From time immemorial, the local inhabitants of this area have been utilizing it, hunting, collecting wild plants for food and medicine, grazing cattle and goats, and collecting timber and firewood. Today, this traditional usage is no longer allowed. The Indian Forest Department, together with several NGO’s, makes an effort to help the local people by offering some to work as park rangers, and others as guides and porters for visiting tourists, and by establishing timber plantations and nurseries for plant species, which have traditionally been collected for folk medicine or other usage, e.g. Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana) and a composite, Jurinea depressa, locally called dhup. Through these initiatives, the authorities hope that the locals will respect the park regulations.
Following the termination of livestock grazing in the area around 1990, the locals no longer maintained the trails, and when our hikes took place, the trails had simply vanished in many places, making our hike rather hair-raising at times. We had to negotiate temporary ’bridges’, jump from one rock to another, climb down vertical rocks, and walk along narrow and slippery trails, full of fallen oak leaves. On one occasion, at the outskirts of the park, we had to follow a cattle track, overgrown by two-metre-high herbs, which blocked our view, causing us to slide along in greasy cow pats. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that my guide and porters slid and fell as often as I did in this slush.
The lower parts of the Tirthan and Sainj Valleys are covered in lush broad-leaved forests, dominated by an oak, Quercus incana, mixed with Himalayan spruce (Picea smithiana), Rhododendron arboreum, a birch, Betula alnoides, and huge, old specimens of Indian horse-chestnut (Aesculus indicus) and walnut (Juglans regia).
Herbs on the forest floor included giant Himalayan lily (Cardiocrinum giganteum), which grows to 2 metres tall, a columbine, Aquilegia pubiflora, and Geum roylei, which very much resembles common avens (G. urbanum) of Europe. In clearings – including former cultivated areas – bushes of the rose family were ubiquitous, such as Spiraea canescens, Sorbaria tomentosa, and Rubus foliolosus, as well as a climber, Cynanchum auriculatum, of the periwinkle family (Apocynaceae). Common pokeweed (Phytolacca acinosa) was also quite common. The inflorescence of this species is up to 15 centimetres long, its yellowish-white flowers later developing into black berries. These berries are not edible, but the leaves make an excellent vegetable – but only after being boiled twice. Along the trail grew many herbs, e.g. various knotweeds (Polygonum), a pale-blue larkspur, Delphinium denudatum, an orange wallflower, Erysimum benthamii, and a beautiful iris, Iris milesii, with long, scimitar-shaped leaves.
At a slightly higher altitude, various conifers became dominant, especially Himalayan cedar, or deodar (Cedrus deodara), Himalayan spruce, and blue pine (Pinus wallichiana). This park constitutes one of the core areas of the Himalayan cedar, which is distributed from Afghanistan to western Nepal. This tree can grow to enormous dimensions, up to 80 metres tall, its huge bole having a circumference of up to 12 metres. Its generic name, Cedrus, from the Greek kedros, stems from an ancient Indo-European word, meaning incense. Formerly, needles and wood of cedar were used as incense, like various species of juniper and cypress. Today, traditional medicine is made from an essential oil in its wood. Read more about deodar on this website, see Traditional medicine: Cedrus deodara.
Himalayan spruce is distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to central Nepal, while blue pine is very common in a huge area, from Afghanistan eastwards to south-western China. Blue pine can be identified by its bluish foliage and huge cones, which grow to 25 centimetres long. A picture of its cone is shown elsewhere on this website, see Plant hunting in the Himalaya: Around the sacred lakes of Shiva.
Himalayan yew appeared at an altitude of c. 2,500 metres, together with two species of fir, the very common Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis) and the less common West Himalayan silver fir (A. pindrow). The two species are very much alike, and many taxonomists regard them as two forms of the same species.
On the steepest slopes, few trees were growing, and large areas were covered in a pink-flowered shrub, Indigofera heterantha, of the pea family (Fabaceae). In the Himalaya, no less than 16 members of this genus are found. Formerly, a blue dye, indigo, was extracted from a lowland species, I. tinctoria, but nowadays the dye is produced synthetically. Incidentally, indigo cannot be extracted from any of the Himalayan species. Here and there, two rose species were encountered, a shrub with pretty pink flowers, Rosa macrophylla, and a climber with white flowers, Rosa brunonii.
