Expedition: China, 1996

APEX (American Plant Explorers) 1996 Expedition to Yunnan, China

10/3 - 10/29, 1996 Field Notes

  1. Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery/Juniper Level Botanic Gardens Garden in Raleigh NC
  2. Frank Bell, Lexington NC
  3. Pierre Bennerup, Sunny Border Wholesale Nursery in Kensington CT
  4. David DeRose, Denver Botanic Garden in Denver CO
  5. Mildred Pinnell Foeckle, Atlanta Botanical Garden in Atlanta GA
  6. Kim Hawks, Niche Gardens in Chapel Hill NC
  7. Roy Herold, aroid and hosta specialist in Reading MA
  8. Dan Hinkley, Heronswood Nursery in Kingston WA
  9. Ozzie Johnson, Atlanta Botanical Garden in Atlanta GA
  10. Paul Jones, Duke Gardens in Durham NC
  11. Elsa Liner, Chapel Hill NC
  12. Darrell Probst, epimedium and tricyrtis breeder in Hubbardston, MA

Statement of Mission

Our goal was to explore and bring back new plants or plants in short supply from Yunnan, China that have potential ornamental value in the United States, with a strong emphasis on perennials. There must be clear indication that the plants brought into the US have no inclination to become potential invasive pests. All plant specimens are to be clearly documented as to collection location, habitat, etc. via the use of GPS (Global Positioning System). Only seed and plant samples are to be taken, and in no instances will a wild population be decimated. It is our goal that these plants be evaluated as needed, then quickly as appropriate be introduced into the US horticultural trade.

Saturday 10/5

Our plane arrives Kowloon City, Hong Kong at 6:35am...the adventure begins. The trans pacific flight on Singapore Air was wonderful. A new 747 plane holding nearly 600 people, with individualized movie screens and video games...14 hrs in the air. Oops...forgot about the two screaming kids in the next row.

First trip to Hong Kong...am very surprised to find an old antiquated airport...fourth largest in the world. I discover that a new airport is under construction, scheduled to open in 1998. As we get into the airport to pick up luggage, my name is flashing on the electronic sign to go to the airline desk about baggage. Immediate thoughts were of finding my digging implements confiscated as weapons. Instead my backpack with all collecting gear has been sent to London instead of Hong Kong. Reportedly, it should arrive by mid afternoon.

The Regal Airport Hotel adjoins the airport, so we don't have to worry about that detail. The hotel is obviously frequented by westerners, and would even be extravagant by western standards. The only difference is that the toilets are flushed with sea water.

Most of the group has already arrived, so we drop off luggage, get money exchanged for Hong Kong dollars (7:1), and begin botanizing. Dan has heard of a natural site just on the outskirts of Kowloon City, so we hail a couple of taxis and off we go. We hiked up the road until we found the entrance to the natural area. Although the traffic gate was locked, that suited us just fine. From high atop the city we could see a substantial layer of smog hovering over the city...clear pictures were impossible.

Plant were new to us as we began experiencing a large variety of ferns. Especially impressive was a creeping dicranopteris that looked like an oversized maidenhair. Spores and plants of these and other ferns and selaginellas were collected. Terrestrial orchids were everywhere including a flowering pleione or bletilla...obviously a zone 9 or 10 site.

Every garden had alocasias...probably A. macrorrhiza. As we climbed the hill, vegetation was quite interesting. Many plants in the Melastoma family...nice purple flowers similar to tibouchina. Several patches of orchids were discovered in flower...seemingly like a bletilla. The bank is filled with a distylum like shrub. I found one plant with particularly nice new red growth. Cuttings were taken, but a long trip is in store, and their survival questionable. Other vegetation on the bank is miscanthus and probably the green weedy form of Imperata cylindrica, schefflera, giant selaginellas, clematis, a gorgeous patterned leaf rubus, etc.

On the hike up to the hill to 1200', we passed a small cultivated area with some fascinating plants including a wonderful amaryllis with a center striped light yellow leaves and wonderful pink striped flowers...never seen anything like this before...WOW! Lots of Malvaviscus arboreus also in flower. Getting back down the bank was not as easy as the vegetation grew taller than we were. We could not easily maneuver the steep bank, and would find ourselves sliding and tumbling into one rock crevice after another. Finally, we all arrived back at the hotel around 1pm after...slightly worse for wear. Trying to catch a taxi back into town was not as easy as our first effort. Traffic in Hong Kong is terrible.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we took a taxi to the water edge, then a ferry over to Hong Kong Island. They obviously left the shock absorbers off the ferry as we thanked our lucky stars that our stomachs were still intact after the choppy ride. We visited the park Botanical Garden...basically a city park and less of a botanical garden, then back to the hotel...dinner with the group at the hotel.

Sunday 10/6

We departed around Sunday lunch time for Kunming China (altitude 6200'), arriving at the airport by mid afternoon via Dragon Air...actually a very nice Airbus 320 plane. The airport is very small and backwards for a city of 3 million. We were bused from the plane to the terminal. We quickly learned of the bureaucratic paperwork trail in China, as we filled out a variety of forms...what we brought in, why we were here, etc. These same forms were to be repeated constantly throughout the trip.

We were picked up at the airport by our hosts from the Kunming Institute of Botany. They were Dr. Guan Kaiyun Director, Dr. Sun Hang Interim Director of the Herbarium, Ms. Shi Wang Curator of the Medicinal Garden, and our drivers Mr. Yang Song and Mr. Li Yun Hui. Our transportation was a mid size 16 passenger bus, followed by a chase van with our luggage. We headed off for an hour drive to our hotel, the Kunming Hotel.

The hotel was very nice, even by western standards, with amenities that we would soon come to appreciate...water pressure...actually any water, plumbing that worked, and a series of indoor restaurants. More forms awaited us at each hotel requesting passport numbers, etc. We soon discovered that the folks at these hotel were so disorganized they probably couldn't even keep track of the forms if we bothered to fill them out...I've still got a collection of blank ones.

