The Himalayan hills are awash with the rhododendron

By Sumana Roy

These trees have no names/whatever we call them,” writes WS Merwin in his poem Looking Up In The Garden. The rhododendron owes its baptism to the Greek for rose (“rhodon”); “dendron” is, of course, “tree”. And yet, a rose by any other name … isn’t a rose. Having lived close to the Himalayas, home to the largest variety of rhododendrons, all my life, this is one flower that characterises the mountains to me like no other. Fascinating personal anecdotes about it from tourists and travellers have only made me curious about the origin of such love. Botanical lore and history tell us about the 19th century fascination for this “oriental” flower, now revealed to us in the notes left behind by botanical explorers. After the coloniser, it was the bureaucracy that helped with the canonisation — rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal; the Rhododendron Festival is one of Sikkim’s most celebrated tourism festivals.

Andrew Leith Adams, writing about the rhododendrons in his book Wanderings of a Naturalist in India, c. 1849, describes the epiphany of the sight of the trees on the “mighty mountains”: “I can never forget the magnificent panorama which burst on my view… one afternoon … Every valley has its little stream, whose banks are covered with shrubs and trees, sometimes so dense as to be impermeable, thus contrasting with the higher elevations, where we find the rhododendron and forest trees in all their magnificence and beauty”.

The difference between an outsider and a “local” is often in the way a person behaves with rhododendrons. Not only is one aware of its seasons of sleep and waking, its flowering and fruition, its good moods and moments of withdrawal, a local is like a spouse who is aware of the nightlife of the flower. The lover only cares for the overwhelming abundance of its beauty, its colours, commonly red and white, but also pink and purple, and even orange and yellow. So a tourist, like a prospective pollinator, will be seduced to admire the colours of the tree’s sexual energy. The local will bite and chew the arrogance of the flowers. Partho, a character in Sampurna Chattarji’s novel Rupture, misses the taste of rhododendrons of his childhood life in Darjeeling: “Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues… Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. … Here is treasure, immeasurable”.

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