The major part of the Tibetan Plateau is barren. This picture shows eroded mountain slopes near Hinju, Markha Valley, Ladakh, photographed early in the morning. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rich vegetation on the Kongmaru La Pass (5274 m), Markha Valley, Ladakh, with green cushions of Thylacospermum caespitosum, the yellow-flowered Biebersteinia odora, a blue larkspur, Delphinium cashmerianum, and an aster (Aster). In the background leaves of a rhubarb, Rheum spiciforme. All mentioned species, except Aster, are dealt with in detail elsewhere on this page. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rocky landscape near the Bara Lacha La Pass (c. 3900 m), Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, showing red and yellow autumn foliage of two species of pinkweed, Polygonum affine (red) and P. tortuosum (yellow). These two species are presented in detail below. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Transhimalaya! – A word, which conjures up pictures of wind-blown mountain passes with stone cairns, adorned with hundreds of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags; of Tibetan wild asses (Equus kiang), grazing on a meadow among countless red primroses and yellow louseworts; or perhaps of Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), who was the first European to explore the area around the sacred Mount Kailas in western Tibet – the physical manifestation of the mythical mountain Meru and an important pilgrimage destination for followers of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Transhimalaya (which literally means ’on the other side of the Himalaya’) consists of two mountain ranges, Gangdise and Nyenchen Tanglha, altogether stretching c. 1,600 km across the southernmost part of the Tibetan Plateau, parallel to the Himalaya. In daily speech, though, the word includes the entire plateau.
This plateau, most of which is situated at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,500 m, is criss-crossed by mountain ranges. When the monsoon has passed over the Himalaya from the south, almost all its humidity has already fallen as rain. Thus, the Tibetan Plateau receives very little rainfall. In many places, the annual mean precipitation is less than 100 mm, most of it falling as snow in the winter. For this reason, the major part of the landscape is dry and rather barren, with lush and green areas mainly found along rivers and around the numerous lakes of the region.
In most of the Tibetan Plateau, the vegetation is adapted to the dry climate. Small coppices of shrubs grow here and there, for the major part provided with spines as a means of defence against grazing animals, including juniper (Juniperus), milk-vetch (Astragalus), pea-shrub (Caragana), caper (Capparis), honeysuckle (Lonicera), and rose (Rosa).
Scattered across the landscape are numerous other genera, including joint-pine (Ephedra), catmint (Nepeta), rhubarb (Rheum), corydalis (Corydalis), locoweed (Oxytropis), hedge-nettle (Stachys), caper (Capparis spinosa), tansy (Ajania), gentian (Gentiana and Gentianella), aster (Aster), and larkspur (Delphinium). Many of these species are poisonous, or ill-tasting.
Lush vegetation is encountered along streams, comprising shrubs of willow (Salix), Tibetan false tamarisk (Myricaria squamosa), Tibetan sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë tibetana), and others. Herbs are abundant in these humid areas, comprising species of primrose (Primula), lousewort (Pedicularis), cranesbill (Geranium), columbine (Aquilegia), balsam (Impatiens), fringed gentian (Gentianopsis), and many others.
Only a few of the photographs on this page are from Tibet proper. Most are from Ladakh, a region in north-western India, covering c. 100,000 km2, which, habitat-wise, is a part of Tibet. Some pictures are from other areas with Tibetan habitat, in India Lahaul and Spiti, both in Himachal Pradesh, and in Nepal Mustang, Upper Marsyangdi Valley, Upper Langtang Valley, and the extreme north-eastern part of Sagarmatha National Park.
The vast majority of the information on usage of plants on this page has been borrowed from Narayan Manandhar’s delightful book Plants and People of Nepal, Timber Press. My sincerest thanks to Mr. Manandhar.
Alliaceae (onion family)
Onions (Allium) are a huge genus of about 660 species, mainly found in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Asia, with some species in Africa as well as Central and South America. No less than 138 species are found in China, including many on the Tibetan Plateau.
Allium carolinianum is a stout plant, to 50 cm tall, with rather broad, bluish-green, curved leaves and a dense umbel of pink to reddish flowers. This species grows on dry, stony slopes, up to an altitude of 5,100 m. Fresh leaves are edible, and dried leaves are used as a flavouring agent. The plant also has medicinal value, as it is used to expel intestinal worms.
Allium carolinianum is fairly common in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Amaranthaceae (cockscomb family)
Formerly, Blitum species were placed in the goosefoot genus (Chenopodium), but recent genetic research has shown that they are more closely related to spinach (Spinacia). (Source: S. Fuentes-Bazan et al. 2012: A novel phylogeny-based generic classification for Chenopodium sensu lato, and a tribal rearrangement of Chenopodioideae (Chenopodiaceae). Willdenowia 42:16-18)
This genus, comprising 12 species, occurs in Europe, North Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
Leafy goosefoot (Blitum virgatum), also known by the popular name strawberry sticks, and formerly by the scientific name Chenopodium foliosum, is easily identified when in fruit, by its bright red, edible, succulent, strawberry-like fruits. Leaves and inflorescences are also edible, spinach-like in taste. This species is widely distributed, from Europe and North Africa eastwards across the Middle East to Central Asia, with the eastern limit in Gansu, Tibet, and central Nepal. It grows in fallow fields and on open slopes, in Central Asia between 1,500 and 3,800 m altitude.
Fruiting leafy goosefoot, encountered at Lake Deepak Tal, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Haloxylon is a small genus of about 11 species of shrubs or small trees, found from the Mediterranean eastwards to Central Asia.
Haloxylon griffithii grows in dry areas of south-western Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ladakh. It is a small shrub to 80 cm tall, with whitish or blue-green branches and pinkish-white flowers in the leaf axils.
Haloxylon griffithii, photographed near Leh, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Araceae (arum family)
Pehr Forsskål (1732-1763) was an outstanding Swedish naturalist, who participated in the Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia 1761-1767. During this expedition, he described hundreds of new species, plants as well as animals. In Yemen, he described a member of the arum family with a yellow spathe, naming it Arum flavum. This plant, which is today called Arisaema flavum, is distributed from Yemen eastwards to Central Asia.
The fascinating, albeit short, life of Pehr Forsskål is described on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist, whereas the genus Arisaema is presented in detail on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Arisaema flavum, photographed near Tok Tso Lake, Lhatze, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Asteraceae (composite family)
Allardia, formerly called Waldheimia, is a genus of pretty composites, comprising 8 species, all restricted to Central Asia. Three species are presented here.
Allardia stoliczkae grows on rocky slopes and in dry riverbeds, between 3,000 and 4,500 m altitude, from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Sinkiang, and western Tibet southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh. The specific name was given in honour of Ferdinand Stoliczka (1838-1874), a Czech palaeontologist, geologist, and zoologist, who mainly worked in India. He died of altitude sickness during an expedition to the Karakoram Mountains.
Allardia stoliczkae, Konze La Pass (4950 m), Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Allardia glabra has greyish-green leaves, as opposed to A. stoliczkae, whose leaves are bright green. Otherwise they are very similar, although A. glabra often has paler, pink flowers. It grows in stony areas and on scree slopes between 3,500 and 5,500 m, from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan southwards through Afghanistan and Tibet to Pakistan, and thence eastwards to Bhutan.
Allardia glabra, photographed on the Bara Lacha La Pass (c. 3900 m), Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The leaves of Allardia tomentosa are to 5 cm long, twice pinnate, and both surfaces are densely covered in weblike, whitish hairs. Its flowers are white, or sometimes very pale pink, the outer yellow disc florets often turning blackish. This species mainly grows in thallus (dead plant material) among rocks. It is distributed in about the same area as A. glabra.
