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July 31, 2018

The Incredible Primroses of Yunnan and Western China


Am I an adventure junkie? Not exactly, but I do like travel, different cultures, world travel as well as plants and most of nature (except snakes), so any opportunity to geek out with some friends on a single genus is an opportunity I am going to jump at. In this part of northwestern Yunnan there are a number of plants one could possibly geek-out on like rhododendrons, corydalis, lilies or wild orchids, but really it's the primroses that brought me here.

Half of the world's wild primroses come from the vast landscape of the Himalayas, with 500 species worldwide, at least 300 of them are found in this mountain range and over a hundred in Yunnan.  Since primulaceae is one of my most favorite plant families, I wanted to dedicate a single post to just primula that we saw on this trek, so here you go. Fair warning though - the names are still being worked out, I only have a couple of good books to key out what we found, so if you're an expert, feel free to correct me and I'll credit you. Aside from that, enjoy the shots!


The tiny and lovely mat-forming Primula nanobella, here on the top of Shikashan, elevation 14,000. We saw this on the high mountain tundra found on many mountains from Shangrila, going northwest to the Tibetan border.  Growing no higher than 3 inches in some places it virtually covered the ground. The tube or 'mouth' is filled with fibers or a pom pom of tiny lavender hairs which make the center of the flower appear blurry or congested, an interesting feature that liked to freak out my camera as it focused.


The singular flowers of P. nanobella arise from the tiniest rosettes, no larger than a thumbnail, and as you can see, their color was practically a florescent violet.

I shot lots of videos as well, which I hope to edit into some project in the future, or just to show at future talks, but this tiny primrose was very animated as the wiry stems ensured that the flowers would bounce and wave in the strong winds.


Primula dradifolia, Baimashan
Another view of what I believe is P. dryadifolia. I just can't find a good image in any of my books.


Here is a view of our group botanizing in an open alpine meadow on Shikashan (or Shika Shan, as 'Shika' means deer, and 'Shan' means mountain). This meadow was full of primroses and that low shrub you see blooming is rhododendron.


PRimroses in the section Muscarioides look somewhat like the Dutch bulb Muscari. 

Primula amethystina subsp. brevifolia on Shika Shan, Yunnan, China.


Primula apoclita, Yunnan, Zhongdian, Shika Shan near 14,000'.



At lower elevation this may be the same species but at 12,000' more elongated.

 P. graminifolia 


One of the mystery primroses. Please share your ID notes if you think that you know which one this is. Shika Shan, NW. Yunnan around 12,000'.



P, chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea

More Primula chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea but shorter, as this is at high elevation on the summit of ShikaShan, 4400m.


Getting familiar with a nice specimen of Primula chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea. I know - I look bulked up -No fat shaming allowed, I just should have removed the two sweat shirts I had on under my rain gear -- it was cold!



P, chionantha subsp. sinopurpurea on the mining road leading up to Hong Shan.


Primula secundiflora, near the pass at Hong Shan, 4500 m.




Primula florida (or P. yunnanensis?) , Baimashan, NW Yunnan


A closer view of P.florida or P. yunnanensis. Please correct me if you know which species this is.



My eyes are getting tired, but I cannot seem to ID this one...any ideas?




P. sikkimensis , perhaps var.pseudosikkimensus however, this was at high elevation on Shikashan at 14,000' and not on Yulongxueshan in NW Yunnan where the variant is presumably limited to at high elevation. The large blossoms and short stature at high elevation make it difficult to ID. I welcome thoughts from the primula experts.



Of all the primula species it is this beauty, the fragrant (as Panayoti Kelaidis From the Denver Botanic Garden demonstrates here) Primula sikkimensis that really puts on a show as it often forms great colonies both at high elevation and above 9,000' throughout this part of the Himalaya. We found spectacular colonies near streams and seeps throughout our trek.

At high elevation, such as this stream bed on Hongshan near 15,000' the colonies stopped us in our tracks.


