JARS v52n1 - New Darjeeling Park Preserves Native Rhododendrons

New Darjeeling Park Preserves Native Rhododendrons
Praveen Mukhia
Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

Darjeeling, the botanical haven in the Himalayas where Sir Joseph Hooker in 1848-1850 worked intensively making rich and profound discoveries of the local biota, is still abundant with extraordinary flowers and trees. Alpine plants thrive in this part of the world up to the dizzying heights of 20,000 feet (6098m) and climb to even higher zones during summer. Many believe that there are plants yet to be discovered and identified in this region, but there is a real fear and possibility that many of these plants may vanish undiscovered. Rapid and heartless deforestation of this region coupled with changing climate pattern (see Table 1) is fast leading to destruction of the natural environment.

The region experiences four distinct seasons: spring, March-May; monsoons (rainfall), June-September; autumn, October-November; winter, December-February. Table 1 shows the average temperature and rainfall data of the past 50 years as compared with the current data of the last few years, showing a distinct change in the climatic pattern.

Table 1. Comparison of monthly rainfall and maximum/minimum temperatures between the last 50 years and the last several years.
Month Rainfall 50 year data Rainfall current data Temperature (c) 50 year data Temperature (c) current data
(mm) (mm) Max. Min. Max. Min.
January 10.9 0 8.6 1.9 9.86 1.12
February 31.7 11.5 9.0 2.6 11.4 2.52
March 54.1 21.5 13.2 6.2 15.18 6.53
April 113.0 28.0 16.2 9.3 18.9 9.19
May 231.4 109.0 17.3 11.4 20.29 12.32
June 597.1 599.3 18.4 13.7 19.4 14.37
July 792.2 803.35 18.8 14.4 18.49 13.89
August 643.4 523.0 18.8 14.3 19.91 14.4
September 445.5 395.3 18.2 13.4 18.3 13.11
October 142.2 32.05 16.7 10.2 19.85 10.6
November 24.6 12.5 13.3 6.2 16.93 7.19
December 6.3 0 10.4 2.7 11.79 3.32
Annual 3092.4 2535.0

The Himalayas, being a relatively new mountain formation, are undergoing constant geological changes. Earthquakes and landslides as well as climatic imbalances continue to take their toll on the whole ecosystem, notably in the erosion of soil as well as loss of valuable biota.

The formal development of commercial trees and plants such as pine ( Cryptomeria japonica ), teak ( Tectona grandis ), tea ( Camelia sinensis ), Cinchona , etc., has frozen thousands of acres of land in this region. Several government and private plant nurseries in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim concentrate their efforts in cultivating and propagating high value plants such as orchids, gladioli, and common household plants for business purposes.

There are many more beautiful plants in the Himalayas, and though they may not be lucrative for commercial ventures, their very existence is a joy for nature lovers and those who feel the need to preserve them in their native environment just because they belong there. The extent of primary forests with plants, shrubs and trees existing in close symbiosis is shrinking day by day. Pastoral trends, slash and burn cultivation, deforestation and the sheer ignorance of these acts are becoming a threat to many natural sanctuaries in the Darjeeling Himalayas.

Forests of rhododendrons are being logged for firewood daily by villagers whose dependence for fuel for their livelihood makes it necessary to burn them. Because of their inflammable nature, even freshly cut trees ignite readily to provide a good fire. Untended grazing is destroying precious plant cover, triggering more soil erosion and loss of plant material.

It is with this in mind that naturalist Madan Tamang has conceived of a very special and different kind of plant nursery at Darjeeling - the Himalayan Rhododendron Park and Associated Plants Garden. Located on a north facing hillside on the outskirts of Darjeeling town and blessed with a natural spring, the park is majestically set in full view of the Singhalila Range, with Mount Kahnchendzonga (28,200 feet; 8598 m) in all its snow clad glory in the foreground.

