At our February meeting members enjoyed a talk on Zoom by Rosemary Legrand, a keen gardener and lecturer, who inherited her love of botany from her father who was also a plant hunter in Bhutan.
The talk began with recorded folk music which transported us to Bhutan. Music plays an integral part in the culture and as the music faded Rosemary told us about her wonderful 18 day trip organised by Naturetrek in May 2007 with a small group of plant enthusiasts. The group entered Bhutan from North East India at Phuentsholing where the climate begins as tropical in the south, then temperate in the central area moving to higher and colder altitudes where alpines could be found. Rosemary was able to see many of the 50 rhodedendron and 600 orchid varieties growing wild on her trip.
Still a kingdom, the country was only just opening up to outsiders. Buddhism is an integral part of a poor lifestyle with most buildings either a monastery or buddhist shrines called chortens. The well loved King Jigme Khesar had only just introduced electricity, literacy and basic health care for his people. All buildings still have to be built in traditional Bhutanese style. Conservation is a top priority and Tiger trails have been established to enable Bengal tigers to survive in the mountains.
The warm tropical lowlands are basically jungle. Orchids and monkeys live in the trees and many houseplants we are familiar with grow wild. Rosemary had to cope with leeches and ticks in these areas. The roads were being built by a workforce of Bangladeshi and Bhutanese families who lived by the side of the road. On average there were 17 bends per kilometre, which made building roads a very difficult task.
Moving onwards and upwards into a more temperate zone, rhododendrons grew prolifically and sometimes self seeded in the sphagnum moss. R. falconeri and R.edgeworthii were identified. Huge flowers and wonderful fragrances were commonplace. Many hardy and half hardy deciduous shrubs or bulbs were spotted such as Euphorbias, Daphnes and Meconopsis paniculata. Daphne Bholua was used to make paper, as well as stamps. Trilliums, Arisaemas, Primulas and Euphorbias all originated here.
Small areas of grass and wild bamboo support ponies and yaks. Yak milk, butter and cheese is enjoyed by a mainly vegetarian nation. Meat is especially imported from India to keep tourists happy. The Bhutanese speak English as their second language, practising on tourists when they buy hand woven ethical goods; the income is very welcome!
With passes at Rodung-La, the highest point being 4039 metres, the temperate climate becomes mountainous and very cold in the winter months. Rosemary came across little hamlets which had oil lamps, candles and generators and Rugs made of crushed bamboo. She also met inebriated travelling minstrels who were praying for rain and taking donations from passers by.
Down in the warmer areas where magnolias and paddy fields are found, she visited the Gangtey Monastery which was 450 years old and contained wonderful brightly coloured murals and mandalas on the ceilings. The capital Thimphu has a royal palace at an altitude of 2286m, and the world’s most dangerous airport to land at. The national animal is the Takin (a cross between a goat and a cow) and the national sport is archery. By royal decree, “gross national happiness” is more important than economic growth. It certainly seemed that way after hearing about Rosemary’s intrepid journey!