Category Archives: China

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.

Heading Down the Mountain

After another night in our high class accommodations, we decided to walk further down the mountain in the morning returning to pick up our bags by lunch then take the bus down to about 4,500′ where I was told I could collect and visit a small botanic garden. We quickly passed through an area we had visited before and then began heading steeply down thousands of steps and found a lovely small bushy Ilex (holly) where our host, Liu Gang said he remembered it from a previous trip. The herbaceous layer was quite nice as well with a small, burgundy flowered Ranunculaceae family member, a showy woodland Sedum and quite a few ferns including an Asian Adiantum (maiden-hair fern). The most exciting find for the day was a large leaf Osmanthus growing at about 5,800′. Unfortunately it was not in flower or fruit but still exciting to see it growing in the wild. As we passed through a region thick with bamboo, we noticed some spots of bright color. These flashes of red belonged to a narrow-leaf Euonymus in full fruit. The foliage of this spindle tree exactly matched the bamboo and would have been difficult at best to see without the bursting seedpods.

A Rhododendron with huge leaves and big, rounded buds was quite frequent along our route and I was determined to find seed. Unfortunately, seedpods were few and far between and always at the top of the plant, 20’+ high, much higher than I wished to climb on the sheer side of a mountain. Brian on the other hand was searching for coffee. A small stand on the side of the trail satisfied his craving. As I impatiently waited for him to finish with his coffee break, we noticed my rhody growing on the hillside above the stand. The owner of the stand quickly offered to get seed for me – an offer I certainly couldn’t refuse. After climbing quickly to the top and tossing down the seed, he entertained us with magic tricks. China will never cease to amaze me.

We made the very tough decision to head back up the trail to our hotel and gather our belongings in order to head back down the mountain on a bus. Our objective was to ride down to a stop at about 4,500′ where we could explore the evergreen forest full of tempting plants I only glimpsed on the way up. As we hurtled down the twisting, precipitous road in a small bus, passing cars on blind curves, I tried to be as Asian as possible and enter a Zen frame of mind. I was not successful. The armrest of the bus will bear my grip’s indentations forever or at least until the bus succumbs to the laws of physics and goes flipping over the side of the mountain.

When I could bear to open my eyes, I noticed we were passing all the plants I desperately wanted to take a closer look at including beautiful specimens of Schefflera growing at an altitude that should prove hardy in central North Carolina. When we finally stopped, the bus had brought us much farther down than we had hoped. We were in a zone that was fully tropical with many of the plants standing little or no chance of being hardy. To further make matters worse, we were not in an area where we could collect in the wild. As a slight consolation, we visited the Emei Shan Botanic Garden where we saw plants that I had hoped to see in the wild including both Camellia elongata and C. omeiensis as well as Magnolia (Parakmeria) omeiensis. Also, new to me was Aucuba obcordata, a green leaf aucuba with obovate (wider towards the leaf tip) leaves.

Unfortunately I had unwittingly scheduled our trip for the week of the Chinese national holiday. For eight days, most businesses would be shut down and everyone would be on vacation. One point four billion people on the road makes for some crowded highways and since Emei Shan is a prime destination spot, we decided to leave more exploration for another trip. The steep mountain sides and inaccessible nooks and crannies would make the work of collecting and botanizing on Emei Shan the work of a lifetime. Tomorrow we will visit a nursery production area outside of Chengdu.

(Note: Due to connectivity issues, Mark cannot add photographs. He’ll post a pictorial blog when at a later date.)

First Day Collecting

After a fitful sleep probably brought on by the rock hard bed, slightly slanted toward the headboard, I awoke not quite refreshed. It never ceases to amaze how a bed could be made less comfortable than a board. The unheated room with an electric bed pad that had two temperatures – off and blazing – didn’t help either. When I awoke every hour or so, I could hear the rain drumming outside which didn’t add to my peace of mind.

The morning rain and heavy fog made for a somewhat dismal start to the day, although the troops of macaques helped lighten the mood. Unfortunately the piles of trash from where they either raid trash cans or are fed packaged foods made what could have been an incredible sight somewhat less beautiful than it should have been. We rode a cable car from our hotel at 8,800 ft to the top of Emei Shan at 10,000 ft. We quickly found a couple of white fruited Sorbus, one each of a pinnate shrubby form and a entire-leaved tree form. Both were quite showy, but the smaller one was especially nice. Doubtfully either will do well in the Southeast, though. We visited the Golden Summit of the mountain where a gilded Buddha atop four elephants shone brightly even through the heavy fog. I can only imagine it in sunlight.

We trecked down the mountain to our hotel area collecting along the way. As usual, some of the best looking plants were bare of seed. One particular Viburnum with simply enormous leaves to 8” or more long and 6” across had already dropped its fruit. Another large leafed plant was an Arisaema with its trifoliate single leaf growing to a yard across. A couple of woodland lilies, both a brilliantly red-fruited Smilacina and a much branched and perfoliate Disporum and a very rugose foliaged Oxalis also caught my attention from the herbaceous layer. Quite surprising to me were the number of different Impatiens we saw and I could not decide if they were perennial or not.

The diversity of woody plants was quite great even that high on the mountain with several Rhododendron, a beautiful Lindera (of course with no fruit) and several maples which we had a difficult time identifying. One spectacular plant was a large-leaf Cornus (dogwood) probably C. macrophylla with bright red pedicels holding blue-black fruit. It was a beautiful sight and will hopefully perform better than the plants currently at the JCRA. Other viburnums, and a very striking Euonymus, also garnered attention.

