Rhododendrons, the first among flowers in the wild to signal a shift to spring as the chill thaws, have arrived three weeks ahead of schedule in Himachal Pradesh, causing concern among environmentalists.
“Early flowering in the rhododendron is usually the result of less snow and it has an adverse impact on the seed setting,” says Himachal Pradesh’s principal chief conservator of forests, Savita. “We will study this phenomenon. I had noticed a similar trend in 2016 when I was posted at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. The rhododendrons in and around the hill station of Mussoorie had bloomed as early as January and villagers considered it ominous.”
Though the blooming of the Flame of the Forest, as the state flower of Himachal Pradesh is also known as, is celebrated as it indicates the end of a harsh winter, this year the flowering has been erratic and premature. It’s folklore in the hills that the early blooming affects the crop cycle.
Warmer winter, sunny spring leads to early blooming
Rhododendron arboreum needs a temperature of 15-20 degrees Celsius to bloom. It is the average temperature in April in the middle and higher reaches of the Himalayas. “But the winter months this time recorded higher temperatures, leading to the early flowering. There was a lot of sun in March,” says Manmohan Singh, the director of the regional meteorological office in Shimla.
This year, the state received 80% deficient rainfall in February and 62% in March, he says.
“The changing phenomenon in the flowering pattern of the rhododendron requires deeper study. The sudden spurt of warmth is a concern. The changing flowering pattern can threaten the existence of these beautiful trees,” says Himachal-based author and historian Raja Bhasin.
Changing pattern, shifting of baseline concern scientists
Himachal Pradesh is home to two main varieties of the flower: The pink (rhododendron cinnamomeum) and red (rhododendron arboreum). The red flowers grow in the wild at an altitude of 6,000 ft to 8,000 ft, while the pink variety is found in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, ranging from 8,000 ft to 11,000 ft.
Besides the changing flowering pattern, scientists are concerned about the shifting of the baseline of the rhododendron. “Rhododendron is getting rare and shifting its altitude. The variation in the rainfall pattern and the rise in temperature is the cause. This is the time to conserve and save this rare, beautiful flower,” says Suresh Attri, the principal scientific officer in the state government’s department of science, technology and environment.
Experts working on climate change in the region have shared the concern. “The pink variety is not visible in the lower altitudes anymore and the red can be found in Kullu through the Prasher valley route. It’s time to organise conservation efforts and sensitise the local population so that there is awareness to protect this flower,” says Monica Sharma, a research scholar.
Medicinal value of rhododendron
The flower, which has medicinal value, grows in the wild in neighbouring Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir, too. Locally known as buras, the flowers help in heart ailments and controlling blood pressure. The flowers are also offered in the hill temples and used to make chutney with pomegranate seeds besides squashes.
To beautify their summer capital, the British had planted red rhododendrons in Jakhu, Tara Devi, Summer Hill, Chowra Maidan and Boileauganj and they continue to bloom bright and beautiful even today.