The 'Lali Gurans' (Rhododendron arboreum) is one hardy flower. It can survive, and in fact, flourish even at temperatures of 10 degrees below zero Celsius. Many sub species (over 30) are to be found in the region of the high western Himalayas as well as at lower elevations. Eastern Nepal is also happy hunting grounds for Rhododendrons, especially around the Tophe Lake (3,860 meters) in Taplejung district. If you were to go trekking in the period March to May, you’ll be treated to the glorious sight of whole hillsides colored deep red due to the blooming of innumerous Rhododendron flowers. Not that they are only red in color, you’ll also come across quite a few Rhododendron forests with white and pink flowers along with red (Rhododendron arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum) in the central Himalayan region, and these, too, are as hardy as their first cousin, surviving pretty well at temperatures ranging from -15 0C to -18 0C.
However, it is the rose-red flower that is the national flower of Nepal, and rightly so, considering how much it reflects the vitality of the typical Nepali. Indeed, one cannot conceive of another flower that can claim its proud place as the country’ national flower. You cannot fail to notice this bright red flower in various emblems of Nepal, just pay some heed. As exotic as the Rhododendrons are the orchids of Nepal, of which some 386 varieties have been discovered so far. Known in Nepali as Sunakhari, they are especially abundant in central Nepal. The lovely lake city of Pokhara, because of its abundant rainfall, is where one will find the most orchids, with the epiphytic species being the most plentiful. Alpine terrestrials are to be found at higher altitudes, and it’s during the summer monsoon when one will find them blooming in all their glory. It might be pertinent here to differentiate between the three types of orchids: the chlorophyll-less saprophytes depend on neighboring fungus for nourishment and have little ornamental value. Terrestrials contain chlorophyll and grow in soil, while epiphytes grow on trees, decaying tree trunks, and mossy rocks, deriving nourishment from the humus they grow in.
If you happen to visit the remote mid-western district of Dolpa during a trek, or when visiting the Shey Phoksundo National Park, where is located the deepest lake of Nepal, Phoksundo Lake, keep a sharp eye out for an orchid species known as Dactylorhinza hatgirea. Ask the locals if there are any Panch Aunlles to be seen around the place; that’s the local name for this orchid, and it means, literally, ‘five-fingered’. It’s an orchid that’s highly prized for its ability to impart vigor and vitality. Similarly, other species to look out for are Flickingrea macrei and Pholidota articulate. They are both known as Jivanti (means: giving life) and they, too, have immense medicinal value, and are used in a very popular ayurvedic tonic preparation called Chaywanprash. So, you see, it’s not only that famous aphrodisiac, Yarsagumba, that’s to be found in the rich herbal treasure trove that is Nepal’s hills and mountains.
However, if you are mostly in Kathmandu during your visit to Nepal, do make it a point to visit the Godavari Gardens, which is the country’s national botanical park. It’s just about 12 km from Satdobato in Lalitpur, and a pleasant drive all the way on a smooth asphalted road. Once there, make a beeline for the orchid section where you’ll find about 90 species, among which the most popular are Dendrobium densifloram (Sungava) and Coelogyne cristata (Chandigava). March-April and July-August are the periods when you’ll see many of them in beautiful bloom. It’s all a really beautiful sight; after all, an orchid in bloom is among flowers what the glitter of a diamond is among gems.
Rhododendrons and orchids may be the kingpins as far as Nepal’s flora is concerned, but due to the country having climate that ranges from hot and humid (in the Terai) to arctic (the Himalayas) within a distance of just 200 km, expect to find an amazing diversity in ecology here. According to the experts, this small country has about 7,183 plant species, which include 380 species of ferns alone. One of the most interesting facets of the forests in the Terai is the seven-feet-high elephant grass, while up in the Himalayas, you’ll find the southern face rich in deciduous and deodar forests; that’s because it gets the full force of the monsoon every year. The northern face, particularly Chumle (2,750 m), has an abundance of blue pine forests, and above Ekla Bhatti (2,780 m), you’ll come across steppe vegetation. The Eswa Valley has plenty of fir forests, while on the sub alpine pastures of Tiwa Gairi (3,730 m), you’ll see fields full of marigold flowers.
The country is home to 14 poppy species, which according to researchers is 36% of the world’s species. Now, that’s a high percentage, you’ll agree. (For the record, the 32 species of Rhododendrons found in Nepal constitute some 6% of the world’s species.) Coming back to the poppy flower, you’ll find four species endemic to the country in eastern Nepal, which grow at heights of 3,000 m and above, and include Meconpsis dhowjii and Meconpsis napoulensis. One of the most beautiful poppy species, Meconpsis horidula (the ‘Blue Poppy’) grows in Jaljale at heights ranging from 3,000 m to 5,800 meters. Other notable and interesting flora of Nepal include Bombex ceiba (silk cotton tree) which is found in Kushi (1,300 m), Aconite spicatum, (locally known as ‘Bikha’ due to its poisonous nature) found in Yangle (3,580 m), and Samssurea gossypiphora (cotton ball plant) which is to be found at altitudes of 3,500 m-5,600 m, and the Himalayan Rhubarb, which is found at 3,900 m-4300 meters.
In conclusion, Nepal may be a country small in area but it is a veritable paradise for a diverse and interesting range of flora. This makes the country a prime attraction for nature lovers all over the world, and the abundance of lovely flora is what gives added charm and serenity to those challenging treks that the country is world-famous for.