But near alpine lakes, the show often became truly spectacular, such as this colony nearly 1/8 mile long at Tianchi lake 3850m. Even trying to capture an image that would show the immense scene was challenging. You can see how dense these were growing. Just amazing, as I begin to run out of adjectives.




The massive colonies of P. sikkimensis extended around the lake.


Another colony-forming primrose is this pink beauty, if only we could grow it here in New Engand! Primula secundiflora is just another one of those Himalayan primroses which most of us could only dream of growing, yet here it grows in abundance, often forming large colonies near streams and wet bogs, deceiving us all with its weedy appearance. Don't taiunt us P. secundiflora!


We came across colonies of P. secundiflora everywhere, but mostly between the areas around Zongdian (Shangrila) and Baimashan.

As you can see, some of the colonies were massive and every where one looked, there were thousands of plants.

And then this happened. Primula overload once you mix it all together. So if you garden designers believe that yellow and magenta cant work together, don't tell Mother Nature. Both Primula secundiflora and P. sikkimensis growing on a wide seep at Tianchi Lake which is still at high elevation near 3800m. There were millions of them.


Other primroses colonize as well as if the above experiences weren't enough. Here are at least three species of primroses, maybe more. Most of the color in this meadow comes from the pale yellow P. sikkimensis and the pink  P. zambalensis.


Colonies of P. zambalensis around Dechin and the high passes of Bai Ma Shan were quite variable, with some completely white and every shade of violet-pink inbetween.


Every plant of this primula looks like a perfect pot plant.


Here is one of the nearly white forms.


P. aemula, Shika Shan

At lower elevations, if one can consider 11,000' low, we found primula in the woodlands. Here is P. polyneura on Baimashan.

P. polyneura with its wiry stems and delicate blooms in a woodland.


Scott Smith from Colorado treks across a high elevation pass loaded with tiny rhododendron in full bloom and even more primroses. The ten of us were starting to get tired on these last few days, but all it took was a single sighting of another rare plant to get us climbing high. This day we went the highest, up to 16,500'.

Throughout much of this area were other genus within primulaceae, so it makes sense to me to include a few from the genus Androsace, as they are so closely akin to primroses.


Androsace zambalensis (my guess). Please correct me.


I probably shouldnt be covering Androsace, as I am not getting the names right, but I dont want this to hold up a post. This possibly is Androsace delavayi.

Many Androsace form rosettes or even tight buns at high elevation, but this one doesn't.  Perhaps A. mariae.



I think this is Androsace spinulifera


Androsace delavayi

Perhaps the most lovely Androsace is this one we found on a knoll just above the Zhongdian plain, A. bulleyana.

Just above the road the encircles the great plain of Zhongdian in Shangrila were large colonies of this bright red Andnrosace. It forms tiny rosettes and long, wiry stems topped off with bright red umbels.

Androsace bulleyana in full sun growing in grass.




As you can see, primulaceae were found at all levels and in every location here in Northwestern Yunnan near the Tibetan borderlands. Truly a primrose-rich area and a sight few plant people ever get to see as most plant collectors collect in the autumn and not during the bloom season just after snowmelt in late spring and the Himalayan summer in June and early July.


July 12, 2018

Lilies, Ladyslippers and Leeches - The Floral Richness of Western China

Meconopsis racemosa, one of the blue poppies so famous in the Himalaya.

Yeah. Leeches...

...but, blue poppies!

I'm trying really hard to limit my Yunnan posts to just three, but given that I've taken so many pictures - forgive me if it creeps into four posts. After-all. Just the genus primula alone will need an entire post and that's not including Androsace. Then, of course, there is corydalis...and meconopsis (who doesn't love blue Himalayan poppies?)... and Podophyllum (Sinopodophyllum?) with all of those leaf patterns and variation...and Arisaema....


The blue poppies around Zhongdian were brighter blue in some areas, but identifying without a key was challenging. We first beleived this to be Meconopsis horridula, but the blue color wasnt exactly right and the pollen sacs were white, not yellow. Who cares - it was a freakin' blue poppy in the wild!



