This past week I spent some time in western China studying the flora, but I did so with my butt on the couch while reading the Guide to the Flowers of Western China by Christopher Grey-Wilson and Phillip Cribb. The title is somewhat misleading as the area covered does not extend totally west into Tibet, Xinjiang and western Qinghai, and according to the parameters (see above) the area is actually south-central China. The book is basically an encyclopedia with a short paragraph given to each plant, and it takes the broad point of view about what constitutes a “flower” and includes conifers; and you might recall in a blog or two ago that I too consider conifer cones and pollen structures to be “flowers” even though many notable botanical institutions and nurseries do not. Them rong.
|Yunnan Province, China|
The book consists of over 600 pages in small print and thousands of color photographs by 60 different photographers, and the depicted quality ranges from superb to serviceable to absolutely horrible. It's odd that useless pictures are included since it's a 2011 Royal Botanical Gardens Kew publication, but I am relieved to know that the paper used came from “responsible sources.” I learn in the introduction that China, at about the same size as the United States, contains almost twice as many species and that 56% of them are endemic to China alone. Imagine 571 species of Rhododendron (409 endemic), plus vast amounts of Primula, Clematis, Gentiana, Saxifraga etc. The introduction also reminds us that to collect plants in China without permission is to break the law, a fact that many western plantsmen find out the hard way. I have been to the Chinese province of Yunnan, which is included in the book, but I only took photos and left footprints...well, except for a little seed deposited in the bottom of my camera bag.
|Rhododendron faberi ssp. prattii|
Let's begin with Rhododendrons since the book's cover shows a wonderful photo of R. forma prattii near the Hailuogou glacier in western Sichuan, a species that is considered R. faberi ssp. prattii by the Rhododendron Species Foundation. In any case, I don't grow it but I do have other species in the subsection Taliensia. R. proteoides is one such, but it is much smaller and lower, with my 15-year-old specimen hardly larger than a dinner plate. It bloomed the first year after it was grafted but never since. R. proteoides is notorious for requiring decades to flower, but when you graft it onto another species it suspects that something is abnormal and it decides to bloom before it might die...sort of like “getting your affairs in order” with people, but maybe I'm giving plants too much credit. The blossom photo above is from the Cecil Smith garden, and the late Oregonian Mr. Smith was equally famous for his generosity as for his excellent garden. R. proteoides was discovered by George Forrest in 1914 in Yunnan at an altitude of 12,000-15,000' elevation. In my garden the leaves will burn unless given afternoon shade, but at least the plant is hardy to USDA zone 3, or -40 degrees.
Rhododendron wardii is also native to Yunnan, but at a lesser altitude “in open forests, thickets, shrubberies and open slopes.” The Flowers of Western China offers five photos of the species in the wild, all from different locations, and you can see that the richness of the yellow blossoms can vary. Frank Kingdon-Ward discovered it in 1913 and he was known not only for his discoveries but also for introducing the best forms. Ward (1885-1958) was a botanist, plant collector and author, and I have many of his books on my basement shelves. He explored in Tibet, China, Burma (Myanmar) and Assam (northeastern India), and to get to the higher elevations with the good stuff, he had to slog by foot through the hot humid lowlands first. Ward led an adventurous life, once being close to the epicenter of a 9.6 earthquake. He was also a spy for the British India Office, and was arrested by the Tibetans for crossing the Sela pass when he was denied permission to do so. In 1923 he moved into a large house on Hatton Road in London where he built a big rockery, but today the house and rockery are under London's Heathrow Airport. Alas, he had to sell his house because he lost too much money running a plant nursery business. I find it interesting – amusing really – that Ward was successful at so many endeavors, but that he failed as a nurseryman...especially when I am apparently the opposite.
I grow – wait a minute, I grew – Rhododendron yunnanense which the book describes as, “Variable, erect, often rather sparse evergreen to almost deciduous shrub.” The species is native to Tibet, Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan and even in northern Myanmar, but the amazing thing is that it is found as low as 3,000' and up to 13,000'. I lost my one plant when we reached ten degrees in early November a year or two ago, but at least its pixels live on and thanks for the memories. If I ever acquire it again I'll pay more attention to its provenance and try to find one from higher up the mountain. My departed was beautiful in bloom and quite fragrant and I miss her dearly, as I do an early girlfriend. Many Rhododendron snobs will tell you that a species should be judged by its appearance when not in flower, but R. yunnanense was a plain-jane for most of the year, but then she positively elated me when floristically showing off in April. The delightful species was introduced by the French missionary Pere Delavay in about 1889, and it received the British distinguished Award of Merit as early as 1903. All Rhododendron species can be attractive, but R. yunnanense was certainly my type of girl, err...plant.
