I recently received an email from Janina T., a trainee at the RHS Garden, Wisley in England. She writes "I am a plant enthusiast (especially trees and shrubs) and therefore I have applied for a bursary trip to west Yunnan [China] in November 2015 ('In Forrest's Footsteps'), offered by the International Dendrology Society. Their committee invited me to an interview in two weeks and I hope to get the chance to travel to Yunnan. I have no idea what questions they will ask me and I try to prepare myself as best I can for that interview.
On my research for our next plant identification (40 conifers) I literally stumbled across your Flora Wonder Blog and the part where you mention a trip to northwestern Yunnan with other plant enthusiasts. I would be grateful for every piece of information regarding to your experience of the plants, people, landscape...literally everything in Yunnan, and if you feel that this trip has been essential for your career as well as for yourself."
Wow, literally everything! First of all, my "career" and "myself" are pretty much the same thing. But listen Janina, it would take me a year to email – one finger at a time – literally everything, and at the same time I have to write this week's blog. But I want to try to help out, so I'll rehash some previous topics about Yunnan, and hopefully everyone will come away with something interesting.
Instantly I like Janina, for her training at Wisley – the world's best garden? – as well as mentioning that she is originally from Germany. And this woman wants to walk in Forrest's footsteps – my kind of person for sure. Besides, I like her name.
I bring up Yunnan from time to time in Flora Wonder Blogs because the province is so well endowed with the type of plants that I like and grow. But let me confess that some of my blogs are largely smoke and mirrors, as I am certainly no expert on Yunnan. Most of my plant knowledge comes from reading, especially from the writings of the Scotsman George Forrest, as well as biographies of him. I have been to Yunnan only once, and that was nearly thirty years ago. I know people who have visited more recently, and they all say, "You can't believe the changes!" It used to be a long day's jeep ride from the capital of Kunming to the more northern city of Dali which resides at the foot of Cangshan Mountain. Narrow roads were constructed out of cheap slick materials, and were dangerous due to the fact that all Chinese drivers are considerably insane behind the wheel. Now they say you can tool along at 60 MPH on super highways, but arriving safely without mishap is still not a guarantee. Now the capital contains millions of denizens when you could practically walk its width in half a day thirty years ago...and...what about that beautiful lofty specimen of Cannabis sativa that was "planted" ½ block away from the main tourist hotel? Is that damn thing still there...with the purpose of entrapping western tourists and extracting exorbitant fines?
Betula utilis 'Yunnan'
|Paris polyphylla var. yunnanense|
You asked if my experience in Yunnan benefited my career. Not really, I think. I didn't go there, primarily, to collect new plant species as did George Forrest. Most species were known to Western horticulture by my time, and there is not a whole lot left to discover. I did come away with seed from an attractive Betula utilis, and later with a Betula calcicola collected by Dr. David Hale on a subsequent trip. The true firs, such as Abies forrestii and the spruce, Picea likiangensis were fun to experience, but they both have been known to horticulture for one hundred years. The same is true for Paris polyphylla which I found growing in the forest litter.
So I didn't really go to China to discover or to bring back species – I just wanted to see them endemically. I wanted to visit this "Mother of Gardens" and to walk in Forrest's footsteps, for throughout my career the rugged plant collector has been my hero of horticulture.
Our group of six was chaperoned by Chinese authorities under the guise of a "sport department," as if we were mountain climbers, and any plant or seed collecting would have to be done on the sly. We flew from Beijing to Kunming where we were met by three smoking goons along with a slick university-educated functionary named Jin Joon. He announced that our journey into the mountains would not begin the following morning as planned because it was "not possible." When pressed, he explained that it was due to a festival and that the roads would be jammed. We groaned in disbelief, but we were in their hands now.
It turned out to be a blessing, for the festival included a parade to "celebrate" Yunnan's twenty four ethnic minorities. While an official minority is usually the subject of Han discrimination, the parade was meant to demonstrate otherwise, like everyone belonged to one big happy Chinese family. Our group was issued tacky yellow ribbons which we pinned to our chests. I didn't understand at first, but the ribbons designated VIP status which allowed us access to the best viewing spots, while the police kept the many thousands of Chinese behind ropes. Feeling brave, I actually took position on a traffic island, so I was constantly in the middle of the parade and could take the best photos.
As we all saw from the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese sure know how to put on a show. The ethnic parade featured floats, music and pretty girls, with the star of the festival a creature of extraordinary beauty. I never did find out which minority she represented, but mainly I hoped that she wouldn't be forced into an arranged marriage with a Communist party thug. I was in China pre-Tiananmen, and the world eventually learned how ruthless those elites could be.
|Heading to market|
Anyway Jin Joon led us out of Kunming the following day. Most of the trip is now a distant blur, but I remember scenic landscapes with terraced farming, unfortunately with an incredible amount of erosion where red-earth hillsides were washed away. Nude hills were replanted with pines – Pinus tabuliformis perhaps – and the locals were prohibited to cut them down for much-needed firewood. Instead they limbed them up – almost to the top – for their fuel. We passed thousands of Eucalyptus along the roadsides, and they were limbed the same way. So the landscape ranged from serene and verdant to horrific devastation. It was obvious that the Chinese had the ability to totally ruin the earth (in 1988), but I truly hope that they have learned some lessons since then.
|Tiger Leaping Gorge|
|Entrance to Dali, China|
The small town of Dali was interesting, and it was our base for exploring the Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Yangtze River. As legend has it, the narrow – but most vertiginous – gorge was jumped by a tiger in a single bound to escape to the other side. In some places there is a sheer drop of 10,000 feet to the water. I walked along the trail for five or six miles, happy at last to be away from my travelling companions, although there were no plants of interest in the area. I was well within our agreed rendezvous when two of our chaperones showed up in a huff to escort me back to the group. Their worry was due to the discovery that a gang of convicts was working the marble mines along the trail – and indeed I had earlier passed them. My protectors would have been in great trouble, no doubt, if an American under their charge was murdered and dumped into the river.
