The Rhododendron Finds of Tse Ten Tashi in Sikkim
Britt Smith, Kent, Washington
This paper was prepared for and presented at the national meeting of The American Rhododendron Society in San Francisco May 1972. Unfortunately, the color slides which illustrated the paper cannot all be included here.
Interest is renewed at this time because a group of members of the ARS departed on April 21 for a six-day trek through the rhododendron forests of Southwest Sikkim. Future issues will present the story of that trek.
If we were to journey half way around the world to Calcutta and thence northward approximately 450 miles we could arrive at Darjeeling, India. There the British established in about 1850 a rest (R and R) station at 7,000 feet elevation on a Himalayan ridge. For us as foreign tourists, this is the gateway to Himalaya as it has been through the intervening one hundred twenty years. Another sixty miles aboard a jeep, nearly a full day spent, and after registration at three checkpoints and official stamping of our papers, we can arrive in Gangtok the capital of Sikkim.
Sikkim is a tiny country nestled in the valleys of Himalaya. It is tiny in all respects except in the peace, the happiness, and the beauty which are found there. Its north-south dimension is approximately seventy miles, and its east-west dimension is only forty miles. It is so rugged that cartographers put a diagram on the map to explain that a large portion of Northern Sikkim is not accurately mapped. The climate varies from tropical in the southern river valleys to alpine and under perpetual snows on the high mountains to the west, the east, and the north. Sikkim's neighbors are Nepal to the west Tibet to the north and east but for a short portion of the eastern border where Bhutan is her neighbor and to the south India stands as advisor, protector, and neighbor.
Scenes in Sikkim remind one of rural scenes in the Alps, or the Andes, or whatever mountain vastness and vistas seem more familiar to the visitor - only the mountains of Sikkim are more than any of the others. Dominating all is the holy mountain, Kangchinjunga, home of deities, standing in awesome splendor, the third highest mountain in the world.
Tucked away in the mountains are picturesque places like Tiger Rock, which is really in Bhutan the almost inaccessible monastery which is one of the highest monasteries in those mountains. Mr. Tashi comments that rhododendrons like pendulum abound here but he adds collection is difficult. Also there are valleys like Tholung which according to Mr. Tashi looks like an Oriental painting. We agree. This valley is obviously rugged - so rugged that it is now being searched for rhododendrons for the first time. Mr. Tashi has employed native collectors who it is planned will spend four years searching for superior rhododendrons, and hopefully perhaps even find a new species. During the fifth year, Mr. Tashi plans to go with the collectors to judge and identify the plants selected by the collectors. After that seed will be collected and perhaps some plants will be collected for one of the rhododendron sanctuaries.
Mr. Tashi sent one picture which he labeled "Past glory, present disgrace". Another shows an area which once was "rich in rhododendrons, which are now gone, hence the importance of sanctuaries". His majesty, the Chogyal, is very concerned that some of the rhododendron series may become extinct in their native habitat, and we discussed the possibility of rhododendron sanctuaries when my wife, Jean, and I were guests at the palace for a delightful evening of conversation about rhododendrons. Since then at least one sanctuary has been established, on the road to Nathu-La - this one under the guidance of Mr. Tse Ten Tashi. It is suggested that the palace gardens are becoming another rhododendron sanctuary because personnel of the Department of Forestry are also interested in rhododendrons and are aware of His Majesty's interest. In the course of other departmental activities, personnel notice unusually attractive rhododendron plants, which are marked and moved to the palace garden.
The gentleman whom we went to visit and our benefactor in Sikkim is Mr. Tse Ten Tashi. At our request he dressed in ceremonial attire but he required that his copy of the Quarterly Bulletin be included in the picture. His wife was a Tibetan noblewoman who unfortunately, died in May of 1971. Jean stood with them to show that they are not small people as we expected they would be. Jean is five feet, eight inches tall.
Mr. Tashi has for years been a collector of orchid species and is well known for that activity. Mr. Tashi was originally mentioned in a letter to Mr. H. L. Larson of Tacoma which was sent by Mr. Kessop Pradhan when he was a student at Yale. Mr. Pradhan said that Mr. Tashi is probably the outstanding amateur botanist in Sikkim. This seemed verified when, as we walked along the road with Mr. Tashi he seemed to know the scientific name of every plant we saw and every bird we heard. Mr. Tashi is quite knowledgeable about rhododendrons and seemed to know where to find them, even though few were blooming at the time we were there. Between Ghum and Darjeeling, he found R. edgeworthii, R. dalhousiae, and R. auklandii.
Mr. M. Sain is an artist who lives in Darjeeling and paints beautiful pictures, of the mountains lakes, and streams. For many years he has been an admirer of the rhododendrons which are native there. He has written precise botanical descriptions of the rhododendrons of the Darjeeling area and Sikkim and has an excellent collection of color photographs of them. I feel that we will learn more of the outstanding work of this gentleman.
For lack of a better system, let us consider the rhododendrons which Mr. Tashi found, photographed, and from which he has sent seed, in alphabetical order.