The first order of business in the hotel bank was one of changing money in Chinese Yuan. There are over 8 yuan for each dollar, so after we each changed enough money to pay the institute for travel, hotels, food, etc. we found ourselves counting out 10" high stacks of money that would have made any monopoly player proud.

The streets of Kunming and many subsequent cities were tree lined with Cupressus torulosa. The variation was tremendous, with many incredible weeping forms worthy of cutting propagation. Nothing of the sort was going to happen in China...very deficient in a nursery industry.

A big culture shock was the lack of vehicles...bicycles everywhere. There is no traffic flow control in China...no lights, just folks turning everywhere. Percentages were 80% bicycles, 10% motorized western vehicles, and 10% farm buggies. These farm buggies looked like an oversized rototiller that was attached to a metal cart. As they made their way down the highway, gas spewed from the top of the engine and smoke and fumes spewed from the sides. Traffic was a nightmare.

The other shock was the air pollution. You literally felt as though you were walking through a coal factory, as the strong odor of burning coal, burning wood, and fossil fuels filled the air. Being in a valley, the polluted air had difficulty escaping and hung like a cloud over the city. Even some of the residents paraded around the streets with dust masks.

Monday 10/7

The group voted to go to Western Hills Nature Preserve, a mountain range above the lake west of Kunming...about 1.5 hrs drive. We arrived at the top of the road to find a chair lift to take us even higher. Our first encounter with Chinese technology made those of us with height difficulties quite nervous. We were, however able to use the chair lift as a botanical scouting tool to locate interesting plants below us for the walk back down the hill.

As we jumped of the lift, the first plant that greeted us was a remarkable 7' specimen of Cannabis sativa. I knew our group would be excited by plants, but this one seemed to hold some special memories for some of our troupe. This would be the first of many marijuana plants we would see, as the quantity of this plant increased dramatically as we traveled further from Kunming.

We arrived at the top of the hill, 7800' and began our descent along the trail. The trail was filled with arisaemas, mostly A. consanguineum. It wasn't long until we heard shrieks of joy, as members discovered a grove of silver centered leaf A. consanguineums. The most spectacular of the plants was left, although it seemingly cried to be returned to the states. The mountain side was incredibly rocky with large boulders to climb over if we hiked off the trail. The mountain was filled with incredible rock loving ferns, thalictrums, and much more. By the time we reached the top a steady rain had set in, and despite having rain coats, we were quickly soaked. After the long trek down the mountain, we arrived back at the lift station in time for a chilly but satisfying lunch.

We weren't in much of a mood for more plants and opted to return to the hotel for dry clothes and an evening of rest. Television in the hotel was beamed from an Indian network and offered the wonderful choices of Oprah, Lost in Space, Mash, and Charles in Charge reruns, and Championship Cricket...oh boy!

Tuesday 10/8

Today would be the drive from hell, as we departed around 730 am for the drive west to our next large town, Dali The first stop was a cemetery outside of Kunming that contained a variety of interesting plants including our first Paris polyphylla, Michelia yunnanensis, the rare Calocedrus macrolepis, a variety of hedychiums and eupatoriums. My most exciting discovery was to find the area full of Saccharum arundinaceum in full flower. This is plant that we had got from Jim Waddick several years earlier. The reddish plumes were absolutely spectacular. I was particularly excited to find a nice dwarf form...potentially an awesome garden introduction.

The road from Kunming to Dali was quite nice by Chinese standards until we got a couple of hours outside of town. While construction of their new interstate was underway, it will be years until completion. We exited off onto the only road to Dali...known as the old Burma Road (financed by the US during the Chinese Japanese War during the 30's). The narrow winding road was to be our newest source of terror. A road narrow enough for one vehicle would usually find vehicles three abreast, passing on blind curves, dodging yaks and farmers in the road, and an incessant honking of horns that would soon become our background noise for the remainder of the trip.

Road construction techniques in China deserved several rolls of film. Imagine a 500 mile interstate built almost entirely by hand, including hauling dirt and gravel in baskets and moving large boulders by hand. Every stone in the bridges was hand chiseled into perfect squares. We actually did see three front end loaders during our entire trip, but such technology is rare. Paving roads consisted of spreading a layer of gravel and then coating the gravel with a tar like asphalt coating.

Our lunch stop introduced us the real restaurants of China. Restaurants are family owned open air stands all along the road. When one arrives, you order whatever is grown in the area (no menus), wait for it to be cooked above coal fires along the street while the dishes and chopsticks from the last visitor are rinsed off in a dirty wash pan by the road, then sit down under shelter to dine. Our first delicacy of the trip was fried wasp larvae...no kidding! They were actually quite tasty, as the young larvae had a chewy taste, while those that developed eyes began to be more crunchy. Lunch was easier to swallow if you could get over what you were eating and concentrate on taste. Other dishes included eel, a variety of pork (no doubt from the abundance of Vietnamese potbelly pigs), potatoes, and other oriental vegetables.

Without tap water to drink, we opted either for Dali Beer, Pepsi Cola, or bottled water, which was surprisingly available throughout China. Fascinatingly enough, the most popular brand of bottled water was Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It was also quite evident that conservation had not been a high priority in China. In order to build houses for the large number of residents, every mountain had been decimated of trees. Between the deforestation and the grazing of animals, erosion of the hillsides was very severe. Obviously, some attempts at correcting the problem had been started as we began to see the roads and hillsides filled with introduced eucalyptus. It was our guess that these eucalyptus were used both for stabilization and as a quick growing source of lumber.

After our first bathroom stop, the group decided that public restrooms in China would be a last resort, and that finding even a open field would be much preferred. Public restrooms consisted of at best a cinder block building with slits cut in a concrete floor...the Chinese equivalent of an outhouse, except without anywhere to sit. The odor from these restrooms was strong enough to make some members turn away despite the calls of nature, while other others gasped and gagged during their shortened visits.