I think it will make more sense to group plants together in ways that arent just attractive, but perhaps useful to some of you - I know that I would love to see where plants in my garden are growing in the wild. I found it helpful to see so many ArisaemaL growing in full sun in meadows for example. The same goes for rhododendrons. Here in western China, just a square meter of woodland can inform a garden designer in ways one could never imagine. Indeed roscoea, rodgersia, cyprepedium orchids and meconopsis blue poppies could all grow together as companion plants.

Who am I kidding. Meconopsis? Not in my garden! Beleive me - I've tried, but we are just too hot and humid in the summer. Still, my planting schemes will improve now that I've seen so many rhododendron forests loaded with rare plants.



Other meconopsis species were easier to identify, like this M. henrici (or M.lancifolia)  growing near 12,000 ft. Not blue one however, just a violet colored meconopsis -- still,  just as nice.




Yellow meconopsis were a bit more common, but still very special (by common, I mean we saw about 10 plants). Meet Meconopsis integrifolia, growing at 13,000 feet. Still very special and 'squeal-worthy' amongst we plant geeks.


At higher elevation even more meconopsis.

Iris barbatula in a meadow on the Zhongdian plateau. We saw so many iris species that I just gave up trying to ID them all.
Iris delavayi

Lloydia ixiolirioides was new to me but what a beauty. 

Lillium souliei first fooled me into believing that it was a fritilaria, but not - 100% lily, with a single bloom often emerging from a low rhododendron in high, alpine meadows.



Here you can see how frittilaria-like Lilum souliei is.


Lilium euxanthum on Baimashan.This lovely little lilly is much smaller than it looks. At around an inch and a half, it's byno means a tall, regal lily but it did appear on this one snow mountain in great numbers.





Low growing rhododendrons at around 15,500 feet made it difficult to hike in, not to mention the thin air - this was one mountain where I needed to rest and couldnt go much higher due to thin air - but the lilies called me.

So similar to the above lily yet so different. Lillium lophophorum has fused petal tips that makes each flower look like a Chinense lantern.


It too is a small lily. Thumb sized.

I rested with our drivers for a bit. I was surprised at how quiclly they could build a fire for lunch every time we stopped. Sliced pork fat cooked on a flat rock, yak butter tea to wash it down with. Not as bad as it all sounded #EatLikeATibetan.



 This plant fooled us. Was is a gentian? Nope (but close). A lily? No. A Frittilaria? No. Meet Megacodon stylophorus - a beautiful plant with a name more like a Transformer than a gentian relative.


Tipping up the blossom and the Megacodon was even more beautiful.



There were plenty of Frittilaria though. This one I never identified. Any ideas?


The lily relatives continued. I only know this one from photos from photos posted on Ian Young's Bulb Log, an influencial reference site for me ever since Ian started posting his bulb pics ten years or so ago. If you've never visited it, check it out here on the Scottish Rock Garden Club's site.

Oh yeah.This plant is a bulbous beauty, right? Nomocharis aperta will always be on mywish list (I did try growing this lily relative once, but failed.).




Clematis out in the wild?You bet. So many to share, but this C. chrysocoma was sweet. Even though on this rainy day most harboured leeches.


On sunny days, the climbing clematis species that tumbled through evergreens and shrubs reminded me of old Heronswood catalogue descriptions where Dan Hinkley waxed on about how to properly plant clematis so that the vines could grow through shrubs - yeah. Like this. Exactly. Noted.



Clematis montana blooming throughout a fir tree.


Orchids were everywhere so just a few ladyslippers. Cyprepedium yunnanense.



Cyprepedium guttatum


Cypripedium flavum



Cypripedium tibeticum







Mountain villages in NW Yunnan are remote and quiet.


At most every Tibetan or Bhudist shrine prayer beads and cards could be seed and heard.



Paeonia delavayi,just to add to the garden-like feel. I mean- growing amongst Ppodophyllum, Paris, Polygonatum, Rhododendron and Roscoea. I know,right?




I just remembered that maybe you might not be familiar with the genus Roscoea. A ginger-like bulb, which I went a little bit crazy about growing a few years ago, grows in certain areas in Yunnanasif sprinkled around the woodlands and meadows.