After a late lunch, we trooped down below our hotel lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to get far off the beaten track due to slippery, muddy conditions and sheer cliffs dropping thousands of feet. Below the hotel we came across perhaps five different Acer (maple) species and perhaps even more Rhododendron. Two particular species (I think they were different based on the differences in seed capsules – one covered in ferruginous (rust colored) hairs and the other mostly smooth) which had the darkest of dark black-green leaves. I was surprised to find a Sinojackia growing in the area and gathered a meager handful of seed as well as a bit of Enkianthus. The overstory was almost exclusively maples topped by Abies faberi (fir) and a few large Tsuga (hemlock).

On the herbaceous front, besides the impatiens in shades of white, pink, and yellow was the exquisite Aconitum that had caught my eye yesterday as well as an Asparagus with leaves resembling a hemlock. Altogether despite the rain it was a very fruitful day and will be a late night cleaning seed. The views from the top of the mountain and through the narrow gorges were beautiful despite the weather and would certainly be sublime on a clearer day. Tomorrow we head further down the mountain, I hope reaching the broadleaf overstory layer of the mountain where the subtropical and temperate floras meet.

To Emeishan

Woke up early and took a plane to Chengdu then a cab to the base of Emei Shan.  On the drive there was very little of interest as we drove along the highway for several hours. A quick stop in Emei City for noodles cooked outdoors with pork meatballs. Best not to look closely at the facilities – there is definitely no sanitation department’s cleanliness score posted. At the base of Emei Shan we boarded a bus that took us from the subtropical zone where we drooled over a beautiful yellow Hedychium up through a broadleaf evergreen forest through to a more deciduous zone. With only one two-minute stop along the way there was really no chance for collecting although I did grab a handful of Euptelea pleospermum seed.

We arrived at our hotel near dark at an elevation of 2700m. I think from here down to 1800m should be the best collecting. We’ll see what we can reach on some side paths. Liu says he can find five to seven different species of maple near our hotel and in the dusk we did see Actinidia, Impatiens, Viburnum, Abies faberi, Acer, and the most incredible Aconitum. Must find seeds of it tomorrow!

Getting Ready – China 2012

Collecting supplies

Who needs clothes? A suitcase full of collecting gear is much more important.

Whew.  It’s been a long couple of weeks of work culminating with the dedication of the new Lath House over the weekend – and what a great event that was – followed by an early Monday morning meeting with the NC State Chancellor’s wife and a talk in Durham to the board of the Garden Club of NC.  I mostly haven’t been able to think about my collecting trip to Emeishan (Mount Omei) until now, 10:00 PM, a mere nine hours before my flight.

For me, this last bit of time when the bags are packed is one of the most nerve-wracking periods of the entire trip.  Hopefully I’ve packed everything I need but you really never know.  I’m sure I’ll be waking up several times tonight wanting to rummage through my bags to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.  Baggies – check, paper towels – check, passport – check, import permits – check.

Emeishan tops 10,000 feet making it the tallest of the four sacred Chinese mountains and is located south of Chengdu in Sichuan province.  I’m told Emeishan is the home to what is perhaps the oldest Buddhist temple in China and has an enormous number of monasteries clinging to its sides.  The views of and from the mountain are said to be spectacular providing the clouds allow a view.

Although the temples are surely spectacular, I’ve seen plenty of Buddhist and Daoist temples before.  The plants are what is drawing me to Emeishan.  The reverence the Chinese have for their sacred mountains means that the flora is largely intact, no small feat in a country with a billion people.  Although it has been collected on extensively, many of the collectors have concentrated on the upper reaches in the deciduous and coniferous belts.  I’m keen to check out the broadleaf evergreen forests slightly lower on the slopes.  High on my list is Magnolia (Parakmeria) omeiensis, one of the many species of plants endemic to this single mountain.  Others on my “omeiensis” wish list are Aucuba omeiensis, Aspidistra omeiensis, Osmanthus omeiensis, Carpinus omeiensis, Epimedium xomeiense, Bergenia omeiensis, Salvia omeiensis…  The list goes on and on.  There’s even an endemic kudzu, Pueraria omeiensis, but I’ll probably skip that one.

Hopefully we’ll also be able to pay a visit to some nurseries.  I’ve been told by my host Liu Gang that there is a nursery near Chengdu that specializes in Osmanthus and I am salivating at the idea.  Liu Gang is a Chinese nurseryman who frequently visits the JCRA to take cuttings and has been needling me to come out his way.  I made a brief visit to his nursery in Shanghai a few years back on my way home from Taiwan but this will be my first time collecting with him.  I anticipate that he will prove to be extremely helpful since he used to do the seed collecting for the Shanghai Botanic Garden.  Imagine my surprise when I saw his photo in the excellent New Trees, Recent Introductions to Cultivation by Arboretum friend John Grimshaw and Ross Bayton.

Also accompanying us will be nurseryman Brian Upchurch who is always game for a trip to the Far East.  No worries about traveling with Brian, I’ve made a couple of treks with him and you couldn’t find a better travel companion.  This will be our first trip to Sichuan although both of us have visited other areas of China.

Assuming I can find internet access, I’ll send updates as often as possible.  Until then it is probably best to try to get a bit of sleep, tomorrow will be here way too soon.  Besides, I think I need to check my luggage one last time…