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Rhododendron explorers from South Sound safe following landslide in India

Plant collecting isn’t for the faint of heart.

A group of 18 American and Canadian rhododendron enthusiasts were stranded by a Himalayan landslide for over two days and escaped by foot on Tuesday (May 26). They also discovered a new species of rhododendron.

Not bad for a bunch of gardeners.

The tour is sponsored by the Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden of Federal Way and headed by executive director Steve Hootman.

The landslide in North Sikkim, a mountainous region of India, stranded almost 1,200 tourists, according to the Sikkim Express newspaper.

One of the tour participants, Chip Muller of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, said he and the others in the rhododendron group escaped the area on Tuesday by footpath.

“(We) were guided quickly through the slide zone by local police and army personnel who watched for falling rocks in the ‘Shooting Rock’ area,” Muller wrote in an e-mail.

The 18 rhododendron explorers hail from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., to New York.

“All are safe and healthy, and have returned to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim on Tuesday evening,” Muller said. The group will continue their tour in Sandakphu and Darjeeling, West Bengal, India.

The landslide blocked three switchbacks on the main road, north of Chungthang, Sikkim. Muller said the Federal Way group drove through the slide area on Saturday afternoon shortly before the event.

“By that evening, the slide area was impassable. After spending two full days of exploration of the Lachung and Yumthang areas of North Sikkim, the group returned to the slide area in six vehicles which they had to leave north of the slide,” Muller said.

During the expedition Muller said the group reached 14,000 feet in elevation and has recorded about 20 different species of rhododendron in the area, including a newly discovered species.

The Puget Sound members of the group left May 12 and will return on June 6, said Katie Swickard of the Botanical Garden.

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