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!

Identifying flower spikes in Phalaenopsis orchids

Come spring and flower spikes begin to develop in Phalaenopsis orchids. There is always some guesswork involved in differentiating between an orchid root and spike in the early stage of their development. Read on to learn how to identify a spike from a root or new shoot.

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The cooler days of winter have begun receding and warm sunny days show signs of renewed vigour in your orchids, heralding the beginning of spring. After a slowdown in winter, towards the end of winter, you will find your orchids putting out new growths. The growths may be vegetative such as new pseudobulbs, or leaves and roots. You will also notice bud spikes and sheaths filling out, making you excited with the prospect of a good bloom season for your orchids.

A drop in ambient temperature at night induces blooming in Phalaenopsis orchids

Phalenopsis orchids or the moth orchids that we generally have in our collection are complex hybrids. They have been genetically manipulated to produce beautiful blooms in abundance. These flower spikes are induced by a drop of 7-10 degrees from the ambient daytime temperature. This means that warm days and relatively cooler nights will induce blooming in these orchids.

However, blooming also depends on a host of other factors such as maturity of the plant, its genetic makeup, health, adequate fertilization and exposure to stress. Bright indirect light also plays an important role in inducing spikes in orchids.

Sympodial orchids such as Cattleya and Oncidiums bloom on mature pseudobulbs, thereby making it easy for us to recognise when they produce buds. On the other hand, monopodial orchids such as Phalaenopsis and Vanda orchids produce bud spikes on the axis of the plant. These type of orchids also produce new shoots as well as roots on the axis of the plant. Therefore, when the first nubbings appear, it’s a guessing game whether the new growth is a potential bud spike or a new root, or even a new shoot.

A spike (on left) and root  pushing out together. Notice the sheathed surface of the spike compared to the glossy plain surface of the root

While a bud spike elicits joy and excited anticipation, a root may not be welcomed with the same gusto. But I beg to differ. Roots are good news too. It actually indicates that the plant is making itself sturdy and strong at the base to withstand the weight of a long, bloom-laden flower spike. Only when your plant is fully secure will it push out a spike. So if you see the orchid pushing out roots, its’ only a matter of time before the right conditions will induce blooming in your orchid.

Spike versus root

Monopodial orchids put out new growths such as roots, shoots and spikes simultaneously. So how do you differentiate between a spike and a new growth (keiki) or a root? Well, there are a few simple ways you can predict whether the new growth is a spike or a root

  • Position of new growth
Spikes develop at the axil of the leaf, while roots emerge radially around the stem

Roots, apart from absorbing nutrients, provide the plant with proper support. To ensure this, roots develop radially from all sides of the stem, which then provide adequate support and strengthen the plant for a top heavy inflorescence.

Spikes, on the other hand, grow only from an axial bud. This is exactly the spot where the axis of the leaf begins on a monopodial orchid. Also to be noted is the fact that spikes generally appear at the axil of the third leaf from the top or crown. But they may also emerge further down if the ode has not bloomed earlier.

However, the confusion begins when roots begin emerging from the axial area of the leaf. Then you need to wait until a defined form of the new growth begins.

When the axis of the plant is inclined, the spikes do not emerge at the axil, but will emerge vertically upwards, away from the axil and towards the direction of light

Occasionally, when the plant is not growing upright, and is slanted and growing in the direction of light, the bud spikes may not emerge from the axil of the leaf, but will shift slightly away from the axil of the leaf. This is seen due to phototrophic movement of the spike. It takes the shortest vertically upward route and emerges away from the axil of the leaf in the direction of light. This can sometimes be confusing to a new grower. However, in such a case, the shape of the new growth will help confirm whether it is a bud spike, new growth or a root.

  • Direction of new growth
Spikes grow upwards towards the direction of light as opposed to roots, which grow downwards towards the medium or away from the direction of light

One way to identify a root that has developed in the axis of a leaf is to check its direction of growth. If it’s growing away from the direction of light, or is pointing towards the medium, which provides moisture, then it’s confirmed that the new growth is a root.