More frequent "botanizing" pit stops became the order of the trip, with the orders of 'boys to the left, girls to the right' being shouted as we piled off the bus. If anyone had any degree of modesty before the trip, it was quickly left behind.

Our next "pit stop"...the new term for bathroom break, was a east rock slope west of the Long Shan mountains. The bank was again loaded with wonderful ferns (a target group of mine) as well as a number of orchids, especially pleiones. Those that didn't have to answer the calls of nature usually had to be drug back to the bus kicking and screaming as fascinating plants were everywhere.

It was as we began to get very bored with the long drive that our Chinese speaking driver decided to spice things up a bit by putting a tape in the bus tape player. We all gazed at each other in amazement as we immediately recognized Zamphir and his magic pan flute. Yes, Zamphir from the late night television ads! We wondered who was actually buying those tapes. Try, if you will to imagine a bus of weary Americans, flying down a winding road, each whistling completely off key to Zamphir's magic flute...and you wish you were there!

We arrived in Dali very late at night, muscles aching from the long ride, and voices tired after far too many verses of Hello Dali. Dali is situated at the base of several mountains and is surrounded by a large lake. Our accommodations for the evening was the Red Camellia Hotel, and what a wonderful aroma awaited us in the rooms...sort of a combination of diesel fuel and mildew. Outside, the aroma of burning coal and fossil fuel again filled the air. Pollution control was obviously not important in China.

Those that waited for morning showers were out of luck, as we found hot water was only available in the evening...a common occurrence during the remainder of the trip. At least the toilet flushed...sort of. Dali is a quaint town of 200,000 folks. The streets are lined with street vendors resembling a flea market, each hawking their wares...each surprisingly similar. The street markets stay open until 11pm, as Dali is certainly a night town.

Wednesday 10/9

An early morning walk at 6am, revealed a quite town, only awaking around 6:30 as the sun began to peak over the mountains. Early morning activities included women with stick brooms sweeping the streets and sidewalks and a few bicyclists on their way to work. Pierre and I stumbled on a fascinating couple of parks on our morning jaunt, with a Richard Simmons like entourage engaged in the Chinese exercise Tai Chi. The highlight of that park, however was three giant double white flowered angel trumpets (Brugmansias) that towered near 15' tall.

Another park that we visited in the morning contained a large planting on Cunninghamia lanceolata. I was thrilled to find one very nice genetic dwarf, of which cutting were obtained, and will hopefully be rooted.

We departed early morning for the drive to Lijiang, some 200 km North of Dali. On our way out of town, we passed by a lime mining village. This fascinating community has constructed giant rock silos that extend up to 15 feet into the ground. Fires built at the base are used to heat the lime containing rock. After an extensive sifting process, the lime is sold for use in making concrete.

Our first collecting stop was about 50 km North of Dali at the local water fed power plant, where we found steep roadside banks full of non native opuntias. Among the opuntias were wonderful patches of Arisaema consanguineum, including a few wonderful variegated leaf forms. If you have never stood on a 60% slope bank in the midst of 3' opuntias, and tried to dig arisaema bulbs, you have never lived. Other gems collected from this site included a variety of ferns including cheilanthes, many buddleias, and several native clematis.

Quickly, the most popular item on the trip became my sewing kit, not because of the thread, but the needle became very handy at digging out opuntia spines from everyone's hand.

Our next stop was 120 km south of Lijiang at Tian Sheng Tan in a wet seepage area, where the vegetation was completely different from our last stop. The meadow was filled with Primula poissonii (some still in flowers), many orchids, even tiny drosera (sundews). Other collections included a dwarf pewter leaf parthenocissus, several hypericums, and some three lobed arisaemas.

Our afternoon roadside stop at Tie Jie Shan, elevation 9000' was the highlight of the day. A treasure trove of plants awaited us as we collected with fervor. The lower side of the road was filled with gems such as lyonias, gaultherias, arisaemas, paris, viburnums in full fruit, and more terrestrial orchids that we could imagine. Ferns finds continued to get richer as I found Onychium japonicum, a variety of wild polypodiums, and much much more.

A plant that all of us admired, but few collected was a wonderful purple flowering desmodium that resembled a bush lespedeza. Although it was one of the most spectacular plants we saw, it's propensity to seed around in the worst of roadside conditions gave us fair warning that this might be a potential invasive invader that would be best left in China.

We arrived at night at our hotel in Lijiang, a town of 150,000 that was similar in makeup to Dali.

Thursday 10/10

We left the hotel in the morning to head into the Yulong Shan range of mountains, only an hour drive from the hotel. Today we would spend the first of many days hiking in the mountains and then return to our base hotel in the evening. This meant bagged lunches featuring Vienna sausages in cute red wrappers, a banana, and on some days apples. We quickly found that bananas in backpacks were a bad idea, and before the trip would end, we never wanted to see another Vienna sausage.

We disembarked the bus along the road at Gang He Ba, a 10,000' very dry rocky area and began our hike upwards. It seemed that no two people went in the same area, which was great as no plant escaped notice from some member of our expedition. The first area filled with scrubby oaks was also filled with interesting under story vegetation including thousands of rodgersias, cimicifugas, thalictrums, primulas, gentians, and paris.

A new plant for me in this area was Salvia flava...a light yellow flowered basal rosette salvia with a growth habit similar to S. przewalskii. Orchids were everywhere along with ferns and solomon's seals. This was also the only siting of bergenia ciliata. I was able to get root cuttings of a particularly nice giant leaf form that I hope will survive the remainder of the trek.

