Among Annapurna giants



Annapurna 2007
Sunrise behind Machhapuchhare (6993 m). In Nepali, the name of this peak means ‘fishtail’ – thus named because of its twin peaks, which are combined by a curved ridge. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



North of the town of Pokhara, central Nepal, is a huge mountainous area, named after the Hindu goddess of crops, Annapurna. She is a form of the principal Hindu goddess, Devi, who is the female aspect, or shakti, of the god Shiva – in daily use called his ’wife’. Other forms of Devi are known as Parvati, Uma, Durga, or Kali.

In the centre of the Annapurna Range is an alpine valley, surrounded by a circle of tall mountains, among these Annapurna I (8091 m), Gangapurna (7454 m), Glacier Dome (7193 m), Annapurna South (7219 m), Hiunchuli (6441 m), and Machhapuchhare (6993 m). The latter peak is sacred to Hindus and may not be scaled. In Nepali, Machhapuchhare means ‘fishtail’ – a name given to this mountain in allusion to its twin peaks, which are combined by a curved ridge.

In daily speech, this valley is called Annapurna Sanctuary, although, strictly speaking, it is not a sanctuary. The valley, however, does constitute a part of the huge Annapurna Conservation Area, covering 7,629 square kilometres, in which authorities and NGO’s strive to make the locals utilize the area in a sustainable way. One result of their efforts is that hunting has largely ceased, for which reason the wildlife here is rich and varied. Conserving the forests is more difficult. The numerous small hotels in the area are urged to utilize solar heating or hydro-electricity, when heating up water, and to use kerosene when cooking, but during periods of political instability, the import of kerosene from India often comes to a halt, forcing the locals to cut trees for firewood.

Annapurna Sanctuary is drained by a single river, the Modi Khola, running north-south, roaring down a deep gorge between the peaks of Machhapuchhare and Hiunchuli. Over a stretch of only c. 50 kilometres, this river is passing through five vegetation zones, from alpine to almost tropical, before joining the larger Kali Gandaki River.


Toxic bark
Below is an account of a hike, which I undertook in the month of May, following the Modi Khola River north from the bazaar village of Birethanti. This village is situated at an altitude of c. 1,000 metres, causing the climate to be almost tropical. In May, the hot air vibrates, and from groves of trees a deafening chorus of cicadas make a racket, mingled with the monotonous duet calls from a pair of great Himalayan barbets (Psilopogon virens) and the four-toned call of the Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus). Nepalese people render the call of the cuckoo as kafal pako, meaning ’the kafal fruit is ripe’ – which is the case in May, when the call is at its peak. When the British arrived in India, they rendered the call as One more bot-tel! – very suitable at this time of the year, when the heat is indeed intense!

In this densely populated area, most of the forest has been cleared to construct terraced fields, but to fulfil people’s need for firewood, plantations have been established, mostly consisting of chir pines (Pinus roxburghii), and also Schima wallichii, which belongs to the tea family. In Nepali, the latter is called chilaune, which means ’to itch’. Beneath the bark, mature trees have a layer of hairs that irritate the skin. The toxic bark can be used when fishing. It is chopped up and sprinkled into the water, anaesthetizing the fish, which float to the surface.

Near villages, you often see a species of coral tree, Erythrina stricta, of the huge pea family (Fabaceae), which, in March-April, displays a profusion of coral-red flowers. Various birds feed in these flowers, such as jungle myna (Acridotheres fuscus), red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus), and ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri).