View of the
park from the gazebo looking up toward the entrance and road.
View of the park from the gazebo looking
up toward the entrance and road.
Photo by Britt Smith

This private, non-profit park, owned by Mr. Madan Tamang, is about 4 acres with meandering pathways throughout the steep, 200 foot (61 m) hillside and is planted with thousands of alpine plants on almost every patch of land available within the park. Every nook and corner offers a little surprise, with clusters of Primula , some scented Thuja , a bunch of ferns and a Cycas here and there. An Arisaema striking a cobra poses underneath a rock strewn with moss and lichens. The variety is almost unending as is the effort of those who labour regularly to carefully nurture this little paradise of Himalayan plants. Among them is Mr. Bhaktiman Rai, a taxonomist, with 50 years of experience as a botanist in the Botanical Gardens in Darjeeling. He is an avid plant collector who almost every week takes a few local hands for plant collection excursions all over the area. The landscaping and layout of the park had just progressed to the completion of construction of a gazebo, where Britt and Jean Smith of Kent, Washington, spent a lovely morning breakfast in autumn, 1994, and urged Madan and me to follow up this development during its initial stage, even encouraging us by planting a Rhododendron arboreum and R. cinnabarinum .

The nearly
extinct R. aucklandii. R. formosum
The nearly extinct R. aucklandii .
Photo by Praveen Mukhia
R. formosum
Photo by Praveen Mukhia

The park will be placing six self-contained cottages that can be used by plant lovers, research students, amateur botanists or visitors to live within the park and learn local techniques of planting, propagating, growing and learning about the various plants themselves in the Himalayas through firsthand experience. All the proceeds and earnings from this park will be utilized for the preservation of rhododendrons and other associated plants at Meghma, where Madan Tamang has about 200 acres. Any further area that may be incorporated will have to be done with the help of "NGO's," which will have to be formed in due course of time. Currently there are 34 species of native rhododendrons that have been planted in the park, and with the support also of a greenhouse all effort is being made and very special care is taken to protect and perpetuate these rare species, some of which are on the verge of extinction. Among those for which there is concern are: Rhododendron dalhousiae , R. griffithianum , R. leptocarpum ( micromeres ), R. niveum , R. pendulum , R. aucklandii , and R. vaccinioides .

Shade house and
covered work area
Shade house and covered work area in the park.
Photo by Praveen Mukhia

A basic plant catalogue has been printed offering the plants and seeds to collectors. More plant families and species will be incorporated in due course of time. These plants could well be ornamental, medicinal, exotic or plain, insignificant plants trying to survive. The very purpose of the existence of this unique experimental park is to help in that process and to snatch these struggling plants from tragedy of extinction. The basic idea of the park is as a "pilot project" to experiment on the preservation of these plants and is now yielding encouraging results. Hence, the next phase of the project can now be initiated confidently. Madan Tamang's dream is to move this preservation effort to a much large area - Meghma (also his native place), the renowned rhododendron belt, 35 kilometers away from Darjeeling. About 40 species of Sikkim Himalayan rhododendrons are distributed in this area right from Darjeeling to Singalella ridge (7,000 to 14,000 feet; 2134-4268 m). At the altitude of 9,000 feet (2744 m), Meghma, from time immemorial, has served as the natural habitat for these plants. Interestingly, one particular area of Meghma used to be called "Guranse," meaning a place full of rhododendrons, by the inhabitants of this area but that is true no more. The usual violence to nature by human need and greed have practically wiped out the lovely plants from this place. The programme of rejuvenation and resurrection of this area once more as "Guranse," the ancestral property of Madan Tamang, is his dream. He is planning to turn the approximately 200-acre plot into a unique rhododendron and associated plant sanctuary.

The effort, noble as it is, has till now been limited to local individual initiative. However, with positive encouraging results coming out of this small pilot project, Madan Tamang is ready to share this experience with like-minded people with a similar vision. A much wider enthusiastic participation is called for from all lovers of nature and rhododendrons in particular. The ultimate impact of this venture cannot be overestimated. Meghma may one day become a significant habitat for this glorious plant. But that depends on how seriously we view this effort of Madan Tamang today.

Praveen Mukhia is an architect based in Darjeeling.