Along with this diversity, comes a vast range of flora and fauna. The outer fringe of Himachal is formed by the Siwalik Hills which are characterized by shallow dips and low dense scrub. The extravagance of the Indian sun mellows as the hills climb higher and tropical vegetation parts to woods of scented pine - which merge into forests of oak and flowering rhododendron. The mid-ranges have the majestic Himalayan cedars (the almost legendary ‘deodar’), and spruce. Then close to the snowline, come stretches of fir, alder and birch. The chil pine which gives the tasty kernel – the ‘Chilgoza’ and huge elms tiling and horse-chestnuts, make cameo appearances.
Wild flowers, a variety of ferns and grasses and rare medicinal herbs form the groundcover - while vast meadows just under the sky, are lined by juniper and lichens. Past the snow peaks, the land is largely arid for the monsoon rains – India’s lifeline; that are forced to remain south of this impassable mountain barrier.
For countless centuries Himachal has been home to a variety of birds and animals. There are pheasants whose colours can place rainbows in the shade; then there are partridges and patient kites, ibex, antelopes, deer, bears, leopards, the rare bharal and thar - and the elusive snow leopard.
The Stunning Rhododendrons
The word 'rhododendron' comes from the Greek rhodon, rose and dendron, tree. Of the bushes and trees of this species that grow in Himachal Pradesh, the most common is the rhododendron arboreum.
Locally called 'brass', this is a tree that normally grows to a height of 20 to 25 feet - though there are numerous cases where it has shot beyond twice that height. Crowded on large corymbs, the flowers are displayed on a platter of oblong leaves that are up to five inches long. With ten stamens, the corolla is bell-shaped. The rhododendron arboreum grows between 6,000 and 8,000 feet and seems to have struck a symbiotic relationship with the oaks and normally shares the forest slopes with this other remarkable tree.
Until 1820, the spectacular Himalayan varieties were unknown in Western botanical circles. That year - carefully packed in brown sugar – the first rhododendron arboretum seeds reached England. They had been sent by Nathaniel Wallich, a Danish surgeon who for 30 years was the director of the Calcutta Botanical Garden. These seeds were to become a part of the genetic heritage of hundreds of hybrids and today, the rhododendron reigns supreme over the world's flowering evergreens.
Unlike the rhododendron arboreum which grows as a full tree, the rhododendron campanulatum is a bush that exhibits all the beauty of the flower at eye level; the latter is the state flower of Himachal.
The Great Western Tragopan and the Monal
Himachal Pradesh is home to several breeds of pheasant. These roly-poly birds are visually stunning and have a rare plumage. The best known among them are the Monal, the Khalij, the Koklas and the Great Western Triagopan. Till recently, the Monal was the state bird of Himachal and the role has now been taken by the Great Western Tragopan. The Tragopan, Tragopan melanocephalus is locally called the 'Juju Rana', or the king of birds. Local lore has it that when God finished making the world, He was still not satisfied with what He had made; the perfect creature had still not been created. He then took a colour from every being and then, brought into the world the delicately coloured Great Western Tragopan. For a long time, these birds were hunted and their meat was prized - and the feathers were used to decorate clothing that varied from brooches to adornments on caps. Their habitat was also greatly encroached upon and the oak and cedar woods which support them were bordered by villages, farms and orchards.
The bird finds mention as an 'endangered species' in the Red Data Book of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is also a Schedule I species in India's Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The Western Tragopan is found across the Western Himalaya from Northwest Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir and further east, in Himachal Pradesh and in the Tehri Garhwai and the Kumaon regions of Uttaranchal.
The Monal, Lophophorus Impejanus is found on the forested tracts of the mid-Himalayan slopes between 2,000 and 3,500 metres. The Shimla hills and the upper Bens valley abound with the bird. In sharp contrast to the male's brilliant plumage, the Monal hen is as dull brown with dark streaks, mottles and a white patch near its tail.
Apples account for the mainstray of Himachal’s rural-agrarian economy and annually, thousands of crores worth of this temperate fruit enter the market from the orchards of Himachal Pradesh. Behind this transformation and behind the beauty blossoms across the hills is a remarkable story. The earliest apples to be introduced into India were the English varieties – Captain Lee took to Kullu valley and Alexander Coutts grew them at Hillock’s head, in Mashobra near Shimla. These varieties were never popular and it was the arrival of Samuel Stokes (who later converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand) and the American hybrids that accounted for the real transformation.
Born on 16th August, 1882, the son of a Quaker millionaire from Philadelphia, Samuel Evans Stokes arrived in India on 26 February 1904. Stokes moved to Kotgarh beyond Shimla and this was to become his ‘karambhoomi’. Here, he married a local girl, worked ceaselessly to uplift the local people. In 1916, the famous Stark brothers of Luisiana had developed the Red Delicious apple variety. Stokes brought the apple seedlings from the U.S. and distributed them to all who would accept their worth. In 1926, first lot of these apples entered the market and thus were placed the foundations of what is now a thriving horticultural industry that dramatically improved the subsistence agricultural economy of the hills. When Stokes died in on 14 May 1946, apple production had touched 15,000 boxes.
Today, apart from apple per se, one of the finest ways of experiencing rural Himachal is to stay in one of the numerous orchard homes.