Nepal 2013
The chir pine (Pinus roxburghii), also called long-leaved pine, is very common in the subtropical zone of the Himalaya, where it is also widely cultivated. Its needles, arranged in groups of 3, are up to 38 centimetres long – much longer than those of blue pine (P. wallichiana). – Read more about these two species on this website, see Traditional medicine: Pinus. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 1987
Schima wallichii belongs to the tea family. Its name in Nepali is chilaune, which means ’to itch’. Beneath the bark, mature trees have a layer of hairs, which irritate the skin. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 1998
Nepal 1998
In March-April, Erythrina stricta, a coral tree of the pea family, displays a profusion of coral-red flowers, in which various bird species feed. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Popular trees in the villages
In the centre of many villages in lower valleys of the Himalaya, one or several trees are planted, around which platforms are often constructed, consisting of flat slate slabs. These platforms, called chotara, act as a shadowy gathering-place for the villagers, and as a resting place for tired porters. The most popular chotara trees are two species of fig, banyan (Ficus benghalensis), or Bengal fig, which often has numerous aerial roots hanging down from its branches, and pipal (Ficus religiosa), the leaves of which are heart-shaped and long-pointed. These two species are often planted side by side, and according to a local Nepalese legend they are husband and wife. The small fruits of these fig trees are an important food item for many bird species, e.g. red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha) and blue-throated barbet (Psilopogon asiaticus).

The Buddha obtained nirvana beneath a pipal tree, and for this reason Buddhists named it Bodhi (’Tree of Enlightenment’). You may read more about this issue elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees, whereas the Buddha and Buddhism is dealt with in depth at Religion: Buddhism.

Other species are also planted as chotara trees, one being bel (Aegle marmelos), of the citrus family (Rutaceae). Its large fruits are edible, and they are also utilized as traditional medicine for treatment of e.g. diarrhoea and dysentery, while an extract from its root and bark is used for fever. Various items are made from the very hard wood, e.g. wheel hubs. This plant is sacred to Hindus, and its leaves are often presented as an offering to the mighty god Shiva.

A very strange custom, which used to be common among the Newar people of Nepal, is the ‘marriage’ of little girls to a fruit from the bel tree. This fruit is regarded as a symbol of Shiva’s son Kumar, and the ‘marriage’ ceremony is similar to a genuine marriage. This marriage cannot be annulled, but it doesn’t prevent the girl from marrying a genuine man. The original reason for this remarkable custom was that, according to ancient Hindu tradition, a widow was supposed to commit suicide in a terrible ritual, sati, during which she would throw herself into her husband’s funeral pyre. A Newar widow, however, did not have to perform this act, as her first husband, Kumar-bel, was still alive!

Other chotara species include rose apple (Eugenia jambos), a tree of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae), locally called jamun. On its shiny leaves are numerous transparent dots, causing locals to use them as a remedy for spotty skin – an excellent example of the Doctrine of Signatures! Its fruit is an edible berry. Another one is the butter tree (Diploknema butyracea), of the family Sapotaceae, from whose seeds a butter-like product can be extracted, called chiuri ghee. The well-known mango tree (Mangifera indica), with its delicious fruits, is also sometimes seen.


Nepal 1985
Banyan (Ficus benghalensis), which often has numerous aerial roots hanging down from its branches, can grow to an enormous size. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 1987
Blue-throated barbets (Psilopogon asiaticus) are often seen feeding on fruits of banyan or pipal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Lowland shrubs and herbs
Various shrubs grow along the trails in subtropical valleys of the Himalaya. Woodfordia fruticosa, of the loosestrife family (Lythraceae), has pretty orange flowers. Its leaves and flowers are utilized for dyeing – the flowers yield a red dye, the leaves yellow. Senna floribunda (also called Cassia floribunda), of the sub-family Caesalpinioideae, has beautiful yellow flowers, whereas Callicarpa macrophylla, of the vervain family (Verbenaceae), has large clusters of small, violet flowers. (A picture of this species is found elsewhere on this website, see Plant hunting in the Himalaya: Rainy season in Nepal.)

       Members of the genera Melastoma and Osbeckia, of the melastoma family, with two and seven Himalayan species, respectively, all have showy reddish-violet flowers. Spanish flag (Lantana camara) was introduced as an ornamental from America, but has become a serious pest in many lower valleys of the Himalaya, as it is able to form large, impenetrable scrubs, expelling native species.

