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?


  1. Hi matt... Really enjoyed ur post regarding trip to yunnan.. Are you allowed to take any samples from that place??? Im from india even i wanted to go on a trip like this... Is it possible..? How can i go?

  2. Thanks for sharing the highlights of your trip. These plants are even more gorgeous in their natural setting.

  3. Great post!
    Love the May apples and cyps.
    Attack of the taxinomists- sinopodophyllum?


    1. Wish I could grow the cyps here, but too hot in DC. Maybe if they were hybridized with formosanum, pubescens or kentuckiensis.

  4. Anonymous1:50 PM

    For your observations in the wild, you might find inaturalist interesting. It is a way to have your nature related travel photos contribute to the scientific knowledge of the regions you visit

  5. Great collection with great efforts. I can see how much hard it is to capture these all floral but You really did an awesome job. Keep it up the Amazing work!

  6. Wow, incredible plants! What an awesome trip (other than the leeches)!

  7. Such lovely images - they are full of peace and wonder - so much beauty in our world. Keep up the great work!


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