A Day Filled with Osmanthus

An early start was necessary today as the roads were expected to be very busy due to the national holiday. At some point the previous evening, the government announced that the toll roads would be free for the week apparently prompting a rush for the countryside by city residents. Our ride was not bad and we arrived in an area west of Chengdu that was the center for nursery production for that city by late morning. Liu told us the area was only developed in 2000 but now consisted of a couple thousand hectares (5,000 acres) of nursery stock. Most of the material we passed on the road looked to be fairly high quality with straight trunks and full heads. There was also quite a bit of very large, wild dug material with cut back heads in various stages of recovery. It was mind boggling that this material had been hand dug and moved from the mountains to this nursery area.

Our nursery host in this area was known as the Osmanthus King and with good reason. His fields were filled with Osmanthus fragrans in all stages of production from rooted cuttings to beautiful tree form specimens that were 20+ years old and perfectly formed with a steel post-straight trunk and dense, rounded head. Most we saw were O.f. var. aurantiacus, the orange flowered form and were just finishing flowering, a visit one week earlier during full bloom would have been overpowering. One particular clone he said was his best red (although it was still orange) and would flower three times in a year, a claim I would love to be able to substantiate. In addition to his nursery grown stock were enormous wild dug trees he said were 250 years old, certainly a plausible age based on the size of the plants. They would sell for about $15,000.

He seemed to have narrowed most of his Osmanthus production to four four types, his best red, an early flowering red, a longleaf golden, and a quick growing golden. Other plants grown by the king of osmanthus were ferns, aspidistra, gingko, aucuba, camellia, loropetalum, and many others on his 700 hectares. Not under production but very interesting was a Hibiscus mutabilis with double flowers of both pink and white on the same tree – and this plant is definitely a tree in this subtropical climate. Liu promises we will see many more when we visit Chengdu Botanic Garden.

Later in the afternoon, we visited an important Chinese cultural site where a canal and dam system were built 2,000 years ago on the Ming River. This system is still in use today with only moderate alterations and is quite an amazing engineering feat. The system was built to control flooding and to provide irrigation water to the Chengdu plain. The mid-stream dam and opening for the channel were constructed in such a way as to prevent sand build up in the canal and to easily be able to alter the flow between the river bed and canal. The Chinese are justifiably proud of this ancient accomplishment.

Liu Gang, our diligent host, had been mindful of our western palates and fed us noodles and Chinese dishes that were moderately familiar to us for most meals. Lunch today was bought by our new osmanthus friend and included among other delicacies, snake. The snake (a black snake by the look of the skin) was not bad except the dozens of needle-sharp bones in each piece. Even with the bones, it was worlds better than the dish of hot peppers with pig tendon. There is nothing quite like having gristle as the main component of an entrée. Much better was the pumpkin soup served in bowls carved from a miniature pumpkin. To help wash down this feast, I was given some osmanthus “wine.” Chinese wine is definitely not wine and should generally not even be dignified with the designation of moonshine. Most would strip the paint off a car but could quite possibly eat straight through the metal. It is lethal stuff and a cigarette should not be lit within 10 yards of an open container. The addition of Osmanthus did have the pleasant effect of giving a slightly floral overtone to the typical turpentine smell. The burn as it went down and the aftertaste it left will be with me for several more days though.

Since our hotel for the evening was situated in the busy tourist district adjacent to the dam and park area, we decided to forgo a sit down dinner and nosh on street food. It wasn’t until after eating the lamb on a stick bought from a gentleman who couldn’t seem to keep his hand away from his crotch and whose eyes were dilated to the size of saucers that Liu informed us that his wife would never let him eat street food in China because it was “too dangerous.” At that point we threw caution to the wind and sampled dried yak jerky, delicious spicy squid on a stick, and moon cakes made with sesame and, of course, osmanthus.

Tomorrow we visit what I am told is a very good botanic garden and if the post office is open, which appears to be at best a fifty-fifty prospect due to the national holiday, we will stop there and send a shipment of seeds off to be inspected. Then it is back to Chengdu – a one hour journey which may take us several hours due to the heavy traffic. Hopefully everyone is leaving the city, not going toward it.

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