THE HIMALAYA including the Karakoram are a major feature of world relief with the tallest peaks, deepest river gorges, largest lakes and with some of the longest glaciers outside the polar regions. Barring the poles they are also the coldest. Nanga Parbat in the northwest rises in the bend of the Indus near Gilgit and is the starting point of the main Great Himalayan Range. The far eastern extremity of this range is dominated by the 7756 m peak, Namcha Barwa, arising in the great knee bend of the Tsang-po (Brahmaputra). In between the more prominent peaks such as Nanda Devi,' Kangchenjunga, Everest, etc. are too well known to mountaineers. K2 the second highest mountain in the world is located in the Karakoram. Ninety-two out of the 94 Asian peaks above 24,000 ft occur in the Himalaya and Karakoram. Interestingly, three mighty rivers, the Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra (Tsang-po), arise near Manasarowar, all within a few miles from each other. The western Himalayan ranges differ greatly from the eastern in their greater length, higher latitude, cooler, drier climate and in their far greater breadth. A traverse through Kashmir from the foothills of the Punjab to the Karakoram is three times broader than one across the eastern Himalaya.

The eastern Himalaya, adjacent hills and plains are some of the wettest areas in the world and consequently are the most dramatic plant region on our planet. This abundant rainfall is due to the horseshoe- shape of these mountains formed by the bending of the Himalaya in the Arunachal-Assam comer, which catches the bulk of the monsoon- bearing clouds rising from the Bay of Bengal, the world's largest bay, 1730 km long, and holding an immense body of very warm water. The monsoon is so fierce here that the Siwaliks facing this bay have been eroded over the ages for 322 km from the Kosi to the Manas in Bhutan, High humidity is conducive to tree growth and consequently the timber-line or upper limit of trees is higher on the eastern Himalaya up to 4570 m as compared to 3600 m in the western Himalaya. The climate of the former may be termed 'tree-producing'.

With this background of such spectacular geographical and climato- logical features, with so many firsts, it is not surprising that the Himalaya has a far richer and more varied flora than any other part of the globe. It is the abode of choice ornamental plants. In the Arunachal- Burma-China trijunction are located some of the deepest gorges on earth. Here we see conditions created by steep, uplifted mountains which could have created the first home of the forest trees of the Northern Hemisphere. Plant Geographers have shown how parts of these forests through millions of years traversed northeast through China and Japan across the Aleutians into North America. The lower reaches of eastern Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal, comprising the evergreen rain-forests, teem with plant life and have a bewildering variety of flora. In fact this region, including the old Assam State, i.e. Assam sensu lato, is perhaps the richest .botanical province of the world. Some of these lower reaches are of significance because they are regarded as a sanctuary of ancient and primitive flora and fauna which were spared the devastation of the ice-ages. The Magnolia pterocarpa of the North East Frontier Agency, according to John Hutchinson PES of Kew Gardens, is perhaps the most ancient species of living Angiosperms. Takhtajan, a leading botanist from the USSR, calls this area the "cradle of flowering plants'. It is the habitat of botanical rarities; such as Sapria himalayana with deep crimson flowers 36 cm across and rosy pink flower-buds as large as a grapefruit, a parasitic plant 'facing extinction as it has only been sighted twice since its first collection by Griffith in 1836, a century later by Bor, and more recently by Deb; and Entada pursaetha, an enormous climber with giant pods over one metre long x 10 cm wide (with disjunct occurrence; also found in the Western Ghats where it is reported to be 1.5 km in length, perhaps the largest climber in the world). Both these fantastic plants occur in the foot hills of Arunachal Himalaya. The former emits mephitic odours which attract beetles. In contrast, in the comparatively dry western Himalaya in the Juniper- Blue Pine forests of Lahul occurs a parasite Arceuthobium mmutis-simum which has the distinction of being the smallest dicotyledonous plant in the world. It appears as small green pustules on the bark of blue pine. Each pustule bursts and exposes a tiny plant not more than half a centimetre in length and is known to kill off large numbers of fine trees.

