On the orchid trail in the North-Eastern Himalayan Region

Orchids are attractive and extraordinary in their beauty and the way they grow. Seeing them bloom in their natural habitat has always been on my wish-list. This summer, I finally had the opportunity to fulfil this desire. While I was enthralled by the beauty of the orchids and the surrounding landscape of the hills, I also felt saddened that orchids in the region are going extinct due to rampant clearing of forests for road development projects as well as unscrupulous sellers picking them from the forest and selling them to orchid hobbyists. By purchasing these orchids, we are encouraging their disappearance from these forests.

Let it be the endeavour of every orchid enthusiast to protect and conserve the biodiversity of the region. Let us collectively decide to buy cultivated orchid species from nurseries rather than those from these forests.

Read on to know about the orchids from this region and why we should not deprive our future generations of this beautiful natural heritage.

Images: Courtesy photography enthusiast and good friend, Col. Mohan Joseph, who was part of our tour group, and has generously contributed his beautiful pictures to make the post come alive .

Coelogyne nitida growing perched on a slender branch, bobbing with the gentle breeze

A few years into the orchid hobby, it was a dream-come-true for me when my husband and I, along with our friends, toured the state of Sikkim and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Located in the North-Eastern Himalayan region, these states along with the neighbouring states, are home to many of the native orchid species of India. Our tour itinerary consisted of Gangtok, the state capital of Sikkim, Lachung, Pelling, Borong and Darjeeling. I had never seen orchids in their natural habitat. So I was excited at what I would find on reaching there.

A group of six, we drove into the hill-station city of Gangtok on 9th May 2022, just after sundown. I was enamoured by the lush greenery and changing forest landscape as we ascended and descended the hills during our journey. I couldnt wait to explore the coutryside the next morning.

Below are some beautiful pictures of Gangtok city and the scenic beauty enroute to Pelling and Borong. The rainforest environment and the crystal clear waterfalls that are fed by the melting glaciers ensure the propagation of the biodiversity in the region.

Gangtok city as seen from the cable car
Mandakini Falls near Lachung
The Teesta river meandering in the valley
The Serpentine Naga Falls
Dendrobium species orchid seed pods at Borong
Orchid growing on a moss covered tree at Kurseong

The sun rises as early as 4.30 am in the eastern states. It had rained during the night, so I took an early morning walk at 6.00 am to get a feel of the town before the hustle and bustle began. The misty floating clouds, rain soaked forests, moss and fern covered branches and the enveloping silence reminded me of the Amazon forests that are home to many beautiful species of orchids.

Moss and fern covered trees misted by rain saturated clouds – An ideal setting for orchids

My eyes searched for orchids on trees. Very soon, I came across some Dendrobium/ Bubophyllum orchids growing on trees. I was glad to spot these orchids and observe how they were growing. Along with these, I also spotted lots of tiny flora growing in crevices in the moss covered rocks and compound walls lining the streets.

Dendrobium/Bulbophyllum orchid growing on a tree in Gangtok

As we left the city of Gangtok to visit the Rumtek Monastery, all along the road, I sighted lots of trees with Coelogyne nitida growing on the trunks and branches. The best part was that these orchids were in full bloom and looked very wild and attractive. It was a joy to behold them in their natural habitat. nestled on moss and fern covered branches that were spread out, where they could catch the sunlight and bloom to their full glory.

A visit to the Botanical Park at Rumtek was very exciting. I spotted a number of orchids on trees that were in bloom. Chief among them were Dendrobium species, Coelogyne nitida, foxtail orchids as well as ground orchids such as Cymbidium hybrids and nun orchids. We also had the opportunity to stop by at the Flower show in Gangtok, where locally grown hybrids and species of orchids, lilies and many exotic flowers were on display.

Some of the trees with sparse foliage looked amazing as they had patches of orchids growing all over the branches. Coelogyne orchids such as Coelogyne nitida and Coelogyne cristata are cool growers so I found them growing in deciduous forests at around 6000-7000 feet above sea level. But found them disappearing as the terrain changed to pine forests at higher altitudes (above 9000 feet above sea level). As the altitudes touched 10,000 feet above sea level, the vegetation became sparse and we spotted beautiful rhododendron bushes in a variety of colours dotting the hilly terrain.

Foxtail orchid with a bud spike at the Kaziranga National Park near Jorhat

At lower altitudes, below the cloud cover, I spotted blooming Foxtail orchid (Rhyncostylis retusa, Bulbophyllum, Cymbidium species, Dendrobium chrysotoxum, Dendrobium farmerii , Aerides and Dendrobium nobile species and others growing on trees at the foothills, where the temperature was relatively warmer. What I realised through this visit is that orchids bloom and proliferate where they get copious amounts of sunshine along with all other favourable conditions like suitable humidity, moisture and temperature. They grow on branches that have sparse foliage, which allow sunlight to reach them.

