The transition zones from sub-tropical warmth to arctic colds are telescoped into a mere 250 kilometers (156 miles) between the Punjab plains and the Tibetan plateau, Himachal Pradesh is an ideal habitat for a rich species of flora and fauna.
Towards the plains, the Shivalk are fringed with broad-leaved Sal and silk cotton, which give way to sheesham, kail and the long leaved cheer pine on the slopes of the foothills. A temperate zone of the mixed forests follows on the lower reaches of the Dhauladhars and Pir Panjal ranges, which are covered with mossy oak, dropping branches of Spruce, and the smooth silvery bark of the West Himalayan fir.
Near streams or on the colder northern slopes one finds the maple, but most significant is the tree of the gods and the pride of the Western Himalaya –the stately deodar. This magnificent conifer soars up to a height of 45 meters (150 feet).
The neat park-like coniferous forests begin to thin around 2,700meters (9,000 feet). Windblown birches and clumps of stunted junipers mark the tree line, beyond which extend the idyllic alpine meadows. Here in summer, a profusion of wild flowers, including the rare Himalayan blue poppy, push out their way out of the thawing soil.
These varying life zones support an exciting range of fauna. One of the lasting pleasures of a walks in these woods are the alluring calls from un-sighted birds. Easily traced are the whistling thrushes, magpies, tits and woodpeckers. Flycatchers pirouette in mid air to claim their catch, while nuthatches and tree creepers comb the fissures in the bark of conifers.
The sudden flight of the Koklas and Khalij pheasants from the undergrowth never fails to startle, and if one has the patience of the Himalayan pied Kingfisher, one can be rewarded by the breathtaking sight of a bird in nine iridescent colors –the Monal. At higher altitudes, the bird life begins to thin along with the trees.
Rarer the numbers, but clearly visible when present, are the snow cock, the Himalayan choughs, rose finches and accentors. Overhead, gliding in the thermals, one is likely to spot the griffon vulture, perhaps the Lammergeyer with its beard and nine-foot wingspan, and if one is lucky, the golden eagle. The sight of a skein of wild geese on their migratory flight, flights the wind at 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), is an unforgettable experience.
Mammals are not easily sighted. Encroachment on the forest cover by the human population has forced them to retreat into the protected zones, where their natural habitat is still preserved.
In Himachal Pradesh, 28 such areas have been demarked as sanctuaries. In most cases, these are the sparsely populated higher reaches of the valley and of the valleys and the passes that have served as an avenue for the movement of wildlife across the ranges. They present a unique enclave, in which Eurasian and tropical species comes into contact. Perhaps the most beautiful animal, and certainly the most exclusive, is the fabled snow leopard. It has an attractive spotted pelt of smoky gray, paling to pure white on the underside, which is prized by poachers who have, thus sadly, enhanced its rarity. Its prey is more easily sighted by trekkers: Bharal and Goral graze on open slopes, while the Ibex easily identified by its large scimitar horns and characteristic beard, may present a striking silhouette at the edge of a steep stiff.
Another attractive goat partial to steep terrain is the Himalayan Thar, with its unmistakable shaggy straw-colored shoulder ruffs. Solitary in their movement are the more reticent musk deer, which shares the insecurity of the snow leopard, since they too are sought by poachers who have thus, sadly, enhanced its rarity. Its prey are more easily sighted by trekkers: Bharal and Goral graze on open slopes, while the Ibex, easily identified by its large scimitar horns and characteristic beard, may present a striking silhouette at the edge of the steep stiff.
While walking in the countryside or climbing a hill in the Himalaya you may come across numerous wild flowers, brightening a hollow in a rock, or half hidden amidst the ferns which will make your outdoor experience especially rich. Stop and look at the wild flowers carefully and you will discover, a disarming beauty of their own. Many of them are also ancestors of the familiar garden flowers that we tend so enthusiastically.
The Himalaya is a treasure trove of flowers many of which grow all over the northern temperate zone too. Some of them are unique to the Himalayas while others are very alpine in character. The lower hills have a mixture of temperate and subtropical flora. The plains and the scrub deserts have distinctly different flowers, while hot and humid areas have flora that is specific to their condition.
The ability to identify wild flowers can transform a journey, walk or a drive into a voyage of discovery. Every shady nook, forest path or ditch becomes endowed with charm as you seek out its hidden cache of wild plants.
Knowing the flowers in one’s surroundings furthers a desire to know more about flowers whether near or far, and the need to save all the wild things that we have inherited on the earth. The fact that a rapidly growing population is threatening wild habitats is also connected with an awareness of nature and the need to preserve it.
We have described below few wild flowers adoring, lush green mountain meadows and deep valleys will surely enhance your Himalayan experience.
Primula denticulate Primulaceae
In the adjoining valleys of Shimla, primulas are among the first to bloom. They flower as early as March and continue well into July. They are found all over the Himalayas at heights of 1500-4500 m. Primulas are very easy to spot in meadows, slopes and shrubberies, on account of the rounded flowering tops.
From a distance a meadow of primulas looks as though it is carpeted with purple, lilac and sometimes white golf balls fluttering in the mountain breeze. Come closer and you see that each flower head is composed of many small, five-petalled flowers, each petal is heart-shaped and each flower has a long corolla tube.
