The Magnificent Madness of Bhutan's Wild Rhododendron Blooms
Karma Dorji Bhutan Himalaya Travel Programs Coordinator
If you’re considering travel in the spring Bhutan’s wild rhododendrons are the thing to see. Each year from March to May they arrive and flower, setting off mute explosions of scarlet, cream, gold and white ruffles across the slopes of the mighty Himalayas.
With blooms gorgeous enough to rival the ruffles of a flamenco dancer's dress, rhododendrons arrive each year in the spring, adding splashes of color to the Bhutanese landscape. From the Bhutan Himalaya Archives
Bhutan’s rhododendrons are myriad, manifesting in all manner of hues and shades and ranging from dense shrubs to trees over 65 feet tall! Many of these ancient trees in the Himalayas are the ancestors of what later became cultivated and celebrated in polite botanical gardens across England, Europe and the West. To read a fascinating account of how these wild natives of the Himalayas were bred, cultivated and “civilized”, read Tales of the Rose Tree: Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World by Jane Brown (320 pages; HarperPerennial, 2005).
Each year, when spring arrives and rhododendrons bloom, lover's gift each other a stalk or two of the flowers and devotees leave them as offerings at wayside shrines. Bhutan Himalaya Archives
In the Wild
Part of the appeal of seeing rhododendrons in Bhutan may be that, in their native Himalayan forests, the neatly manicured (and mostly ornamental) rhododendron hedges and bushes that most people know recede from the mind, making way for the natural tree-size specimens with magnificently effusive blooms that have made the Himalayas famous among enthusiasts. One such was the early 20th century naturalist Frank Kingdon Ward, who likened the native blooming rhododendrons he saw in the region to “fiery curtains,” “incandescent lava,” and “sea-tarnished metal” (Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges: Retracing the Epic Journey of 1924-25 in South-East Tibet; edited by Kenneth Cox, Antique Collectors Club Ltd., August 2001).
Unshackled from the bounds of the purportedly “aesthetic” pruning and shaping that modern landscapers do, the wild rhododendrons of Bhutan have a primal grandeur that makes stumbling across a particularly well-endowed grove along the kingdom’s many forested trails, treks and roadsides an awe-inspiring experience. Perhaps it’s not surprising that they are celebrated all over Bhutan in song, given as lovers’ gifts, and form the backdrop of many a family portrait taken in the spring.
Trumpets of the gold-tinged rhododendron Dalhousie, which grows to 13 feet or 4 meters in the wild, with scaly shoots and bristle. Found April to July at roughly the elevations of 4,200 ft - 8,000 ft. Bhutan Himalaya Archives
When I was a boy my father would make us put on our Sunday best at the start of each rhododendron season. He’d drive the family jeep up the winding road into the mountains high above the capital. Pulling off to a small curve of compacted dirt with a view of the glittering Himalayan peaks, he would herd us out of the car in our shimmering ghos and kiras. We labored up the mountain—my mother, my sisters and me—until we found the sheltering arches of an ancient rhododendron tree that caught my father's eye. Making sure the lighting was just right my father carefully placed his trusty SLR camera on its on its extendable tripod and checked the viewfinder to make sure the entire frame was filled with the brilliance of our best brocades and silks against the wild trumpets and blooms of the sumptuous tree. Setting the timer he’d run over to join us in the frame, put on his fedora hat jauntily, and toss back the curl of the black-and-white polka-dot scarf around his neck.
Like blood on snow, an early bloom of rhododendrons brighten the trail on a hike. Bhutan Himalaya Archives
The man and the flower
Jane Brown credits Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (1707 ~ 78) for taking the Greek words for Rose, Rhodon, and Tree, Dendron, to come up with the binomial Rhododendron. And although the man himself died in poverty, Tales of the Rose Tree describes how the flower he named went on to a glamorous future celebrated in the great gardens of the world and once, even, cultivated by no less a person than George Washington, President of the United States.
