions a little further north of the Hampta.


Within the spruce forest wherever there are moist clearings, Iris milesii (Fig.98 p.362) can form large spreading patches, usually with poor thin-petalled flowers. But one of our group locates a most gorgeous form with broad lilac petals mottled with purple. The much less desirable plant around here is Typhonium diversifolium. We notice the powerful smell of rotten meat long before seeing the sinister dark velvet spathes of this aroid.


When we get back to Manali in late July after our trek, we take a last taxi ride up the Rohtang La before heading off to Delhi and home. The sloping roof-like N.E. ridge above the summit of the pass is exceptionally good for alpines and as we have explored this area several times, some detail could be of help to future visitors. A couple of soil samples in this rich alpine zone give an average pH 5.0, organic matter l2%, nitrate 17mg/l, P 2mg/l (very low) and K 86mg/l (moderate). Drive past the stone marking the summit of the Rohtang La and continue one kilometre along the flat top towards Lahul, stopping just before the road begins to dip downwards. At this point a few steps can often take you out of the mist of the S.W. slope into the sunshine of the dry rainshadow region. If you are lucky and strike good weather, walk 200 m over streams and boggy ground towards the ridge. But beware, good weather can be short-lived here in July so be prepared for a rapid change with strong winds blasting snow and rain across the mountains.

The short turf is studded with the monocarpic Gentiana marginata, Lagotis cashmeriana, Potentilla microphylla and Primula minutissima. Boggy areas are a sea of lilac Primula macrophylla moorcroftiana and shocking pink P. rosea.

Among the tumbled boulders under the southern eaves of the ridge there are large patches of the showy blue Trigonotis rotundifolia and a lush fern Athyrium wallichianum. Cracks in mossy boulders have two yellow cushion saxifrages, S. saginoides and the more broad-petalled S. jacquemontii. Damp ground between the rocks is a home for Primula reptans.

Now walk up the steep grassy slope to get onto the roof of the ridge. This is carpeted with cream Rhododendron anthopogon hypenanthum interspersed with Cassiope fastigiata and Gaultheria tricophylla. Hollows further up have squat yellow heads of Corydalis meifolia which has very intricately cut leaves and the sunflower-like Doronicum falconeri. In the shade of boulders, Primula elliptica grows alongside more P .reptans.

Near the southern end of the ridge there are hundreds of large cushions of Androsace delavayi growing both in turf and in rock crevices; this could be the most westerly site for this androsace. On a little higher to reach small silvery cushions of a very dwarf version of Androsace muscoidea with completely sessile pink flowers. In a gravelly area we come on a most exciting find, Saxifraga lychnitis (Fig.104 p.382). This has nodding golden flowers with a puffy maroon calyx and a leaf cushion of hairy deep green red-edged rosettes. Gentiana tubiflora is a splendid small perennial dotting the turf, but take a photo quickly before a cloud crosses the sun causing the flowers to close and disappear.

Cross to the high northern edge of the ridge to see Paraquilegia anemonoides on shady cliffs and boulders. Rocky hummocks have wonderful cushions of Potentilla biflora with large sessile yellow flowers. This marvellous plant would be worth trying in cultivation. Around 4000 m at the limit of our exploration, stopped by snow and lack of time, there is Arenaria glanduligera, Saussurea gossypiphora, Pleurospermum candollei and the puffy pink Pedicularis rhinanthoides.

Each time we explore this ridge more exciting plants appear, so given clear conditions how many more are still to be found? Perhaps another time.


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