Lying beneath the snowy ranges of Mt Kanchendzonga, with its climate ranging from subtropical to alpine, Sikkim is home to a large number of floral species unique to the Eastern Himalayas. With altitudes and climate changing over short distances, the diversity of plant species is also interesting - from sal forests on the banks of the rivers at low altitudes, such as Rangit, to fir and birch in the temperate zone to alpine tundra found in the cold deserts of north Sikkim.Did you know that 165 species of plants have been named after Sikkim? Sikkim is said to be home to 30 per cent of India’s flowering plant species. Over 5,000 varieties of flowering plants can be found here, with orchids comprising the largest group. Sikkim is home to about 500 varieties of orchids (both epiphytes and terrestrial) of the 1,200 species found in India. Some of the well-known orchids found here are Arachnanthe, Dendrobium, Cymbidium, Vanda, Phalaenopsis, Caelogyne, and Saccolabium.
One of the best times to visit Sikkim is when the rhododendrons bloom, usually in April-May. It (Rhododendron niveum Hook. f.) is also the state tree of Sikkim. During a good season, many varieties of rhododendrons can be seen covering the hillsides. Depending on the altitude, the plants may vary from trees to shrubs. According to the Bioinformatics Centre of Sikkim, in Sikkim there are 36 species from the State Tree to the tiny shrubby Sunpati at higher altitude with a large number of subspecies, varieties and forms.
Of the many varieties, the red rhododendron (Rhododendron arboretum) or the ‘laali guras’ is the most striking. During peak flowering season, they seem to set the countryside and forest aflame. Local people make a sweet wine with rhododendron flowers. Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in west Sikkim and Yumthang-Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary in north Sikkim are two of the best places to see the flowers in full bloom.
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The state flower of Sikkim, the Dendrobium nobile orchid usually grows on the trunks or branches of trees. The flowers are light to deep purple with a notable dark velvety centre. While most orchids in Sikkim bloom between January and May, you may see them growing in controlled conditions in greenhouses across the state.Apart from the wildlife reserves, you will find primulas and many other flowers in places such as Tsomgo Lake, Memechu, Yumthang, Lachen, Choptha and Gurudongmar. Usually flowering between March and April, they may extend to June at the higher reaches.
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One of the most widespread species of the Cycads, it is said to be the only fossil living tree of Sikkim. While the young fronds are known to be used as food, the plant is also said to possess medicinal properties.
From visiting the International Flower Festival near White Hall in Gangtok to flower exhibitions at the tourism festivals such as the Namchi Festival, from short to extensive treks through the Kanchendzonga National Park and the many sanctuaries to paying a visit to the valley of flowers beyond Lachung, are some of the ways to enjoy the diverse floral wealth of the state.
(Note: The flowering season is mostly dependent on the weather and may vary.)