I'll now move on to the Primulaceae family and discuss my favorite “primrose” species, Primula vialii. It is also native to northwest Yunnan where I have been, but since I visited in the fall (1988) I have never seen it in flower in the wild. Maybe I like it because it has a different kind of primrose flower – not a “drumstick” or a hybrid kind of flower, but instead a “spike, red in bud; corolla violet-blue, with rather narrow, pointed, unnotched lobes” as described in The Flowers of Western China. My first encounter with the species was at the Rhododendron Species Foundation – my favorite “home away from home,” and they feature a large planting in a soggy area where it thrives. According to my book, P. vialii is “apparently now rare in the wild,” and indeed I too am not able to keep it alive in the Flora Wonder Arboretum. It at first survives, then dwindles then dies...is my experience. I was shocked to find it for sale at the local box-store garden center for only two bucks a pop, and I assumed they were produced via tissue culture. I didn't buy any from them – that would lead to bad karma – and the only reason I go into these box-stores is to snoop to find out which ill-advised nurseries are supplying them. Pere Delavay originally discovered the species but there was some confusion about the name he gave. Later George Forrest found it (1906), and he concluded that it was new to science, so he named it P. littoniana. The word primula is the Latin feminine diminutive of primus, meaning “first” due to Primula's early flowering in spring. I don't know anything about a Mr. Vial who is honored with the specific name – perhaps one of France's recipients of Delavay's plant shipments.
Delavay was honored with Osmanthus delavayi, which was originally classified as Siphonosmanthus delavayi. He introduced it in 1890, and first discovered it in the mountains in Yunnan near Lan-kong. Osmanthus delavayi is a beautiful species eventually reaching about five feet tall by seven feet wide, and is covered with fragrant white flowers on arching stems. The evergreen leaves are dark green and attractive, though only about one-half an inch long, but when the plant is in flower it becomes totally white for a few weeks. Delavay didn't name the elegant shrub for himself, but he sent it to a French nursery for introduction, and I'm not sure if he (D.) was ever aware that he had been honored. The common name is the “Delavay tea olive.” The word osmanthus is derived from Greek osme for “fragrance,” and anthos for “flowers.” The only short-coming to the plant is that it is only hardy to 0 degrees F, USDA zone 7.
Prunus serrula is the “Tibetan cherry,” but it should not be confused with P. serrulata. E.H. Wilson introduced both cherries, the former in 1908 and the latter in 1900. No wonder Wilson was known as “Chinese Wilson.” P. serrula's name comes from Latin for a “small saw,” the diminutive of serra saw due to its serrated leaves. The peeling mahogany bark is a wonderful sight, but best in someone else's garden. If you use it as a lawn tree and water often you'll constantly be mowing its root suckers. I can't grow it because I have a Prunus crud at Flora Farm; I don't know what the disease is or how it arrived, but I've lost half of an old edible cherry tree, one pie cherry tree, half of a weeping Prunus mume and I was forced to cut down an almost dead Prunus maackii. I use all of my energy to take care of my happy trees, so there's nothing left to deal with Prunus problems.
|Corylopsis willmottiae 'Spring Purple'|
*Her life story is very interesting, and maybe I'll take it up another time. Suffice to say that she had money and in part sponsored Wilson's expeditions, and because of that he named the Corylopsis for her, as well as Rosa willmottiae and Ceratostigma willmottiae.