As we climbed upward through the Quercus spinosa forest, through the dry pine forest, to 11,000', the vegetation changed dramatically into more of an alpine habitat with gentians and more alpine ferns including a single giant clump of the maidenhair fern, Adiantum venustum. After crossing a pass in the mountains, we again headed down into a giant alpine meadow. Not being able to grow alpines, I opted for a steep slope bordering the meadow, which turned out to be incredibly rich with paris, arisaema consanguineum, solomon's seal, berberis, rhododendron, cotoneaster, Anemone rivularis, and a fascinating asparagus.

Friday 10/11

Using the same Lijiang hotel as our base, we took the same road back into the Yulong Shan mountain range, but this time we went further down the road to Hei Shui (Black Water). When we disembarked from the bus at 9000', where we had the option of three directions as the group quickly headed off in different directions.

For me, this proved to be the richest area yet...horticulturally speaking. I was ready to come home after my first find of the day, which proved to be the most exciting of the trip. Less than 100 feet from the bus up a steep path, I discovered what appeared to be a 6' tall salvia with bicolor crimson and white flowers. Surprisingly, there was only one robust clump...no seedlings anywhere. We were able to gather seed along with plenty of pictures of this outstanding find. Our guides later identified it as a nepeta, but we would later determine it to be a Microtoena delavayi.

Other finds included an assortment of solomon's seal, including disporums, polygonatums, smilacinas in all shapes and sizes. Even the red-fruited smilax was quite attractive. The other recognizable spiny plants was Rubus cockburnianus, a plant with soaring popularity back in the states. The assortment of woody plants was also fabulous with giant viburnums, cornus, Pinus armandii, Picea lichangensis, Acer davidii and much more. I thought I'd found a giant Acer pentaphyllum when I stumbled onto what was later identified as a Nothopanax (Metapanax) delavayi...what a wonderful small tree. Very few mature seed, but a few small seedlings were secured.

As I headed further up the wooded slope, ferns in every shape and size became more abundant. An assortment of polypodiums, paraceterach, onychium, etc were collected. As I got into more of a low wet area, I found interesting variations of the earlier encountered Paris polyphylla. These plants had purple stems and were nearly 3' tall. We quickly found that the identification of paris was more of a nightmare than that of the solomon's seal group.

As I crossed the road, the trails headed for an incredibly steep-dropping slope, leading down to the Yangtze River. Each step had to be checked for sturdiness, less an unenjoyable trip into the rocky river below. This densely shaded area was filled with even more ferns that I had not yet encountered, including a number of epiphytic ferns on the tree trunks. Calanthe orchids and sedum were everywhere along with a wonderful yellow flowered annual impatiens.

After visiting the river, it was time to turn around a head back to the top. Taking a less steep route, I began seeing even more new flora including a number of new salvias. These basal rosette growers, (possibly forms of Salvia przewalskii or Salvia glutinosa) showed up in color forms of dark rich violet, and light yellow with a purple lip. At the top of the bank, I met up again with our Kunming guides who showed me the rare bush clematis, C. rapunculoides to 2' tall with pink bell shaped flowers that they had proudly discovered...seeds for all.

Along the lower side of the road was also a treasure trove of Arisaema consanguineum. It didn't take long before I tired of gathering the 6" long bright red seed heads. Even a few bulbs of some unusual variants were secured. As we headed back to the van, we found a couple of plants of a nice large silver leaf buddleia that looked different from the Buddleia fallowiana that we had passed earlier in the day. Our guide identified it as Buddleia forrestii. Seed, although unripe were secured.

Saturday 10/12

Those of us that had been on similar expeditions knew the importance of cleaning plants and seed every night along with keeping meticulous records. Each night would require 2-6 hours of processing, depending on the day's collections.

Since many members of the expedition had fallen far behind in seed cleaning and processing, or were nursing upset stomachs, Saturday was set aside as a light day. We were given the option of visiting a temple in the morning and returning to process seed, or another day collecting in the Yulong Shan mountains. As we headed out in the morning, the majority of the group was dropped at the temple. Only a handful of us were interested in returning to the mountains.

As five of us headed back to the Yulong Shan mountains, the first group of collectors were dropped off at the Whitewater Dam Nature Preserve at Bai Shui on the Yangtze River. Dan and I wanted more time at the same site from the day before to recover a few missed items...this thanks to the show and tell sessions on the bus each day after collecting.

After our brief return to the prior days site, we walked part of the way to the Whitewater Dam, then were picked up by the bus. Walking became the preferable mode of travel, even when there was many miles to a destination. After bouncing on our already sore posteriors in the bus seats on a muddy, incredibly rutted road adjacent to the steep cliffs...walking, even at high elevations suddenly looked incredibly good.

Walking did have some botanical advantages including collecting some more distinctive tubers from Arisaema consanguineum, seed from the incredibly beautiful Incarvillea arguta, and berries from a thornless smilax with large clusters of bright red fruit.

The Whitewater Dam site appeared to be more of a tourist promotion area that one in which to botanize. The river was gorgeous, along with the nearby recreated village and ski lift. Watching the craftsmen build the buildings from giant logs, completely without power tools was truly fascinating.

Along the road, stood groups of women from the nearby Naxi minority in their bright festive garb. We couldn't tell if they were there to welcome us or if they were running a 'dude' ranch. The flora along this section of the Yulong Shan was relatively uninteresting. The young pine forest and under story of Quercus spinosa didn't leave room for much more. After an hour walk, we were able to find two giant rocks near the river that yielded some interesting plants including dwarf rhododendrons, solomon's seal, and a few other gems, but that was about it.

We returned to the hotel to hear tales of new and different arisaemas...four species by some accounts that were found at the temple by the rest of the group...c'est la vie.

Sunday 10/13

On Sunday, we departed our hotel at Lijiang northward to Zhongdian. As we headed northward, we could almost feel the temperatures dropping. Our first stop was an hour north of Lijiang, where during a quick "pit stop" we found a couple of new arisaemas, one with 3 leaflets and one with five. We surmised these might possibly be A. yunnanense.