Allardia tomentosa, likewise encountered on the Bara Lacha Pass, Lahaul. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Askellia flexuosa, formerly named Crepis flexuosa, grows to 30 cm tall, but is often prostrate. Its numerous branches are nearly leafless, ending in a profusion of small, pale yellow flowerheads, to 1 cm across. This species is widespread and common, growing in a variety of habitats, including river plains, sandy and gravelly areas, slopes, rocks, and meadows, at altitudes from 800 to 5,100 m. It is distributed from Kazakhstan, southern Russia, and Mongolia southwards to Nepal and Pakistan, westwards to the Middle East, and eastwards to western China.
Askellia flexuosa is very common in Ladakh, here photographed near Kiara (top), and in the Puga Marshes. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Mugworts (Artemisia), also called wormwood or sagebrush, are a huge, worldwide genus, comprising between 200 and 400 species. Numerous species are found on the Tibetan Plateau.
The genus is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of wilderness and wild animals, hunting, childbirth and virginity, protector of young girls, and also bringer and reliever of disease in women. In his Herbarium, Roman philosopher and scholar Lucius Apuleius (c. 124-170 A.D.) writes: “Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana found them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the Greek name of Diana, Artemis.”
The usage of Artemisia species in folk medicine is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Large-flowered wormwood (Artemisia macrocephala) is easily recognized by its relatively large flowerheads, growing to 1 cm across. It is distributed from southern Russia and Mongolia across Sinkiang and Tibet to Ladakh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, at altitudes between 3,400 and 5,500 m.
Large-flowered wormwood, Pang, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Artemisia sieversiana has smallish, yellow flowerheads and deeply cleft, greyish-green leaves. This species has a huge distribution, from Russia southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh, and from eastern Europe eastwards to Japan. It also has a wide altitudinal range, found from sea level to 4,200 m, growing along roads, on steppes, in waste places, and at forest edges. In local folk medicine, essential oil from this plant is utilized as an anti-inflammatory, a paste of the root is applied to boils, and a decoction of the plant is used to relieve joint pain.
Artemisia sieversiana, observed near Leh, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cousinia thomsonii is a thistle-like plant, which grows in arid areas between 3,000 and 4,300 m altitude, distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to western Nepal, Ladakh, and south-western Tibet.
Cousinia thomsonii is very common in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Many species of the genus Saussurea are adapted to the cold and dry conditions on the Tibetan Plateau. In addition to the two species presented below, Saussurea gossypiphora is dealt with on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Saussurea gnaphalodes is a prostrate, almost stemless, woolly-haired plant, which is quite common in stony areas between 4,000 and 5,500 m altitude, from eastern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan through Central Asia to south-western China, southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh.
Saussurea gnaphalodes, growing in a compact cushion of Thylacospermum caespitosum (see Caryophyllaceae), beneath the Kongmaru La Pass, Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The similar Saussurea elliptica can be identified by its elliptic leaves. It grows in alpine grasslands and rocky areas, up to 4,600 m, from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan southwards to western Tibet, Pakistan, and Ladakh.
Saussurea elliptica, encountered near Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The genus edelweiss (Leontopodium) contains about 58 species, most of which grow in Asia, with a few species extending to Europe. Tibet is home to a large number of species, many of which are notoriously difficult to distinguish, especially as they also often interbreed.
The generic name is from the Greek leon (‘lion’) and podion (‘small foot’). It was named by Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858), who was presumably referring to the fuzzy involucral bracts, which somewhat resemble a lion’s paw.
You may read more about edelweiss on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Flora of the Alps.
Leontopodium ochroleucum has several stems, to 15 cm tall. The stem leaves are covered in a dense layer of white or grey heairs, whereas the basal leaves are green, slightly downy or sometimes glabrous. This species grows in grassy areas or on stony slopes, between 2,200 and 5,000 m altitude, from southern Russia southwards through Sinkiang and Mongolia to Tibet and Ladakh.
Leontopodium ochroleucum, Pang, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The specific name of Leontopodium nanum is from the Greek nanos (‘dwarf’), and this tiny plant, with densely woolly bracts, really lives up to its name, rarely growing more than 5 cm tall. It is found in alpine meadows and shrubs, from Kazakhstan and Sinkiang southwards through Tibet to Pakistan, Ladakh, and Nepal, eastwards to the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Sichuan. It has a wide altitudinal range, found between 2,100 and 5,000 m.
Leontopodium nanum, Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This unidentified species of edelweiss was encountered below the Kongmaru La Pass (5274 m), Markha Valley, Ladakh. Orange lichens are growing on the stone. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Globe-thistles (Echinops) are a genus of c. 120 species, most of which are native to Europe and northern Asia, with some species reaching mountains in tropical Africa. These plants are characterized by their thistle-like appearance, but are easily identified by the spherical flowerhead, which resembles a spiny ball. This inflorescence gave rise to the generic name, from the Greek ekhinos (‘hedgehog’) and ops (‘head’).
Echinops cornigerus grows in dry stony areas, from Afghanistan across Pakistan and Ladakh to central Nepal, at altitudes between 2,400 and 3,500 m. The powdered leaves are used in traditional medicine to cure jaundice, a paste of the leaves is applied to septic wounds, and the seeds are taken as a tonic.
Echinops cornigerus is very common in Ladakh, here photographed near Leh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The genus Ajania, comprising c. 36 species, are restricted to Temperate Asia. This genus, which used to be included in the genus Tanacetum (see below), was named after the Russian harbour city Ayan, on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Ajania fruticulosa, formerly called Tanacetum gracile, is common from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and southern Russia southwards to Iran, Pakistan, and Ladakh, growing in stony areas between 2,800 and 3,600 m altitude. It can be identified by its tiny yellow flowerheads, only 3-4 mm in diameter. Leaves and flowers are fragrant, and essential oil is extracted from them.
Ajania fruticulosa is very common in Ladakh, here photographed near Hemis Gompa (top), and near Saspol, in front of a boulder with a pictograph. – Artwork from this area is presented on the page Culture: Folk art around the world. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ajania tibetica, previously called Tanacetum tibeticum, is similar to A. fruticulosa, but has larger foliage, and its flowerheads are to 6 mm across. It grows on dry slopes between 3,900 and 5,400 m altitude, from Kazakhstan and Tibet southwards to Pakistan, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh, eastwards to the Sichuan Province.
Ajania tibetica, photographed on the Bara Lacha La Pass, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The genus tansy (Tanacetum), comprising c. 100 species, is distributed in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Tanacetum stoliczkae is endemic to northern Pakistan and Ladakh, growing in rock crevices and on sandy river plains, at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 m. It can be told by its pinnate leaves and white ray-florets, which are 9-11 mm long. The specific name was given in honour of Ferdinand Stoliczka (see Allardia stoliczkae above).
A near relative, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), is presented on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
Tanacetum stoliczkae, Ulley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
There are about 110 species of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis), for the major part distributed in tropical and subtropical Asia. Only relatively few species are found in temperate areas of Asia, Europe, and North America.
Anaphalis nubigena grows in rocky areas and along streams at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,500 m, from Pakistan across the southern part of the Tibetan Plateau to south-western China.
Anaphalis nubigena, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its specific name implies, the pretty, yellow-flowered Biebersteinia odora is a fragrant plant. It is restricted to high altitudes, between 4,200 and 5,600 m, distributed from northern Asia southwards through Central Asia to Pakistan and Ladakh. Previously, this plant was placed in the cranesbill family (Geraniaceae), but has since been moved to a separate family.
