Nepal's Magnificent Rhododendron

Features Issue 104 Jun, 2010
Text and Photo By Scott Faiia

Of the over thirty species of Rhododendron in Nepal the most renowned is Rhododendron arboreum, known as Gurans in Nepali. There are extensive and magnificent Rhododendron arboreum forests throughout the country ranging in elevation from around 1,400 to 3,600 meters. Rhododendron is a very widely distributed genus, occurring throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere and extending to areas in southeastern Asia and northern Australasia. It does not occur naturally in South America or Africa. However, the highest species diversity is found in the Himalaya. The name rhododendron is derived from the Greek words rhodos (meaning rose) and dendron (meaning tree). There are over 1,000 natural species of rhododendron, including many bushy species and a number of trees that grow to heights of up to thirty meters. Many of the tree species will take years to reach flowering, at least twenty or more, while at least fifty years is needed for a tree rhododendron to reach its optimum form. Worldwide there are numerous Rhododendron societies and many species are cultivated throughout the world as ornamentals and hybrids, largely due to their beautiful flowers. There are over 28,000 cultivars of Rhododendron in the International Rhododendron Registry held by the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK. Rhododendrons are botanically related to azaleas, blueberries, heathers and mountain laurels. Of the over thirty species of Rhododendron in Nepal the most renowned is Rhododendron arboreum, known as Gurans in Nepali. There are extensive and magnificent Rhododendron arboreum forests throughout the country ranging in elevation from around 1,400 to 3,600 meters. Starting at elevations of around 1,400 meters the flowers are a vibrant red. However, as altitude increases the color begins shifting to pink, gradually becoming pure white as elevations approach the species’ upper limit of 3,600 meters. For Nepalis the most beloved of the tree rhododendrons is the Lali Gurans, or red one, and it has a special place in the people’s hearts, culture and economic life. In March and April it blankets the hills with great beauty, heralding the coming of Spring with warmer days and the promise of bountiful harvests to come. Red is also a most auspicious color commonly used for “tikas” and women’s saris during weddings and major festivals such as Dashain and Teej. Due to its special qualities and widespread distribution in the country’s hills Lali Gurans is the national flower of Nepal. In addition to this, in December 2006 during the reconciliation period following the civil conflict, Nepal adopted a new national emblem incorporating Lali Gurans. According to reports in The Rising Nepal newspaper, the new emblem symbolizes “national unity and people’s sovereignty” and “reflects spirit of loktantra (republic) marked by inclusiveness and gender parity.” The new emblem contains the flag of Nepal, Mount Everest, green hills and yellow colour symbolising the fertile Terai region together with male and female hands joining to symbolise gender equality. Superimposed on the hills is a white silhouette in the shape of Nepal. All of these symbols are encircled by a wreath of red rhododendron flowers. At the base of the design a red scroll carries the national motto in Sanskrit: (jananī janmabhūmiśca svargādapi garīyasī), which translates as “Mother and the motherland are greater than heaven.”

There are numerous poems and songs referring to Lali Gurans. Among the most famous songs are Prakash Shresta’s “Timi Lali Gurans Phule Jastai”, Kunti Moktan’s “Laligurans Banai Bhari” and Narayan Gopal’s “Ma Ta Laligurans Bhayechu” which uses phrases such as “I became a Lali Gurans; I blossom in the whole forest and in your heart; if somebody is there to look I will blossom in their eyes”. Women love to enhance their beauty by putting the flowers in their hair and blossoms are also used to decorate the gates and windows of houses. People of all ages delight in walking through the forests and picking bouquets of rhododendron flowers. This is especially true of those engaged in courtship who will exchange flowers as a token of affection. In Helambu District there is an annual Lali Gurans Festival during the peak flowering season.

Extensive stands of rhododendrons are found in the same altitudinal range as the grazing grounds for sheep, goats, cows and yaks. In the winter months, the fresh leaves make good fodder, but when the flowers are in bloom - the leaves are poisonous to animals and they are sometimes used as fish poison. The wood can be used for furniture, house beams and garden fencing. Some groups in the hills use the wood in making household utensils, gunstocks and tool handles. Unfortunately, it is more often used as firewood and increasing population pressure has been steadily reducing both the area and density of the forests. Groups such as ACAP (The Annapurna Conservation Area Project) have been attempting to introduce fuel efficient stoves and solar water heaters to mitigate this problem. Lali Gurans also finds a place in the Nepali food menu. Villagers will directly eat the flower petals and children especially enjoy the few drops of honey they contain. The Raute and Chepang people pickle the flower by adding salt and chilies to eat with rice and curry dishes. A very sweet drink is also made from the flowers and heavy doses of sugar. This is similar to the refreshing drinks made from the hibiscus flower in the Middle East. While rhododendron flowers are a source of honey, great care must be exercised in consuming it as some species produce a highly toxic honey. Essential oils from some species are used in perfumes and incense. The flower is often seen as an offering in hill temples.

Rhododendron is also a source of traditional medicine. One method of preparation is making a powder from the flower which is mixed with the starch of the boiling rice and given to the patient. It helps to cure patients who are suffering from dysentery. Another remedy is to make a paste from the leaves and apply it to the forehead in the treatment of headaches. It is also used to treat skin diseases. An extract of the bark is used in the treatment of coughs, diarrhoea and dysentery. In ayurvedic medicine rhododendron plants are used to treat jaundice, diabetes, piles, enlargement of the spleen, liver disorder and worms. According to common folklore in Nepal a sip of the juice of the Lali Gurans flower dissolves fish bones stuck in the throat. Some rhododendron species in the high mountains are used to make herbal teas. According to herbalist Amchi Lhakpa the tea “clears your stomach and improves digestion. It is helpful with lung and stress disorders involving general weakness of the body. It helps reduce fever and swelling of the abdomen due to the indigestion of food, restores the natural balance after changes in climate or water, and relieves numbness of the extremities, swelling and itching of the throat, or a feeling of thirst”.

The beauty of the flowering rhododendrons draws thousands of trekkers to Nepal every year. Trees begin flowering at lower elevations in early March and the season can extend into May at the higher elevations. The most extensive forests are in the eastern part of the country though there are still patches of forest in the far west. The major areas for seeing rhododendron while trekking are Langtang National Park, Makalubarun National Park, Milke Danda-Jaljale Himal (a transverse mountain range in the east which separates the Tamur and Arun river systems), the Upper Tamur River Valley and the Annapurna Conservation Area. The Pulchowki hills in the southern part of the Kathmandu Valley are an easily accessible place to see Lali Gurans. Seeing these beautiful flowering forests against the backdrop of the majestic Himalaya, while enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the Nepali people, is surely worth a trip from anywhere in the world.