In this brief account, only the more ornamental flora, botanical curiosities and plants of natural history interest which attract the mountaineer's eye are highlighted. The northwestern Himalaya, because of less rainfall is characterized by drought-resisting, cold-loving plants in the subtropical belt e.g. legumes, grasses, Oleander with pink flowers, wild pomegranate and evergreen forests of wild Olive. The eastern Himalaya on similar contours presents a contrasting vegetation comprising moisture-loving Screw Pine (Pandanus) with pineapple-like drooping fruits, with immense sword-like leaves, spiny on the margins, banana, tree ferns, lianas, and a. profusion of most ornamental orchids perched on tree-trunks. The foothill forests in the eastern Himalaya present a many-tiered appearance of which the top storey is constituted by giant Dipterocarps with spindle-shaped fruits propelled by two papery wings, Tetramales nudiflora characterized by enormouj buttresses, a favourite nesting tree of hombills. This storey is followed by large trees of Hollock (Terminalia myriocarpa). This handsome tree is covered with tiny creamish flowers in autumn which turn coppery red in November as the winged seeds appear. Red Silk Cotton tree and Bishop Wood (Bischofia javamm) are the other trees. Bark of the latter is soft and is favoured by tigers' for cleaning their claws. A red juice oozes out after a 'kukri' cut or sharp cuts by tigers.

Many trees and shrubs in the rain-forests or humid forests of the eastern Himalaya and the Western Ghats have large leaves which taper to a fine tip called 'drip trip', an adaptation for draining rainwater off the leaves quickly e.g. India Rubber, rhododendrons, etc.

Owing to the heavy rainfall and the force of the rain drops, many trees and herbs here assume a pendulous habit, e.g. Sikkim Spruce (Picea spinulosa), Primula Sikkimensis, etc. Also, most of the trees, shrubs, climbers and herbs in the eastern. Himalaya have predominantly white or cream flowers, obviously an adaptation to attract night- flying moths which are common here. Thus the Nepal Trumpet Climber (Beaumontia grandifiora), several rhododendrons, magnolias, roses, etc. all have white flowers.

There are twenty-six different bamboos in the eastern Himalaya some of which are relished by elephants which climb up to over 2800s m to eat young culms of the elephant fodder bamboo Arundinaria racemosa. Bamboos totally disappear in the far northwest in the Kashmir valley.

A variety of Palms characterize the east Himalayan foothill landscape as compared to the western which has only two wild members of the Date Palm (Phoenix), They are predominantly tropical except one, the Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus takil), which ascends to 2300 m in Kumaon where it withstands snow and has run wild in Mussoorie. The most outstanding members of the Palm family are the Canes (Calamus, Plecioeowda. etc.). Cane bridges up to 90 m long are seen in the Mishmi Hills and are real feats of engineering. They climb over the tallest trees, have feathery leaves prolonged into a whip-like tail which is armed with sharp claws. Canes inhabit other humid regions of Asia with stems, up to 556 ft. It is claimed that another which was considerably longer was torn up by elephants; before it could, be accurately measured and thus was lost to science. The palms are therefore the big game amongst plants. Armed with formidable spines, huge leaves and gigantic inflorescence they are comparable with the Dinosaurs which inhabited the earth millions of years ago.- They have lost some importance as corporal punishment in schools is no longer in vogue in modern education. However, cane furniture is back in fashion and excellent pieces turned out by craftsmen in NEFA are very popular with tea planters and in the hill resorts in eastern India.

As mountaineers ascend the humid tropical valleys to the upper subtropical to warm temperate to temperate a variety of oaks are met with. The more prominent are the Ban oak, Buk oak, Mora oak and the Brown oak.

Ban oak, Quercus leucotrichophora (Q. incana). Evergreen tree with leathery dull green leaves, grey felted underneath and sharp-toothed on the margin. Young foliage has a lilac or a purple tinge. Found all along the outer Himalaya except the Kashmir valley proper where the full force of the monsoon is not felt. The nut is egg-shaped, half enclosed in a woody cup.

Buk oak, Quercus lamellosa} is a very large umbrella-shaped tree of the eastern Himalaya where it occurs gregariously between 1800 and 2600 m along with maples and other trees of the Magnolia family. It is recognized at a distance by its large leaves, up to 30 cm long, with a white under-surface. The leaf margin is sharply toothed like a saw. The leaf veins are up to 25 pairs. The large flat nuts are characteristic. They are lodged in shallow, saucer-shaped cups 7 cm across. The flowers appear in April and the fruits in November.