At altitudes of 14,000 feet there are beautiful grassy slopes where in the summer, yak and dri are pastured. I was interested to learn that a yak corresponds to our bull; the equivalent of a cow is a dri. Also at this altitude one finds R. anthopogon. Mr. Tashi has sent photographs of a yellow form which may be variety haemonium, a peach colored form, and a cream colored form. The latter two are typical.
Rhododendron arboreum grows here and there over a very large area of temperate Himalaya and even in Ceylon. Mr. Tashi has recorded for us flowers of a bright red form and a very old R. arboreum tree. R. arboreum subspecies cambelliae is an attractive form of arboreum, with rust colored indumentum replacing the fawn to white usually seen on R. arboreum. The book records purplish-rose as the flower color, but Mr. Tashi's find is deep rose-red with a white center, almost to the point that it could be called a white floret with wide margins of deep rose-red on the lobes.
R. auklandii is one of the reasons that many of us envy those who grow rhododendrons in the San Francisco Bay area. We do not know that Mr. Tashi has found any new variants of R. auklandii. He does insist that R. auklandii and R. griffithianum are different and and seems to be able to defeat the detractors of this.
R. aeruginosum var. aeruginosum
(syn. R. campanulatum var. aeruginosum)
Photo by Tse Ten Tashi
R. campanulatum var. aeruginosum is known to us as having blue in their color. Our British friends seem to think that bluest ones are best. Mr. Tashi has selected one with beautiful pink bells, which most any of us would be delighted to raise.
My species book states that R. campanulatum may be from purple to rosy white to white and may be spotted. plants bearing beautiful cream to yellow flowers. We wonder if the pictures Mr. Tashi has sent photographs of could have been mislabeled - or are there yellow R. campanulatum?
Shah-bethang Lake at 13,500 feet elevation is one of the homes of R. campylocarpum. We have one photograph of a form with wide funnel campanulate flowers.
The R. ciliatum of Mr. Tashi's choosing show much pink in the bud and carry the trace of this pink in the fully opened flowers. It appears to be an excellent, compact growing form.
We have read for a long time that hikers have casually picked seed of R. cinnabarinum from which were grown plants which were quite superior to those in the trade. Mr. Tashi must have been the guide for those hikers, because his photographs indicate that he knows where superior forms grow. He also knows where to find an excellent form of variety 'Roylei'.
When we returned from Gangtok to Darjeeling, Mr. Tashi rode with us and stayed in Darjeeling for a few days, during which he escorted us around that area. Between Darjeeling and Ghum, he stopped the driver one afternoon and we scrambled up a steep hillside to where he had spotted R. dalhousiae. The variety there growing bears very large, extremely fleshy, and delightfully fragrant flowers. In the bud they are full length and the lobes begin to separate, these flowers are as green as the leaves. They fade to yellow and finally to white. Mr. Tashi seemed to feel that R. lindleyi is really a white form of R. dalhousiae. That may be - I do know that I have seen no other R. dalhousiae approach the quality of those we saw between Darjeeling and Ghum.
Seedlings of R. dalhousiae and R. lindleyi only one year old have been kept in my cool house through the winter and exposed to temperatures down to 18° F. A few have endured this in excellent shape, so we may get some hardy ones. The same is true for R. auklandii, R. formosum, and R. arboreum.
This same afternoon during which Mr. Tashi found R. dalhousiae, he found R. edgeworthii growing in a gentleman's garden and talked him out of a truss. Unfortunately it had been marked by rain and hail.
R. formosum varies, but not as much as R. occidentale. Mr. Tashi has sent photographs of a white form, a pink form, and a salmon form.
R. glaucum, which we call R. glaucophyllum, blooms a magnificent pink in Sikkim. The form which Mr. Tashi has photographed seems really outstanding.
R. hodgsonii grows in company with R. campbelliae. Mr. Tashi has selected forms varying from pink to brilliant deep rose. These give no hint of the magenta color mentioned in the handbook description. I like Mr. Tashi's selections.
R. lanatum has been somewhat of a stranger to us, but last year Mr. Tashi sent enough seed of R. lanatum to glut the market with plants for a long time. Pictures illustrate a color variation from light yellow to rich daffodil yellow. Unfortunately the leaf characteristics which we expect on our R. lanatum are not evident in the picture. Mr. Tashi's notes indicate that the seed was from the deep yellow form.
R. lepidotum grows from 8,000 to 16,000 feet elevation and varies from white to pink to red to purple to yellow and greenish yellow. Mr. Tashi's choice is from 16,000 feet elevation, and is a vivid purple-pink color. This form is probably R. obovatum named for its wider obovate leaf form. I think it is exceptionally attractive.
R. maddenii is one of the spectacular rhododendrons which grow so well in the San Francisco Bay area. It is a favorite of Mr. Tashi and he has sent photo graphs of white and pink forms. We are raising seedlings of these in the Pacific Northwest and hope to produce some which will be hardy for us.
