Flower Surprises in Bhutan

Bhutan Rhododendron
Bhutan Rhododendron

Vancouver this spring was flowered with rhododendrons. I know, rhododendrons are such show-offs, covering and smothering themselves with flowers like a woman wearing pearls and perfume to a campfire picnic. Not my favourite flower. But they reminded me of our trip last spring to Bhutan, a country renowned for its numerous varieties of rhodos and hundreds of different kinds of orchids—two species we hoped to see in the wild.

We arrived too early and Bhutan’s spring arrived too late for us to see all but a few Rhododendron arboreum on hiking trails. Unlike the rhodo shrubs in Vancouver, these are tall trees with a 25 cm trunk and usually display lots of bright red flowers. Surprisingly, they were not clustered with crimson blooms; perhaps the rhodos we saw in Bhutan were following the Buddhist path of moderation.

Orchids—what I really wanted to see in Bhutan was wild orchids. They grow abundantly in the subtropical area of southern Bhutan where we couldn’t go. “I am sorry to say that with the treacherous condition of the road, we cannot take you to Zhemgang,” we were informed by Wind Horse Tours when planning our trip. Looking at photos of the precipitous road to Zhemgang, we guessed that even John Laroche, the famous orchid thief, wouldn’t risk the trip.

However, wild orchids flower in many other locations throughout Bhutan. Like the Tashithang Valley, a destination that’s often on specialized orchid tours and not far from Punakha where we were going. On a rutted and narrow road, the slow pace we were forced to travel to Tashithang enabled Namgyel, Magellan and me to peer through the SUV windows into the dense forest in search of orchids. “Enough,” I said after two hours of head turning, “let’s turn back.” Minutes later, Namgyel spotted this beautiful orchid.

Wild orchid photo in Tashithang Valley by Namgyel

While rhodos and orchids remained elusive to us, down every road and up every trail were flowers we didn’t expect to see. An ancient peach tree’s delicate pink blossoms graced the entrance to Amankora in Bumthang. Primula edgeworthii edged the trail to Lungchu Tsey Temple. Gentiana depressa hid in the community forest in the Phobjikha valley. And in Paro, thick pink magnolias complemented the architecture of Kyichu Lhakhang.

Then it happened. “Stop, stop,” I said to Tashi early one morning on a back road in Punakha town on our way to hike Shasila Pass. “Look at that beautiful tree. What is it?”

Tashi braked. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Namgyel. The tree was probably ten metres tall and covered with blossoms—striking five-petal blossoms, with four petals of pale pink contrasted by one petal of bright magenta.

Back in the car, Namgyel called one of his professors to see if he knew the name of this unusual tree. “We’ll come back tomorrow to get photos when the light is good and we have more time,” Namgyel promised.

By the end of the day, Namgyel had the answer. His science professor had made several calls that cascaded among Bhutan’s botanists and discovered the name of this unusual tree: Bauhinia variegata.

You’ll laugh when you hear its common name: The orchid tree.


Wind Horse Tours will customize your trip for temple viewing, mountain hiking, horseback riding, flower finding and much more.

6 Responses

  1. Dianne is back to drawing again and loves one of the flower pics.
    She will draw it and send you a copy.

    1. Apparently the flowers, buds and leaves are eaten like vegetables, the leaves also providing fodder for livestock. That fifth petal on what’s also called the poor man’s orchid certainly attracted our attention.

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