Photo Friday: A Digital Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Mount Everest

Spring has again returned to Nepal. Wildflowers are blooming about the mountains and plains. Rhododendrons and primroses paint the scene with colorful hues of purple, pink, red, and yellow, and soon summertime will bring strange alpine blossoms like the Hippolytia gossypina, with its golden flowers atop white-haired stalks. Autumn will be greeted by bright blue gentians along with the red and yellow changing leaves on the shrubs and trees. The flora of the Himalayas is unique as it has specially adapted to high elevations, bitterly cold winters, and a rainy summer monsoon season. The vegetation is also extremely diverse due to the rapid altitudinal changes in climate and soil conditions over short distances.

While Nepal is most known for its breathtaking views of glacial peaks, mountaineers quickly discover that undeniable beauty lies along the trails as well. The mountainsides will see few, if any tourists, this year due to the coronavirus, but still the beauty will persist. Luckily, there is now an app that allows users to virtually explore the wildflowers of the region. The app’s stunning photos and fun facts provide an escape during this crisis and will have you dreaming of planning a trip to Nepal.

App Feature Graphic. Source: Elizabeth Byers

Vegetation ecologist Elizabeth Byers started her plant-identification project with the intention of writing an old-fashioned field guide to flora in Sagarmatha National Park. However, after years of research, her book draft grew to over 600 pages — much too heavy for someone to carry in the field. Byers noticed that trekkers, guides, and locals living in the park all carried smartphones on their expeditions, so she began investigating flora apps. 

Byers partnered with the Flora of Nepal Project, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, and High Country Apps to produce the first-ever plant identification app for Nepal, Wildflowers of Mount Everest, for Apple and Android devices. 

“High Country Apps, aside from their great name, stands head and shoulders above any other plant identification apps that are currently available, in my opinion,” Byers said. “They have an intuitive, easy-to-use picture-based interface, a brilliant programmer (Katie Gibson), and a dedication to conservation that was a perfect fit with my vision for the project.” High Country Apps donates a portion of the app proceeds to the Flora of Nepal project, which is used to support field costs of Nepali students or to buy field equipment that will allow Nepali researchers to conduct botanical studies.

Wildflowers of Mount Everest is the product of Byers’ botanical research over the last seven years, often done while accompanying colleagues on glacier hazards expeditions. She has collected photos and scientific information for 557 subalpine and alpine species. Descriptions of plant lore, medicinal uses, elevation ranges, bloom periods, and even local names in various languages are available to users. While the geographic focus is on Sagarmatha National Park, most of these plants are also found throughout Nepal’s high elevation terrain. “Many of the species grow on recent glacial moraines or even right on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas.”

Screenshots from the Wildflowers of Mount Everest App

The app is designed as an educational tool for beginners as well as for expert botanists — anyone who wishes to learn the names and uses of plants in eastern Nepal. Byers told Nepali Times that, “Two things make this field guide special… First, the Sherpa elders who have graciously shared plant lore and stories to give us a glimpse of the cultural importance of each species. Second, the botanical experts from all over the world who have volunteered their knowledge to help us understand the unique and specially-adapted plants of Mount Everest.”

Byers selected the following glacier-related images from her app so that our GlacierHub readers can catch a glimpse of a few species of remarkable flora that grow directly on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers.

Delphinium glaciale at the Ngozumpa Glacier in Gokyo. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Oxyria digyna at Thonak Tsho, the fourth Gokyo Lake. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Rhododendron nivale at Chukung, Nepal. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea gossypifera at the Ngozumpa Glacier in Gokyo. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea simpsoniana at Kala Pattar (“black rock”), a small peak located on the south ridge of Pumori in the Nepalese Himalayas. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Saussurea tridactyla at Changri Glacier. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Senecio albopurpureus at Thonak Tsh. Source: Elizabeth Byers
Waldheimia glabra on Ama Dablam, a mountain in the eastern Himalayan range. Source: Elizabeth Byers

Wildflowers of Mount Everest can be downloaded from the App Store or from the Google Play Store for $7.99. The app will be periodically updated by the authors to include new species, photos, and other content at no additional charge to users. The app does not require an internet connection, so the guide will remain available no matter how remote your adventures. The following video demonstrates how to use the app.   

Elizabeth A Byers is a vegetation ecologist studying rare plant species and climate change vulnerability of plants, with a special interest in subalpine and alpine ecosystems of eastern Nepal. She has been studying and photographing the flora of Nepal for nearly 40 years.

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