Moru oak (Q. dilatata) is a large evergreen tree of the western Himalaya and Nepal, growing on cool moist aspects between 2000 and 2750 m. The leaves are spinous and holly-like. The flowers appear at the same time as or before the leaves, as in all oaks. Acorns- have an ovoid nut, pointed at the tip and seated in a hemispherical cup.

Brown oak, Kharsu oak (Q. semecarptfoUa) is a high-altitude oak ascending to 3600 m. The foliage has a coppery tinge in autumn when kharsu forests look spectacular under clear blue skies.- The leaf margin may be smooth or spiny-toothed; the acorns solitary, the cup, small, flat and thin, covering only the base of the nut 2.5 cm across.

Poplars, Maples and Birches: Poplars are recognized by their grey trunks and flowers borne in catkins which appear before they come into leaf. The low-level Poplar, PopuXu& ciliata has heart-shaped leaves. The Sind Poplar P. eupbratica occurs along the Indus at sea level ascending to 4000 m in Ladakh. Maples are recognized by their winged fruits resembling a dragonfly and by the autumn colours of their foliage. They are found in the warm temperate to temperate zones. There are three Birches in the Himalaya. They are recognized by their silvery and papery bark. Betula utilis (silver birch or bhoj- patra) occurs at the upper limit of tree vegetation.

Conifers or 'cone-bearers' include well known trees such as Pine, Deodar, Cypress, Fir, Spruce, Hemlock, Larch, Junipers, etc. They are well represented in the Himalaya from the upper subtropical — warm temperate, temperate to the upper limit of tree growth. The Western Himalayan landscape is dominated by vast/gregarious conifer forests of chir pine, blue pine, deodar, fir, etc. In the Eastern Himalaya except for blue pine, red fir -(Abies densa), etc., the conifer forests are not vast but scattered though exceeding in number of genera with new elements such as Larch, Podocarps, Plum Yew (Cephalotaocus), which are absent in the Western Himalaya.

Field characters of important conifers: chir pine, occurs all along the Himalaya except in the Kashmir valley. It is characterized by needle-like, long leaves in bundles of 3; female cones 10-20 cm long, 7-13 cm broad. Alt. 450-2300 m.

Blue Pine (Pinus wallichiana). Cones cigar-shaped, needles in bundles of five. From 800-3700 m. From Kashmir-Arunachal. Chilgoza Pine (P. gerardiana). In inner dry valleys of Himachal, Kaghmir and Chitral at 1800-3000 m, where precipitation is in the form, of snow with scanty rain. It has three stiff needles. Female cones with thick woody scales. It "has cylindrical, edible seeds.

Deodar, Cedrus deodara, is a large evergreen conifer distributed from Afghanistan to Garhwal and in Kurnauli valley in West Nepal. Common between 1700 and 2400 m. The tallest deodars up to 76 m tall and 13 m girth from Manali tower over the 73 m high Qutb Minar. Redwoods of California, also coniferous trees, up to 120 m tall which occur in the fog belt of North America dwarf the Qutb Minar. The spreading, table-like branches of deodar are distinctive, and the bluish green, pointed leaves grow in tufts along them. The female cones are erect, barrel-shaped and break up while on the branches.

Himalayan Cypress (Cupressus torulosa): tall tree with a pyramidal crown with drooping branches. Cones globose 12-17 mm across in clusters. Leaves, small, closely set on the twigs. Found from Chamba to Nepal. Scarce in the eastern Himalaya.

Common Juniper, Juniperus communis, forms the upper limit of woody vegetation up to 4300 m. Cones bluish black, leaves small, needle-like. The wood and leaves are used as incense in monasteries and the cones in making gin. Himalayan Pencil Juniper (J. polycarpos), forms large forests in the Kagan valley and in Lahul. Trees up to 10 m girth, and estimated to be 1000 years old are known from Lahul. Hie cones are brownish-purple.

Himalayan Larch (Larix griffithiana), resembles deodar in branch and leaf arrangement. In the former the leaves are decidous and the pendulous cones hang for a long time on the branches. In the latter, the cones are much bigger, erect, and break up on the tree. Larch is the only deciduous-conifer of our area, it is a graceful tree found all through the eastern Himalaya at 2400-3600 m on glacial moraines.

