Abode of the deodar



Uttarakhand 2008
Viburnum grandiflorum is common in temperate forests of the western Himalaya. This species is among the few trees, which bloom in winter and early spring. The flowers on this specimen were surprised by sudden frost, following snowfall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A huge wilderness, comprising vast forests and virgin, snow-covered mountains, covers almost the entire eastern part of the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh, near the border to Tibet. To preserve this wilderness for future generations, the Indian Government, since 1984, has created several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in this area. The core area of this wilderness is comprised of two adjoining national parks, Great Himalayan and Pin Valley, bordering several wildlife sanctuaries: Kanawar, Sainj, Tirthan, and Rupi Bhaba. Altogether, the protected area covers c. 2,000 square kilometres. It has been estimated that a total of c. 3,200 plant species is found in these parks, between 700 and 3,600 metres altitude.

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.



Himachal Pradesh 2007
This man is digging up a specimen of dhup (Jurinea depressa). From time immemorial, incense has been produced from the root of this species. To save it from being exterminated, it is now widely cultivated. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Hair-raising trails
Below, impressions from a spring hike and from an autumn hike, both in the Great Himalayan National Park, are presented. In both cases, the starting point was the village of Gushaini, from where we hiked along the Tirthan River to Rolla (2100 m), from where steep trails head up into the mountains, one leading to Shilt (3100 m), another to Nara (3300 m). Our goal on both these hikes was the alpine meadows around Ghumtarao (3500 m). On the spring trip, an additional hike was made along the Sainj River further north, to the alpine meadows at Dhela (3600 m).

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.



Himachal Pradesh 2007
On our hike along the Tirthan River, near Gushaini, we met this man, who had adorned his woven hat with white jasmines (Jasminum officinale). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Several places along the Tirthan River, the trail had vanished, and we had to jump from one rock to the next. In this picture, one of my companions, Madhu Saxena, is crossing a critical spot, assisted by her husband, Ajai (right), and our guide. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Large areas in the lower parts of the Great Himalayan National Park are covered in lush broad-leaved forest. In this picture, Indian forester Ajai Saxena is standing next to a huge Indian horse-chestnut (Aesculus indicus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Annapurna 2007
Giant Himalayan lily (Cardiocrinum giganteum) was not uncommon on the forest floor around 2,000 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
The beautiful Iris milesii is easily identified by its long, scimitar-shaped leaves. The preferred habitat of this species is open pine forests. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Through cedar forests
Rolla is a former grazing ground near the banks of the Tirthan River, at c. 2,100 metres altitude. From here, two trails head up through the forest, one leading to Shilt, the other to Nara. The mixed forest along these trails is virtually untouched by humans, dominated by spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia). We often found oak leaves with a large, round hole in the centre, made by the red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista), which folds the leaf along the mid-rib, whereupon it eats the central part, avoiding the edge of the leaf, which is more toxic than the centre. Several maple species (Acer) were encountered here, their foliage displaying gorgeous red and yellow colours during our autumn hike.

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.



Uttarakhand 2008
Uttarakhand 2008
An Indian forester, Mr. B.P. Bahuguna, displays a leaf of spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia) with a large hole in the centre, made by a red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista). The squirrel will fold the leaf along the mid-rib and then eat the central part, thus avoiding the edge of the leaf, which is more toxic than the centre. We often found such leaves on the trail. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Himalayan cedar, or deodar (Cedrus deodara), can grow to enormous dimensions, up to 80 metres tall, its trunk having a circumference of 10 to 12 metres. Presumably, this specimen, which grows along the edge of a precipice, was on the cusp of falling, whereupon several branches began growing upwards, thus, over time, creating a tree with several trunks. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
The beautiful Rosa macrophylla grows here and there in mixed forests of the Great Himalayan National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
The tall Anemone tetrasepala is very common on rocky slopes between 2,100 and 3,600 metres altitude. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
This white lady’s slipper, Cypripedium cordigera, is quite common in temperate forests of the Himalaya, between 2,100 and 4,000 metres altitude, from Pakistan east to Bhutan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
On several occasions, we found another ground-living orchid, Calanthe tricarinata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Five species of pheasant
Vegetation along forest streams included bushes like Viburnum grandiflorum and several willows (Salix), besides various herbs, e.g. a buttercup, Ranunculus laetus, a bittercress, Cardamine macrophylla, and a figwort, Scrophularia decomposita. We also encountered two bird species, which are adapted to a life along running water, the brown dipper (Cinclus pallasii) and the plumbeous redstart (Phoenicurus fuliginosus).

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.



Himachal Pradesh 2007
On our walk towards Dhela, we found this monal chick (Lophophorus impejanus). A picture of the splendid cock is shown elsewhere on this website, see Plant hunting in the Himalaya: Around sacred lakes of Shiva. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
The handsome Morina longifolia grows between 2,500 and 4,300 metres altitude. All four Morina species in the Himalaya are furnished with stiff hairs or spines as a means of defence against grazing animals. The morina family (Morinaceae) is closely related to the scabious family (Dipsacaceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
About 40 cinquefoil species are found in the Himalaya. The flower colour of the handsome Potentilla argyrophylla varies a great deal, from yellow via orange to red and purplish. This species is distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to Sikkim. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Alpine meadows
Around 3,000 metres, the forest becomes lower, consisting mainly of Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) and stunted specimens of silver fir. Very few trees grow above 3,300 metres, the landscape now dominated by alpine meadows with scattered shrubs of Rhododendron campanulatum and low junipers (Juniperus). Various dwarf shrubs grow among the rocks, such as Cassiope fastigiata, a species of white-heather with bell-shaped flowers, a creeping dwarf willow, Salix lindleyana, and two species of rhododendron, R. lepidotum with red or white flowers, and R. anthopogon with yellowish-white, almost transparent flowers. Pictures of these and other rhododendron species are found elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Rhododendrons.

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.



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Jai Singh, showing a fistful of yellow primroses of the species Primula stuartii, which were later presented as an offering to a local Hindu goddess at a cairn atop Rakhundi (3622 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Picrorhiza kurrooa, also called black hellebore, is a strange plant of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae), with 3-centimetre-long stamens projecting from its tiny flowers. Rhizomes of this species are utilized in traditional medicine against dysentery, and it is highly threatened by excessive collecting. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
This pale-blue poppy, Meconopsis aculeata, grows here and there in alpine areas of the Great Himalayan National Park. 17 species of this spectacular genus are found in the Himalaya, the major part from Nepal eastwards. – Read more about this genus elsewhere on this website, see: In praise of the colour yellow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Himachal Pradesh 2007
Lately, Aletris pauciflora has been moved from the lily family (Liliaceae) to the trillium family (Melanthiaceae). This handsome little plant is widespread in the Himalaya, found at altitudes between 2,500 and 4,900 metres, from Kashmir east to south-western China. Its tuber is used in folk medicine to treat coughing and colds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Nordindien 1997
The snow pigeon (Columba leuconota) is very common in alpine areas of the Great Himalayan National Park. Its name was given in allusion to its mainly white plumage. (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 April 2018)