August 2011: I stood at the edge of the precipice, spellbound. Before me lay a carpet of flowers, painting the landscape with their dazzling hues. I could probably tick off every hue on the colour palette. Delicate green fronds wound their way between purple, yellow and pink petals. The valley was bursting with life and I was thrilled to be there.
There is a certain peace and elation that fills the heart when one sees a cold desert bloom. I experienced that joy on my most recent trip to Ladakh. Mountainsides, usually shades of brown, were resplendent with flowers of various shapes and hues. It was July and one of the busiest tourist months in Ladakh. Leh town was bustling with tourists from different countries as well as a growing number of tourists from India. The narrow streets were a nightmare, having to accommodate pedestrians, parked vehicles and two-way traffic. It was good to get away from it all and to experience the quiet glory of the desert when its wild flowering plants burst into bloom.
I didn’t really think that the globe thistle Echinops cornigerus, the short and spinescent plant with a not so delicate-looking globular flower, would one day take my breath away. We were on the road between Kargil and Batalik at an altitude of over 9,000 feet (2,743 m.). We gladly left the dusty town of Kargil and started our ascent. Soon, the mountain sides were filled with globe thistle. Not just one or two but hundreds of them lined the road that we were on, and also graced the mountain slopes on either side! The leaves of this plant are used to treat jaundice. Ground into a paste, the leaves are also applied to septic wounds.
On the same drive, we came across wet patches bordering irrigation channels along fields filled with cranesbill, balsam and alfalfa. If these names don’t ring a bell, then imagine golden fields with ready-to-harvest barley, bordered with splashes of bluish purple of the cranesbill, bright yellow of the alfalfa and a bold pink of the balsam! The cranesbill Geranium pratense has its uses besides its aesthetic value. It is used by local people in Ladakh to treat headaches and diarrhoea. And alfalfa is an important fodder plant grown along the edges of fields.
A little higher up, we came across slopes covered with longze, the Ladakhi name for Acantholimon lycopodioides, a small round thorny shrub. The round shape is an adaptation that helps the plant to cope with strong winds that may occur at high altitudes. The flowers of the longze are pale pink and occur in clusters. This is an important fuel plant for the local people. I put out my hand to touch it and immediately retracted. The leaves are spiny, another common adaptation to the arid conditions of the cold desert.
On a trip to Nubra valley, we passed the famous Khardungla pass. At 18,300 feet (5,578 m.) it is believed to be the highest motorable road in the world. There were groups of Indian tourists who braved the rarefied atmosphere at this height and were dancing to a Bollywood number! They seemed ecstatic. But so were we, for very different reasons. We had just passed a diversity of flowering plants on our drive up to the pass.
At lower altitudes there was the caper bush Capparis spinosa, a wild food plant, favoured by urial, a species of wild sheep, and consumed as a vegetable by locals who, prior to cooking it, leave the caper leaves in flowing water for at least a day to remove the bitterness and render them edible. We passed mountain sides filled with Nepeta floccosa whose leaves are scented and used in Ladakhi dishes, and wild gram Cicer microphyllum, a delicate looking plant with purplish flowers. Locally known as seri, this plant is harvested in September at the end of the growing season, dried and then used as fodder for livestock in the winter months.
A COLOURFUL QUENCHER
Further up on a rocky mountain, we came across rose root Rhodiola imbricata with bright yellow flowers. We remembered drinking a delicious lassi that some villagers from Sastspoche village had made using the leaves of this plant! It was a hot day and we had been out in the sun helping the women’s group of the village set up a parachute tent they could use to sell tea and biscuits to trekkers. Nothing was more welcome than the rhodiola lassi to beat the searing heat of the day.
We drove past the occasional Aster flaccidus or wild aster, a stunningly beautiful plant and sometimes bushes of wild rose Rosa webbiana whose flowering was largely over for the year, but whose profusion I recalled from previous trips. An unforgettable experience while trekking in these areas is the fragrance of the wild rose that wafts up at you even before you behold its beauty!
On the Batalik route, we stopped a while at a height of over 10,000 feet (3,3048m.). I walked about and came across some small prickly plants with rather delicate pink flowers. I watched two small butterflies and one bee flit about from plant to plant. I glanced at the vast landscape around me… the vista of mountains stretched beyond endlessly. Not a soul was around. The words “Many a flower is born to blush unseen… and waste its sweetness on the desert air” resounded in my mind. “Not really!” I thought to myself as I watched the butterfly pair suddenly take flight!
Text and Photographs by Sujatha Padmanabhan, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 4, August 2011