IN JUNE 2018, I had the good fortune to participate in the NARGS expedition to Yunnan with a group of curious and enthusiastic members, led by Panayoti Kelaidis and our Chinese guide-in-chief, Carolyn Gao. This trip was documented in the Quarterly by me and several of my fellow plant hunters.
While on that trip, I was not only interested in the alpine flora, mostly above treeline, I was also keenly interested in studying the woody plant flora extending from Kunming at elevation 6,200 feet (1890 m) and latitude 25 degrees north to the Tibetan border of Meili Xue Shan that lies some 500 miles (800 km) to the northwest of Kunming and reaches to 22,000 feet (6,700 m).
We were tantalized on our expedition by a Yunnanese flora at its peak of bloom and diversity; from the lowland Cornus capitata in full flower to elegant Aesculus wangii with attractive mottled bark, to gorgeous abies, picea, larix, quercus, and too many others to enumerate here. The understory was filled with stunning arisaema, podophyllum, clematis, primula, cassiope, semiaquilegia, meconopsis, cypripedium, and dozens more. There were equally beautiful caragana, deutzia, philadelphus, rosa, and late-blooming rhododendrons. Everywhere we turned there were discoveries to be found and even more that beckoned over the next ridge, or beyond the next fen or meadow. Not only was the Chinese flora richer and more diverse than any we had experienced before, but the backdrop of western China’s titanic Himalayan outlying mountain ranges and the abundance of local cultures and history set it all in its unique and surprising setting. We were all of two minds when we left for our way home, with so many indelible memories, and eager to discover yet more. During our farewell dinner, we unanimously agreed that should time and circumstances allow, we would return for a new experience.
I decided then and there that this country had to be seen at its autumn best. There were so many plants that in a good season would put on a show equal only to their spring best. So in early October, my wife Lisa and I began a trip in Kunming and traveled to northwestern Yunnan, then north into Sichuan, following the mountain ranges and valleys to the Tibetan frontier towns of Yading, Litang, then eastwards toward the famous natural areas of Siguniangshan, Huanglong, Jiuzhaigou, and the renowned Emeishan.
The flora here shares elements of Yunnan’s and also of the surrounding provinces to the west, north, and east. Generally, the woody plant flora is more diverse and considerably more tolerant of the colder, drier climate than Yunnan’s. Bamboos and deciduous trees such as davidia, magnolias, sorbus, acer, and many more that are sought after in Western gardens form the main forest here. There are also dominant species that are as iconic as some of our eastern North American maples and oaks. At middle elevations, quercus, pinus, sorbus, acer, and others form a mixed forest. In higher elevations these are replaced by abies, picea, and entire mountainsides thick with larix and the extremely beautiful Betula albosinensis. These grow all of the way to timberline with other plants such as rhododendron, rosa, caragana, juniperus, and more. Open alpine meadows are dotted everywhere with southwest China’s most gorgeous gentians, several species that intermingle and dazzle the eye.
We were a bit late in the season and many plants were completely dormant and difficult to spot without spending more time than we had. Recent plant expeditions undertaken by western botanists and horticulturalists arrive in the mountains in early September and usually stay in the field for the beginning to the middle of October. But we had the best of larch in its full glory, the bluest gentians in the plant kingdom, and many other memorable plants, wild and cultivated. Our guides were friendly and helpful and nearly everyone we met was eager to learn more about the United States. The cities and towns and their inhabitants are so out of the ordinary for most of us that each new place we visited was an exciting and picturesque discovery. One highlight was our visit to two panda institutions, one where babies are bred and raised to be passed along to the next where they are kept in royal style as adults for breeding and eventually for release back into the wild, although that has so far proven to be extremely difficult.
If you appreciate Chinese plants in your own and/or others’ gardens, exotic and beautiful scenery, a long and tumultuous history as shown by China’s beautiful temples, and old architecture, not to mention the storied history of plant hunters in her mountains, then the long trip makes for the experience of a lifetime that will remain with you forever.
Coming upon the high alpine gentians of China in section Kudoa (that includes most of the cultivated alpines, including Gentiana arethusae, G. lawrencei var. farreri, G. ornata, G. sino-ornata, and G. hexaphylla) in full bloom against the backdrop of what Farrer liked to call the Chinese alps is a spiritual experience. There is nothing to compare to the heavenly sky-blue color of the trumpets all striped and spotted in yellow, white, or purple on the exterior and interior. We found some growing in lonely clumps at lower elevations (around 10,000 feet, 3,048 m); others in massive colonies in wet alpine meadows, and at higher elevations (12,000 to 15,000 feet, 3,660 to 4,570m) in gregarious groups of seemingly several species. They grew with allied genera such as comostoma, lomatogonium, and swertia. All of the ones we saw were growing in gravelly soils (Lisa spotted one of the most spectacular growing on a road cut all by itself) with sedges, edelweiss, asters, corydalis, rhododendron, cassiopes, alpine willows, and other plants. There are so many kinds of gentians in China that they can be difficult to identify without a key and some experience of seeing them in the wild. All but a few of the scores of Chinese gentians are endemic. They are all so mesmerizing that one is tempted to sit in admiration high on a hillside until cold and wind make it impossible to tarry. And one should be counted lucky to be able to sit with them off the beaten track, as those places are rapidly disappearing in China. All of Sichuan’s national parks and designated natural areas are overrun by thousands of people every day of the high season in October and into November. They are so numerous that officials have constructed raised plankways several miles long through these areas and anything within a hundred yards (91 m) or so of these is trampled to death.
These gorgeous alpines are a challenge to grow at lower, hotter, elevations so different from their high haunts with cool mountain air, full sun, and ample moisture in the summer, and snow in winter. They are certainly worth experimenting with in the garden and are definitely worth seeing at their autumn best in China.
Betula, Sorbus, and Larix
These three genera really stood out nearly everywhere we went in the mountains of Yunnan and Sichuan. We missed most of the rich diversity of woody plants as the season was far advanced and we lacked time. In fact, we only saw probably one or two species of white-fruited sorbus and no others of the dozens that grow there. Those we saw were mostly bare except for the pearly white (some tinged with dark pink) fruits dangling from the branches like fancy jewelry. They were all attractive multi-stemmed trees.
In Sichuan, we saw at least two species of betula, but Betula albosinensis is remarkable in its large size (to 50 feet, 15 m or more) and striking coppery red bark that peels in large sheets like B. papyrifera and overlain with a white bloom and prominent lenticels. It seems to prefer large river valleys but we also saw impressive trees growing with larch, fir, and rhododendron above 14,000 feet (4,270 m) on a high pass between Yunnan and Sichuan.
Larix is a mountain dweller above all, and the high mountains of Yunnan and Sichuan are its stronghold. We saw one (Larix potaninii) of the nine endemic species described in the Flora of China, although trees growing in Siguniangshan were identified as the rare Larix mastersiana. Only those lucky enough to live in Asia, the European Alps, or North America’s Pacific Northwest or northern Rockies, will know the golden effect of whole mountainsides of larch in autumn. They are such character-filled trees, especially for a conifer. Their soft green needles in spring must also be a sight to behold in China, but in autumn their burnished branches glow. And their tall rigging of branches (as Hugh Johnson writes in his Encyclopedia of Trees) loom like old ships at sea in the mist. I’ve never met a larch that I did not love.