Among the subtropical herbs, members of the acanthus family (Acanthaceae) are conspicuous, comprising at least 28 genera. Among encountered species were the ubiquitous Barleria cristata, Justicia adhatoda, and Asystasia macrocarpa. Also the nettle family (Urticaceae) contains many genera. Besides Himalayan nettle (Urtica ardens) – which is quite similar to the European common nettle (Urtica dioica) – you often observe Girardinia diversifolia, which you will quickly learn to avoid, as it has a very powerful sting. The leaf shape of this species is quite variable, but mostly it has three large lobes. (Read more about this species on this website, see Traditional medicine: Girardinia diversifolia.) Wet rocks are often covered in Pilea umbrosa or Elatostema sessile, both belonging to the same family, but without stinging hairs.

Cleared areas, which lie fallow, are often invaded by a large fern, Gleichenia gigantea, which forms large growths. Various weeds grow along the edge of terraced fields, e.g. the invasive goat-weed (Ageratum conyzoides), a reddish-brown composite, Crassocephalum crepidioides, a tiny St. John’s-wort, Hypericum japonicum, and a low, creeping knotweed, Polygonum capitata, with globular inflorescences. (Read more about goat-weed elsewhere on this website, see Nature: Invasive species.)


Nepal 1991
The handsome Woodfordia fruticosa is common up to an altitude of c. 1800 metres. Nepalese children often suck the sweet nectar out of the flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 2008
In subtropical valleys, the acanthus family is conspicuous. This picture shows Asystasia macrocarpa, which is common in open areas, e.g. fallow fields. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 1991
This yellow everlasting, Gnaphalium affine, is a ubiquitous weed in fallow fields and along terraced fields. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Dense deciduous forests
At a slightly higher altitude, around 1,800 metres, much larger tracts of forest have been preserved, comprising e.g. an oak, Quercus incana, various maples (Acer), and Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis), which readily grows in disturbed soil, such as landslides, where it forms open forests. For this reason, it is often planted in eroded areas, which have come into existence, because steep slopes were utilized for cultivation.

Branches of larger trees are often covered in epiphytes, such as mosses, ferns, a mistletoe, Viscum articulatum, and orchids of the genera Coelogyne and Dendrobium, comprising 12 and c. 26 species, respectively, in the Himalaya. The commonest species are Coelogyne nitida, C. cristata, and Dendrobium amoenum, all of which flower between March and May. Rhaphidophora decursiva, a large, philodendron-like liana, is very common, climbing up tree trunks by means of suckers.

On the forest floor are shrubs like Dichroa febrifuga, of the hydrangea family, the bark of which is used as a febrifuge, Mussaenda roxburghii, of the coffee family, which is easily identified by its white bracts, surrounding the orange inflorescences, and Mahonia napaulensis, of the barberry family, with large, beautiful, yellow inflorescences. Herbs include e.g. Arisaema tortuosum and A. erubescens, peculiar plants of the arum family. (More about this remarkable genus is found elsewhere on this website, see Plant hunting in the Himalaya – Around sacred lakes of Shiva.)

Birdlife at this altitude is abundant, comprising e.g. the gorgeous maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii), black-capped sibia (Heterophasia capistrata), and in the river brown dipper (Cinclus pallasii), which, unlike the European dipper (C. cinclus), is of a uniform brown colour.


Nepal 2008
Annapurna 2007
Annapurna 2007
Epiphytic orchids of the genera Coelogyne and Dendrobium are very common in subtropical and lower temperate regions of the Annapurna. These pictures show, from above, Coelogyne cristata, C. nitida, and Dendrobium amoenum, all photographed along the Modi Khola River. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
Formerly, the black-capped sibia (Heterophasia capistrata) was placed in the timaliid family (Timaliidae), but has now been moved to the newly established laughingthrush family (Leiothrichidae). This species is very common in the Himalaya between c. 1,500 and 3,000 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Red rhododendron forests
Huge tracts of beautiful, almost virgin forest, is found at an altitude of c. 2,500 metres, comprising spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia), and two large rhododendrons, R. arboreum and R. barbatum, which, when flowering in March-April, add a reddish or pinkish tinge to the forest, stemming from millions of flowers. On the forest floor, Viburnum erubescens is very common, and orchids like sword-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) and a butterfly-orchid, Platanthera arcuata, are also widespread.