Biebersteinia odora is quite common in Ladakh, here photographed on the Stakspi La Pass (4970 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Boraginaceae (borage family)
Genus Lindelofia, often called Asian hound’s tongue, counts about 10 species, which are distributed in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Lindelofia anchusoides is found in the south-western part of the Tibetan Plateau, northern Pakistan, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh, growing on stony slopes at altitudes between 2,100 and 3,600 m.
Lindelofia anchusoides, Lossar, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brassicaceae (mustard family)
Dittander (Lepidium latifolium) is a large species of cress, also called pepper-grass, whose blue-green stem, which grows to 1.5 m tall, is often woody at the base. The white flowers are tiny, to 3 mm across, densely clustered in terminal inflorescences, each with 25-50 flowers. It is widely distributed, found in most of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and North and Central Asia. In North America, it has become naturalized, regarded as an invasive in several states.
This species grows in a wide range of habitats, in Central Asia found on stony slopes, saline flats, along trails, and in fallow fields, at altitudes between 2,500 and 4,300 m. Elsewhere, it often grows along the coast.
In Ladakh, young parts are cooked as spinach. To remove the bitterness and peppery taste, they are first boiled and then soaked in water for two days. In the Chinese provinces Gansu and Shaanxi, the seeds are utilized medicinally.
Dittander, photographed near Sumda Tsu, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Christolea crassifolia, also called Ermania pamirica, is a low, many-branched herb, to 40 cm tall, with fleshy leaves and terminal inflorescences, each with 10-25 small white flowers with purple base, to 7 mm across. This plant is found in grasslands and on bare, rocky slopes, from Tajikistan, Sinkiang, and Qinghai southwards to Pakistan, Ladakh, and Nepal, at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,700 m. In Ladakh, tender shoots are consumed as a vegetable.
Christolea crassifolia, growing in a dried-out riverbed near the Puga Marshes, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Campanulaceae (bellflower family)
Bonnet bellflowers (Codonopsis) are a genus of 42 species, all restricted to eastern and southern Asia. China is home to no less than 40 species, of which 24 are endemic. The name bonnet refers to the broadly bell-shaped, very attractive flowers, which are not unlike an old-fashioned bonnet.
The stately Codonopsis clematidea has pale-blue flowers with a pretty pattern in the throat. It mainly grows along fields and irrigation canals between 1,700 and 4,200 m altitude, distributed from Kazakhstan and Sinkiang southwards through Tibet to northern Pakistan and Himachal Pradesh. This plant is widely used in traditional medicine for a large number of ailments, including infections, gout, arthritis, rheumatism, paralysis, and leprosy, the root for stomach ache, indigestion, fatigue, diarrhoea, vomiting, and cough.
Codonopsis clematidea is quite common in Himachal Pradesh, in this picture growing at the edge of a field in Spiti. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up, showing the pattern inside a flower of Codonopsis clematidea, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Capparaceae (caper family)
This family of the tropics and subtropics contains about 33 genera, with c. 700 species. By far the largest genus is Capparis, comprising about 450 species of shrubs or climbers. The fruit is a berry.
Common caper (Capparis spinosa) is provided with nasty thorns on its creeping stems, which can grow to a length of 2 m, or more. This species is distributed from southern Europe and North Africa across the Middle East to the Himalaya and Central Asia. Its leaves are lopped for fodder, whereas flower-buds and fruits are pickled or cooked as a vegetable. Medicinally, a paste of the root is applied to rheumatism, and juice of the root is used to expel intestinal worms.
Common caper is very common in Ladakh, here photographed in front of Tsemo Gompa, a Buddhist monastery in Leh. – Gompas and other aspects of Buddhism are described on the page Religion: Buddhism. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Caprifoliaceae (honeysuckle family)
Honeysuckles (Lonicera) are a genus of c. 180 species of shrubs or climbers of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae), native to the Northern Hemisphere. The generic name was given in honour of German botanist Adam Lonicer (1528-1586), while the name honeysuckle stems from the sweet nectar in the flowers of this genus. Some species are indeed fragrant, and several are cultivated as ornamentals. One of the cultivated species, the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), has escaped in many places, see Nature: Invasive species.
Lonicera spinosa is a small, spiny shrub, often growing on scree slopes together with species of Caragana (see Fabaceae), up to an altitude of 4,600 m. It is distributed from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan eastwards to western Sinkiang and Tibet, southwards to Afghanistan and Ladakh.
Pictures of other Central Asian honeysuckle species are shown on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Lonicera spinosa, photographed near the village of Honupatta, Ladakh. This species is very common in Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scabiosa is a genus with about 100 species, found in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the greatest diversity around the Mediterranean. The generic name, as well as the common name, scabious, stem from their former usage to curb scabies. They used to belong to the scabious family (Dipsacaceae), but following recent genetic research, this family has been reduced to a subfamily, Dipsacoideae, within the honeysuckle family.
Scabiosa speciosa is a stout plant, to 60 cm tall, with handsome bluish-violet flowerheads. It is rather common in alpine grasslands between 2,700 and 4,300 m altitude, found from Afghanistan through Pakistan to the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand.
Scabiosa speciosa, Koksar, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Caryophyllaceae (carnation family)
Campions (Silene) are a huge genus, comprising c. 600 species worldwide, which mainly occur in northern temperate regions, and also in Africa and South America. No less than 110 species are found in China, of which 67 are endemic.
Many species of campion grow on the Tibetan Plateau, Silene moorcroftiana in rocky areas between 2,700 and 5,000 m altitude, from Afghanistan and Pakistan through south-western Tibet and Himachal Pradesh to central Nepal. This species is utilized medicinally for anaemia, and to relieve blocked nose and ears.
Two other campion species are presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Silene moorcroftiana, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Thylacospermum caespitosum is a very striking plant, which, as a means of protection against wind, cold and evaporation, forms large, hard cushions, to 1 m across. The stems are very short, and the leaves are tiny, with a spiny tip. The tiny flowers are white. This hardy plant grows to an altitude of 6,000 m. In Ladakh, where it is an important source of fuel, it is threatened due to over-collecting.
Thylacospermum caespitosum grows at very high altitudes, here at the Taglang La Pass (5328 m), Lahaul. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Using pebbles, a prankster has made ‘faces’ in these cushions of Thylacospermum caespitosum below the Kongmaru La Pass, Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Arenaria bryophylla also forms hard cushions with densely packed leaves. Its flowers are very small, to 8 mm across, with lanceolate petals. This species grows in grasslands, on rocks, and along gravelly streamsides. In 1921, it was found on Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest), at an altitude of 6,180 m – the altitudinal record of any seed plant.
Arenaria bryophylla, seen near Tahungtse, Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Arenaria edgeworthiana is similar to A. bryophylla, but the flowers are larger, to 1.5 cm across, with broadly ovate petals. It grows in similar places, up to 5,100 m altitude.
Arenaria edgeworthiana, photographed at the Karo La Pass (5010 m), southern Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Convolvulaceae (morning-glory family)
Dodders (Cuscuta), comprising between 100 and 170 species, used to constitute a separate family, Cuscutaceae, but have now been moved to the morning-glory family – the only parasitic members of that family.
Dodders are distributed almost worldwide, with the greatest concentration in the tropics and subtropics. Temperate areas have much fewer species, including northern Europe, where only four species are native. In hot climates, dodders are perennials, growing more or less continuously, while in colder areas they are annuals.
