The Eastern Himalayas have long been renowned for the wealth of their flora. Botanists the world over have traveled to this region to study them. Many of the most prized garden flowers in the West today, like several species of the rhododendron, clematis, lily, and poppy were bred from plants and seeds collected in the Eastern Himalayas by legendary plant hunters like Joseph Hooker, Kingdom Ward, George Taylor, and Ludlow. Today, Western and Central Bhutan are the best areas to see this region’s incredibly rich variety of alpine flora.
Soon after Losar, the Bhutanese New Year (in February / March), and the glories of Bhutan’s flora slowly begin to unfold. The landscape still has its winter starkness, but up at the Do Chula Pass (40 minutes drive from Thimphu), two varieties of Primula Denticulata emerge through the frost covered ground. The bold magenta and purple varieties of Primula Gracilipes adorn the steep banks of the road where snow has just begun to melt. These early flowers are like shy harbingers of the more spectacular blooms that will soon follow. For, by early March, the first rhododendrons begin to bloom.
The drive to Do Chula Pass at this time of the year has become an annual ritual for many Thimphu residents. As one arrives at the pass the air is heady with the scent of Daphne, a small shrub with fragrant white flowers, covering the slopes where a myriad of colorful prayer flags stand. The Daphne bark is used to make traditional Bhutanese paper, which has the rare characteristic of being termite proof and thus highly valued for writing religious scriptures. Little further on, vivid bursts of scarlet amidst the dense forest signal the first rhododendrons. Then, etched against the brilliant blue winter sky are the magnificent white blossoms of the Magnolia Campbelli adorning the tall, leafless trees. The magnolias and the rhodies will continue to flower for the next two months. The scarlet rhodies being succeeded by other varieties: deep and pale pink, lavender, white, yellow, and orange. Some 54 varieties of this magnificent species are found in Bhutan.
Meanwhile, around Thimphu other flowers are beginning to appear; the bright yellow blooms of Piptanthus with their silvery leaves, the Pieris Formosa with its red leaves and sprays of little white flowers, and the extremely rare wild cherry, Prunus Carmesina with its deep pink blossoms. In May, it is time to head for the Chelela Pass, a mere 40 kilometres from Paro. Cascades of the wild climbing rose, Rosa Brunonii, festoon the trees during the earlier part of the drive. As one drives deeper into the forest, the lovely pink bush rose, Rosa Macrophylla, has begun to flower, as has the Spiraea Bella with its dense pink flowerheads. One beautiful flowering tree to look for on this route in May is the Enkianthus Deflexus, with its clusters orange bell-like blossoms.