In contrast, a spike will emerge from the axial bud, and will begin growing upwards in the direction of light.

  • Shape and colour of the new growth
Roots are rounded and have a glossy sheen, while pikes have a darker shade of green or burnished colour

As the new growth emerges, you can easily compare with other root tips to gauge whether the growth is a root. Spikes are usually a darker shade of green than the bright green or brown coloured root tips. Root tips are also shiny, pointed, rounded and slightly translucent when compared with spikes, which point upwards, are leaf green and opaque, with a prominent flat and mitten shaped projection. This differentiation in the tissue is markedly different from that of a root, which is rounded, glossy and has a silvery sheen.

Very often, spikes may have a burnished purple/brown tinge or may be burgundy coloured based on the colour of the flowers. So this can also help in identification of flower spikes. Roots also have brown or burnished tips. But this can be verified by comparing the new growth with pre-existing root tips.

Identifying a keiki or new basal growth

Keikis or new basal shoots or new growths also develop on the axis of the plant. These growths look similar to a spike since they are sheathed, but they do differentiate into leaf shaped structures at the tip early on.

A basal keiki developing on the Phalaenopsis schilleriana

These tips will help you identify flower spikes early on. You can accordingly take special care of the orchid for a good bloom season. To learn more on how to take care of Phalaenopsis orchid spikes, you can read my post Care tips for Phalaenopsis orchid spikes.

To know more about preparing your orchids ready for blooming, you can read my post on 6 Tips to get your orchids ready for the bloom season.

Until my next, happy growing and have a great bloom season!

7 Reasons why orchids can help you beat stress

We are going through some of the toughest times, where everyone has been affected by COVID-19 in some way or the other. The morale is generally low, with prolonged lock downs taking their toll on adults and children alike. Keeping yourself upbeat and optimistic are the need of the hour. Activities such as indoor gardening, orchid growing and terrariums will add renewed purpose to your day. Bonus: Your joy will multiply when your orchids bloom.

Read on to understand how growing orchids or any other plants can help you beat stress.

Tending to my orchids after my work day, watering them, tidying them up, or inspecting the newest growths and bud spikes, I can feel the calmness and freshness seeping into me and I ponder, who needs to meditate to beat stress? This ‘me-time’ leaves me elated, refreshed, focused and active. I always ask myself, ‘Why do my orchids make me happy?’

While stress has become an inevitable part of our lives, something that cannot be wished away, it needs to be dealt with on an every day basis to come out unscathed by it. Depression, anxiety, anger, irritability, restlessness, feeling overwhelmed, demotivated, lack of focus, trouble sleeping, worrying and indecisiveness—all leave us feeling we should do something to relieve it, but are unable to figure out a solution.

To find the answer to my above question, I did some research and came up with some interesting information.

Agnes E. Van Den BergMariëtte H.G. Custers conducted a study on a group of 30 people, who were given a stressful task and were then asked to do 30 minutes of gardening or 30 minutes of reading. It was observed that both activities led to a decrease in cortisol levels, but the decrease was significantly greater in the group that took up gardening, which restored a positive mood. The same group, when asked to take up reading after completing 30 minutes of gardening, found a further deterioration in their positive mood.

No wonder then that we seek nature to relieve us of our stress. The woods beckon us every time we need a time-out from the rigours of modern life.

My window sill comes alive with greenery and pretty blooms

Imagine walking through a vast expanse of green canopied woods, with the crunch of dried twigs and leaves under your feet and patches of moss and fern covered rocks lining your path, camouflaging nooks and crannies. And in such picturesque surroundings, you chance upon a clump of beautiful orchids bowing down from low hanging branches and rocks. It would simply take your breath away!

What if I could tell you that you could create the same magic right in your living room?

