Written By Vishü Rita Krocha
Among the 500 species of rhododendron he is planting, Dr Kelühol Tase takes special care of one. He puts in extra manure, he waters it regularly and tends to it more, in the hope that one day it will become the world’s tallest rhododendron, beating the record-making 108-ft-tall one he saw at Mount Japfü in Nagaland’s Kohima district as a 16-year-old.
Tase’s love for rhododendrons can be traced back to when, as a young boy, he would accompany his parents to the potato fields that lie along the path to Dzükou Valley, and witness along the way, a riot of colours.
While he went on to become a professor of Philosophy, today he is back to the beautiful flower that he grew up around.
Tase, with his two brothers — Medolekho and Sweyiekhüto — have become famous in Nagaland as the trio who has planted 500 rhododendron saplings of various species. For it, they travelled for months, scaling mountains, spending nights in jungles to retrieve the rare, wild species of rhododendron. Now saplings of the endangered state flower fill five acres of land.
Is the rhododendron dying?
Accorded the status of State Flower, rhododendrons abound in Nagaland. Or used to. There was a time when dwellers of Razeba area in Phek district were surrounded by the flower. In fact, Razeba, locally known as “Dupazhu” literally means “Land of Rhododendron”.
“Our ancestors named the land after the flower. Growing up in the village, we saw Dupazhu filled with rhododendron, a plant of exquisite beauty! It is sad that they are all gone now,” recalls Lesou, an inhabitant of Zhavame village, which is one of the surrounding four villages that form Razeba Range in Nagaland’s Phek district.
It was around the 1970s that the flowers started disappearing because of development, wildfire and human activities.
Dr. Tolto Metha, a plant enthusiast attributes the depletion of rhododendron to climate change. “Plants like rhododendron are very sensitive to changes in their environment. For their propagation, we need pollinators, we need bees, insects, birds, and these are reducing in number,” he says. On the flip side, the plants are also adapting and that why many people are growing rhododendron in their front yards.
Just like Dr Tase and his brothers are. Prior to the 500-acred Rhododendron Park they are building, Tase, as a teacher at Kros College, Kohima, had planted 20 rhododendron plants in the college compound.
“If we talk about rhododendron, what naturally comes to mind is the colour red but the species we have here is different from other states or countries. There is pink, white, yellow,” he says.
While the flower grows in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, according to a paper by Ashiho A. Mao, there are five species endemic to Nagaland alone.
Steps to conserve the rhododendron
In 2017, Rhododendron (Dupa) Committee was formed to revive the flower.
Out of the 500 saplings that the three brothers planted, Dr Kelühol Tase is positive that at least 20-30 of the plants will flower next year. “I know the soil and the weather is favourable but the fact that it is disappearing is undeniable and we need to put in efforts to conserve it”, he says. In the near future, he hopes to set up centres on rhododendron for research, as well as a modern nursery.
Another plant lover, Dr. Sao Tunyi, who runs a plant nursery in Kohima says, “Not just the flower, the bark is also quite beautiful. The leaves are thick and have a rugged look, which are quite attractive.”
Apart from that, the flowers of most species are extremely popular owing to their medicinal properties. They contain ursolic acid and quercitrin, which have anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, antimicrobial and anti-viral properties.
But there are other lesser-known benefits of the plant too. Traditionally, Nagas would boil the flower and drink the water to remove the occasional fish bones that might get caught in the throat.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Nagaland.