Our lunch stop was in the town of Tiger Leaping Gorge...about 1.5 hours from Tiger Leaping Gorge the actual gorge that we would visit on our return trip. After eating lunch, Dan and I were walking along the dusty road, when we spotted a small single leaf arisaema among the dust covered weeds. Looking for the source, we suddenly spotted hundreds of giant three leafed types at the top of the steep bank above our heads. We quickly found a reasonable climbing spot and scampered up the bank.

Unlike many of the arisaema that we had found before, these bulbs were nearly on top of the ground and easy to collect. Unripe seed was also available from most of the large specimens. We tentatively identified this as Arisaema candidissimum, although it turned out to be Arisaema franchetianum. This was certainly our most exciting arisaema find of the trip so far. As the bus of others prepared to head out, most unaware of our find, we began our rapid sliding descent down the rocky, dusty bank. We were both amazed how easy it is to go up a bank and how difficult it is to come down...especially when you're terrified of heights.

As we drove northward to Zhongdian, paralleling the Xiao Zhongdian River we climbed steadily. Our afternoon stop at 10,500' was at a point that we actually crossed the Chong Jiang River, . These fabulous woods were filled with more paris that we had ever seen...all in full fruit. I would have been easy to gather 10 15 pounds of fruit, even in the short time that we had to collect. The real excitement was our first and only patch of Asarum himalayicum found by Darrell on a sunny bank. He was generous enough to share this stoloniferous ginger with all members of the expedition.

As we climbed further north toward Tibet, the scenery began to change from rice patties to Tibetan villages. Along with the Tibetans came their work animals...the yaks (sort of like a Tibetan Bull). Later that afternoon, a "pit stop" found us in a soon to be familiar botanizing site...a yak field. These cow like animals were masters at grazing all but the most undesirable vegetation. We managed to find a couple of interesting plants, Triosteum himalayanum, and a fascinating 1" tall x 6" wide saussurea (S. stella) that resembled a purple centered bromeliad. The plant that struck everyone, however, was the Euphorbia nematocypha with it's red fall foliage. Our guides made lovely bouquets using the euphorbia and the insanely abundant gentians.

We arrived at our Zhongdian, a small town of 50,000 as evening neared. We entered our dark hotel to find indoor plumbing that was far less that what we were prepared for. Perhaps the bed pans at every door should have prepared us, but alas we must make do. After a long dusty drive, those that tried to take a shore found the water cold, and if you stood with you body pressed against the shower wall underneath the shower head, you might eventually get damp.

The toilets were another matter, as some would not flush, while others would sort of flush if you filled the tank with a bed pan full of water from the sink that wouldn't drain. Actually the sink did drain...it just drained on the bathroom floor. After trying unsuccessfully to use the sink to clean seed, and lacking any sign of a plumber, it was time to dismantle the drain system. After removing a couple of pounds of hair from the sink trap (without the use of tools), the sink drained on our floor much freer than before.

Evidently, there aren't a lot of visitors in Zhongdian in late October, as the hotel is without any heating system. With night temperatures in the 20's, this did prove a bit uncomfortable...especially when trying to get a "shower". The hotel did provide a blanket for sleeping, but the weight of the seemingly lead-made blankets nearly crushed several members of our group as they tried to sleep. Those that waited until morning to attempt the showers found no water...at least they didn't have to suffer thru those dripping cold water showers.

Monday 10/14

Our morning trip was to a Yufeng, a Tibetan monastery just outside of town. The monastery had been destroyed during the Chinese cultural revolution, but had been completely rebuilt. It was interesting to see all of the work trucks there with swastikas. Evidently, this was a Tibetan symbol that was hijacked by the Nazis. About half of the group opted to remain at the hotel, in hopes of the water returning, and to work on processing seed. After lunch in a local restaurant, we departed to the tiny town of Benzilan, located in a low valley just west of the Sichuan border. The closer we got to the Tibetan border, the more yaks we began to see. If you think deer are a problem for plants, you haven't seen anything until you've experience yaks grazing.

Our first collecting stop was on the back slope of the Napa Hai mountains (11,500'). This yak grazed valley did yield some interesting finds including an abundance of fruiting Himalayan may apple, Podophyllum emodii, a number of interesting roses, and much more triosteum in fruit.

The drive from here to our night in Benzilan was to be the most harried part of the trip, as we descended rapidly from 11,500' to 6,800'. The road here was particularly narrow, and our driver seemingly had a death wish, as we rounded blind curves on the mountainous roads, passing lorries (logging trucks) at incredible speeds. Obviously, our driver had watched too much auto racing on cable tv.

Four of us in the back of the bus (I, Dan, Mildred, and Darrell) had nearly ripped the handles off the back of the seats as we tried to hold on for all we were worth. We traded sides of the bus every time a steep cliff appeared on our side of the bus, opting to look upwards at the mountains on the inside of the curve. What had we done to deserve this, we all wondered. Just a we began nearing the bottom, and being assured that accidents never happen on these roads, we spied a lorrie that had plunged off the road into the Yangtze River below...very reassuring!

We didn't think it was possible to make our accommodations the night prior in Zhongdian look good, but we were wrong. The hotel in the tiny town of Benzilan only had 1 light bulb in each room, and no plumbing. Little seed was processed after dark, except for Roy, who in anticipation of these conditions had brought his miner's helmet.

We quickly found the bathroom...another of those concrete buildings with holes in the floor that we had grown to love...out the back of the hotel and down the alley. The bathrooms, as did all that we visited dumped immediately into the Yangtze River or a nearly tributary.

Our guides did proudly announce that we had hot showers. Anticipation was dampened as we found them located in an adjacent cinder block building. The hotel had built a fire under a large metal tank of water. From this, a water hose ran from the tank down the length of the alley, then into the shower room...nothing like the comforts of home! Just as we were preparing to enjoy the quieT night of a small town, the silence was broken by the sound of pigs squealing, followed by the driver of the truck that was hauling the pigs screaming at the top of his lungs and banging on every door in town. I actually feared that all of this might have been perpetuated by one of our group dumping their bed pan over the 3rd floor balcony railing...fortunately not!