All you need to create this aura is a few orchid plants and the knowhow about their culture and care.

As an avid gardener, I have found that orchids relieve stress like none other. They are beautiful and intriguing, and have the mysterious power of drawing you to their beauty. They can contribute to your overall wellness by evoking positive feelings of joy, enthusiasm, and tranquillity.

Growing orchids, as a hobby, can be extremely satisfying. While they need dedicated care and bloom once or twice a year, it is the journey that leads to the blooms that can contribute to your wellness.

You will very soon realise that the joy lies in the anticipation of the blooms—watching the plants grow, nurturing them and waiting for the first buds or spikes to appear. The joy lies in the excitement of discovering a new growth that has the potential to bloom, and watching it reach maturity. The joy lies in guessing whether a new growth is just another new root tip or whether it is a flower spike. There is also the element of delight, when you suddenly discover a flower spike when you are watering your plants. And last, but not the least, the unmatched excitement of unboxing your online purchase of orchids. The list could go on…

However, there is more to orchids than making you happy and stress-free. It opens up a plethora of opportunities and advantages that would contribute to your overall well-being. Listed below are a few reasons why taking up this hobby would irrevocably change your life by helping you:

Become active

Greenery within your home makes you feel good

Caring for orchids means being on your feet, watering and fertilizing them and ensuring they are in peak condition. You can also experiment on mounting your orchids on wood bark or growing them on rocks and in terrariums.  All of this physical activity releases endorphins or the feel good hormones. Being active also helps us exercise our limbs and improves our agility, thereby significantly reducing the onset of lifestyle diseases like blood pressure, diabetes and heart ailments.

Cruise control your life

Taking up this quiet activity will help you organise your life better. You will start planning your schedule and completing your chores faster and more efficiently just to make sure you get to spend time with your collection of orchids. This relaxing hobby also helps you plan your schedule and ponder on decisions to be taken. It helps you gain clarity on prioritising things that are important and prevent you from fretting over minor issues, thus reducing your stress significantly. It diverts you from  negativity and helps you remain unfazed by toxic behaviour of people around you.

Connect with people

Making connections with people has become more important to us than ever before. With our busy lifestyles, connecting with like-minded people can be a challenge, but not anymore. Joining hobby enthusiast groups either locally, where you can meet and learn about orchids within your city, or becoming a member of online communities on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or Reddit, which provides a platform for discussion, posting images of your blooms or getting advice on caring for your orchids from experts, will help you become more social and build lasting friendships.

Set aside some ‘Me-time’

Taking some time off from your busy morning schedule to have a cup of steaming coffee and browsing through your collection of orchids and other plants can be the most relaxing way to start your day. The same goes for spending some quiet, undisturbed ‘me-time’ in the evenings after a hectic work day. This calming activity  will leave you synergised and bring out the best in yourself.

Bring nature indoors with your orchids

Challenge yourself

The positive energy you derive from growing orchids can lend direction to your life. Small little issues that you resolve every day for your orchids will prepare you to take control of your life and put it back on the right track. You can get rid of passive habits and lethargy and become proactive in every walk of life.

Take a break from work and enjoy your coffee watching your plants

The biggest bane of our times is that we spend too much time with our laptops and smartphones. Making a conscious effort to wean away from gadgets and get engaged in activity that leaves you active and refreshed, could help you become more relaxed, healthy and positive.

This could enable you change any unhealthy habits that you have been trying hard to get rid of and help you become the best version of yourself. By doing this, you can set new goals that could be life-changing, and work towards achieving them.

Work smarter, not harder

Organise your care routine to make this hobby enjoyable

This is my favourite one. While working hard is a good thing, working efficiently to achieve the same results with lesser effort is a definitive life skill that will stand you in good stead in the long run. I have learnt this by working smarter to look after my orchids and this attribute has spilled into other areas of my life, making me wonder, why I hadn’t been doing it all along.