Rhododendrons framed by the glittering snow peaks of the Himalayas is a common springtime scenery in Bhutan. Bhutan Himalaya Archives.
Crazy About Rhododendrons
For a time, I thought it was only my family that suffered from the temporary insanity caused by the annual return of the rhododendrons. I now know there is a long tradition of becoming more than a little colored by one’s passion for rhododendrons. In one of the Jane Brown book’s passages, she quotes a Chinese poet, Cheng Yanxlong, who compares the red flowers of the rhododendron to—paraphrasing—blood dropped from the mouths of cuckoo birds.
A very influential work in spreading the popularity of rhododendrons worldwide was Joseph Hooker’s Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya. Published in 1849, it ushered the 19th century craze among gardeners, botanists, collectors and society aesthetes in England and the United States. A flurry of artists—including Victorian adventurer Marianne North (1830-1890)—began painting the flowers in a florid and gushing style matching the superlative manner in which they were being written about in the books and journals of the time.
The beauty of a silent, forested trail overhung with rhododendron blooms and 'old man's beard' moss hanging from the pines, with just the snow crunching under-foot, can be a rare and magical experience. Bhutan Himalaya Archives.
Celebrating the Rhododendrons in Bhutan
As many as 46 known species of rhododendrons have been found in Bhutan, with 10 additional subspecies recorded. An annual three-day Rhododendron Festival in the mountains above capital, where my father used to take us for our annual portraits, celebrates the variety, the beauty and the abundance of the rhododendrons that bloom in Bhutan's spectacular spring. It delves into the plant's varied uses: as an ingredient in traditional indigenous medicine, crafts, and religious ceremonies. But one of the best ways to enjoy Bhutan's magnificent rhododendrons is to see them in the wild on one of our excellent guided hikes and country walks (see our Bhutan in the Time of Rhododendrons itinerary).
Named for Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother of Bhutan, the R.kesangiae is an exquisite variety of rhododendron that grows to heights of 65 feet or 20 meters. It s found at high elevations up to 11,000 feet. Bhutan Himalaya Archives.
An Archer's Call
Perhaps to recall the intense exuberance of the rhododendrons’ arrival in the spring, a Bhutanese archer pulling his bow traditionally calls:
Ethometho sha rendo
Ngi da kari pho rendo!
Rhododendrons will bloom
and my arrows find their mark!
Indeed, truth be told, even to those of us who were dragged unwillingly to embarassing rounds of picture-taking amid the incandescently blooming trees, nothing says welcome to Bhutan better than a wild tumble of luscious rhododendron blooms!
Bell-shaped, the Rhododendron Thomsonii is usually deep crimson in color with a round or heart-shaped base. It is found in fir forests and secondary bamboo up to elevations of 12,000-feet. Flowers April through July. Bhutan Himalaya Archives.
Other interesting botanical species that you may encounter in Bhutan in the spring include spruce, tiny gentians, pedicularis (broomrape), and, higher up, snow lotus or saussurea, a rare medicinal plant. Visiting Bhutan in the spring provides the perfect opportunity for discovering unique flora found nowhere else in the world. A great naturalist’s resource, if you are traveling in Bhutan at this time, is A Photo Guide to Flowers of Bhutan by our friend Thinley Namgyel, and Karma Tenzin, published by WWF Bhutan, 2009.
The R.Tsariense variety grows predominantly in white and pink hues and found in Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Southern Tibet. Bhutan Himalaya Archives.
Further Rhododendron Readings:
The Book of Rhododendrons, Marianna Kneller
The Rhododendron Story: 200 years of Plant Hunting and Garden Cultivation, edited by Cynthia Postan.
The Rhododendron griffithianum Wight is found along river banks, ravines and cliffs and in cool, broad-leaved evergreen forests. They are found in elevations extending up to 11,000-feet.
Looking for a journey with Rhododendrons on the itinerary? Check out trip dates and prices for our Signature Journey Bhutan in the Time of Rhododendrons.