Obviously the pig driver was not satisfied, as he then proceeded to honk his horn in unison to the pigs squealing. By then all of the neighbors were awake, as were most of our group. From the floor below came the unmistakable American yell...shut the F#%@ up! While it was comforting to me, the Chinese gentleman causing the problem didn't take the hint. I really don't remember how long this lasted...seemingly hours, but finally he drove off in disgust, and it was back to enjoying the comforts of our nice room.

Tuesday 10/15

Still recovering from the drive on Monday, and having no desire to see alpines at 15,000' (meaning at drive of over 1 mile upwards), four of us (myself, Mildred, Darrell, and Frank) opted to spend the day at our hotel and wait for the group to return.

Instead of finding 20 different gentians, we located several types of ceratostigma, a nice yellow-flowered corydalis, and some ferns such as Pteris vittata, along the road in town. Around 4:30, the group returned...some with very white knuckles, and we headed back to Zhongdian.

Since we had voiced our displeasure with the earlier hotel in Zhongdian, our guides suggested that we try a new hotel, the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, that was not officially opened, but would allow us to stay there. Despite the fact that the hotel had a still unconnected heating system, the plumbing did work, and with the discovery of hot water, we were satisfied. Also the shower pressure was enough to work wonders in bare rooting plants. This was going to be home for the next few days.

Wednesday 10/16

Upon hearing that the hotel would provide laundry services, a veritable mountain of laundry began appearing on the hotel's front desk. "Have back at 6pm" was the response.

Our first collecting stop of the morning was 30km north of Zhongdian...a wet valley at 10,500'. Here we found more podophyllum and an abundance of Iris bulleyana, which we quickly discovered must be a weed of untold proportions from its' abundance throughout the entire region. We could only imagine the incredible beauty of thousands of acres of it in full flower.

Our next stop was a giant field of blue that had everyone on the bus screaming for a Kodak moment. The giant field was a mass of Gentian sino ornata. After an extensive photo op, we were off again.

Our next stop was along the Geza river. This and our other two stops on Wednesday were less than memorable. Although a few plants were found including wild Clematis tangutica and a few unique solomon's seal, the yaks had already digested the best of the vegetation in this area. When the yaks walked by during our lunch break, we tried to introduce them to the pleasure of Vienna sausage and smashed bananas in the hope that they would opt for this over the native vegetation...they were not impressed.

Thursday 10/17

Only a few of the group were up to making the trek into the Sika Shan mountains on Thursday. After a very bumpy ride, through a Tibetan village, the bus let us out at 11,200' as we began our ascent to 14,000'. The first 500' was a mild climb with fairly uninteresting plants. Only as the climb thru the pass began to get steeper did the plant diversity improve. I was finding incredible 9' tall clumps of the solomon's seal Polygonatum aff. cirrhifolium, along with 18" tall ophiopogons, and some incredible clumps of paris that our guide identified as Paris tibeticus. A pleione orchid with white striped leaves that our guide had previously identified as P. yunnanense was literally everywhere as the climb steepened.

Every few hours, the ground would begin to rumble as Tibetans and their dual teams of yaks would come thundering down the narrow path with giant logs tied between the two animals. That afternoon, Darrell and I returned to the appointed spot where the bus was to be to find everyone gone. It seems that others had returned earlier and assumed that we had already returned to the hotel. After an hour and a half of sitting around at the bottom of the mountains, gathering seed of Iris ruthenica nana and checking out the giant fire ant mounds in the area, we saw the welcome site of the bus bounding over the horizon.

Dinner that night was at the hotel. Obviously the hotel staff hadn't been real impressed with our coordination at breakfast, so our chopsticks had been replaced with western utensils. After a mini revolt, we had our chopsticks returned. For dinner, one the feature dishes was a plant that we had been collecting...Smilacina henryi (solomon's seal).

All along the trip, the food had been excellent...notice I didn't say clean or sanitary. Pork, chicken, yak, or duck...often with heads and feet still attached was served with nearly every meal. Vegetable dishes included cattails, houttuynia, mint roots, rhododendron petals, artemisia foliage, and needles from Keteleeria davidii. Thank goodness, we always had a guide with us who ordered family style for the group.

The line to pick up laundry formed as soon as dinner ended, only to find some not ready, and all the rest neatly folded and soaking wet. After trying to communicate with clerks who understood no English, our guides assured us it would be dry tomorrow night.

Friday 10/18

On Friday, we headed up to Shu Du Hu Lake...a mere 30 km from our hotel. After bouncing around on the horrible logging road for 3 hours, a mini revolt erupted and most of the group was allowed to leave the bus. The common phrase from our guides became...just a little farther. We soon discovered this could mean from 5 minutes to 5 hours. While a handful of the group continued to the mountainous lake, others of us began to botanize.

While there were many large spruces (our first such sighting) still standing, the chain saws were buzzing as we passed. What appeared to be indiscriminate cutting was decimating these once beautiful forests. The lake area was not the richest site that we had visited, although I stumbled across a 100' stretch below the road that was like a gold mine. The ground was nearly 1' thick with a spongy moss layer. Underneath, I found many seed filled clumps of the lily like gentian relative Megacodon stylophorum along with a wonderful gentian, Gentiana autentensis, and a plethora of wonderful solomon's seal, and the lovely Berberis wilsoniae.

After stopping to eat our bag lunches, including the large stash of Vienna sausages that I was now accumulating voluntarily from the rest of the group, we began to walk back. Several of us had learned to walk back along the road and catch the bus further down the mountain to avoid wear and tear on our backsides. As we walked along the road, the nearby clouds began to cover us with a snow unlike anything we had ever seen. These styrofoam like balls soon turned the ground white as we walked quickly trying to stay warm. Only a mile or so away, the sun shone brightly as we walked in it's direction. One of the neat finds of the area was some giant fruited may apples (3 times as large as normal). It will be fascinating to see if these come true from seed.

