A dozen new varieties of orchid, eight of them new species, have been discovered by British botanists working in Bhutan, in the remote Himalayas. The eight new species they unearthed bring to 82 the number that are unique to the mountain kingdom. There are about 17,500 species of orchid, and between 100 and 400 new ones are discovered every year, generally in remote jungle areas of the tropics. With more than 500 species Bhutan has one of the richest stocks of orchids in the world. Much of the Himalayas has been deforested now, but hidden right in the middle is Bhutan, a tiny country the size of Switzerland, which is a jewel with forests unchanged from how they were 150 years ago.
Researchers described a dozen of orchids which were found from sea level to the alpine grasslands just below the glaciers in the high Himalayas. They found also two species - Vanda griffithi and Vanda bicolour - which were considered almost mythical because they had not been seen by anyone for 150 years.
Bhutan has 369 species of orchids, recorded and described in the Flora of Bhutan, a three-volume publication of the ministry of agriculture. Sixteen species are listed as threatened out of which nine are endemic. Presenting a paper at the third symposium of the Indian Subcontinent Regional Orchid Specialist Group (ISROSG) held in Thimphu, the NRTI lecturer, D.B. Gurung, said that Bhutan has an "amazing richness of orchid diversity some of which are highly prized in the international orchid trade".
The paper stated that there are no stochastic events (existing or foreseen) that might endanger the existing orchid population in Bhutan. It also said that in the absence of any major stochastic events even those endemic are not threatened.
Although the species fairly common in Bhutan having traditional usage are vulnerable, with conservation accorded high priority and in the absence of any established orchid trade, the orchids in the kingdom are well preserved, D.B. Gurung said. The minister of agriculture, Lyonpo Kinzang Dorji, said that conservation in the wild is a rare opportunity particularly of species like orchids that face heavy exploitation due to their demand in market. "For this reason we are proud to take initiative before the onset of commercial exploitation," the minister added.
The three-day symposium which was participated by orchid experts from Bangladesh, Nepal and India. Her Majesty the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck said that the priority attached to the conservation and protection of the environment has contributed to the outstanding orchid flora in the kingdom. "I am sure that given the huge diversity of orchid flora in our country, many species can be commercially cultured and propagated, and such species will one day generate substantial consumer interest," Her Majesty said. "But we have to ensure that the consumer needs do not endanger the species occurring in the wild."
According to Mr. Udai C. Pradhan, the chairman of the Orchid Specialist Group, Bhutan's nearly 600 species (unrecorded) of orchids can play a significant role in generating employment to the Bhutanese youth. He said that the modern methods of producing orchid plantlets by seed and tissue culture can be mass propagated in the laboratory and the seedlings given to the youth to grow them for commercial purposes. "By doing this you are not only conserving this beautiful species which is also the mother of many hybrids, but also popularizing your culinary speciality and making it available to tourism industry all year round," he added.
Orchid represents the largest flowering plant family in the world with over 25,000 species. In Bhutan the pioneering endeavour towards conserving wild orchids was the establishment of Tse-rim Orchid Sanctuary at Rimchu in Punakha. A species, Cymbidium hookerianum (locally called Ola Choto), is considered a delicacy in Bhutanese cuisine.
A painting on orchid (one of about 30 paintings on orchids by the students of Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu displayed at the symposium) read: "Preserve it before it becomes an art." By hosting the symposium, for the first time in Bhutan, the orchids of the kingdom, although not gravely threatened at the moment, could well receive the attention they deserve.