Many herbs grow on wet rocks along the streams, e.g. Platystemma violoides, of the gloxinia family (Gesneriaceae), and two primroses, the violet Primula edgeworthii and the red P. geraniifolia. In cracks on sun-exposed rocks, grasses and various herbs have taken root, such as the pink Roscoea purpurea, of the ginger family, a large-leaved buttercup, Ranunculus diffusus, and hairy bergenia (Bergenia ciliata), of the saxifrage family. Blue-grey Kashmir rock agamas (Laudakia tuberculata), with numerous yellow dots on the body, often scuttle about on the rocks.

At an altitude of c. 2,800 metres, the forest floor is often covered in dense growths of various species of dwarf bamboo, among others the genera Arundinaria and Thamnocalamus. Bamboo is utilized in numerous ways in the Himalaya. Baskets and mats are woven from split stems of dwarf bamboo, while the larger species are used for house construction, bridges, scaffolds, etc. The thickest stems can be used as water pipes, after removing the node walls.

Various bushes also grow here, e.g. a bramble with rose-red flowers, Rubus foliolosus, a yellow jasmine, Jasminum humile, and a currant with black berries, Ribes himalense. In clearings, I observe an orchid with violet-red flowers, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, a near relative of the European early marsh orchid (D. incarnata). Its tubers are much utilized in traditional medicine, and it has now become scarce due to over-collecting.


Nepal 2008
In March-April, when Rhododendron arboreum is flowering, it adds a reddish or pinkish tinge to the forest, stemming from millions of flowers. The intensity of the red colour of this species decreases, as you move higher, and near the upper limit of its distribution, you sometimes encounter trees with white flowers. This picture shows two shades of red flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 2013
Viburnum erubescens is the commonest among eight viburnum species, which are found in temperate areas of the Annapurna Range. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Nepal 2000
Platystemma violoides grows on shadowy rocks between 1,500 and 3,000 metres altitude. It belongs to the gloxinia family (Gesneriaceae), comprising at least six genera in the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Edible plants from the forest
When you hike in the Himalaya, you often have an opportunity to taste wild plants, collected in the forest by the locals, e.g. various fungi, young bamboo shoots, ’fiddle-heads’ (young shoots) of certain fern species, and watercress (Nasturtium officinale), all of which are boiled or scalloped as a vegetable.

Outside the summer months, fresh vegetables are often difficult to find in rural areas of the Himalaya. A widespread method of obtaining nutrients from vegetables at times, when fresh ones are not available, is to make gundruk – fermented leaves of certain cultivated plants, e.g. cabbage, mustard, and radish, and of various wild plants, such as Arisaema utile, a buttercup, Ranunculus diffusus, and Nepalese dock (Rumex nepalensis).

Two methods are utilized to make gundruk. One is to wash the leaves and leave them to dry for a day, after which the last juice is beaten out of them. They are then stuffed firmly into a container, which is tightly closed, making it airtight. About a week later, the fermented leaves are taken out and left to dry in the sun, after which they are stored in a dry place for later use. Another method is to boil the leaves for a short time and then stuff them tightly in a container. After a short period of time, the juice is removed and boiling water added. The leaves are then left to ferment for 4-5 days, before being dried in the sun. (Source: Manandhar, N.P. 2002. Plants and People of Nepal. Timber Press.)

Gundruk can be kept for about a year. The fermented leaves emit a characteristic fragrance, and they have a unique, strong, and lovely taste – at least in my opinion.


Annapurna 2007
In the Annapurna area, the leaves of Arisaema utile are much utilized for making gundruk. In this picture, fermented leaves of this species have been spread out to dry in the sun, later to be cooked as a vegetable. In the foreground young ferns, which are also eaten as a vegetable. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A profusion of herbs in the thickets
Above 3,200 metres altitude, the forest becomes lower and more open. In this zone, the dominating tree is Himalayan birch (Betula utilis), easily identified by its reddish bark, which peels off in large flakes. Scattered among the birches are various species of whitebeam (Sorbus) and cherry (Prunus), and bushes like Spiraea arcuata and Rhododendron campanulatum. Gorgeous fire-tailed sunbirds (Aethopyga ignicauda) are often feeding in flowers of the latter. Clematis montana is very common in this zone, climbing up trees and bushes.