Orchids, ferns and moss covered trees at Pelling teleported me to the Amazon rainforests

The rainforest environment, which I had only heard about, was breathtakingly beautiful. The misty woods enveloped in the clouds, the silhouettes of the trees and the wild ferns and gigantic fern trees along with moss covered rocks were a haven of delight, a far cry from the warm sunny climes and concrete jungle of Mumbai.

As we moved from Southern Sikkim to the Western and Northern parts of Sikkim and continued to Darjeeling in West Bengal, my eyes remained glued to the scenic beauty of the hills, trying to sight as many orchids as I could. How I wished I could wander through those woods on an orchid sighting trail. My enthusiasm was shared by my friends, who, like me, were amazed and intrigued by the orchids and their beautiful blooms.

Coelogyne nitida growing and proliferating on this gigantic tree at Darjeeling

Since the Coelogyne nitida was in full bloom during our visit, it was the highlight of my finds. I have to tell this ‐- ever since I have developed my orchid hobby, one thing that I am surprised by is that I am invariably drawn to orchids with white blooms. Whether it is the tiny Kingidium deliciosa or the beautiful Brassavola nodosa or the delicate Neostylis falcata, they are always at the top of my list of favourites. So imagine my delight when I began spotting the Coelogyne nitida in full bloom.

The delicate pure white blooms with their pearly translucent petals and a prominent lip in golden yellow demarcated by a thin orange outline were remarkably beautiful. While the flowers were small in size, they did make up for their lack in size by their sheer numbers, making a beautiful spray of white and gold amidst lush green foliage.

Coelogyne and Bulbophyllum orchids growing on moss covered rocky walls

Both Sikkim and Darjeeling had a number of Bulbophyllum and Cymbidium species growing in the woods. As we drove past, we saw a number of Cymbidium species in full bloom on the trees, with the bloom spikes trailing down  from the branches. I also noticed Bulbophyllum species growing in chinks in rocks that were covered with moss and ferns.

Epigeneium rotundatum blooming on a tall tree at Darjeeling

At the zoological park at Darjeeling, I was excited to spot the Epigeneium rotundatum (also known as Dedrobium rotundatum or Bulbophyllum rotundatum), the orchid grows on trees and on rocks. It’s honey/golden coloured blossoms amidst lush green foliage and plump brown pseudoulbs looked attractive in their natural setup. I also came across the Coelogyne cristata in bloom here, which were beautiful, but the blooms were fading.

On my return from the trip, I posted a few pictures on Facebook. To my surprise, people wanted to know whether I had collected plants and whether I was selling them. I strongly believe that orchids are going extinct and so they should be conserved in their natural habitat and encouraged to grow and spread out. Unfortunately, a lot of local people collect these plants and sell them online at throwaway prices. I wish that the magic and natural wonder of this biodiversity gets conserved and we can enjoy visiting these places year after year. As for getting orchids, I did buy some Cymbidium hybrid and Lycaste back-bulbs at the flower show and at a plant nursery in Darjeeling. They will take about 3-5 years to bloom. so the wait is going to be a long, long one.

The Cymbidium and Lycaste back bulbs potted up in seedling pots

While I was firm about not picking up a naturally growing species orchid from the region, fate had other plans for me. There were many road construction and tunnel projects underway, which has led to deforestation in the state of Sikkim. At one such place, the traffic was held up for some time. Strolling in the vicinity, I came across some trees that were felled for the road project. Attached to one of these logs was a Bulbophyllum affine orchid. I came to know that the logs would soon be converted to timbre. I realised that the orchid would die if it was left there on the construction site. So I gently removed it, wrapped it in some moss from the roadside and brought it home with me in the hope of giving it a new lease of life.

Four weeks later, after mounting it, the orchid has got adjusted to its new environment and is establishing well with new shoots and roots. I felt bad removing the orchid from the tree, but I knew it had no future staying there.

So my message here is that we must conserve the orchids growing in their natural habitat and prevent them from going extinct. Always buy orchids from nurseries where these plants are cultivated. The money you spend is negligible when you compare it with the dwindling number of these species. I thought that I should facilitate the spread of these orchids, so at Borong, I had the opportunity to spread some Dendrobium orchid seeds from a burst pod. I wonder whether those seeds will grow into mature plants and bloom.

Spreading orchids seeds from the pods

I end my post on this heartening note.

Till my next, happy growing!

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