Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Tibet or not Tibet (sorry!)

It's a wet and windy late October day our there, not a great day to be a plant on a rooftop, unless perhaps your ancestors live high in the Himalayas - I know that when I was in the Tsari valley in Tibet 10 years ago I was wet and windswept for the whole three weeks, with only a tent and bag of clothes at varying degrees of sogginess to keep me warm.

There were about 12 of us, not including the "staff": our guides, drivers and Sherpas, without whom we'd literally have been lost, very hungry and probably arrested. We had one professional expert, a youthful Rhododendron experenthusiast from the RHS (the only member of the team anywhere near my age, mid 20s) and a lot of retired amateur botanists. I shared a tent with a 64-year-old solicitor from Edinburgh, who was nice enough although the air at that height was so thin we all snored like yaks. In fact, I woke up one morning with a frog in my throat - literally - he'd just  jumped in in the night, found a nice damp, warm hole, the only problem being I needed said hole to breath.

A general view of the sort of terrain we were in, although it was a bit more colourful

Looking back it was an amazing thing to do at such a young age: I just contacted my chum Ken Cox at the world-famous Glendoick Rhododendron nursery and asked if there were any expeditions in the offing and it gathered pace from there. He didn't come but Janet Cubey, the  RHS expert, was a more than ample replacement, despite her youth. I hadn't met any of them until I turned up at Heathrow laden with waterfroofs and reference books but we all got on pretty well.

The area was a very sensitive one due to its proximity to the border with India and I quickly lost count of the number of checkpoints we had to go through to even get to the valley. Before that there were two nights in Katmandu (hot, smelly, not the Shangri-La you might imagine) but even there there was plenty to see – huge swathes of Cannas growing in any boggy ground and along the Brahmaputra river, Cannabis  (probably indica with much lower levels of Tetrahydracannabinol, not sativa, I didn't test it!) in every ditch and a whole range of other unidentified gems.

Cannabis  growing EVERYWHERE

But it was once we got to Tibet (having flown directly over Everest) that things got really magical. The first night we camped in a field studded with tiny primulas, a bit like Primula scottica, and another we had to trample a meadow of the beautiful Primula sikkimensis to set up camp which sounds like a horrific act of vandalism but the fact is they were so prolific it was just like camping on buttercups in the UK. And I'm sure they've recovered now!

The very lovely Primula sikkimensis. Makes a great mattress!

I was running around like a hyperactive kid who'd forgotten his Ritalin, never having been in this environment before, scrambling up rock faces to get a closer look at some Rhododendron or Meconopsis argentea - not in cultivation (all of this thousands of miles from the nearest hospital, never mind one you'd want to be treated in!) 

The  unfairly named Meconopsis horridula (I think it refers to the spiky foliage)

It was quite remarkable to just go for a walk and spot a cypripedium, countless Rhododendrons, which formed the bulk of the tree cover, Primulas in crevices, a Meconopsis horridula growing deep inside a rose bush and Irises gionocarpa, chrysographes and clarkeii, Podophyllums and that was just finding somewhere quiet to answer the call of nature!

A Cypripedium

Iris Gionocarpa

We did find what Janet, the expert, thought was a new species of rhododendron but I don't know if that was ever confirmed. Obviously we couldn't just go around digging stuff up but we had permission to collect seed. I think that was the day the fitter amontg us decided to trek up to a glacier (fortuntely nobody suffered altitide sickness, I think because we ascended quite slowly, often on foot).  I have two abiding memories of that day: one was a cliffside covered in red and pink (the guide insisted on scrambling up to collect leaves and flowers) think it was camtschaticum, which was a real treat because the season was disappointingly late that year and there weren't as many Rhody's out as we'd hoped. The second was sitting on a convenient tuffet to each my lunch only to wonder why my posterior kept getting nipped. Turns out I was sitting on an anthill and the residents had taken umbrage and were injecting by bum with formic acid. Painful and salutary but not fatal.

Many times, soaking wet, freezing cold and completely cut off from the world, I just wanted to go home. And then we'd turn a corner and see vultures the height of humans tearing at some unfortunate yak and I'd realise just what a privilege it was to be in this completely untouched terrain. 

Janet sent me the plant list once we got back but it's on my work computer. Suffice it to say we saw every species of meconopsis except cambrica (which is a british native), countless Rhododendrons, many in flower and identifiable, many in bud and frustratingly hard to name, dozens of Primulas from genuine, crevice-loving alpines to luscious bog-loving monsters, Pitcher Plants, several species of Orchid and many Roses and Irises, one of the latter in full flower and very similar to clarkeii but not.

Buddha's house

And I never want to see another monastery again. the first ten were quite interesting but by the time we got to the Potala I just wanted a bath and to buy some new, dry clothes! We stayed in what was then the best hotel in Lhasa and it had (brown) hot water for an hour a day. That was the best bath I HAVE EVER HAD!

Anyway, my cold frame is due to arrive today but I have to nip into Harley Street at lunchtime fora blood test and that is of course when they will try to deliver it. At least it's not perishable...

Happy gardeing, The Plantboy x

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