These plants twine around other plants, often completely enveloping them in their yellow or reddish stems. A dodder seed starts its life like most other seeds by sending roots into the soil, from which grow stems, whose leaves are reduced to scales. When a stem gets into contact with a suitable plant, it wraps itself around it, inserting sucking organs, called haustoria, into the plant, through which the dodder obtains water and nutrients. Its root in the ground then dies.
Greater dodder (Cuscuta europaea) is partial to common nettle (Urtica dioica), although it can also grow on plants of many other families. This species is a native of Temperate Eurasia and North Africa. It is widespread and common in Central Asia, growing to an altitude of 3,100 m.
Other species of dodder are presented on the page Plants: Parasitic plants.
Greater dodder often has red stems. This one was photographed in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Crassulaceae (stonecrop family)
This family, which includes c. 35 genera with about 1,400 species, is found worldwide, with the greatest diversity in the Northern Hemisphere and in southern Africa. It is characterized by plants with succulent leaves – an adaptation to growing in dry areas with little water.
Formerly, members of the genus Hylotelephium were included among stonecrops (Sedum), but they differ in having flat, broad, and fleshy leaves, as opposed to the narrow, cylindric leaves of Sedum species. Hylotelephium includes about 33 species, found in Asia, Europe, and North America.
Hylotelephium ewersii is sometimes called pink Mongolian stonecrop, which is confusing, as there is another member of this genus, named H. mongolicum. H. ewersii is a many-stemmed herb, woody at the base, growing to 75 cm tall. Its bluish-green leaves are ovate to rounded, to 3.5 cm long, and the flowers are in dense terminal clusters, pink or purplish-red, with pointed petals to 6 mm long. It grows on rocks, among shrubs, and on open slopes, from Kazakhstan and southern Russia eastwards to Mongolia, southwards to Pakistan and Himachal Pradesh, at altitudes between 2,000 and 4,500 m. This species is utilized for wounds and skin infections.
Hylotelephium ewersii, Bagah River, near Keylong, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the past, roseroots (Rhodiola) were lumped with stonecrops (Sedum), but they differ from that genus by having a stout rootstock and only 4 petals, versus a slender or no rootstock, and 5 petals, in Sedum species.
Tibetan roseroot (Rhodiola tibetica) is found in dry stony areas in south-western Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ladakh, between 3,000 and 5,400 m altitude. This species has erect stems to 30 cm tall, and dark-red to purple flowers in dense, many-flowered terminal clusters.
Pictures of other Central Asian roseroot species are shown on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Tibetan roseroot, Honupatta, Ladakh. A species of sandwort, Minuartia kashmirica, is seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Elaeagnaceae (oleaster family)
Sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë) is a small genus of 7 spiny shrubs, distributed from western Europe eastwards to the Far East.
Common sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) is found from Ireland and southern Scandinavia southwards to the Mediterranean, eastwards across Russia to Sinkiang and Mongolia, and thence southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh. Its edible berries are yellow, orange, or red, in dense clusters along branches. They are a rich source of vitamins C, A, B, E, and K, and also of carotenoids. Lately, research has shown that they may have anti-ageing and memory-restoring properties.
Subspecies turkestanica, called Asiatic sea-buckthorn, grows in dry river beds and on slopes bordering streams, from Kazakhstan eastwards to Mongolia and southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh. It is a shrub to 5 m tall, rarely to 10 m, with up to 6 cm long, narrow leaves, which are green above and silvery-scaly beneath.
Asiatic sea-buckthorn is common in Ladakh, here photographed at Mangyu (top), and near Ulley Topko. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ephedraceae (joint-pine family)
This family of of gymnosperms is native to northern temperate and subtropical areas, and also to western South America. It contains a single genus, the joint-pines (Ephedra), with about 65 species of shrubs, rarely climbers. Their stems are jointed and of various colours, including green, yellowish, bluish-green, or whitish-green, and the leaves are often reduced to brown scales at the joints. Male and female flowers are on separate plants. The female cone has a naked ovule, with 1-2 seeds enclosed by swollen, fleshy, berry-like red bracts. Numerous species grow on the Tibetan Plateau, often grazed to prostrate form by goats, which readily eat the fresh stems. The stems are also collected for fodder, and dried plants are utilized as fuel.
Excavations in the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan suggest that joint-pine may have been a component of the Zoroastrian ritual drink haoma, which is identical to the Vedic drink soma. Drinking haoma ‘gives insight’ and makes you ‘wise’.
Persian joint-pine (Ephedra intermedia), also called Tibetan joint-pine, is native to the Middle East and Central Asia. This densely branched shrub, which grows to 1 m tall, has yellowish or bluish-green stems. Bracts of the cone are orange-red.
In traditional Chinese medicine, this species, and also E. sinica and E. equisetina, are called 麻黄 (ma huang), meaning ’yellow hemp’. Their leaves are used for treatment of a large number of ailments, including fever, cardiovascular problems, nervous disorder, pulmonary diseases, and diarrhoea. They also have anti-viral properties. The root is used to reduce sweating due to weakness of the body. In Tibet, Persian joint-pine is used for liver diseases.
The medicinal usage of a near relative, E. gerardiana, is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Fruiting Persian joint-pine, Gayk, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ephedra pachyclada has pale green or whitish stems, and bracts of the cones are orange. This species is found in southern Tibet, northern Himalaya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and southern Arabia.
Mountain slope with Ephedra pachyclada, displaying male inflorescences, Lossar, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bracts of Ephedra pachyclada fruits are orange. – Lossar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fabaceae (pea family)
Flowers of this family have five petals, forming a unique structure. The upper petal, called the standard, is large and often reflexed, covering and protecting stamens and pistil. The two lateral petals, called the wings, are of equal size, surrounding the two bottom petals, which are free at the base, but fused at the tip, forming what is called the keel, as it resembles the keel of a boat. They enclose stamens and pistil.
Milk-wetch (Astragalus) is a huge genus, comprising more than 3,000 species of herbs or small shrubs, native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Around 100 species are found in the Himalaya and Ladakh.
Astragalus oplites is a very spiny shrublet, often forming compact mats to 1 m across. The spines are the remains of old leaf-stalks, yellowish, 3-4 cm long. The leaves are pinnate, to 18 cm long, with 20-40 leaflets. This species is found from Kashmir eastwards to central Nepal, and in Tibet, at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,500 m.
In this landscape near Jharkot, Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal, shrubs of spiny Astragalus oplites are about the only plants left by grazing goats. The red building on the crest in the background is a gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. – These buildings are dealt with in detail on the page Religion: Buddhism. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Astragalus candolleanus can often be identified by its reddish calyx, which is densely silky-haired. This plant is found from northern Pakistan eastwards to central Nepal, at altitudes between 2,700 and 4,500 m.
Astragalus candolleanus, Upper Langtang Valley, Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Astragalus zanskarensis is similar to the two species above, but its flowers are pale yellow, and the leaves are very long, with up to 29 leaflets. It is restricted to very dry areas in Tibet, northern Pakistan, Ladakh, and Zanskar, up to an altitude of 4,800 m.
Astragalus zanskarensis, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Astragalus nivalis is a prostrate herb with violet or pink flowers, easily identified by the inflated pink calyx. It grows in dry areas, from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan eastwards through Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet to Gansu, up to an altitude of 4,600 m.
This picture shows the inflated pink calyces of Astragalus nivalis, Pang, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Locoweeds (Oxytropis) are a genus of about 300 species, native to Eurasia and North America. They are very similar to Astragalus, but the tip of the keel has a beak. These plants are notorious for being toxic to grazing animals. Several species are widespread on the Tibetan Plateau.
