Sikkim has more than 5,000 flowering plants—around 30% of India’s flowering plant varieties can be found here. Of these, orchids probably take up the lion’s share. Here are the top ones, the best places to spot them (or even pick up a bulb or two).
Their extravagant forms, brilliant hues, and enticing scent have created a huge following worldwide on a level that can be often described as obsessive. The thrill of discovering new species touches even amateur orchidophiles. Some may move heaven and earth to see it flower in the wild landscape. And Sikkim is known for its wealth of orchids. Of approximately 1,200 orchid species in India, Sikkim is blessed with over 500.
You will find two categories here — epiphyte and terrestrial. The former are better known and belong to the genus Arachnanthe, Dendrobium, Cymbidium, Vanda, Phalaenopsis, Caelogyne, and Saccolabium. The Dendrobium nobile is the state flower.
Generally, the best time to see orchids in bloom is from March to May. Under natural conditions, orchids bloom right from January to May. But now that the state is growing orchids for commercial purposes, you can view them at several greenhouses. For instance, the Flower Show Centre in Gangtok organises a flower festival from mid-March till end-April where you can see a variety of orchids and even pick up orchid bulbs to take home. Springtime is ideal for orchid shows.
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Another opportunity to view Sikkim’s fabulous wealth of orchids is at the annual flower show in the town of Namchi, 78km from Gangtok. It is held in the month of February. You can also visit the Saramsa Garden Sanctuary located 14km from Gangtok and maintained by the forest department.
The state has at least 36 endemic species of rhododendron, which range from short, flowering shrubs to towering plants in a profusion of colours. Rhododendron niveum is the state tree of Sikkim.
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Rhododendrons flower from March in the lower regions. Their presence is considered a dependable indicator of forest health and ecological stability.
The Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary is a repository and the Shingba and Barsey (or Varsey) Rhododendron sanctuaries are also good for spotting these. It is best to visit between mid-April to around the end of May. Above Yumthang, rhododendrons bloom right up till June. The route to Dzongri, the Singalila trail and the Yumthang valley in north Sikkim are also covered with rhododendron shrubs and trees.
Primulas mainly occur in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, which are above 8,000ft. Areas like Tsomgo Lake, Memechu, Yumthang, Lachen, Chopta and Gurudongmar are full of primulas. Yumthang Valley is, in fact, known as the Valley of Flowers. Come here between March to April and you will see millions of them in bloom. The season extends till June, depending on the elevation they are growing in.
Sikkim is considered a biodiversity hotspot. Recurring altitudinal and climatic variations within short distances have resulted in rich species density and diversity - from sal forests in low-altitude valleys around Rangit, to fir and birch trees in temperate zones, and alpine tundra in the cold deserts of North Sikkim. You can see this diversity as you traverse the state, but if you want to observe this up-close and with time on your hands, head to any of the five sanctuaries or to the Khangchendzonga National Park. Do a day-long hike in Shingba, Barsey or Maenam, through forests full of blooming primulas, magnolias, blue poppies, gentians, orchids, azaleas, geraniums, rhododendrons, and more.
Before You Go, Read Up
Before travelling to Sikkim, you should consider picking up the richly illustrated book Rhododendrons of Sikkim by Joseph Dalton Hooker. Hooker was a noted English botanist and a friend of Charles Darwin who travelled extensively and recorded his studies of the flora of Sikkim in this 1849 book. The illustrations are by one of the most prolific botanical artists of that era, Walter Hood Fitch, whose work in the book is considered to be among the finest examples of botanical illustration. The book is an absolute must-carry for birdwatchers.
In Your Footsteps
When you are travelling through these areas, remember that these are fragile ecosystems. And many of the species—both plant and animal—are being impacted by our presence. As the state forest department says in a report, “uncontrolled tourism causes damage to vegetation and change in the behavioural pattern of wild animals in general.”
Recreational tourism within sanctuaries has increased, as have religious pilgrimages to various sites. Fumes from vehicles do a lot of damage, as does plastic, soft drink bottles or those packets of chips and snacks. So wherever you are, make sure not to leave litter behind. Do not make any noise. Leave behind a very gentle footstep.