The leaves of the primula grow in a rosette at the base of the stalk. They are oblong, narrowing at the base, with toothed edges. The texture of the leaves is wavy and wrinkled and slightly mealy with veining. The flower grows on a single stalk that is not branched. It is about 18-20 cm high.
The name, primula comes from the Latin primus, first, referring to the early flowering of many species. In fact, the greatest concentration of primula species is found in the Himalayas. The seeds of some primulas were taken by plant collectors to the west at the end of the last century, and developed into beautiful cultivars for gardens.
Fragaria nubicola Rosaceae
Fragaria, the botanical name for the wild strawberry comes from the Latin fragrans. This is not surprising because the fruit of the strawberry smells wonderful. The plant grows all over the northern temperate regions of the world. In India several varieties grow in the northern hills at heights of 1800-3800 m in forests, shrubberies and shady banks.
The strawberry plant is a small, silky-haired perennial with trifoliate leaves, with long runners which root at intervals as they creep along the ground. The small flowers have five white petals, and each flower gives way to a red, succulent strawberry whose surface is dotted with tiny seeds. Wild strawberries are delicious and the flavour is especially fine in June when they grow profusely. Some fruit can be found from April to November.
In old European paintings the strawberry was shown as the fruit of temptation and whoever ate it was reputed to turn into a monster! The several varieties of strawberries growing in the Himalayas are all a great treat for fruit-loving animals and birds.
Herbal tea is made from the leaves which are picked young and dried. This is useful in diarrhoea and urinary infections.
Red jewels warm from Nature’s heart.
Rosa brunanii Rosaceae
This delicate wild rose is most commonly seen all along the northern hills growing at heights of 1200-2400 m. In the month of May,musk rose bushes burst into bloom, clothing trees, running wild over hedges and tumbling precariously over cliffs and boulders. The air is heady with their scent and honeybees and nectar-loving insects have a field day.
The five-petalled flowers are white and about 3-4 cm across, filled with a mass of yellow stamens. The stems are prickly and the leaves are finely-toothed ovals with pointed tips. The R. moschata found in the western Himalayas is very similar, the main difference being that its branches are smooth and the leaf stalks are without prickles. Several other varieties of wild white roses grow in the hills. Wild, pink roses or R. macrophylla, arc also common and can be seen growing side by side with the white ones. When the wild rose withers away, its place is taken by a red rounded fruit known as a rose-hip.
In the autumn, a rose bush hung with rose-hips is a very pretty sight. In Hindi, the musk rose is known as Kuji, Kunja or Karer. Sometimes the wood is used to make walking sticks.
Attar is extracted from the flowers. A soothing cough syrup is made out of the hips; these have high vitamin C content. A kind of marmalade can also be made of the hips by boiling them and passing the pulp through a sieve; to each 1/2 kg of pulp add an equal amount of sugar and boil till it jells.
Anemone vitifolia Ranunculaceae
The wild anemone commonly known as the wind flower, has large white flowers of 3.5-5 cm across, filled with yellow stamens and tinged with pink on the reverse. The stalks are soft and silky, long and erect. The round flower buds are white and woolly. The large leaves are five-lobed like a palm, toothed, with a smooth upper surface and woolly beneath and they grow in a cluster.
The leaves just below the flower head are much smaller and grow on smaller stalks. The wind flower is a perennial and is about 30-90 cm high and can be seen from quite a distance where it grows in the mountains.
The anemone is found all over the temperate Himalayas at heights of 2100-3000 m. and is in flower from July to September. We have several species of anemones in the hills and each one is prettier than the other. Some flower in the spring and some in the autumn.
The word anemone comes from the Greek, anemos, or wind. Some of the species bloom in the windy months of early spring and are therefore called wind flowers. Anemones flourish in dry, open woodland and a porous, chalky soil. The ancient Greeks believed that if a wind blew over an anemone-filled meadow it would bring sickness with it.
They also believed that anemones sprang from the passionate tears shed by Venus over the body of the slain Adonis.
Anemones, fluttering in the breeze, have a tremulous charm of their own.
This flower is repeated
out of old winds, out of
Oh, windflowers so fresh,
Oh, beautiful leaves, here
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
Geranium wallichianum Geraniaceae
The cranesbill or the wild geranium, blooms just before the rains in the north Indian hills, from 2400-3600 m. and continues to be in flower right up to September. This is a perennial that grows from 30 -120 cm tall. The purple-blue flowers are about 3-4 cm across.
The leaves are palmately divided into 3-5 lobes and toothed around the outer edges. The stems are slightly hairy and the plant has large, ovate, coloured stipules. When one comes across a whole bank of cranesbill, some of the flowers are a deep pink and the others are blue-purple and veined with a deep purple; the newly opened blooms are the ones with the pink flush.
The name cranesbill comes from the long, beaked fruit which resembles a crane’s bill. The fruit is full of seeds.
When the seeds are ripe they are thrown out with great force when the outer covering bursts. The seeds are ejected to a distance of about several metres away, and so the plant spreads if the conditions are favourable. The wild geranium is known as Ratijari in Hindi and is used in herbal medicine for rheumatism and to cure headaches.
There are roughly about ten different types of geraniums found in our hills. The name Geranium is derived from the Greek, geranos, a crane, referring to the long-beaked fruit.