Oxytropis microphylla is common in Ladakh. In the upper picture, numerous plants grow in a high-altitude desert near the Namsang La Pass. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Genus Thermopsis, often called false lupine, contains about 25 species, distributed in Central and East Asia, and in North America. The generic name is from the Greek therme (‘heat’) and opsis (‘appearance’), thus ‘appearing to be burned’, referring to Thermopsis barbata, which has blackish-purple flowers. This species is presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
The yellow-flowered Thermopsis inflata is easily identified by its broadly ovate, inflated, white-haired pods, to 5 cm long and 3 cm broad, which are curved downward. This species grows on dry stony slopes between 4,000 and 5,000 m altitude, from southern Sinkiang southwards to Pakistan, Ladakh, Nepal, and Bhutan.
This picture from Honupatta, Ladakh, shows the characteristic inflated seed pods of Thermopsis inflata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pea-shrubs (Caragana) are between 80 and 100 species of bushes, growing to a height of between 1 and 6 m. They are found in eastern Europe and the major part of Temperate Asia.
Caragana gerardiana is a shrub to 1.2 m tall, densely branched, very spiny. Like in Astragalus, old leaf-stalks form stiff spines, to 4 cm long. This plant grows in dry steppe country and semi-deserts, at altitudes between 2,600 and 4,200 m, from northern Pakistan eastwards to central Nepal. It is often collected as firewood. The specific name was given in honour of English herbalist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612).
Caragana gerardiana, Upper Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Gentianaceae (gentian family)
This family is worldwide, comprising c. 87 genera with c. 1,650 species, mostly herbs. Members of four genera are presented below.
Gentians proper, Gentiana, are a huge genus, comprising c. 360 species. It used to contain c. 635 species, but certain authorities, such as the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group System (APG IV), have split out c. 23 species of fringed gentians (Gentianopsis), with ciliate margins to the petals, and c. 250 species of dwarf gentians (Gentianella), which, as opposed to Gentiana, are without scales or lobules between the corolla-lobes, whereas some species have hairs or lobes in the throat.
Members of these genera are distributed almost worldwide, found in Europe, north-western Africa, Asia, the Americas, eastern Australia, and New Zealand. The flowers of most species are various shades of blue, whereas others are purple, violet, mauve, yellow, white, or, rarely, red. The four or five petals are usually fused, forming a trumpet-, funnel-, or bell-shaped flower.
The name gentian derives from King Gentius, who ruled in Ancient Illyria 181-168 B.C., and who allegedly discovered the medicinal value of the yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea). The medicinal usage of this plant is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Central Asian gentian species are also presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Gentiana leucomelaena, sometimes called blue-dotted gentian, is a tiny plant, growing to 10 cm tall, whose white or pale-blue, bell-shaped flowers grow to 1.3 cm across, with a yellow throat, surrounded by numerous dark-blue spots. This species is found in alpine grasslands, among shrubs, and along streams, between 1,900 and 5,000 m altitude, from Kazakhstan, Sinkiang, southern Russia, and Mongolia southwards to Pakistan, Ladakh, Nepal, and Sikkim.
Gentiana leucomelaena is common in Ladakh, here encountered at the saline lake Tso Kar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Gentianella moorcroftiana grows in open areas, between 2,700 and 4,800 m altitude, distributed from south-western Tibet to Pakistan, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Nepal. It is a pretty plant with rather large, pale blue flowers, white or yellowish towards the base. In traditional medicine, an infusion is applied to the forehead to relieve fever. It is also used for bile and liver problems.
Gentianella moorcroftiana is very common in Ladakh and Lahaul, here photographed near Lake Deepak Tal, Lahaul, at an altitude of c. 3,800 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Only minute botanical characters separate the genus Comastoma from Gentianella. Comastoma falcatum is a smallish herb, to 25 cm tall, with ascending or erect stems, branched from the base, leaves mostly basal. The solitary flowers are various shades of blue, with dark veins and a tuft of white hairs in the throat.
Comastoma falcatum, encountered in October on the Rohtang La Pass, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Gentianopsis paludosa is a tall plant, to 40 cm, with a single blue or yellowish flower at the end of each stem. Leaves are mostly basal, but there may be 1-4 pairs of leaves up the stem. This plant grows in grassy areas, between 1,100 and 4,900 m altitude, from northern Tibet and Inner Mongolia southwards through Tibet and western China to Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Yunnan. A paste of its root is applied to wounds, and to the forehead to relieve headache. Other parts are used for bile and liver disorders, and fever.
Gentianopsis paludosa, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Geraniaceae (cranesbill family)
This worldwide family contains 7 to 10 genera with 800-900 species of herbs, rarely shrubs.
About 18 species of cranesbill (Geranium) are found in the Himalaya and Ladakh. After flowering, the style forms a long, straight or up-curved beak, which separates into 5 elastic, spring-like coils, each containing one seed that is thrown out when the style is touched.
Meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) is a pretty plant with bluish-purple, sometimes red, blue, or white flowers in dense clusters. This species is widely distributed, found from Europe across Russia to Mongolia, and thence southwards to Afghanistan, Ladakh, and Nepal. In Central Asia, it grows in meadows and along irrigation canals, at altitudes between 1,400 and 4,500 m. An extract of the leaves is used for fever, pneumonia, swelling of limbs, dysentery, and diarrhoea.
In this picture, meadow cranesbill grows along a stone fence near Lossar, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. The yellow flower is a species of goat’s-beard, Tragopogon gracilis, of the composite family (Asteraceae). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Grossulariaceae (currant family)
The genus Ribes, which includes currants and gooseberries, contains about 150 species, native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. To most authorities, this genus constitutes a separate family, whereas others include it in the family Saxifragaceae.
Ribes orientale is a much-branched shrub, to 2 m tall, with glandular-hairy, sticky twigs. The inflorescences, which are either male or female, are erect or ascending, male ones to 5 cm long, 15-30-flowered, female ones to 3 cm long, 5-15-flowered. The berries are orange at first, later deep red, globular, to 9 mm across, downy and glandular.
This species, which grows in forests, shrubberies, and open areas, is widely distributed, both geographically and altitudinal, from the Balkans and the Middle East eastwards to south-western China, and from Russia southwards to the Himalaya, between 2,100 and 4,900 m.
A close relative, the Asian gooseberry (Ribes alpestre) is presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Ribes orientale with berries, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lamiaceae (mint family)
Perovskia is a genus of 10 species, distributed in Central Asia and the Middle East. The generic name was given in honour of a Russian general, Count Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky (1794-1857).
Perovskia abrotanoides somewhat resembles lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). It occurs from eastern Iran and Turkmenistan eastwards to Tibet, Pakistan, and Ladakh. This species was formerly used in traditional medicine as a cooling agent.
Perovskia abrotanoides is very common in Ladakh, often adding a blue hue to the drab desert landscape, in these pictures near Ulley (top), and Basgo. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As a means of protection against the strong winds, which often blow on the Tibetan Plateau, the leaves of Lamiophlomis rotata are hugging the ground. One disadvantage of this adaptation is that if the plant grows on sandy soil, gusts of wind will blow sand onto the leaves, thus diminishing its ability to obtain energy from sunlight through photosynthesis.
This species grows on stony alpine meadows and along streams up to 4,900 m altitude, from Tibet eastwards to the Chinese provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan, southwards to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. It is utilized in traditional medicine for traumatic problems.
Lamiophlomis rotata, photographed in a dry valley beneath Imja Tse (Island Peak) (6189 m), Sagarmatha National Park, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Catmints (Nepeta), comprising about 250 species, are found in temperate and subtropical regions of Asia, North Africa, and Europe, with the highest diversity around the Mediterranean region, in the Middle East, and in Central Asia. Many species grow on the Tibetan Plateau, where they are quite prominent.
