Rhododendron

Rhododendron

Latin name: Rhododendron arboreum
Other names: Buraansh, lali guras
Uses: culinary, medicinal, ornamental

Across the Indian Himalayas, spring is synonymous with the “buraansh” bloom, when forests light up with rhododendron flowers. Up to 20 blossoms — in colors ranging from deep scarlet to red with white or pink highlights — nestle in a single truss, making for one bushy flower. The scarlet splendor is a visual feast, a treat on the plate, and the region’s pride for its economic and medicinal value; it’s Nepal’s national flower and the state flower for a couple of Indian states. Rhododendron flowers are used mainly for making squash, a beloved drink concentrate sold all over the hills.

Why is it healthy?

Studies indicate that rhododendron flowers are rich in antioxidants and possess many bioactive compounds (fatty acids, phenolics, flavonoids and flavanols) with anti-inflammatory and potential anti-diabetic and anti-cancer benefits. The flowers are rich in minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, copper, sodium, nickel, cobalt, and chromium. Juice made from rhododendron flower distills most of the flower’s medicinal value, and is used in traditional medicine to soothe various ailments, including cardiovascular, respiratory, urinary, and digestive issues.

What does it taste like?

The flower’s petals are edible, and have a sour, citrusy taste comparable to cranberries. Some can be strongly acidic with a hint of bitterness, but this is usually masked in squash due to the added sweetener. If there was a natural version of a Red Bull drink, it would be similar to buraansh squash.

Where does it grow?

The rhododendron is a massive genus (the largest in the Ericaceae family) that grows in many parts of the world, including showstopping gardens in the United Kingdom. Rhododendron arboreum in particular is native to the Himalayas and East Asia. A woody evergreen shrub that can reach tree-like heights of 40 to 65 feet ( 12 to 20 meters), it grows in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Tibet, and some parts of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

How do I prepare it and what do I pair it with?

To make squash, the flowers are cleaned, cooked, and blended with sugar for preservation. Buraansh pakoras or fritters are a local delicacy in the Indian hills; to make them, dunk succulent petals in a gram flour batter seasoned with salt and cumin, and deep-fry. A chutney can also be made from the fresh flowers. Rhododendron tea is also gaining popularity for its plentiful health benefits. It can be easily prepared from shade-dried petals, crushed and stored for long periods, and steeped in hot water to make a rejuvenating cup.

Surprising fact:

The Guinness World Record for the tallest rhododendron tree is held by a 108-feet Rhododendron arboreum discovered in 1993 on Mount Japfu in Nagaland, India, where rhododendron is the state flower. The tree is believed to still be growing.