R. niveum is really a spectacular rhododendron with beautiful trusses of large flowers and with leaves which are just as exciting. Unfortunately it is of a color which many people find unattractive. Perhaps there are color variations which would be more nearly universally appealing.
Photo by Tse Ten Tashi
R. setosum is in the Lapponicum series, and grows at elevations from 11.000 to 16,000 feet. The book describes it as having bright purplish-pink or rose-purple flowers. Mr. Tashi made his selections at 14,000 feet, and photographed two with particularly beautiful pink flowers.
R. thomsonii var. candelabrum
Photo by Tse Ten Tashi
R. thomsonii in Sikkim as photographed by Mr. Tashi appears to be the same one which Sir Joseph Hooker used as a model for his famous illustrated book. It is really a beautiful thing - particularly so to me because it shows none of the blue which we see so often in R. thomsonii. He also sent photographs of variety candelabrum and of variety pallidum. This clone of pallidum certainly deserves a better rating than F1-2 which has been assigned.
R. triflorum has been the source of seed which we are growing. These seedlings are not as hardy as we might wish, but we will no doubt grow many which are quite adequately hardy in our Pacific Northwest climate. Mr. Tashi has selected a bright yellow form which many of us would be proud to show.
R. wightii is a joy to everyone who has one blooming. Mr. Tashi has selected two clones one of which has red markings in the throat and the other displays a full truss instead of the one-sided truss of the classical description.
Mr. Tashi sent seeds of these selected forms of rhododendron species of Sikkim and Bhutan. We are growing literally thousands of seedlings of these and other Himalayan species both in the Pacific Northwest and also in the Bay area. Those of us who have sponsored Mr. Tashi's efforts find great pleasure and excitement in the prospect of raising forms of these species which we think transcend the beauty of the award forms. We also join him in hoping he will find a new species which he will have the opportunity to name.
As we noted in the paper which was presented in San Francisco in May 1972. Tse Ten Tashi's wife died suddenly the night of May 26, 1971. That set Mr. Tashi back very hard and little was heard from him for a long time. We know that he grieved - also he was left with four young children (as well as four grown children), and many business activities. These factors kept him very subdued and no doubt very busy, for Mrs. Tashi had been a great help to him in these business activities. Knowing these things, we continued to write to him frequently, although we received infrequent replies.
Tse Ten was unable to make his trips to the rhododendron areas as he had previously done when he was more free to venture forth. Also we learned later that the mourning custom in Sikkim restricts activities of the survivors for a full year. His few letters did not display the old sparkle of the Tse Ten Tashi we had known.
In August of 1972 we were able to inform Tse Ten that we were returning to Sikkim. Then we received a letter from him that indicated he had suddenly lively again! We had been encouraged by Her Majesty, the Gyalmo to organize a rhododendron tour of Sikkim, and we were working on that. Mr. M. Sain had inspired us to print a book of his botanical descriptions of rhododendrons of the area around Darjeeling and of Sikkim.*
*"Rhododendrons of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Himalayas" by M. Sain, 62 pp, may be ordered from Britt Smith, 11031 SE 244 Street Kent, WA 98031 for $2.50 plus 25¢ postage.
Plans were developing rapidly and excitement was running high as we were to leave October 10 for Sikkim via Scotland.
The evening of September 28, 1972, there was a knock on the door. This produced a telegram which bore the words "Father expired twenty-seventh. Paljor Tashi."
It seemed the end. It was the end of many things, among them Tse Ten Tashi's happy thought that he would discover a new rhododendron species. It was also the end of Tse Ten's fond wish that one day he would earn and be awarded the Gold Medal of The American Rhododendron Society. Of course it may yet be proved that he did discover a new rhododendron species which he would have loved to name R. tashii. He spoke of these things several times when we were with him.
We went to Sikkim in spite of the loss and were honored by the family in being invited to participate in the funeral services, which continue for forty-nine days. The twenty-eighth day is particularly auspicious and that was the day of our participation - with twenty three monks praying and one thousand butter lamps burning in the home.
As a result of Tse Ten Tashi's efforts, we are growing thousands of seedlings from the seed collection in Sikkim. Some will bloom this year and others will be coming into bloom for years to come. We have a substantial group of color slides which Tse Ten photographed. Among them is the picture of yellow R. campanulatum, the existence of which is verified by Mr. Kalipada in his book, "Plants of Darjelling and Sikkim Himalayas". Tse Ten sent seed of R. keysii which he said had not been previously reported in Sikkim. To crown it all, there just may be a new species which we can name R. tashii.
Before you read this, a group of approximately 25 of your fellow rhododendron enthusiasts will have returned from a six-day trek through the rhododendron forests loved by Tse Ten Tashi, by M. Sain and by Kessop Pradhan, who will have organized and guided the trek.
We will be so full of enthusiasm, and so loaded with photographs that we hope your interest is insatiable. We will want to tell you and to show you photographs of the first rhododendron trek through part of Sikkim organized through The American Rhododendron Society at the suggestion of Their Majesties, the Chogyal and Gyalmo of Sikkim.
May it all bring honor to the memory of Tse Ten Tashi.