In clearings, you encounter a profusion of herbs, e.g. Anemone obtusiloba, which has white or blue flowers, and the yellow Megacarpaea polyandra, of the mustard family (Brassicaceae), which can grow taller than a man. On a wet rock, I observe the rare Pycnoplinthopsis bhutanica, likewise of the mustard family. With its low growth and thick leaf rosette, it somewhat resembles a primrose.

Around 3,700 metres altitude, trees become scarce, and woody plants are mainly composed of huge thickets of various dwarf bushes, mainly Rhododendron anthopogon and R. lepidotum, a honeysuckle, Lonicera obovata, and various species of Cotoneaster. Various herbs grow in clearings among the bushes, such as a beautiful fritillary, Fritillaria cirrhosa, Arisaema propinquum, Morina polyphylla, which has very prickly leaves, an alp lily, Gagea longiscapa (formerly called Lloydia longiscapa), and an imposing yellow primrose, Primula sikkimensis, which grows to 90 centimetres tall.


Annapurna 2007
An almost full moon, setting behind the double-peak of Machhapuchhare (6993 m), seen from Machhapuchhare Base Camp. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Everest 2010
The Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) is easily identified by its reddish bark, which peels off in large flakes. In former times, the bark was used as roof cover, and to make paper. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
Here and there in the Modi Khola Valley, the rare Pycnoplinthopsis bhutanica is found, always growing on wet rocks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
The beautiful Fritillaria cirrhosa is the commonest fritillary in the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Himachal Pradesh 2007
This alp lily, Gagea longiscapa (formerly called Lloydia longiscapa), very much resembles the European Snowdon lily (G. serotina), but has larger brown spots in the throat. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Among Annapurna giants
Now the valley widens, becoming almost circular – this is the famous Annapurna Sanctuary. A couple of hours’ walk across alpine meadows with herbs and low, wind-shaped bushes, brings you to a group of hotels, named Annapurna Base Camp, situated at an altitude of 4,130 metres. On your way, you have magnificent views towards the gigantic peaks, which surround the valley in all directions, among these Annapurna I (8091 m), Annapurna III (7555 m), Gangapurna (7454 m), and Annapurna South (7219 m). Several glaciers emerge from the mountains, their bluish-white ice almost hidden under a layer of brown and black moraine.

In May, few plants are flowering at this altitude. However, a pinkish-violet primrose, Primula denticulata, is abundant. Others include a white, cushion-forming saxifrage, Saxifraga andersonii, and a cinquefoil, Potentilla argyrophylla, which occurs in several colour varieties: purplish, red, orange, and yellow.

At this altitude, the commonest bird is the yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus). Otherwise, animal life is scarce in the valley at this time of the year. However, while I am resting near a small stream, a Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica) comes tearing along the bank, stops for a few seconds to investigate me, and then disappears like lightning.


Annapurna 2007
The primrose genus probably evolved in the Himalaya, and at least 62 species are found here. This picture shows Primula denticulata, which is abundant in forest clearings and grassy areas between 1,500 and 4,500 metres altitude. It is very variable, and as a rule its inflorescences become larger and denser, the higher you go. (More pictures of primroses are found elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Primroses). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
Annapurna 2007
Saxifraga andersonii is a cushion-forming plant, growing on rocks between 3,600 and 5,200 metres altitude. This species is found from western Nepal eastwards to south-eastern Tibet. It is quite common in Annapurna Sanctuary. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
This cinquefoil, Potentilla argyrophylla, occurs in several colour varieties: purplish, red, orange, and yellow. This picture shows the red form, var. atrosanguinea. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
The yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) is very common in the Annapurna Sanctuary. Around the hotels is has become so tame that it will almost take food from your hand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)


Annapurna 2007
The Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica) is the commonest among five weasel species in the Himalaya. This one came tearing along the bank, stopped for a few seconds to investigate me, and then disappeared like lightning. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Polunin, O. & A. Stainton, 1984: Flowers of the Himalaya. Oxford University Press
Stainton, A., 1988: Flowers of the Himalaya. A Supplement. Oxford University Press



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(Revised September 2018)