By Sumana Roy
These trees have no names/whatever we call them,” writes WS Merwin in his poem Looking Up In The Garden. The rhododendron owes its baptism to the Greek for rose (“rhodon”); “dendron” is, of course, “tree”. And yet, a rose by any other name … isn’t a rose. Having lived close to the Himalayas, home to the largest variety of rhododendrons, all my life, this is one flower that characterises the mountains to me like no other. Fascinating personal anecdotes about it from tourists and travellers have only made me curious about the origin of such love. Botanical lore and history tell us about the 19th century fascination for this “oriental” flower, now revealed to us in the notes left behind by botanical explorers. After the coloniser, it was the bureaucracy that helped with the canonisation — rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal; the Rhododendron Festival is one of Sikkim’s most celebrated tourism festivals.
Andrew Leith Adams, writing about the rhododendrons in his book Wanderings of a Naturalist in India, c. 1849, describes the epiphany of the sight of the trees on the “mighty mountains”: “I can never forget the magnificent panorama which burst on my view… one afternoon … Every valley has its little stream, whose banks are covered with shrubs and trees, sometimes so dense as to be impermeable, thus contrasting with the higher elevations, where we find the rhododendron and forest trees in all their magnificence and beauty”.
The difference between an outsider and a “local” is often in the way a person behaves with rhododendrons. Not only is one aware of its seasons of sleep and waking, its flowering and fruition, its good moods and moments of withdrawal, a local is like a spouse who is aware of the nightlife of the flower. The lover only cares for the overwhelming abundance of its beauty, its colours, commonly red and white, but also pink and purple, and even orange and yellow. So a tourist, like a prospective pollinator, will be seduced to admire the colours of the tree’s sexual energy. The local will bite and chew the arrogance of the flowers. Partho, a character in Sampurna Chattarji’s novel Rupture, misses the taste of rhododendrons of his childhood life in Darjeeling: “Fat slices of bread, butter so cold we ate it in chunks, tea so hot we skinned our tongues… Eat the stem of this tender green shoot, suck the juice from the rhododendron flower. … Here is treasure, immeasurable”. This is an insider’s knowledge – eating flowers comes only to those who have lived with them. So, on an excursion to Darjeeling with friends from Calcutta, a colleague who grew up in the alluvial plains was found explaining it thus: “You have to suck the juice of the rhododendron like you once sucked it from the butt of the hibiscus.”
There are many fancy stories about eating rhododendrons. One of my favourites is from the plant collector and explorer Frank Kingdon Ward’s In the Land of the Blue Poppies. In the chapter titled ‘Mealtime’, Kingdon Ward tells us about the monotonous diet on his treks, how a Tibetan cook, failing to read instructions on the can, turned a mincemeat pie into a pie with sardines. The zoologist, John David Gatborne-Hardy, fourth earl of Cranbrook, who had accompanied Kingdon Ward on one such expedition, had managed to obtain a supply of fresh honey. The delicious description and deduction that follow must be reproduced verbatim: “No sooner had he eaten some — and doubtless he was immoderate — than he too felt ill, and retired to bed. The symptoms might be described as those of acute alcoholic poisoning. Proud of my supposed immunity, for I had suffered the same vapours in previous years, I continued to eat popcorn impregnated with wild honey. But after a day or two, feeling listless, I began to fear chronic poisoning myself and gave up honey. Everyone remembers the classical example of the Greeks under Xenophon, poisoned with pontine honey on their return march from Persia. It is obvious that Rhododendron ponticum is not the only species which yields toxic honey. Whether or not all rhododendron honey is poisonous is an unsolved problem. But since the hill tribes and Tibetans eat wild honey whenever they can get it without any serious harm resulting, it would appear that they are immune from its effects. I cannot help wondering if, with the increasing cultivating of rhododendrons in the south and west of England, most of which flower between May and June, there may not presently be cases of honey poisoning in this country. That would be something for the Press”.
A hundred years later, fruit and flower wines and juices are now made out of the rhododendron. But my favourite is still the rhododendron chutney. A handful of flowers, about five or six fresh red rhododendrons, crushed into a paste with a clove of garlic, a tomato, and its sweet-sour balance refined by the addition of pomegranate juice or molasses and mango powder, depending on individual preference. The sight of the red paste, not fiery but almost erotic, brings a flood of greedy saliva to the mouth.
There is an amusing folktale about the rhododendron proposing marriage to the alder tree in winter and being rebuffed for its ugliness. But when spring arrived with new clothes for the rhododendron, the alder changed his mind. The rhododendron, wounded from the insult about its ugliness, reminded the alder of his words. The alder was so embarrassed that it jumped off the cliff. And so, the Nepali folktale reminds us, the rhododendron grows at the top of mountains and the alder on the face of cliffs.
But the real reason I go to the rhododendron every time I am in the Himalayas is because it allows me to live a life which is all pavement. Everyone walks in that world, even flowers.
Sumana Roy is a poet who lives in Siliguri
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