The livelihood of forest communities is enriched by the biodiversity found within the forest, providing sustenance and fortitude. The Himalayan forests boast an abundant variety of species, with approximately 40% being unique to the Indian subcontinent. These species hold immense medicinal and therapeutic value, capable of satiating the communities’ basic needs, generating financial independence, and opening doors for rural livelihoods. One of these species, the Rhododendron arboreum from the Garhwal Himalayas, stands tall as an emblem of hope, contributing to the alleviation of poverty and nurturing sustainable development in these communities.

Rhododendron arboreum, locally known as buransh, is a petite evergreen tree with striking crimson blooms and a bark tinted in pinkish brown. This species is a member of the Ericaceae family and predominantly found in the Himalayas, ranging from 1,200 to 4,000 metres. The tree can grow up to a towering height of 20 metres, bearing dark green leaves that measure between 3-7 inches, coated with silvery or brown fur underneath. Rhododendron flowers are either scented or not, and typically tubular or funnel-shaped, displaying an array of colours such as white, pink, and red, blooming from February to April. The fruit capsules are cylindrical, curved, and longitudinally ribbed, producing ellipsoid-shaped seeds that mature from September to October. Rhododendron owes its name to the Greek words “rhodo,” meaning “rose,” and “dendron,” meaning “tree.” This species is primarily grown in the north temperate zone and thrives in moist acidic soils. It originates from the valley of the Himalayas and some regions of Southeast Asia. The Rhododendron arboreum species holds the distinction of being the state tree of Uttarakhand, the state flower of Nagaland and Himachal Pradesh in India and the national flower of Nepal.

The Himalayan forests boast an abundant variety of species, with approximately 40% being unique to the Indian subcontinent. Credit: Anil Vijayeshwar Dangwal

Rhododendron arboreum has a special place in the hearts and livelihoods of those who dwell in the mountainous regions. The stem wood of this tree is a valuable source of fuel, and its durable wood is crafted into various products like tool handles, gift boxes, and packsaddles, renowned for their usefulness and unique aroma. Rich in potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin C, rhododendron products are often consumed as appetisers, traditionally known to provide relief from mountain and seasonal sickness. The flowers of this plant are traditionally used to make a variety of delicious products such as pickles, juice, jams, syrups, honey, and squash, and are even offered to deities during religious ceremonies. The production of Guranse, a wine made from rhododendron flowers, is a popular village industry in some parts of the Himalayas. The fully bloomed rhododendron flowers in the Garhwal mountains are a stunning sight, captivating every visitor and drawing them closer to this unique species.

The phytochemicals present in Rhododendron, such as flavonoids, saponins, and tannins, have been reported to imbue it with a range of medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, and hepatoprotective benefits. Rhododendron has been used extensively in Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Tibetan Medicine due to its medicinal properties. Practitioners use various parts of the plant to cure many ailments.

Locally known as buransh, the Rhododendron arboreum is a petite evergreen tree with striking crimson blooms and a bark tinted in pinkish brown. Credit: Anil Vijayeshwar Dangwal

Rhododendron flowers are collected from March to June, depending on factors like weather, accessibility, elevation and flowering patterns. Women usually collect them, and prices at present vary from Rs 30 to 70 per kilogram, depending on the collection site’s distance. Dried rhododendron flowers cost Rs 550 to 900. Village enterprises produce value-added products like juice, wine, squash, chutney, and jam, which are packaged with labelling and sold through retailers. However, most of the value addition process is carried out without proper branding and labelling, mainly by village-level enterprises, non-governmental organisations and individuals. Due to poor infrastructure and traditional processing methods, these products do not have proper quality standards. Although some enterprises have their own local brand, they are not well-known outside the district due to limited production scale. There is a great opportunity for local community-based organisations engaged in processing to expand the market and create more employment opportunities for rural households. The income generated through the collection and trade of value-added products from rhododendron has empowered people living in remote areas of the Garhwal mountains. With an increase in demand and publicity, competition among collectors and traders has also intensified.

Sustainable harvesting practices are crucial for Rhododendron conservation. To achieve this, only 60% of flowers should be harvested from each tree, leaving the remaining 40% to mature into seeds. Harvesting should be done by climbing trees without cutting branches. The potential commercial use of rhododendron in food and pharmaceutical products should be explored. Promoting village industries with proper branding and targeting health-oriented customers can boost the sector. Developing rhododendron plantations in a phased manner can reduce the varying availability of flowers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.