Fir. There are four in the Himalaya, Low level W. Himalayan Fir (Abies pindrow), High -level Fir (A. spectabilis), E. Himalayan Fir or Red Fir (A. densa) and A, delavayii, a rare Chinese tree in Arunachal. A. pindrow is a tall tree up to 60 m .with a cylindrical crown with dark purple, erect, barrel-shaped cones which break up on the tree itself on ripening. Found from northwest Himalaya to Nepal at 2300-2600 m. The High level Fir occurs at 2800-3300 m; it is a smaller tree with upturned branches .and shorter leaves. The E. Himalayan Fir has a pagoda-shaped crown forming pure forests above 3000 m.

Spruces are tali trees, with sharply pointed needle-like leaves and pendant brownish cones. There are two species, Picea Smithiana (W. Himalayan Spruce) and P. spinulosa, the E. Himalayan Spruce. In the former the needles are quadrangular in cross-section, in the latter they are flat. The former is found from Afghanistan to Kumaon and the latter occurs from Sikkim to Arunachal.

Himalayan Hemlock (Tsuga dumosa), is a large tree from eastern Kumaon to Arunachal. It resembles Fir in foliage but is at once recognized by its much smaller female cones which are about 2.5 cm long, Yew, Taxus baccaia, a small, slow-growing, long-lived tree attaining an age of 2000 years. Characterized by linear leaves and solitary seeds enclosed in a scarlet pulpy covering. The seeds are poisonous. The bark is used as tea in Ladakh.

Meru group of peaks.

43. Meru group of peaks. Photo: Tony Hebuer Note 10

Route on Meru North. (6672 m) Note 10

44. Route on Meru North. (6672 m) Note 10

Nilkantha (right) with West Col (centre) above base camp.

45. Nilkantha (right) with West Col (centre) above base camp. Photos: S. Roychoudhury Note 12

Peaks in the Vishnu Garh Dhar above B.C.

46. Peaks in the Vishnu Garh Dhar above B.C. Note 12

The Oleander Podocarp Podocarpus neriifolius is a small tree of Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal. It has oleander-like leaves and globose seeds. Rare. Plum-Yew (Cephalotaxus), is a rare Yew-like tree of eastern Himalaya.

The most ornamental broad-leaved trees are the magnolias and rhododendrons (which are both trees and shrubs). The latter are described under alpine vegetation. Other broad-leaved genera, viz., oaks, Dipterocarps, etc., have been dealt with earlier in this paper.

Campbell's Magnolia, Magnolia campbellii, a magnificent snow-white magnolia, starring the hillsides of the eastern Himalaya from Nepal to Arunachal and Manipur at 2100-3000 m. This spectacular tree, leafless when in bloom in April, has white, fragrant, goblet-shaped flowers 15-25 cm across.

Alpine plants

The alpine region of the Himalaya and Karakoram refers to land above the upper limit of coniferous trees. The tree-line in the western Himalaya is c. 3600 m. The ascent of trees in the eastern Himalaya as explained earlier is higher, up to c. 4600 m, because of higher humidity and rainfall. The zone above the tree-line which is too cold for tree growth being under snow for six months is the habitat of most spectacular and gay coloured flowering herbs and shrubs. The base camps of mountaineering expeditions to such mountains as Nanga Parbat, Nanda Devi, Kangchenjunga, Everest and others are generally fixed near the timber-line and these camping sites abound in Himalayan alpines. These flowers, as brilliant as gems, have been photographed and filmed in colour by mountaineers and botanists for the world to enjoy.

The flora at these lofty heights is characterized by the small size of the plants, by the dwarfing of shrubs, and by the relative abundance of mosses and lichens encrusting the rocks. The stunted growth of the plants is generally attributed to the retarding action of light and exposure to high-velocity winds. Many alpines show xerophytic adaptation in the form of crowded, narrow, fleshy or very hairy leaves or leaves with a thick cuticle, for the low temperature retards root absorption, while the conditions of light, low pressure and high winds favour increased transpiration. Vegetative reproduction is common, and many of the flowers are either wind- or self-pollinated, as in Rhododendron. Himalayan alpines in the cold deserts of Ladakh, Sikkim and Tibet are in the form of hard hemispheric cushions as an adaptation against intense cold at night, heat during the day and high-velocity winds.

Above the tree-line, three stages in vegetation are recognized, that is (1) alpine scrub, (2) alpine meadow, and (3) stony desert and perpetual snow. The alpine scrub is in the subalpine zone. It is mostly a willow-juniper-rhododendron scrub community, with outlying patches of the large-flowered Rhododendron campanulatum.