Magnolia wilsonii has a blossom as beautiful as any flower in horticulture, but it remains rare in the trade. A couple of things against it is that it is not precocious, that is it blooms when leaves are present. The second problem is that the blossoms hang downward, and I think I stood on my head to take the photo above. The species is similar to M. sinensis which also is located in the zone covered by The Flowers of Western China, but I learn that M. sinensis has been reclassified as M. sieboldii ssp. sinensis. What the heck – Wilson introduced both species in 1908 when he was working for the Arnold Arboretum near Boston. My oldest M. wilsonii is less than 10' tall – on its own roots – so it is either very slow-growing or it's not happy for another reason. M. wilsonii occurs between 6,000' to 10,000' in elevation in Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. It is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List and the population is in decline. That is due to 1) habitat loss and 2) to the use of its highly aromatic bark for medicinal purposes, known as hou po. China is catching up to the West in horticulture and if there is the political will and enough concern for the environment there should be nothing going extinct.
A conifer species that I grew early in my career was Picea likiangensis, and I was pleased when I saw it near Lijiang, Yunnan in 1988. My trees were propagated by grafting onto “Norway spruce,” Picea abies, but the tops performed as if they were on their own roots. Sales were never great so I discontinued growing it, content to have just one older tree in the collection. Unfortunately it fell victim to a wet October windstorm, and with my other worries we never got around to propagating from the toppled. I would like to acquire it again, both for the beautiful cones and for the Lijiang memories. The old town is a UNESCO Heritage Site with cute cobblestone streets, canals and bridges. It was our base for jaunts to the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, as the five people in my group were there for plants. One member, Fred Nelson, managed Portland's Forest Park – the largest urban forest in America. He foolishly got into a drinking contest with our Chinese chaperone, and the Chinese never lose those. The next day we climbed to a high elevation and poor Fred lagged behind with a hangover. This area is peopled by the Nakhi people, a matriarchal society where the women wear the pants and the men raise the kids. Anyway, that's how it used to be 28 years ago, but I know many things have changed.
|Meconopsis 'Lingholm' at the Rhododendron Species Foundation|
Meconopsis 'Lingholm' is a hybrid with M. betonicifolia as one parent, and this species is covered in the book, as well as 17 other species. I grew it in a large box with other plants in GH20, but the Himalayan Blue Poppy was always the star of the show. It lived for four years before failing, and I remember its flowers were huge in its final year. I've tried other 'Lingholm' plants in other parts of the garden but they have always died before blooming. In one case it was thought to be a weed – since it had no label – and the Buchholz Nursery Roundup crew polished it off. The aforementioned Rhododendron Species Foundation has great Meconopsis success with a sizeable patch interplanted with Cardiocrinum. The only problem is that thoughtless visitors tromp into them to take pictures on their cellphones. Garden Director Steve Hootman might be pleased to know that I even yelled at a group – for all I knew they were going to pick the flowers. Sorry if I ruined their day, but their kids were wild and loud too, and the garden is kind of a church for me.
Bletilla striata 'Alba'
|Bletilla striata 'Murasaki shikibu'|
The Flowers of Western China lists three species of Bletilla: ochracea, striata and formosa. They are easy to grow and plenty hardy in Oregon, and there is nothing more cute than their blossoms. The plants slowly spread by underground rhizomatous corms, and just yesterday we divided a few clumps. Besides the straight species we also have a few hybrids – like 'Kate' and cultivars such as B. striata 'Alba', 'Kuchibeni' and 'Murasaki shikibu'.* When fully opened the pale lavender flowers have a bluish-purple lip, and in many ways it reminds me of a miniature Iris.
*Note how I spell 'Murasaki shikibu' with the second name uncapitalized per the rules of Japanese botanical nomenclature. But maybe I should relent because Murasaki (purple) refers to the heroine of the old The Tale of Genji and to the book's author, Murasaki Shikibu. Both are fake names used in the Heian period (794-1185) because it was then considered vulgar to address people by their personal name. The real name of the author is lost, and Murasaki was the heroine she created, and Shikibu after her father's official rank. In olden times, and even today, the Japanese use a lot of smoke and mirrors when dealing with each other. In old Japanese poetry the relationship between the deep purple of the violet and the lavender of the wisteria led to the revered name Murasaki. Thanks to wife Haruko for the explanation, and maybe she should be writing the Flora Wonder Blog.
Near the Bletilla-Pleione section of the book is a genus I've never heard of called Phaius. There are eight species in China, four endemic, and I wonder if they are hardy in Oregon. I am familiar with about half of all of the species listed in the book, but I am intrigued by many, like Phaius, from the half I don't know. I have to concede that many I will never know. Besides that, I don't even know the price of tea in China.