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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 November 2014 by Tim Ingram

Jewels in the Rain, with Tim Lever

'Jewels in the Rain'. Walking in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh - talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 14th November 2014.

Tim Lever's title for his talk was perfect for what is the wettest province of India with plants flowering through the monsoon season. Arunachal Pradesh is the eastern neighbour of Bhutan, northern to Assam, with an incredible altitudinal range from 100m in the south to - only some 100 miles further north - 7000m peaks separating the region from Tibet. His talk took us on an eighteen-day trek northwards into the mountains, and then south-westwards, staying at altitudes above 4000m, and at times reaching nearly 5000m. His co-travellers included Julia Corden from the Explorer's Garden, Pitlochry, in Scotland and Martin Walsh from Dublin in Ireland. The range of plants they saw was extraordinary and hugely varied and included 36 species of Primula and 9 of Meconopsis.

The impression that came across from Tim's talk is the amazing richness of the mountain flora, a consequence of the topography and monsoon climate and relative lack of disturbance. The same is true of many mountains the world over but here the terrain is geologically very young and dynamic, and the flora is concentrated over such a changing environment.

In the lower forests are plants such as Cardiocrinum giganteum, Buddleja colvilei, and Magnolia globosa. The shrubby Polygala arillata is an example of a species not known to gardeners that could well be worthy of introduction and cultivation. The perennials Pleione hookeriana, Streptopus simplex and Primula vaginata grow alongside the wet paths, along with tiny and insignificant plants such as Potentilla bryoides with small frilled blooms. A little higher and Tim showed pictures of the rare Diapensia wardii with pink stemmed flowers, Gaultheria trichophylla, striking for its blue berries, and large mats of Cassiope selaginoides.

The real jewels emerged as the trek went higher and above the tree line with too many plants to describe here but species varying from the minute Primula jigmediana - the whole plant in flower no bigger than a 50p coin - to Meconopsis paniculata in a surprising and very striking red form, as well as the typical yellow. Especially interesting were Tim's detailed observations of the microhabitats of particular plants, perhaps culminating in astonishing clumps of Paraquilegia anemonoides reaching to a metre across and always growing in limestone cliffs and crevices. How old are these likely to be?

The indigenous herbivore, the Yak, leaves much of the flowering vegetation alone, including a tall gentian relative, Swertia pseudo-hookeri, with cream and pink-striped flowers (nicknamed the rhubarb and custard plant). In form this closely resembles the strong gentians of the Alps, but is probably monocarpic.

In all I noted down some 90 different species, all of fascination in one way or another, and recalling the excitement of other plant hunters such as Kingdon Ward, Ludlow and Sherriff and Roy Lancaster in their descriptions of travelling in similar regions. To see Lilium nanum growing on hillsides in the hundreds of thousands and the extraordinary beauty of Primula soldanelloides with its crystalline white flowers and dark calyces, along with weird saussureas and 'bizarre' Cortiella hookeri, really wakes you up to a place few of us will ever have the opportunity to see, but others may be highly tempted to visit for themselves.

We are very grateful to Tim for making the long journey down to Kent from N. Wales and sharing his experiences with us so entertainingly and perceptively.




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