My new book has just arrived and is proving both much more informative and much more of a teaser for our trip than previous purchases. Portraits of Himalayan Flowers is just what it says – beautiful photos of plants from all over the Himalayas, one for each of the 108 beads of the Buddhist rosary.
It’s much less of a coffee table book than I’d feared though, with great notes on where and when the plants were photographed. Some plants look familiar enough, but others such as Tibetan rhubarb (Rheum nobile) have very alien-looking adaptations to help them survive in their hostile environment. A ‘tent’ of bracts around the huge flower spike helps protect it from UV damage in the rarefied atmosphere and produces a pocket of warmth, attractive to pollinators. When the bracts shrivel in autum the wind can disperse the buckwheat-like seeds.
Rheum nobile. Image from Scottish Rock and Garden Club
Plants of the genus Androsace use an alternative strategy to keep growing (meristematic) and reproductive parts of the plants warm, huddling together to forming a dense cushion of rosettes. They also, like many plants of high altitudes, have long hairs on the innermost leaves of the rosette which both diffract sunlight and trap warmth around the meristem.
Androsace globifera. Image from
Next year’s trip will be in June or July to see most of the region’s plants at their best but one important autumn-flowering species we’ll miss that way is Crocus sativus. Kashmir has been famous for its saffron, produced from the stigmas of this crocus, for many centuries.
Though saffron crocuses were probably first cultivated in Greece some 3500 years ago, the climate in Kashmir suits it perfectly and the high value of the spice, which must be harvested by hand during its short flowering season, makes it an important constituent of the economy here. More than 50 000 crocus flowers, occupying an area the size of a football pitch, are needed to yield half a kilo or so of dried spice.
Saffron stigmas, known as threads, are used as a flavouring and colour in foodstuffs, particularly rice and sweet, milky desserts, but saffron is also used traditionally to dye the robes of both Nepalese royalty and Buddhist monks. It sells for as much as 1000 US dollars for a half kilo making it, arguably, the most expensive spice in the world. Fortunately, only tiny amounts are needed to give its distinctive colour and taste.
What is less well known is that, in the Middle Ages, parts of Southern England were well known for their saffron production. It makes sense, when you think of place names like Saffron Walden! It is now being produced again commercially, albeit on a relatively small scale, in parts of Norfolk, Essex and North Wales. In light of this, I thought it was time to see whether it would grow in my County Durham allotment so I was delighted to find the bulbs for sale in my local garden centre. If I plant them now I might just get a harvest this year!