Nepeta floccosa is common, especially where mountain slopes have been eroded to gravel. It is easily identified by its woolly leaves, which emit a lemon-like fragrance. The inflorescences are in dense whorls, widely spaced up the stem. This species is distributed from Sinkiang southwards through Tibet to Pakistan, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, at altitudes from 2,100 to 3,800 m. In former days, it was used medicinally for bone fractures, muscular pains, skin infections, and lymphatic disorders. The leaves can be used as a spice.
Nepeta floccosa, photographed at Chomuthang (top) and near Leh, both in Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Nepeta laevigata is a stout plant, to 80 cm tall, with terminal, cylindric spikes, up to 10 cm long, sometimes with purplish-red calyx. The flowers are much longer than the calyx, to 12 mm, whitish-blue. This species is found in grasslands, shrubs, and forest margins, from Afghanistan eastwards through southern Tibet and northern Himalaya to Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China, at altitudes between 2,300 and 4,100 m. In traditional medicine, it is used as a diaphoretic.
Nepeta laevigata, Keylong, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Nepeta podostachys has many spreading stems, to 30 cm long, with terminal spikes of small white flowers, each about 8 mm long. This species is distributed from Afghanistan through Ladakh to Himachal Pradesh, at altitudes between 2,700 and 4,300 m.
Nepeta podostachys is quite common in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Counting at least 300 species, woundwort (Stachys), also called hedge-nettle, is one of the largest genera in the mint family, distributed in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The generic name is from the Greek stachys (‘an ear of grain’), referring to the inflorescence, which is often a spike, like in many species of grain. The popular name woundwort refers to the former usage of several species in this genus for healing wounds, hedge-nettle to the nettle-like leaves of many species.
Tibetan woundwort (Stachys tibetica) is a rather woody, many-branched plant, often forming clumps. Stems are up to 50 cm tall, slightly hairy. This plant grows in rocky areas, between 2,100 and 4,500 m altitude, in western Tibet, Pakistan, and Ladakh.
Tibetan woundwort is common in Ladakh, here photographed at Honupatta. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Late-summer mint (Elsholtzia) is a genus of c. 40 species, distributed in Europe, Asia, and North America. The generic name was given in honour of Prussian botanist and physician Johann Sigismund Elsholtz (1623-1688), who was a pioneer in the fields of hygiene and nutrition.
Elsholtzia eriostachya is a variable plant, from 15 to 35 cm tall, with purplish-red stems, yellowish-green leaves, and terminal cylindric spikes, to 6 cm long and 1 cm broad, of numerous minute, bright yellow flowers. This species grows on slopes and river plains from Pakistan and Tibet eastwards to Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces, at altitudes between 3,500 and 4,600 m.
Elsholtzia eriostachya, Polo Kongga La Pass (4600 m), Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, Lancea tibetica was regarded as belonging to the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), later the lopseed family (Phrymaceae). However, the genera Lancea and Mazus have now been moved to the family Mazaceae, which was established in 2011. Lancea tibetica is widely distributed in Central Asia, growing in grasslands and fallow fields between 3,000 and 4,800 m altitude.
Lancea tibetica, encountered in the Imja Tse Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), also known by a number of other names, including African rue, harmal, aspand, and esfand, was placed in the caltrop family Zygophyllaceae, later in a family of its own, Peganaceae. However, following recent genetic research, it has been moved to the family Nitrariaceae. The names Syrian and African rue refer to the similarity of its leaves to those of the unrelated common rue (Ruta graveolens).
Syrian rue grows in dry sandy areas and on saline flats, from southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East eastwards to Tibet, and thence southwards to Pakistan and Ladakh. In 1928, it was introduced to the United States, when a farmer in New Mexico wished to produce a dye, ‘Turkish red’, from its seeds. This dye is used in the Near East to dye textiles, including carpets. However, it soon escaped in the U.S. and has since become an invasive in many areas.
Seeds of this species are used medicinally for fever, stomach trouble, eye problems, measles, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatism, and menstrual disorders, and also as a disinfectant, as a narcotic, called harmal, and as incense, especially for keeping away bad evils. Burning leaves can be used as an insecticide.
Syrian rue, photographed at Leh (top), and near Thikse Gompa, both in Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Onagraceae (evening-primrose family)
Chamerion, called by the common names willow-herb or fireweed, is a small genus of 8 species, distributed in montane and arctic areas of the Northern Hemisphere, widespread in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and North America. They were previously included in the genus Chamaenerion, and later in Epilobium.
Red willow-herb (Chamerion latifolium), also called dwarf fireweed, is a gregarious plant, to 70 cm tall, forming large clumps. The gorgeous flowers are pink or rosy-purple, to 2.5 cm across, with narrow, reddish-purple sepals. This plant mainly grows in gravelly areas along rivers, in Central Asia at altitudes between 1,600 and 5,200 m. It has a very wide distribution, found in all Arctic and Temperate Asia, southwards to Nepal and Pakistan, and also in Europe, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
Red willow-herb, photographed on the Rohtang La Pass, Himachal Pradesh (top), and on the Polo Kongga La Pass, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Orobanchaceae (broomrape family)
The number of lousewort species (Pedicularis) differs enormously according to various authorities, from about 350 to 600. These plants are distributed across almost the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic coasts southwards to Columbia, north-western Africa, Iran, the Himalaya, and southern China. The highest diversity is in China, which has 352 species, of which 271 are endemic.
The generic name is derived from the Latin pediculus (‘louse’). According to an old superstition, louseworts could transfer lice to people and cattle, or, according to another belief, the exact opposite was the case, namely that they were able to rid people and cattle of lice! In Denmark, a decoction of these plants was used to expel lice from clothes. Usually, animals do not graze on these plants, as they contain poisonous glycosides.
Two yellow-flowered species, both very common on the Tibetan Plateau, are presented below.
Long-tubed lousewort (Pedicularis longiflora ssp. tubiformis), by some authorities regarded as a separate species, P. tubiformis, is ubiquitous in wet alpine meadows and along lake-sides. It is distributed from northern Pakistan eastwards to south-western China, found at altitudes between 2,700 and 5,300 m.
An alpine meadow with thousands of long-tubed louseworts, near the village of Honupatta, Ladakh. Rosa webbiana and Asiatic sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides ssp. turkestanica) grow on the dry slope in the background. Both are presented elsewhere on this page. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Horned lousewort (Pedicularis bicornuta), which usually grows in drier areas than long-tubed lousewort, is distributed from Afghanistan eastwards to Uttarakhand, at altitudes between 2,700 and 4,400 m. Its flowers are utilized in Tibetan folk medicine for treatment of vaginal and seminal discharges. (Source: T.J. Tsarong, 1994. Tibetan Medicinal Plants)
Horned lousewort is abundant in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, here photographed near the village of Lossar, together with a blue species of vetch (Vicia). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Papaveraceae (poppy family)
Corydalis is a huge genus, comprising about 470 species, which are native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, but with 3 species in subtropical Indochina and one in mountains of East Africa. The absolute stronghold of the genus is China with c. 357 species, of which 262 are endemic.
The generic name is from the Greek korudos, the ancient name of the crested lark (Galerida cristata), perhaps from korus (‘helmet’), referring to the crest of this bird. The upper petal of Corydalis species forms a helmet-like hood and is spurred, and the lower petal forms a boat-shaped, keeled lip. The two lateral petals are narrow.
