Darjeeling,India--Tea gardens climb the hills beneath trees with delicate bipinnate leaves. Leaves gently fall among the tea plants acting as fertilizer while the trees provide just the right amount of shade for the shrubs that can live 50 years.
Women are the tea workers, wearing cloth bags that quickly fill with leaves. These are hung from their heads, while their index and middle fingers are bound with strips of rags to protect them. This is the autumn or third and last picking of the year, and these leaves will yield the strongest tea. The first flush of spring leaves is picked in March and April when leaves are young and without the byproducts of photosynthesis. Such tender leaves are dried in the air and produce delicate white or green tea. June-July leaves are oven dried for a few moments for luscious teas. Final flush leaves are oven dried the longest.
The British settled Darjeeling in the 1870s, finding the 7,000-foot altitude a respite from summer heat. They built a fairy story hotel in1875, which remains charming. They also built a reservoir for a population of 10,000 that today ill serves the 300,000 people who crowd the houses clinging to the steep hillsides. Streets, too, remain one-lane and traffic is a nightmare.
However, the 40-acre Lloyd Botanic Garden is intact, and has three contemporary additions that bespeak a nature-minded staff: a medicinal garden, where signs spell out not only plant names but their uses; an evolution garden tracing the development of ferns, conifers and flowering plants, and a students’ garden.
Glass houses protect familiar tropical plants as well as temperate flowers, and an orchid house brims with Cymbidiums, Dendrobiums and Paphiopedilum species. An Alpine garden planted among rocks is sighing its last before going dormant.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood, discovered in China in 1941 after being known only as a fossil, made its way here in 1948. Other trees that have reached enormous proportions include Ficus hookeri, Cedrus libani and Acer campbellii.
Alas, the morning we arose at three to view the sunrise reflected on the Himalaya, the fog obscured everything but the sun and the full moon.