Rhododendron campanulatum shrub with handsome white flowers tinged with lilac, occurs all along the Himalaya above the tree line. Leaves rusty, hairy beneath to protect the leaf against cold and decrease water loss caused by transpiration during intense flowering in May. Monal pheasants are sometimes seen in these bushes.

Rhododendron hypenantham (small cream flowers), drooping juniper, honeysuckle, etc. comprise the alpine scrub. Ornamental herbs like Anemone, Fritillaria roylei, etc. are seen.

2 Alpine meadows occur over moist localities, in hollows, and gentle slopes moistened by snow and glacial streams. The best time to visit these meadows is June, when alpines come into bloom. One of their characteristics is their tendency to 'rush into flower' early, when the snow melts about May, their short but brilliant flowering period being confined to this time. Several Primulas are there, e.g., Primula macro- phylla, P.rosea which burst through the snow and reveal their brilliant colours. Common associates are lris} Potentilla with reddish flowers, and a galaxy of others. Marsh Marigolds with yellow flowers grow near streams and melting snows. Many alpines are a dazzling blue e.g., (gentians and aconites) or sky-blue (blue poppies).

Rhododendrons are an outstanding feature of the alpine Himalaya, and dominate the plant life particularly in the eastern Himalaya where about 80 species are known to occur as compared to about 5 in the western Himalaya. Every possible habitat is occupied: stream sides, meadows, mountain tops and even the trees at lower altitudes where they grow on them as epiphytes. The most outstanding are R. cam- panidatum (Kashmir-Arunachal), R. nivale, R. cinnabarinum, R. thomsonii, etc. R. nivale, 5 cm tall, is one of the smallest. It grows at elevations upto 5800 m (over 19,000 ft) which is perhaps the highest altitude for any woody plant in the world. It has the scent of eau- de-Cologne. K. cinnabarinum (brick-red flowers) and R. thomsonii (blood-red flowers) occur in the eastern Himalaya.

Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata) is not & kamal (lotus) but looks like one with large cream-coloured bracts. It occurs in the inner valleys, not in lakes but on hill slopes and spurs at 4000 m, from Kashmir to Bhutan. It flowers in September and is a favourite for offering in the shrines of Badri and Kedarnath. It is common in Garhwal.

3 Stony deserts and perpetual snow. These are seen at over 4800 m and have a characteristic flora of cushion-forming herbs, and plants with dense woolly hair as an adaptation against strong winds and intense cold. The striking plants of this type are: Saussurea gossypiphora} a rare wedge-shaped herb with a rounded head and drooping foliage, all covered with woolly hair, distributed in the Great Himalaya at about 4800 m, Edelweiss is the national flower of Austria and also occurs in the Himalaya. Botanists call it Leontopodium or lion's foot. The star- Imped flower-head, covered with felt, resembles a lion's foot. Cushion plants, Thylacospermum rupifragrum forms hard hemispheric mounds upto 0.5 m in diameter, which is a growth of centuries. These occur in Ladakh, northern Sikkim and other high-altitude cold deserts upto 700 m. Arenaria musciformis is also a cushion plant common in the plateau near the source of Teesta river at 5500 m in Sikkim. Probably I here is no altitudinal limit for plants. One of the Everest expeditions found the Himalayan edelweiss at 6096 m. Ermania himalayensis was collected by Gurdial Singh on Kamet at 6400 m and is the highest I lowering plant recorded. It is preserved in the Forest Research Institute Herbarium at Dehra Dun. The scantily grassed cold deserts of 1 uidakh, northern Sikkim and Tibet are characterized by extraordinary dryness and consequent evaporation increased by strong winds. Here, because of a strong sun, sterile soil and radiated heat, a piece of snow held in the hand does not melt but disappears by evaporation. The grandeur of Himalayan alpines is best described by Frank Smythe.1Writing on Paraquilegia anemonoides: It would be difficult to find a more genuine rock plant than this, or a more delightful contrast to the Ntern crags. One blast of cold wind should suffice to wither and shrivel it, a single frost to burn its tender foliage. Yet it grows; a miracle of growth, battered by storm, scorched by sun, the prey of hail, storm and blizzard. Heaven knows how it grows, and that I think is the correct answer.


  1. F. S. Smythe, The Valley of Flowers (London : Cambridge University Press, 1938).


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