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Exploring Bhutan with the AGS

After completing a undergraduate degree in Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the University of Glasgow, Alan Elliott was awarded a Merlin Trust funded place on an Alpine Garden Society tour to Bhutan.

That was ten years ago. Today, Alan is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Biodiversity Conservation Network Manager, coordinating aspects of two global conservation projects: The World Flora Online and the Global Conservation Consortium for Rhododendron.

Here, he shares a day-by-day account of his experience in Bhutan to give travel grant applicants an insight into what they can expect on an AGS tour and the opportunities it can provide.

22 June 2019

Ten years ago, I landed in Bhutan after being awarded a joint Merlin Trust and Alpine Garden Society placement on an AGS tour of west Bhutan. These are some of the highlights from my experience.

23 June 2009

We spent our first full day in Bhutan, as many visitors do, walking through the forest to the Taktsang Monastery which sits 3,120m above sea level and 900m above the valley floor. Roscoea bhutanica white and purple forms, Spiranthes sinensis and Gentiana cf. bryoides were some of the highlights from the well-trodden path to the monastery.

It wasn’t just the bonnie flowers that caught my eye. Earth stars, huge plants of parasitic Taxillus kaempferi on the Pinus wallichiana and Pinus roxburghii and the forest was festooned with Usnea longissima.

24 June 2009

On our second full day in Bhutan, we drove up to the Chele La at 3,810m – the highest drivable pass in Bhutan. I had got up to watch the sunrise in the Paro valley where we were staying and have a walk. Rice planting was in full swing.

We drove up through the Abies forest stopping frequently to view whatever caught out eyes as we drove up the road between the Paro and Haa valleys. The forest was lush full of recognisable cultivated plants like Iris clarkei and Primula sikkimensis.

It was my first proper day of geeking out over species I’d never encountered before. Like Megacodon stylophorus and Pyrola sikkimensis. It was also my first encounter with Meconopsis in the field: the forest-dwelling M. paniculata. We were all issued with an umbrella which is the only way to take pictures during the Himalayan monsoon!

The Chele La was (and hopefully still is) an astonishing place to do roadside botany. Within minutes of getting out there was Androsace strigillosa, Gueldenstaedtia himalaica, Primula obliqua and a well trampled Rhododendron lepidotum.

A ten-minute walk along (or an hour at botanical speed) was a limestone outcrop with, as expected, totally different flora. A racemose Meconopsis horridula, Anemone rupicola, Arenaria polytrichoides and Lamiophlomis rotata.

One thing I wanted to do (and did) was record the health of the Meconopsis populations as we found them. Recording the number of plants by age class in a 10 m2 plot. There was a diverse population of Meconopsis simplicifolia on the Chele La.

Haa was closed to tourists so we went as far as we could to get a view of the valley and the Sikkim border beyond. I remember sitting feeling tired and counting plants while almost everyone stayed on the bus waiting for me to finish before heading back.

25 June 2009

We started our trek up the Paro Chu toward Chomlohari and the Tso Phu. In 2009, the road head was at the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong (2,473m) and we walked to the Sharma Zampa to camp but the road now extends beyond there.

Arisaema is a favourite genus of mine and I was seeing A. jacqeumontii and A. flavum for the first time outside of cultivation. But the plant of the day was the solitary Cardiocrinum giganteum, right behind the camp at Shana.

26 June 2009

We carried on up the Paro Chu to Thongdu Zampa (3,300m). The forest became denser and we met some locals fixing washed out bridges.

It’s weird recognising garden plants like Hydrangea heteromalla, Buddleja colvilei, Arisaema griffithii out of context even though they are at home here in the forest.

27 June 2009

We headed further north along the Paro Chu towards Gezapang (3,785m). We walked for a long time through the atmospheric Abies densa forest.

We saw Acanthocalyx nepalensis (unconfirmed), Cypripedium tibeticum, Rhododendron setosum, Thermopsis barbata and Lilium nanum f. flavidum. I outpaced the group and spent half an hour at a Royal Bhutan Army checkpoint. I chatted to a Captain who was shocked that despite being Scottish I hadn’t played a round at the Old Course!

28 June 2009

We headed to Chomolhari basecamp north of Jangothang. We moved on from the forest and into sub-alpine pasture. The diversity of herbs skyrocketed as we got up to 4,100m. Here we saw Onosma hookeri and Primula tibetica.

It was also our first sight of endemic Meconopsis primulina and Primula tenella (or as it was known Primula rebeccae).

29 June 2009

The whole AGS trip to Bhutan was one of the best experiences of my life so far and within that, this day was a particular highlight. We headed west to spend an atmospheric day in the Chomolhari valley (highest point 4,578m) and on glacial moraines where we saw Anemone rupicola.

The plant of the day was growing in the stabilised boulder field on the lateral moraines: Meconopsis bhutanica, a critically endangered Bhutanese endemic (although it was still called Meconopsis discigera in 2009). Other plant highlights were a purple Meconopsis primulina, more Meconopsis simplicifolia, Primula calderiana and Primula alpicola.

30 June 2009

I was up early to record another population of Meconopsis paniculata and explore the ruins of the small fort.

