by Jessica Beghan
I graduated from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Diploma in Horticulture course in 2002, clutching a whole host of prizes including the Ernest Thornton-Smith Travel Award for world travel,worth £2,000. The Kew Guild generously added to this,along with some others and I firmed up my plans to return to Bhutan to learn more about everything Bhutanese,my heart having been captured during my previous trip in May 2001.
I set out in October for three months aiming to continue the development work in the Royal Botanic Garden in Serbithang and to give training to the staff in plant propagation and transplantation. I was also to travel extensively within the country to visit as many plant based projects as possible,and observe and record flora of different altitude ranges and ecological climates.
Arriving at Paro airport my heart and eyes filled with the joy of seeing the mountains again,and the feeling that I had returned to the one place I felt at home. I settled in remarkably quickly and it was really good to see friends I had remained in contact with by email and to catch up with the work in the Garden. I could see the efforts they had made,and was overjoyed that they had been putting some of the skills I had sent by email into practice and were getting a far higher success rate with the transplanted trees (from around 10% to a remarkable 80%). We began to outline work that I would be involved with,and a schedule to include my travelling elsewhere in the country.
My first big adventure was accompanying visiting delegates from the UK Bhutan Society on a trek through the Gangte Valley,and after that I spent the majority of December on the road. This was the first of many journeys,but included visits to the landfill site,several Regional Natural Resource Research Centres (RNRRCs), and an in-situ rhododendron conservation project,and took me to the far east of the country to Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary,where I found another Botanic Garden in the making. In fact there are four Botanic Gardens in Bhutan,including a mini one in Trongsa,an area which is renowned for its orchids and snakes,and one in the sub-tropics of Lingmenthang.
From this trip to the east one of the things I learned about was the lemon grass industry. Cymbopogon citratus grows wild all over the place,and is a wonderful plant to be making money from as it only needs to be cut,and not pulled up. The extraction of essential oil used to be performed in the factory at Kurizampa,but is now carried out by the locals,who collect the grass,then carry out the oil extraction at the side of the road in basic distillation units that are there for everyone to use. They leave the containers at the roadside,which are collected,taken to the disused factory and sold on from there.
The RNRRCs are also impressive,each having its own topic of responsibility (temperate fruit trees,livestock,etc.),as well as shared topics,such as trialling different growing methods of crops to reduce pests and diseases. As they are all in different areas and at different altitudes they cover a wide and varied range of research out that is then shared amongst all the farmers in the country. These research centres are led by the farmers’ wants and needs,and directed by the district leader. One project was to find out which crops could be grown at a high altitude so that the school children in Lingshi (four days walk from the road) could have a more varied diet,the surplus being sold to trekking groups giving revenue to the local community.
I don’t know who learned more in the training sessions,but we had a lot of fun, and got very dirty! Most of the propagated plants survived,and the sessions out in the field interested me most. The work in the Garden went well. The arboretum was designed,trees collected and planted with paths to be put in later,polytunnels restored,windbreak constructed to protect the Orchid House,all other areas progressing and systems in place for selecting plants for other areas. The Director and his staff were fantastic,and I was looked after very well. I eventually left Bhutan in May 2003,having been invited to extend my stay to see the main collection period through and give further training to the staff. I had a wonderful time,and learned so much,so thank you to the Kew Guild for their contribution to this journey.