For instance, if you want to avoid remembering each orchid’s watering needs and going crazy over their watering schedules, a smarter way to resolve this issue and reduce the tediousness of the job, would be by adjusting the moisture retentive characteristic of the growth medium. This helps in synchronising your watering schedule to a great extent. Another way out could be by grouping your orchids as per their watering needs. You could segregate them into weekly and bi-weekly watering schedule. Gradually, this aspect begins influencing other areas of your life, bringing in more organized efficiency on a daily basis. Get the picture?

Develop a positive outlook

Orchids help you develop a positive attitude, hope and loads of patience. They grow slowly, flower every year and outlive humans. Such is their resilience that sometimes the sickest plants, with no shred of hope, suddenly spring back to life by sending out a ‘keiki’ or a new plant shoot. So this ‘never-give-up’ attitude can help us build hope in the bleakest of situations and give us the grit and determination to keep us going.

Orchids can be resilient

I remember breaking a tender, newly developed flower spike accidentally during my over-enthusiastic photography. To my surprise, it sent out a new spike after a few days (to appease my anguish!).

With all these obvious advantages, the number of orchid enthusiasts is growing by leaps and bounds. You just need to explore orchid groups on Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit and Instagram to know about the hobby’s rising popularity.

As a beginner, you can get a headstart by reading up on growing orchids and understanding their culture requirements. You need to keep in mind that orchids have specific care requirements that will help them grow and bloom well. To know more about orchid care and culture, read my post on Beginner’s guide to growing orchids.

Subscribe to my blog for more information and useful tips on nurturing orchids that will reward you with the most exquisite blooms.


Orchids and Wellness

Orchids bring joy like none other. They are beautiful and intriguing, and have the mysterious power of drawing you to their beauty. They are stress busters and can contribute to your overall wellness by evoking positive feelings of joy, enthusiasm and tranquility.

No wonder then, that the woods beckon us every time we need a break from the rigours of modern life. Imagine yourself walking through a vast expanse of green canopied woods, with the crunch of gravel underneath your feet and pockets of moss and fern covered rocks lining your path, camouflaging nooks and crannies. And in such picturesque surroundings, you chance upon a clump of beautiful orchids growing on tree trunks, branches and rocks. It would simply take your breath away!

What if I could tell you that you could create the same magic right in your living room? That would definitely be a dream come true for the nature lover in you! All you need to create this aura is a few orchid plants and the knowhow about their culture and care.

As a first-timer, you may have been gifted an orchid plant, or picked one in a garden centre, or decided to add one to your house plant collection. To begin with, you need to know that orchids need special growing conditions such as moderately warm temperatures, humidity and coarse media that provides adequate aeration to the roots.

If you are a gardening buff, orchid growing can be a breeze. They are just like ordinary plants, and in nature, grow attached to substrates like tree bark, rocks and other surfaces, which is why they are classified as epiphytes.

As a hobby, orchid growing can be extremely satisfying. While they need dedicated care and bloom, once or twice a year, it is the journey that leads to this blooming that can contribute to your wellness.

Kagawara Sandy Gold

You will very soon realise that the joy lies in the anticipation of the blooms, watching the plants grow, nurturing them and waiting for the first buds or spikes to appear. The joy lies in the excitement of discovering a new growth that has the potential to bloom, and watching it reach maturity. The joy lies in guessing whether a new growth is just another new root tip or whether it is a flower spike. There is also the element of delight, when you suddenly discover a flower spike when you are watering your plants. And last, but not the least, the unmatched excitement of unboxing your online purchase of orchids. The list could go on…

Of course, be warned, once you get orchid fever, you do not ever get cured!

As a beginner, you can get a headstart by reading up on growing orchids and understanding their culture requirements. Orchids have specific care requirements that will help them grow and bloom well.

Watch this space for more information and useful tips on nurturing orchids that will reward you with the most exquisite blooms.