A short distance north of Dali one will encounter a triangle of three Buddhist pagodas, known as Chongsheng Santa, or the "Three Pagodas of Saintly Worship." The middle or tallest is 230 feet (70 meters) and was constructed in the middle of the ninth century, while the other two were built 200 years later. All were built by the "earth-stacking method," whereby terraces of earth were piled around the pagoda as it rose ever higher, then finally the dirt was removed to reveal the marvelous structure. Miraculously they have survived earthquakes, and even more amazing is that they survived Mao's Cultural Revolution.
We were able to stop at villages and attend several markets. I thought that the people – men, women and children – were especially good looking, and I never encountered shouting crabby people like one does in India and other countries. Also no one begged. I recognized some of the colorful garb and peoples from the parade, but I regret that I didn't take more time to document the minorities I encountered. Many wore western clothing – the kind that is now shipped to our Walmarts – or the drab green outfits of the People. I am sure there have been many changes since the 1980's, and I would love to go back, as I now recognize that I was not adequately prepared to appreciate the China that I was seeing.
|Monk at Yufeng|
The next day, after traipsing through the brush in the morning, we stopped at a monastery to see the "oldest tree in the world," an espaliered Camellia in the courtyard.* We were there in the fall so it wasn't in bloom, but I have seen photos of its pink blossoms with the same attendant monk, smiling benignly and fingering his prayer beads. He had an absent look like some people I have encountered who are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, and I wondered if it was due to abuse during the Cultural Revolution. An enormous evergreen Magnolia delavayi hovered at the monastery side, and next to it was the latrine buzzing with flies. Throughout Yunnan we saw men and women farmers hauling pails on poles over their shoulders, dumping the treated "night soil" over their cabbages, and thus we knew how our next meal was fertilized.
*Actually it was eventually aged to be 500 years old.
|Talon Buchholz in center, Jin Joon to his left|
We had a couple of beers that night in old Lijiang, and feeling tired I walked back to our hotel. I learned the next morning that one of our members was lubed up very well, and he foolishly got into a drinking contest with our Chinese driver. The Chinese never lose those.
The next morning I wandered through town with its little canals racing down the sides of streets. One woman was washing her hair while another was washing dishes. Old Lijiang consists mainly of the Naxi people, and I was fascinated to observe this matriarchal tribe. The women wear the pants while the men tended the gardens and raised children. At a construction site the men were carrying bricks up the ladder while a formidable woman barked orders from below with a clipboard in hand. The Naxi believe they came from an ancestor named Tabu who helped them hatch from magic eggs. For years the old town supported a stable population of 50,000 people for most of its 800 years, but now New Lijiang is encroaching, and a 2010 census revealed that it had a population of 1,244,769.
Today's blog is sparse on plant photos because I can't remember much, and also to the fact that I didn't archive my slide photos as a trip, but instead as a botanical classification. But of course we saw a lot and it would be fun to return some spring. At times I imagined the ghost of George Forrest coming over a hill with his trusted assistants carrying specimens back to camp. The real Forrest was accompanied by his black lab named "Nigger," and he spent the years 1904-1931 almost continuously in China. One of his adventures was escaping from the field while barefoot, with murderous lamas in hot pursuit in an anti-foreigner fervor. He survived that ordeal, but later collapsed and died suddenly from a heart attack at age 59.* A cemetery exists where he was buried, but the exact location is unknown as the locals are known to filch grave stones to be used in new construction.
*Two excellent biographies are Journeys and Plant Introductions by Dr. J. Macqueen Cowan and George Forrest, V.M.H. published by the Scottish Rock Garden Club, but a newer book (2004) George Forrest Plant Hunter by Brenda McLean is the best.
Forrest collected over 31,000 herbarium specimens as well as live plants and bulbs, and everything was documented in his neat handwriting. His Chinese assistants were so well-trained that plants kept coming after his death, and his legacy is that Forrest greatly enriched our gardens. He wrote to his brother in December 1905, "I simply cannot leave those flowers to be discovered by and named after Frenchmen."
Plants introduced by Forrest into Britain are quite numerous. All of the photos below were taken at my nursery or elsewhere, not in Yunnan.
|Rhododendron proteoides 'Cecil Smith Form'|
Acer davidii 'George Forrest'
Rhododendron roxieanum var. oreonastes
|June Sinclair with Rhododendron sinogrande|
|Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata 'Lanarth'|
|Rhododendron forrestii var. repens|
|Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense|
Page two of the following letter was sent by Forrest to the avid Portland, Oregon gardener Rae Selling Berry who subscribed (100 £.) to his last expedition. He laments his departed companion "Nigger."
By the way Janina, Forrest collected animals as well, and there are six birds with forrestii specific names, and also a dragonfly, Temnogomphus forrestii.
Hopefully this blog will provide you with some ammunition for your interview. Keep in touch and let me know how you do. The entire Flora Wonder readership will be pulling for you. If selected, work tirelessly just as Forrest did, and document everything.