We then headed up towards Tso Phu (high point 4,625m) to gain altitude before returning to the lower camp in preparation for sleeping higher the following night. We passed yak herders in their summer pasture. Meconopsis horridula in the screes were fabulously blue.

1 July 2009

We headed to Nylie La Shong to camp at 4,735m (15,500+ ft). Some plant highlights were clumps of Podophyllum hexandrum, Primula bellidifolia tucked between rocks, beautiful Androsace tapete and Primula primulina in the peat. We also saw Swertia multicaulis, Rhodiola bupleuroides and Cremanthodium thomsonii.

There were hundreds of majestic Rheum nobile in various states of flowering in the Nylie La Shong at 4,735m. And, of course, more Meconopsis simplicifolia subsp. grandiflora.

2 July 2009

Today, we botanised on the corrie of the Nylie La Shong. It always pays to be up early for the views because the monsoon cloud comes later in the day.

Despite appearances, the corrie’s ground flora was rich. Beautiful little Primula sapphirina, big, bold Primula macrophylla, Spongiocarpella purpurea and Primula waddellii.

Peter Steiger and I headed to the pass and then up the ridge to the nearest summit reaching a dizzying and headache-inducing 5,100m (16,700 ft). There was flora even up there, including Cortiella sp .and Fritillaria delavayi.

3 July 2009

We retraced our steps heading down from Nyile La Shong, past Tso Phu to the Bonte La Shong. I spent the day high on the screes at 4,700m with Tim Lever from Aberconwy Nursery. Two amazing alpines from those screes were Saussurea tridactyla and Androsace delavayi.

I also saw Meconopsis bella for the first time. This wee Meconopsis species grew out of clumps of moss on near-vertical limestone outcrops. It flowered for the first time in cultivation at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1906 and has never persisted long in gardens.

4 July 2009

It was an early start to catch a glimpse of Jichu Drake beyond Tso Phu. We spent the day botanising on the corrie of the Bonte La Shong. One of the highlights was this Primula macrocarpa, which we identified in the evening using the full Flora of Bhutan we’d taken with us.

We came across more beautiful Meconopsis bella near camp – this time growing in short alpine turf, but again on a limestone outcrop. Although the plant of the day was easily Chionocharis hookeri, in the Boraginaceae family, growing on the ridge above the corrie at 4,990m.

5 July 2009

We left camp in the rain and crossed the Bonte La (4,885m) in the wind-driven rain. Once on the other side of the pass, heading to Yaksa, the weather broke and the sun came out.

We spent too long sunning ourselves in a Primula sikkimensis meadow. There were some impressive gnarly old Juniperus. As well as the almost-weedy Primula sikkimensis was a personal favourite, Primula munroi. An absolute gem was Fritillaria cirrhosa.

It was a good day for Meconopsis. We’d seen M. bhutanica, M. horridula and M. bella up near the pass. In the meadow, we found this dainty species; Meconopsis polygonoides, as well as more Meconopsis primulina.

Finally, here’s just some sense of the abundance of Primula and a Bhutanthera himalayana (unconfirmed).

6 July 2009

The camp at Yaksa was at a local shrine to a sleeping dog that had turned to stone. We had dropped enough altitude, to 3,900m, so were in and out of the RhododendronBetula forest in places. On the edge were more Meconopsis primulina, including abnormally small thumbnail sized flowers on some. When we climbed back out of the forest at one point, the sun was shining providing the perfect opportunity for a group photo.

We were in Bhutan too late to see the bulk of the Rhododendron flowering, except for the dwarf alpine species so it was nice to see this one. As a bonus, growing through it for protection was Meconopsis simplicifolia subsp. grandiflora.

7 July 2009

This was our last day in the field at Thongbu to Shana, still at times above 4,000m. We enjoyed a beautiful ridge walk out from Thongbu.

There were still plenty of interesting plants to be seen. Geranium, Meconopsis, Anemone, Cremanthodium and Rhododendron. As always, there was a plant that won the day: Notholirion macrophyllum. This was the only day we (well I) saw it.

To celebrate our last night in the field with the trek crew, we had a bonfire and Black Mountain Whisky. The Bhutanese sang traditional songs, there was an amusing attempt at the hokey cokey & I “sang” Wild Geese by Violet Jacob.

8 July 2009

The final day was a short walk by comparison from Shana to the road head at Drukgyel and then we drove to Thimphu for a few days of culture. By the end of it we had walked nearly 120km, gained 7,800m in altitude and lost as much in descent.

Being in Bhutan was a privilege. The whole Merlin Trust/Alpine Garden Society tour experience was incredibly rewarding. Studying ‘garden’ plants in their native environment gives insights you wouldn’t otherwise get. As well as geeking out over plants with equally enthusiastic people.

The experience I gained helped secure funding for a PhD in 2012 with a fieldwork element working on the Flora of Nepal. I don’t think I would have got it without the Merlin grant. So, thank you to Merlin Trust and Alpine Garden Society.

If you are a young horticulturalist, definitely apply for these travel grants and awards, you never know what path it’ll set you on.


Photographs: Alan Elliott

Connect with Alan

Twitter: @alan_elliott

Instagram: @alan_c_elliott


Travel grants

The AGS offers a number of travel awards and grants each year. For more information and how to apply head to Grants & Funding.