Drukpa Kunley’s Rhubarb: an extraordinary Himalayan vegetable

I’m going to conclude my trio of posts about Bhutan by relating an incident that happened at a place called Jangothang on the Jhomolhari trek. In previous posts I’ve been moaning about the weather in Bhutan, and how the beautiful mountains I’d been hoping to see were often veiled in cloud. None was more disappointing than Jhomolhari, a 7314m giant of a mountain on Bhutan’s western border with Tibet. Being visible from Sikkim, the mountain has for a long time been known to the British, and it was first climbed by a British climber Frank Spencer Chapman, and a Nepali Sherpa, Pasang Dawa Lama, in 1937.

An amazing profusion of plant life in a single square foot of Jangothang Ri's slopes
An amazing profusion of plant life in a single square foot of Jangothang Ri’s slopes

For me Jhomolhari is memorable for one thing above all else: an extraordinary phallic vegetable.

Jangothang is a small grazing pasture three days’ trek north of Paro, Bhutan’s second city, where the ruins of an old fort rise above a junction of valleys. North to south runs the Paro Chhu valley, which trekkers will have followed north from Paro. To the west a short side valley forms a grand aisle to the very foot of Jhomolhari, rising a full three kilometres vertically above Jangothang in a dramatic polished white dome.

I know this because I’ve seen the pictures. I camped there two nights myself, but saw nothing of the mountain but the odd glimpse of glacier through the clouds. I did have an enjoyable rest day there, however. It rained pretty solidly, but I decided to aid my acclimatisation by walking up a small peak north of the side valley which rises to a little above 5000m, and would be an amazing lookout onto Jhomolhari on a clear day. The peak appeared to be unnamed, so I christened it Jangothang Ri in view of its proximity to the campsite.

In many parts of the world 5000m would be a barren place of rocks and glacier, but Jangothang Ri was bursting with life on this soggy Friday afternoon. Every square metre of hillside was crammed with dozens of species of grasses and tiny colourful wild flowers. I’m no botanist, but I recognised violet primulas and light blue gentians, and bright red bunches of a bush-like plant that I was unable to identify clung to rocks in great profusion. Animals were present in great abundance. The bharal is a species of mammal better known as the blue sheep for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom. It’s about as blue as a turd, and it certainly looks more like a goat-antelope than a sheep. It’s as nervous as a sheep, though, and even an Englishman can’t get within about a hundred metres of it before it runs away. For the New Zealander in our party the distance was very much greater. There were huge great flocks of these animals skipping over the sides of Jangothang Ri, from the grassy lower slopes almost all the way to the rocky summit. I stopped for a biscuit halfway up, and two giant shadows passed across me. I looked up to see two great Himalayan griffons hovering overhead waiting for my crumbs, and the clucking of snow cocks greeted me higher up.

Rheum nobile, known variously as Drukpa Kunley's rhubarb, Sikkim rhubarb, or even penis rhubarb
Rheum nobile, known variously as Drukpa Kunley’s rhubarb, Sikkim rhubarb, or even penis rhubarb

It wasn’t until I was close to the summit that I first saw the phallic rhubarb, but when I did I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was everywhere.

The famous Victorian naturalist Joseph Hooker first described the rheum nobile in 1855:

“I first saw it from a distance of fully a mile, dotting the black cliffs of the Lachen valley at 14,000 feet elevation, in inaccessible situations, and was quite at a loss to conceive what it could be; not was it till I had turned back the curious bracteal leaves and examined the flowers that I was persuaded of its being a true Rhubarb.”

Hooker first saw the plant in Sikkim, and for this reason it’s sometimes known as the Sikkim rhubarb, but why not the Bhutan rhubarb, since it seems to be just as abundant across the border? And given that a finger of Tibet divides the two countries, I expect you can find it there as well. Sikkim rhubarb isn’t a name that embraces the full geographic compass of this remarkable vegetable, nor can I imagine the Bhutanese were ever consulted on the matter, any more than the French ever assented to the English Channel being so named.

I propose to give it a much more appropriate name. Everybody who’s ever been to Bhutan will be familiar with Drukpa Kunley, a.k.a. The Divine Madman, the 15th century Buddhist mystic who is supposed to have warded off evil spirits with his John Thomas. His influence adorns many a house across the country with exotic paintings of the male organ. Indeed, there were places on the flanks of Jangothang Ri where the rheum nobile grew as tall as a metre and a half, a truly fertile symbol of Drukpa Kunley’s potency.

I would therefore like to give this magnificent vegetable the far more fitting name of Drukpa Kunley’s rhubarb. Personally, I often found myself calling it penis rhubarb, but I doubt that name will ever catch on. But courgettes and cucumbers have nothing on this.

I’ll finish with a little video of my sally up Jangothang Ri, which goes to show that even in the most dreadful weather there is much consolation to be had in an amazing landscape.

Watch on YouTube

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3 thoughts on “Drukpa Kunley’s Rhubarb: an extraordinary Himalayan vegetable

  • July 27, 2011 at 7:14 am

    nice video !

  • July 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks! Very professionally produced, of course (not). 😉

  • January 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    The Gyalwang Drukpa is the honorific title of the head of the Drukpa Lineage, one of the independent Sarma (new) schools of Vajrayana Buddhism – http://drukpa.org/

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