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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 growing near 12,000 ft. Not blue, a violet meconopsis is 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?











July 8, 2018

Botanizing Yunnan: Western China and the Tibetan Plateau




I've been home a day and a half now from nearly a month in China. Clearly I am recovering from jet lag after more than 20 hours on flights over three days (I wrote this post twice and then somehow forgot to save it! SO I lost it.) Third time is a charm, right?

Over the next few posts I will attempt to summarize some of the highlights of this trip to what Frank Kingdon Ward called 'The land of the Blue Poppies' (yes, we saw a few those amazing Meconopsis species), but all of. the floristic wonders in this remote part of China are immense, and covering all of what we saw will be impossible - as I have a few thousand photos -probably enough content for many posts. I will just share the highlights, probably saving the juicy details for the talks that I will be giving about this incredible trip.

Contradictions exist everywhere in rural China. Our luggage arrived at our inn in Lijiang old town this way.


So, some of you were wondering "Why Yunnan and western China?". The answer is simple. This part of the Himalaya and the high Tibetan plateau is floristically one of the most diverse and species-rich places on earth. Why wouldnt any plant person want to come here? I will admit that it was ajourney and an adventure, and while nothing as adventurous as the orriginal 19th and early 20th century explorers encountered, the ten of us still found parts of the trip challenging,beit high elevation and altitude sickness, or something as mundane as a lack of ice and only warm beer.



An open air restaurant in old town Lijiang at least kept us dry in the early monsoons which were plaguing much of south west Asia a month early this year.

Our inn was old, and romantic with the sound of pouring rain running off the roof, and these open hallways with langerns. It was as if I stepped back a hundred years - both in the good and bad way!



A peak into a home in Lijiang.

For the first few days the monsoons drenched everything and everyone. Sometimes even too much for umbrellas. but not for the live fish in these plastic bags outisde ofa local market.

This alley leads to Joseph Rock's house, just on the left. A fascinating bit of history that still wasnt too commerical to experience.



Joseph Rock's residence featured an outside alley and door through a gate which lead to a courtyard. This is the view from the inside.

From the outside,Joseph Rock'sresidence looked like this. Almost as if he was still here with Donkey's drinking water from a well, the scent of incense and even live pigs.


Inside Jospeh Rock's home were photos and paraphenalia that the locals still use as a bit of a museum to help raise money for this tiny village.

We sae 'low' elevation plants (well if 10,000' can be considered low!) like this Thermopsis barbata on the Zhongdian plateau -it had nearly black flowers...

...and high elvation plants like these Sausaurea species at nearly 16,000'.


We were able to fields of primula, like these P. sikkimensis both at high and lower elevations. In fact, we saw primula almost everywhere in every color.



These Tibetan borderlands are home to so many favorite genus like Primula, Rhododendrons and alpine plants, Well collected over a hundred years ago by the names we all know like Wilson, Ward, Forrest, Farrer (even Dan Hinkley and Darrell Probst for that matter), we were not really looking for new species as we were looking to see something very special instead - something few modern plant collectors ever see - a chance to see these areas in full bloom rather than in the autumn, when most seed collecting happens. So how could I turn a trip like this down?



The great bend of the Yangtze River.


Incense at a monastary scents the air.

Our trip leader was Panayoti Kelaidis from the Denver Botanic Garden and NARGS.



This trip is the third under the umbrella of the NARGStours (North American Rock Garden Society Tours a group which I have been president of for the past 5 years, but now retired from). All participants are NARGS members however and each cames with a special expertise about a specific genus ranging from Corydalis to willows or Primula to woody plants. Panayoti Kelaidis (of the Denver Botanic Garden and currently VP of NARGS) acted as our tour leader which made for even a more extraordinary experience. 


I rest briefly (to catch my breath?) at 14,500' on Shikashan, Snow Mountain in NW Yunnan.


In Shangri-La (once known as Zhongdian) Tibetan monestary's and prayer flags add to the motif's everwhere you look.



Prayer wheels at monastary's and even at sacred mountains became a daily exercise routine - must spin ever one.



Rhododendron wardii, a rare yellow rhododendron only found in this area around Shikashan Snow Mountain in Yunnan. We were fortunate to be there during peak bloom and even sunshine - this part of the country has the cleanest air in China.



The upper meadows of Shika Shan in bloom with many small rhododendrons. It was hard to manage our time hiking down the 14,500 foot mountain to get to the bottom before dark, but treasures were everywhere.





At lower elevations many plants proved to be common in our gardens at home, from rodgersia to polygonatum to lilacs. Scotty Smith from Denver examines a lilac species looked over by Panayoty and Jeff Wagner (Colorado)- our 'woody' guys.


While I spent time in Beijing up front and then a few days in Kunming, much of our focus ranged from the lower right of this map of NW Yunnan to the upper left ending up in Dequin.



A random photo of lunch? We were well prepared for changes in diet and food, and knowledgable about avoiding fresh veggies and driking water that wasnt bottled. Still, as a foodie, I ventured out trying to experience everything.



Mangosteen at a local market. Sweet and delicious, we limited out fresh fruit consumption to that which could be peeled rather than relying on washing.



Mop handles were just as attractive as some of the plants.

Hygene varied of course, in one village all dishes from restaurants were washed this way.