Back at the hotel, it's laundry time again. It's dry this time, but in doing so, the hotel has mixed everyone's laundry together. The only way to sort things out was to spread the entire groups laundry of the counter and everyone try to recognize their own. As I mentioned earlier, by this point modesty had gone completely out the window. Only a few pieces wound up missing, and several of these were found days later mixed between members of the group. We also discovered that when a mans voice changes to a octave higher, the chances are good that you've got someone else's smaller size of underwear!

Saturday 10/19

As we left the Zhongdian hotel on Saturday, our first destination was Tian Chi Lake at 12,900'. After hours of another harrowing drive clinging to the cliffs of a road that had sloughed off in too many places for our mental well being, we arrived at this spectacular mountain lake. Surrounded by a wet alpine meadow of gentians, calthas, and primulas, the lake was also bordered on the front and back by giant spruce and rhododendron forests. Unfortunately logging had decimated much of the forests on the front side of the lake.

The vegetation here was quite different from any that we had encountered earlier, as we found giant ligularia, streptopus, and beesia. Those in the group that ventured around to the back side of the lake discovered groves of what we think is Arisaema elephas in seed. Getting back to the bus, which didn't seem that far turned into an ordeal as we tried to run across a seemingly dry alpine meadow only to sink well below our ankles...at least everyone had wet feet together.

As we headed down the mountain, many of us again optioned to walk the most treacherous part of the road. We were rewarded with finding some heavily fruited schisandra, some more unidentified salvias, along with a couple of nice corydalis.

As we headed back into Tiger Leaping Gorge Town for the evening, we persuaded our guide to stop at a site 10 km north of the town. On the right side of the road was a hillside of giant boulders, among which were growing incredible numbers of arisaema (possibly A. candidissimum, A. consanguineum, and A. franchetianum), along with incredible polygonatums and ferns.

As we got into town, we found that our hotel rooms had been given away, and our only option was the less that desirable Stay Put Up Inn. Yes...another night with bed pans, a cold water shower and slit holed outhouse located down several flights of stairs and suspended just above the raging Yangtze River.

Sunday 10/20

The majority of the group started out the day with a visit to Tiger Leaping Gorge, while Dan, Mildred, and I opted to return to the site 10 km north of the town for a more thorough collecting opportunity.

The area was indeed rich, and I was excited to find a spectacular woodwardia fern in a wet area with 5+' long fronds. In addition, more arisaemas and other gems were collected. As we met back up with the group in town, we heard their great collecting tales of finding Amorphophallus konjac in the wild along with several new arisaemas.

After a quick lunch, we headed back south to the small town of Jianchuan. We were back in the vicinity of rice patties again, and rice harvest and processing was in full swing. The roads were filled with rice, as we watched the Chinese farmers pile the rice into the traffic flow, and allow the vehicles to crush the stalks separating the seed. While this slows traffic to a crawl, and sends bicyclists into a sprawl, it seemed perfectly normal to our hosts. The dust, however combined with the rice chaff made breathing a real chore.

As we arrived at our hotel, rice piles had to be moved before we could even make the turn into the hotel gates. The plumbing gods were smiling on us finally, as we were allowed to stay in the one wing of the hotel that had indoor plumbing...such as it was. The shower nozzle laid in the bottom of the tub with nothing to attach it to, and the water pressure made a slow drip look desirable. The rate at which the water ran across the floor from the sink and toilet however made us fear that by morning we might be underwater...to bad we couldn't channel that water into the shower.

That afternoon was spent at the local farmers market, which was only a short walk from our hotel. Every kind of meat, vegetable, and other identifiable objects were for sale in this expansive, but packed site.

Monday 10/21

We loaded our collecting gear and boarded the bus into the 99 Dragons Mountains. Although we had planned to go higher, the roads became impossible at 9,500', so we disembarked and began to botanize. Our guides suggested that we continue up the road further, so off we went. After walking another hour, our guide suddenly realized that he had taken us the wrong way. Turn around, he instructed and we began to retrace our steps back the rutted out road.

I decided to venture off the road into a wet looking area, and soon found myself in an incredibly rich woodland resembling home back in NC. In a small area, I found the Asian equivalents of our native rattlesnake orchid, goodyera, and pipsissewa (chimaphila). Although the goodyera was similar, their chimaphila with its colored patterns was much more showy than our native. Ferns, solomon's seal, and a very narrow leaf form of the vine Holboellia fargesii. Calanthe and cypripedium orchids were everywhere among the pieris!

Finally back in the road, the vegetation was much drier, except in the curves where the water flowed out of the mountains. At one such site, at the bottom of the hill below the road, I found the most incredible seed heads on Arisaema consanguineum that I had yet seen...each 5+ pounds. Also the variety of ferns was unbelievable including a plastic feeling dark glossy green polystichum. I was really excited to find a nice clump of Tiarella polyphylla with an incredible purple pattern in the center of the leaf.

Walking further down the road, we found more arisaema...probably A. franchetianum on a dry bank along with our first siting of Begonia sinensis. With the lack of pigment in the stems, this could be a white flowering form...we'll see.

Tuesday 10/22

Our first stop on Tuesday was to see the Stone Bell Temple at Shibaoshan. After an incredibly harrowing drive to the temple, then traversing enough steep steps to seemingly reach another continent, we arrived, only to find that we could be sold film, but could not take pictures of the temple. The guide at the temple was at best totally unintelligible, and although the site was spectacular, most of the group were thoroughly unimpressed.

As we headed back down in the valley from the temple, we persuaded our guide to allow us to stop. Driving by earlier, we noticed the valley to be incredibly rich with many plants that we had not seen before including Cornus capitata, more begonia sinensis, hardy gesneriads, and some wonderful pink stemmed Arisaema franchetianum.