Roscoea cautleyoides





Thalictrum yunnanense with raindrops.

In my very American mind, I imagined Kunming to be a small town and Shangri-la to be...well...'Shangrila-like'. The truth is that Kunming houses millions of people(we were told 7 mil.but that's the population of Hong Kong, so it seems high).  Still, it is a very large city not unlike Boston (if Boston had Las Vegas style lighting on the buildings and the worlds 5th largest airport). Shangrila was far from small as well, but I was prepared for this as the village (or town) had a fire in 2014 which destroyed nearly half of the old town. The rebuilding continues with the Chinese government enforcing a new very Tibetan aesthetic to all of the new buildings.

I suppose that it'sm not unlike Aspen or Vail (mountain towns trying to attract tourism dollars) building hotels that look visually 'right' within the environment. As a designer, I can understand such restraints, but again, I wasn't prepared completely for the doses of modernity. The contradiction it seems is very 'Chinese' however. KFC's next to chicken feet vendors, or jewellery stores where Yaks wander in off of the street. Much of China is like this - after all, the cultural revolution was only 40 years ago and there has been tremendous growth in just the past 20 years.

Our first week involved botanizing at high elevation but by not 'high by Himalayan standards -  around 10,000 feet, which is the average elevation of the Zhongdian plateau around the city of Zhongdian (Shangri-La City). A few day-trips would eventually acclimate us to the much higher mountains near Shangri-La such as Shika Shan (4400m) which we would eventually botanize on a full-day hike down for 7 miles.  The high alpine meadows full of primula and dwarfed rhododendron species leading into denser and taller rhododendron forests became a highlight of our entire trek.


Podophyllum hexandrum on Napahai


The plants on these first few days were spectacular, even though 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet is relatively low by Himalayan standards. Below treeline, there were woodland plants like Rodgersia, Podophyllum and Cypripedium orchids growing amongst geophytes (bulbs) like lilies, Nomocharis, Lloydia, Roscoea and Arisaema.

The foliage patterns on various podophyllum was immense and I became a bit obsessed with trying to capture as many different ones as I could. This striking one looked even better along side the lime-green Euphorbia blossoms.



I wish I could have brought home a selection of just the many selections of podophyllum.




LIke flipping through a Heronswood catalog, then came the Arisaema. Many growing in full sun while others were deep in the forest. Here are a few - the names might not be correct.


Perhaps Arisaema ciliatum.


Arisaema elephas, with it's classic "mouse down the jack' pose.


Scotty Smith one of our 'woody' experts works on identifying a lilac. Panayoti looks over his shoulder.






Another day of botanizing around Napahai was enhanced by the early arrival of the monsoons. With even more arisaema and roscoea,we didn't mind the rain. The rain was so heavy during our first week that it made the news (as best as I could tell given my limited Chinese).  The heavy rains eliminated any view of snow-capped mountains but it was exactly what the flowers at these mid-elevations needed to really excell. Unfortunately the leeches didn't mind it either. The leeches were so plentiful that not one of us was spared. Thus, this day earned the title of "Leech Day" for the remainder of the trip.



Leeches look like tiny slugs when relaxed and in their ball shape.  When extended during rain on grass-tips and leaf tips, they are long and thin. They are exceedingly sticky and can snag a passerby instantly.


Leech bites aren't as painful as they are gross (any pain is more like a mosquito bite) but the wounds do bleed excessively - especially if one pulls the leech off before it has 'done it's deed'. Naturally few of us had the patience to wait until the leeches had their fill. If left to suck to completion, the leech will reward the donor with a bit of coagulant to stop the bleeding. Few of us tested that fact, removing leeches as soon as we felt them bite us. I was more fortunate than most, having read about these leeches before I bought 'leech socks' from REI - modified tight nylon socks which I wore over my tights (yes, I wore tights too) and rain pants. The only leech I got was on my back - one that slipped in over my belt.

Even Panayoti -our tour leader (you can check out his great blog here!) got bitten. Not painful, the wound will bleed for some time if the leech is removed while it is still feeding. But who would want to wait?