Corydalis flabellata is a tall plant, to 90 cm, many-branched, with numerous fleshy, bluish-green leaves and terminal flower clusters, to 20 cm long, each with 10-30 yellow flowers. This species is found in stony areas between 2,700 and 4,500 m altitude, from south-western Tibet to Pakistan, Ladakh, and Nepal. It is very common in Ladakh.
Corydalis flabellata, Phanjila, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Plantaginaceae (plantain family)
Common mare’s tail (Hippuris vulgaris) is a striking plant, growing in shallow freshwater. This species is distributed in northern Eurasia, southwards to the Himalaya, northern China, and Japan, in Greenland, and in northern and western North America, southwards to California, New Mexico, Illinois, and New England. It is utilized in herbal medicine for treatment of wounds, stomach ulcers, and internal and external bleeding.
The generic name is from the Greek hippos (‘horse’) and oura (‘tail’), thus horsetail. In English, it is also sometimes called horsetail, although this name is usually reserved for species of the genus Equisetum. Previously, Hippuris was the only genus in the family Hippuridaceae, but has now been moved to the plantain family.
Common mare’s tail, growing in a waterhole beneath Shey Palace, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Plumbaginaceae (sea-lavender family)
As a means of protection against wind, cold and evaporation, prickly thrift (Acantholimon lycopodioides) forms cushions, to 1 m across. Ashes from burned plants are taken with milk for cardiac disorders. This species is threatened by excessive use for fuel.
Prickly thrift is still quite common in Ladakh, here seen near Honupatta. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Polygonaceae (pinkweed family)
Smartweed, pinkweed, knotweed, bistort, knotgrass – plants of the genus Polygonum have many popular names. This huge genus, comprising c. 230 species, is distributed worldwide. These plants vary from prostrate, 10 cm tall species, to large, shrubby herbs, growing to 3 m tall. Formerly, they were divided into several genera, including Polygonum, Bistorta, Persicaria, and Aconogonum. Today, however, most authorities place them in a single genus, Polygonum.
Two species, both very common on the Tibetan Plateau, are presented below. The brilliant autumn foliage of these species is shown in a picture at the top of this page.
Polygonum tortuosum, by some authorities called Aconogonum tortuosum, grows on dry slopes in Central Asia and the Middle East, up to an altitude of 5,600 m. The specific name is from the Latin tortus (‘twisted’) and osus (‘plenty’), referring to the twisted leaves. This species is used in folk medicine to treat dysentery.
Polygonum tortuosum is common in Ladakh, here photographed at Ulley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Polygonum affine, also called Bistorta affinis, is a creeping, mat-forming, densely tufted plant with erect cylindric spikes, to 7.5 cm long, of pink or purplish-red flowers, borne on stalks to 25 cm high. It is quite common on open slopes and in rocky areas, from Afghanistan eastwards through Tibet and northern Himalaya to Myanmar. Its rhizome is used for brewing tea, and also taken for stomach disorders.
This picture was taken on the Rohtang La Pass, Himachal Pradesh, where Polygonum affine is very common. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Several species of wild rhubarb are indigenous to the Tibetan Plateau.
The yellowish-white inflorescences of the Gilgit rhubarb (Rheum webbianum) are borne in dense terminal clusters on leafy stems, which can be from 30 cm to 2 m long. The basal leaves are huge, to 60 cm across, shorter than wide, rounded. This spectacular plant grows on dry slopes in south-western Tibet, Pakistan, Ladakh, Lahaul, and western Nepal, up to 4,500 m altitude. The stalk is edible. Root, stem, and leaves are taken as a purgative, the root also for stomach trouble and intestinal disorders, and for boils and wounds. It can also be used for dyeing.
In July, Gilgit rhubarb is flowering profusely on barren slopes below the Konze La Pass (4905 m), Ladakh, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The leaves of Rheum moorcroftianum are large, to 30 cm across, growing directly from the rootstock, as do the numerous green-flowered spikes, which are up to 60 cm long. This species is found on slopes and river banks up to 5,300 m, from Tajikistan and Afghanistan eastwards through south-western Tibet to central Nepal. Its dried leaves are used for treatment of sinusitis.
The greenish flowers of Rheum moorcroftianum later turn into reddish-brown nutlets. – Pang, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ranunculaceae (buttercup family)
Larkspurs (Delphinium) may be identified by their irregular flowers, which have five coloured sepals, the upper one with a large, back-pointing spur, and four inner petals, of which the upper two have nectar-producing spurs that are enclosed in the larger spur.
Delphinium cashmerianum is to 50 cm tall, with deeply dissected leaves, and terminal infloresences with 3-6 bluish-purple flowers, rarely pinkish. This plant grows on stony slopes between 2,700 and 4,800 m altitude, in south-western Tibet, Pakistan, and Ladakh. In traditional medicine, it is used for dysentery and wounds, and to kill lice.
Other larkspur species are presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Delphinium cashmerianum, Taglang La, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another genus, which is characterized by the peculiar shape of the flowers, is the columbines (Aquilegia), comprising altogether 60 to 70 species. Their flowers have five spurs on the inner petals, pointing backwards. These spurs are often curved, hence the generic name, of the Latin aquila (‘eagle’), where the spurs are likened to eagle claws. The common name columbine is derived from the Latin columba (‘dove’), referring to the alleged resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves, clustered together. Another popular name is granny’s bonnet, again referring to the flower shape.
Aquilegia moorcroftiana is found from northern Asia southwards through Central Asia to Pakistan, Ladakh, and western Nepal, growing in shrubberies near streams, at altitudes between 2,700 and 4,200 m.
Aquilegia moorcroftiana, Chiling, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Clematis is a genus of climbers, comprising about 300 species, which are widespread throughout the world. No less than 147 species are found in China, of which 93 are endemic.
Tibetan clematis (Clematis tibetana) often grows on bushes along trails, or on stone fences around fields. It has very pretty, golden-yellow flowers with brown spots, in which the style, growing to 1.5 cm long, is densely silky-haired. This plant is distributed in south-western Sichuan, Tibet, Pakistan, Ladakh, Lahaul, and Uttarakhand, at altitudes between 1,700 and 4,800 m.
Tibetan clematis is common in Ladakh, here growing on stone fences around fields near Chomuthang (top) and Honupatta. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rosaceae (rose family)
Two species of wild roses are very common on the Tibetan Plateau.
Rosa sericea thrives in areas with moderate rainfall, growing in southern Tibet and the dry Tibetan borderlands of the northern Himalaya, up to 4,600 m altitude. It is an erect shrub to 2 m tall, with prickles in pairs below the leaves, or none at all. The cream-coloured flowers are up to 6 cm across, with 4 petals. The edible hip is globular or pear-shaped, bright red, to 1.5 cm across, hairless. This species is often cultivated as an ornamental or in hedges. A paste of the petals is used for headache and liver problems, and the leaves are lopped for fodder.
Rosa sericea is abundant in the Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal, where this picture was taken. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hips of Rosa sericea are ball- or pear-shaped, here photographed in the Upper Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The pretty Rosa webbiana, which grows in drier areas than R. sericea, is very common on the Tibetan Plateau, up to an altitude of c. 4,500 m. It grows to 2.5 m tall, with scattered, straight, stout, yellow prickles, also in pairs below the leaves. The flowers have 5 petals, pink or reddish. The hip is ovoid or flask-shaped, bright red.
