Among Annapurna giants



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 speech called ’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.

This valley is usually 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 km2, 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 km, this river passes through five vegetation zones, from alpine to almost tropical, before joining the larger Kali Gandaki River.

Most of the plant species mentioned below are dealt with in detail on the pages Plants: Himalayan flora 1, 2, and 3.


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 m, and the climate is 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 and timber, plantations of chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) have been established. The needles of this species, which are arranged in groups of 3, can grow to 38 cm long – much longer than those of the blue pine (Pinus wallichiana), which grows at higher altitudes.

Schima wallichii, of the tea family, is also widely planted. In Nepali, this species is called chilaune (’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).



To fulfil the need of villagers for firewood and timber, plantations of chir pine have been established. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Flowering Schima wallichii. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In March-April, Erythrina stricta displays a profusion of coral-red flowers, in which various bird species feed. These pictures are from the village of Tatopani, Kali Gandaki Valley (op), and from the lower part of the Marsyangdi Valley. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Popular trees in the villages
In the central square 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, including 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’). The Bodhi tree is dealt with in detail on the page Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees, whereas The Buddha and Buddhism are described in depth on the page 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 certain ailments, including diarrhoea and dysentery, while an extract from its root and bark is used for fever. Various items are made from the very hard wood, including 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, whose followers claim that the Great God made all plants, so that humans would recognize the usage of them. 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 planted as chotara tree.



Banyan often has numerous aerial roots hanging down from its branches. It can grow to enormous proportions. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Blue-throated barbets 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 occidentalis (also called Cassia occidentalis), of the sub-family Caesalpinioideae, has beautiful yellow flowers, whereas Callicarpa macrophylla, of the mint family (Lamiaceae), has large clusters of small, violet flowers. – A picture of Callicarpa may be seen on the page 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. Many genera of the nettle family (Urticaceae) are also found. Besides the Himalayan nettle (Urtica ardens), which is quite similar to the European common nettle (U. dioica), you often encounter 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. 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, Diplopterygium giganteum (formerly called Gleichenia gigantea), which forms large growths. Various weeds grow along the edge of terraced fields, including a reddish-brown composite, Crassocephalum crepidioides, a tiny St. John’s-wort, Hypericum japonicum, a low, creeping knotweed with globular inflorescences, Polygonum capitata, and the invasive goat-weed (Ageratum conyzoides), which is dealt with in depth on the page Nature: Invasive species.



The handsome Woodfordia fruticosa is common up to an altitude of c. 1,800 m. Nepalese children often suck the sweet nectar out of the flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



This yellow-flowered everlasting, Pseudognaphalium 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 m, much larger tracts of forest have been preserved, mainly consisting of 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 lichens, 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, Coelogyne 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 Arisaema tortuosum and A. erubescens, peculiar plants of the arum family.

Birdlife at this altitude is abundant. Black-capped sibia (Heterophasia capistrata) is very common. Previously, this bird was placed in the timaliid family (Timaliidae), but has now been moved to the newly established laughingthrush family (Leiothrichidae).

Other birds include the gorgeous maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii), and in the river the brown dipper (Cinclus pallasii), which, unlike the European dipper (C. cinclus), is of a uniform brown colour.



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



Singing black-capped sibia, sitting in a Viburnum erubescens, which is infested with a parasitic plant named Scurrula elata, Annapurna. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Red rhododendron forests
Huge tracts of beautiful, almost virgin forest, is found at an altitude of c. 2,500 m, 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, including 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 m, 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, including 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.



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)



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



Platystemma violoides grows on shadowy rocks between 1,500 and 3,000 m 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, including 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, including 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: N.P. Manandhar. Plants and People of Nepal)

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.



In this picture, fermented leaves of Arisaema utile have been spread out to dry in the sun, later to made into gundruk. In the foreground young ferns, which are fried as a vegetable. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




A profusion of herbs in the thickets
Above 3,200 m, 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, including 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 m, trees become scarce, and woody plants are mainly composed of huge thickets of various dwarf shrubs, 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, an alp lily, Gagea longiscapa (formerly called Lloydia longiscapa), and an imposing yellow primrose, Primula sikkimensis, which can grow to 90 cm tall.



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



The Himalayan birch 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)



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



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



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 m. 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. The primrose genus probably evolved in the Himalaya, and at least 62 species are found here. Pictures of many other primroses may be seen on the page Plants: Primroses.

Other plants 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.



Primula denticulata is abundant in forest clearings and grassy areas between 1,500 and 4,500 m altitude. It is very variable, and as a rule its inflorescences become larger and denser, the higher you go. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Saxifraga andersonii is a cushion-forming plant, growing on rocks between 3,600 and 5,200 m 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)



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)



The yellow-billed chough 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)



The Siberian weasel 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)




Manandhar, N.P. 2002. Plants and People of Nepal. Timber Press
Polunin, O. & A. Stainton 1984. Flowers of the Himalaya. Oxford University Press
Stainton, A. 1988. Flowers of the Himalaya. A Supplement. Oxford University Press




(Uploaded March 2016)


(Latest update October 2022)