On the way back to Dali, a pit stop enabled me to collect some more hopefully silver marked Arisaema consanguineums that were spotted on our drive up the road several weeks earlier. Back on the bus, and back to the familiar Red Camellia Hotel in Dali.

Wednesday 10/23

Most members of the group opted to remain at the hotel to clean seeds and shop on Wednesday. Only Pierre, Dan, Ozzie, and I chose to botanize. We were hauled up to the east slope of Cang Shan mountains on the west side of Dali. Although we had heard that the back side of the mountains were the richest floristically, we were not disappointed. Starting at 9,800' and walking downward, we found the likes of Ligularia cangshanensis, Piptanthus sp., Hydrangea heteromalla, and a spectacular shrubby aster in full flower...Aster albescens.

I was thrilled to find our first astilbe, identified questionably as Astilbe grandis. This dark leaf astilbe made a 3 4' spread with dark purple flowers nearly 5' in the air. Growing alongside the Rhododendron decora was an incredible miscanthus with dark purple foliage...possible Miscanthus sinensis purpurascens. I didn't think it was possible, but I probably added another 2 dozen different ferns to my collection including the Asian royal fern, Osmunda japonica and a nice lepisorus, and a dwarf holly leaf polystichum to mention but a few.

We returned to the hotel, in time to get cleaned up before a dinner at a renowned Dali restaurant, complete with minority oriental dancers. After dinner, we did a little shopping, then returned to the hotel for another night of cleaning seed and plants before heading back to Kunming on Thursday. Our last excitement in Dali was Darrell getting locked into the bathroom in his room as the door lock jammed, only to be rescued an hour later by a resounding karate kick from the hotel attendant that left the door a many splintered thing.

Thursday 10/24

After getting an early start for the long drive, we stopped for a breakfast stop an hour outside Dali. After eating, a quick trip down the hill yielded a nice 5 lobed arisaema, a new fern, and a wonderful yellow flowering senecio.

We arrived back at the Kunming after only 10 hours of driving...far better than the 15 hours that it took us to make the trip in the other direction. We had forgotten how nice the Kunming Hotel was after our trek through the less modern hotels of the province. We even had our choice of three restaurants in the hotel including one that served "western food". After ordering an assortment of cheeseburgers, pizza, and salad, we were reminded a couple of hours later that western food in China is still not western food in the US.

Friday 10/25

Our Friday excursion took us to the Kunming Botanic Garden, the workplace of our trip hosts. The garden employs near 80 staff members, while the sister institution, The Kunming Institute of Botany employs another 400+ staff. The purpose of the garden is to research, breed, and assemble a collection of plants from the Yunnan province of China.

Compared to botanic gardens in the US, the Kunming Botanic Garden would be on the low end of the totem pole. However for the collection of plants at the garden, plant nuts such as us certainly had no shortage of oohs and aahs. First, we were led through the conifer groves that included such wonders as a tall pendulous Taiwania cryptomerioides and Cryptomeria formosana.

Next, we headed to michelia groves to find nearly 30 species of michelia or banana shrubs. Other trees that we were not familiar with, lined the walkways. I was especially excited to see one grove of trees under planted with Amorphophallus albus as a groundcover.

Our next stop was the conservatory, where we found giant pots of disporopsis, hardy orchids, tupistra, and an assortment of other treasures. We then traveled to the herb and medicinal garden to find more interesting gems including a spectacular purple and green blotched foliage canna, which turned out to be an old cultivar, Canna 'Cleopatra'.

Exiting the herb garden, we went through a small lathe house complete with more pots of disporopsis (evergreen solomon's seal), over a dozen different pyrrosia ferns, orchids, tupistras, and rarities that would make the most avid US plant collector jump for joy.

Dr. Kaiyun then showed us through his breeding house of begonia species native to Yunnan. The colors and variability was truly shocking as we viewed all kinds of colorful rex type begonias. Our final stop was the herbarium at the institute, where several of us spent a bit of time trying to identify some of our finds from earlier in the trip.

Saturday 10/26

Those of us that were caught up with preparing seed and plants for travel spent the morning at the Kunming Plant and Animal Market. After a brief taxi ride, we found this flea market like atmosphere stretched for blocks through a downtown region of Kunming. Vendors sold a variety of wares from pets including cats, fish, birds, even cobras to plants...most of which were imported dracaena canes and other uninteresting flora. Only after traversing the entire market did I find one small corner where the locals were selling orchids. Imagine my surprise to find at least a half dozen different variegated leaf orchid cultivars!

After a busy morning, we returned to finish final preparation for our plants to travel back to the US. That evening our hosts from the institute hosted a fair well dinner in our honor complete with more wonderful food and lots of toasting back and forth.

Sunday 10/27

We departed to the hotel to grab lunch on the way to the airport. More new treats awaited us including our first sampling of roasted grasshoppers...what a fitting end. Our guides dropped us off at the airport, just in time to pick up another group arriving from England. Getting through Chinese customs and inspections was a nerve wracking experience in spite of the fact that our collections were made with permission from the Chinese government. Finally, the ordeal was through and we were on our way back to Hong Kong.

Monday 10/28

Those that opted to mail their plants back to the US (preferable to most US inspection ports) were in for quite an ordeal. We arrived at the Post Office after a 40 minute taxi ride to find that many of our boxes were unacceptable until they had been wrapped with a certain type of exterior paper. Another hour of walking found paper and tape, only to be followed by another hour of filling out shipping forms. Finally lunch time arrived and we were finished and on our way for some last minute gift shopping before departure.

Despite the apprehension for our long trans pacific flight, the prospects of being back in the US made the trip seemingly much shorter than the flight the other way. It probably didn't hurt that we had the leg room provided by an exit row either. After a six hour layover in SF, and a chance to watch Monday night football in the airport without Chinese dubbing told us for sure that we were indeed back in the USA.

-- tony