Rosa webbiana, with the village of Kaza in the background, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rosa webbiana, Sumdah Chu, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hips of Rosa webbiana are ovoid or flask-shaped, to 3.5 cm long, with persistent, spreading calyx. These were photographed at Hemis Gompa, Ladakh (top), and near Keylong, Lahaul. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The word cinquefoil is an Anglicization of the Latin quinque (‘five’) and folium (‘leaf’), thus ‘five-leaf’, a name originally referring to those species of the genus Potentilla, which have five finger-like leaflets. Today, however, cinquefoil is a name that refers to the entire genus, and also to marsh cinquefoils, of the genus Comarum. The vast majority of these mostly small and ground-hugging plants are yellow-flowered, but orange, pink, red, and white flowers are also seen.
Pictures of other Central Asian cinquefoil species are presented on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
The largest of the genus, shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), which grows to 1.2 m tall, is common on the Tibetan Plateau. It is a very variable plant with a wide distribution and altitudinal range, found in the entire northern temperate zone. In Central Asia, it grows up to an altitude of 6,000 m. Locally, juice of the root is used for indigestion, tea is made from the leaves, and dried leaves and branches are burned as incense.
This picture shows Tibetan shrubby cinquefoil, var. pumila, observed near Honupatta, Ladakh. This variety is prostrate, and its flowers are rather small. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Potentilla bifurca is a prostrate plant, growing on stony or grassy slopes and at the edge of fields. This species can be identified by its pinnate leaves, with broad, egg-shaped segments. It is widely distributed, from central Europe eastwards to Central Asia, where it is found between 3,500 and 5,200 m altitude.
Potentilla bifurca, encountered near Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rather shrubby Comarum salesovianum is widespread in Central Asia. This species, which is one of the few white-flowered cinquefoils of this area, is closely related to the circumboreal marsh cinquefoil (C. palustre), but contrary to that species, it grows in dry conditions.
Comarum salesovianum, Honupatta, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Salicaceae (willow family)
Poplars (Populus), also called aspen or cottonwood, are a genus of between 25 and 35 species of trees, some of which are indeed majestic, growing to 50 m tall, and with a trunk diameter up to 2.5 m. Poplars are native to the major part of the Northern Hemisphere, from subarctic areas southwards to Mexico, North Africa, Iran, the Himalaya, and China. They are deciduous, and several species display brilliant yellow foliage in the autumn, examples of which may be seen on the page In praise of the colour yellow.
Himalayan poplar (Populus ciliata) is a large tree, growing to 20 m tall, with a thick, fissured bark on older trunks. The leaves are ovate to heart-shaped, long-pointed, finely toothed, to 25 cm long and 15 cm broad, with a very long stalk, to 13 cm. This species grows in forests, along streams, and in open areas between 1,500 and 3,600 m altitude, from Pakistan eastwards through southern Tibet to the Yunnan Province in China. It is widely cultivated in Tibetan areas, its wood used for construction, the branches to make roofs, and the foliage for fodder. A paste of the bark is applied to muscular swellings.
The Muktinath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, is situated in a growth of old Himalayan poplars in the Jhong River Valley, Mustang, central Nepal. – This important temple is described on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn foliage of Himalayan poplar, near Hemis Gompa, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Saxifragaceae (saxifrage family)
This worldwide family contains about 80 genera with c. 1,200 species. By far the largest genus is Saxifraga with around 450 species, distributed in Asia, Europe, North America, and the Andes Mountains of South America. Most species grow in alpine areas. One species is presented below, whereas others are dealt with on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
Saxifraga mucronulata, also called S. flagellaris, is a tiny plant, with densely glandular-hairy stems, 2-4 cm tall, and bright yellow terminal flowers. It can be identified by its thin, red runners, arising from the axils of basal leaves. This species grows in rocky meadows and among boulders, between 2,800 and 5,400 m altitude, from Pakistan and Tibet eastwards to Sikkim and south-western China.
Saxifraga mucronulata, encountered on the Bara Lacha La Pass, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scrophulariaceae (figwort family)
Like Lamiophlomis rotata (see Lamiaceae), the leaves of Oreosolen wattii are hugging the ground, as a means of protection against the strong winds, which often blow on the Tibetan Plateau. This plant grows in alpine grasslands and on dry slopes in southern Tibet and the northernmost parts of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, up to an altitude of 5,100 m.
Oreosolen wattii, photographed in a dry valley beneath Imja Tse (Island Peak) (6189 m), Sagarmatha National Park, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Solanaceae (nightshade family)
Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is indigenous to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Central Asia, but has become naturalized in most of Europe and in parts of North and South America. In Central Asia, it grows in open areas and fallow fields between 2,000 and 3,600 m altitude, eastwards to China.
All parts of this plant are very poisonous, containing the toxic alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine. A Danish proverb, from 1682, says: “Adultery is like henbane seeds: the more you eat of it, the madder you become.” The generic name is derived from the Greek hys (‘swine’) and kyamos (‘bean’), thus ‘hog bean’. Supposedly, pigs could eat this plant with impunity.
Formerly, henbane was widely used in folk medicine for the production of sedatives, and also to make magic and love potions. Necklaces were made from the root, worn by children as charms to prevent fits and to cause easy teething. In Denmark, people with toothache (popularly called ‘worms in your teeth’) would inhale the vapours from boiling henbane seeds. These vapours would undoubtedly ease the pain, but the effect might just as well have been psychological, because after the treatment, the patient could see the killed ’worms’, lying between the henbane seeds in the bowl, in which they had been heated. The explanation is that the heating would burst the seed coat, exposing the white, curved germs – not unlike fly larvae.
In Greek mythology, the dead in Hades were crowned with henbane, as they wandered hopelessly along the River Styx.
You may read more about this species on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
Fruiting black henbane, Keylong, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Physochlaina is a genus of about 11 species, most of which are restricted to Central Asia, with one species in the Middle East and one in Mongolia and Siberia.
Physochlaina praealta is found in stony areas of south-western Tibet, Pakistan, and Ladakh, at altitudes between 2,400 and 4,600 m. It is utilized in local folk medicine, the seeds as a vermifuge, the leaves for treatment of ulcers and eye diseases.
Fruiting Physochlaina praealta, Ulley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Thymelaeaceae (daphne family)
Stellera chamaejasme is a pretty herb, growing to 50 cm tall, which is very common on the plateau, as it is avoided by grazing animals. Its habitat is open stony slopes and fallow fields. The root is used in traditional medicine to treat asthma, aching joints, and skin problems, and to expel phlegm and intestinal parasites. Paper and rope are made from the root.
Stellera chamaejasme, growing near the Hindu temple of Muktinath, Mustang, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Zygophyllaceae (caltrop family)
This family of trees, shrubs, and herbs contain 22 genera with about 285 species, which mainly grow in dry habitats.
Caltrop (Tribulus terrestris) is widely distributed, from southern Europe and North Africa eastwards through a major part of Asia to northern Australia. It is very common in Ladakh.
Fruits of this species have 2 to 4 very strong spines, which are able to penetrate a bicycle tyre, giving rise to a popular name of this plant, puncture vine. When the fruit is lying on the ground, at least one thorn is always pointing upwards, so that it may stick to a foot of a passing animal. If a furry animal, like a sheep, lies down in an area with these fruits, several of them will stick to its fleece. In this way, the seeds are dispersed. Much damage has been done to the feet of livestock by these fruits.
The generic name is from the Greek tribolos, meaning ’caltrop’, a small metal object with several spikes, of which one is always pointing upwards. In the old days, these weapons were spread on roads and footpaths to prevent traffic of the enemy’s soldiers, horse riders, and horse-drawn vehicles.
Caltrop, photographed near Ulley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded January 2019)
(Latest update October 2019)