Orchids of Bhutan: A Way to the Future

In February, 2007, Selby Gardens’ Orchid Identification Center was invited by Dr. Ugyen Tshewang, Specialist/Programs Director of the National Biodiversity Center (NBC) in Serbithang, Thimphu, to visit Bhutan. The invitation came from a minute but fascinating country with a population of just 650,000 people.

            Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas between two giant neighbors: India to the south and Tibet (China) to the north. It is undergoing a difficult change from traditional monarchy to modern democracy in an effort to adjust to increasing pressure from the surrounding world. The tiny country faces formidable challenges due to years of restrictive foreign policy which kept Bhutan isolated for centuries.

            One of the major problems is how to preserve their way of life, where “gross domestic happiness” is considered a constitutional right, and still adapt to the modern world. To protect Bhutan’s natural beauty and resources, the fourth King inserted into the constitution a clause mandating that at least 60% of the country must be forested, a commitment that may be unique in the world.

            The Bhutanese government is reaching out internationally for help with various issues. Selby Gardens’ reputation as a center for orchid science and conservation has reached this remote part of the world, so Dr. Ugyen invited us to help develop sustainable ways of utilizing Bhutan’s rich orchid flora.

            As a first step towards developing a collaboration, Dr. Ugyen visited Selby Gardens in June, 2007, to meet the staff and lecture about Bhutan and its National Biodiversity Center. While visiting, Dr. Ugyen extended an official invitation to Selby Gardens to visit Bhutan, meet the NBC staff and other parties, and inspect current facilities and resources.

              Nine brave Selby adventurers set out for Bhutan in April of 2008. The tour was headed by, and to a great extent made possible through the efforts of our “Fearless Leader” and Interim CEO Jessica Ventimiglia, who worked tirelessly in synchronizing the American and the Bhutanese travel agency systems. Finally all quirks were resolved, and we traveled from Sarasota to Thailand and the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden near Pattaya, where Anders Lindström, the main collections supervisor and a dear Selby Gardens friend, treated us as honored guests. Then the tour continued towards the Himalayas with a breathtaking flight over snow-capped mountains and meandering valleys, searching for a narrow airstrip (the only one in Bhutan) where we eventually could touch down safely. Preston Scott, in collaboration with Pristine Druk Yul Tours, organized a ten-day tour of Bhutan for the group. The Marie Selby Gardens Associates will present a travelogue by participants at their November, 2008, meeting (see page 14 to learn more about the Associates).

            I extended my own stay to get acquainted with the NBC staff and spent time in the field learning about Bhutanese orchids and their natural habitats, something few visitors are privileged to do. While driving through Bhutan, it struck me how similar the area was to Andean countries such as Ecuador. In other words, I felt right at home. The people of Bhutan are laid back and pleasant and have a great sense of humor, which makes establishing friendship a true pleasure. Assistant NBC Botanist and Conservationist Ngawang Gyeltshen and I soon realized that we had a lot in common, including our fascination for orchids. Ngawang told me orchids can be good indicators of the health of the environment: where there are lots of orchids, you find many other organisms. We agreed that by targeting orchids during future plant expeditions, we would get updates on Bhutan’s general environmental status.

            Due to time limitations, we headed south to roam the forests between the cities of Chukka and Phuntsholing. This area, bordered by India in the south, is one of the wettest climates in the world during the summer monsoon season. We visited in April, but the humidity was still high with occasional, noisy thundershowers, the phenomenon responsible for Bhutan’s second name, Druk-Yul, “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”

   The occasional downpours give life to the incredibly rich Himalayan flora but also perk up some less-appealing critters, leeches. Every night, I peeled off the little blood-suckers and placed them in a zip-lock bag to release them the following day in good Bhuddistic tradition (who wants to become a leech in the next life?). Occasionally, however, I accidentally stepped on one and was amazed at how much of my blood the little fellow had imbibed. The dense Bhutanese jungles also host much larger animals, including tigers and leopards, bears and elephants. Fortunately they normally stay away from people, though Himalayan bears will attack if provoked.

            The orchid flora of Bhutan is rich and yet poorly known. Nobody has collected systematically in large areas of the country, and this is where we will begin to build a scientific collection for the National Biodiversity Center. Scientists have documented fewer than 400 orchid species from Bhutan, but the real number may be twice as many, considering the species found in neighboring countries with similar climates. There is much work to do, and we have many ideas about how both the people of Bhutan and the United States might better understand and appreciate nature’s true Masters of Survival, the orchids!