During our spring hike, various herbs were encountered on rock walls in the forest, e.g. a large, white-flowered windflower, Anemone tetrasepala, which was very common, a pink rock-jasmine, Androsace sarmentosa, the white-flowered Gypsophila cerastioides of the carnation family (Caryophyllaceae), and the handsome Himalayan alpine bells (Cortusa brotheri), of the primrose family (Primulaceae). A pretty bellflower, Campanula argyrotricha, was observed during our autumn hike, growing on a vertical rock wall.
In this zone, herbs grew sparsely on the forest floor, although we did find several species, e.g. Geranium himalayense, which very much resembles the European meadow cranesbill (G. pratense), but is larger. We also encountered a plant with tripartite leaves, Trillium govanianum, which is related to the European Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia). Lately, both of these species have been moved from the lily family (Liliaceae) to the trillium family (Melanthiaceae). Other species included a large-flowered aster, Aster thomsonii, a Solomon’s seal, Maianthemum purpureum, the tiny Himalayan wulfenia (Wulfeniopsis amherstiana) of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae), and two beautiful ground-living orchids, a white lady’s slipper, Cypripedium cordigera, and Calanthe tricarinata.
Large areas of the forest floor had been dug over by bears, of which two species are found in the national park. The Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is mostly encountered in forests of lower altitudes, whereas a subspecies of the brown bear, the isabelline bear (Ursus arctos ssp. isabellinus), mainly lives in areas above the tree line, occasionally entering the forest.
In these temperate forests live no less than five species of pheasant. Gorgeous cocks and brown-speckled hens of monal (Lophophorus impejanus) often took to the wings in front of us, gliding several hundred metres down into the valley, cackling loudly. This species is very common in the park. Koklas pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) and kalij pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) are less numerous, whereas chir pheasant (Catreus wallichi) and western tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) are very rare, the latter being globally threatened. The Great Himalayan National Park, however, constitutes one of its core areas.
We encountered many clearings in the forest – remnants of former grazing grounds. Since grazing was stopped in the park, the vegetation in these clearings has changed dramatically. When grazing took place, most plants were either toxic or prickly, or they were able to withstand intense grazing. Nowadays, the vegetation is dominated by tall herbs, such as various species of knotweed, dock, or nettle, which has taken over large areas. However, several other species can still be seen, e.g. the beautiful Morina longifolia, of the morina family (Morinaceae), a large, blue-flowered stickseed, Hackelia uncinatum, a white windflower, Anemone rivularis, a wild buckwheat, Fagopyrum dibotrys, and a cinquefoil, Potentilla argyrophylla, with a tremendous variety of flower colours, from yellow via orange to red and purplish. Over time, these clearings will be resumed by trees.
Herbal vegetation in these meadows is indeed rich, with most species blooming during the monsoon. In June, when our spring hike took place, precipitation is moderate, but nevertheless we found many flowering species. The majority of these were also encountered in the forest, but some were restricted to the meadows, very common species including alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris), Geum elatum, a species of avens with large, yellow (rarely red) flowers, Phlomis bracteosa, a violet lampwick plant, and a windflower, Anemone obtusiloba, which in this area comes in two colour forms, white and blue. (A third variety with yellow flowers grows only in Kashmir.) Banks along the streams were covered in thousands of Himalayan marsh-marigolds (Caltha palustris var. himalensis).
A number of interesting plants were encountered here. Two species were abundant, an alp lily, Gagea longiscapa (formerly called Lloydia longiscapa), and the tiny, but handsome Aletris pauciflora, which has been moved from the lily family (Liliaceae) to the trillium family (Melanthiaceae). Other species include Dactylorhiza hatagirea, which resembles the European early marsh orchid (D. incarnata), a cushion-forming rock-jasmine, Androsace muscoidea, and two tall primroses, Primula stuartii with pale yellow flowers and P. macrophylla with violet flowers. A beautiful poppy, Meconopsis aculeata, brightened up the landscape with its large, pale-blue flowers. We also found the strange black hellebore (Picrorhiza kurrooa), of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae), with 3-centimetre-long stamens projecting from its tiny flowers. This plant, which is utilized as traditional medicine, is threatened by excessive collecting.
Animal life is sparse at these altitudes. During our autumn hike we observed large flocks of snow pigeons (Columba leuconota), and during our spring hike, a lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) was soaring along a ridge on the lookout for carcasses, while a red fox (Vulpes vulpes ssp. montana), with pale parts here and there on its coat, watched us with interest, before trudging along. In the foggy weather, we surprised two young brown bears, which were busy digging for roots, only about 50 metres away. Spotting us, they snorted and ran for dear life.