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The stories of how familiar plants arrived in our plots help add swash and buckle to gardens. The German plant hunter Philipp Seibold, who gave western gardens the flowering cherry Prunus x sieboldii, was arrested and accused of high treason in Japan; the Scot David Douglas, famed for the Douglas fir, died in 1834 when he fell down a bull pit trap in Hawaii; and his compatriot George Forrest, who collected thousands of plants from China including the early flowering Camellia saluenensis, escaped with two arrows through his hat after the rest of his party was killed in Yunnan in 1905.
Inspired by these planterly adventures I joined an RHS Plant Seekers’ tour to explore the flora in a Yunnan valley nudging up towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar where some of the west’s 10,000 or so Chinese garden plants and flowers originate.
It was October, a hopeless month for flower blooms, but even if we’d been there in late spring — when beauties like the scented, deep crimson tree peony Paeonia delavayi bloom — little is guaranteed in the plant world.
The bus came to a halt alongside a deserted road in the middle of nowhere and, from nowhere, a guard appeared only slightly mollified by a sheaf of documents and government permissions to this politically and botanically sensitive area. He reluctantly allowed our group of amateur botanists and horticulturalists walk a mile or so up into the reserve.
This is part of the range known as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the view of it from Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang appears on calendars and postcards up and down China. Close up, on this cold, grey day, the foothills reminded me of Ernest “Chinese” Wilson’s comment about the area of Yunnan where he found the sensational scented white trumpets of the Regal lily: “No more barren and repelling country can be imagined.” His impressions were probably primed by his “lily limp”, an injury sustained in a landslide when collecting the Regal lily, one of the best behaved and most underrated lilies around.
The snaking track into the reserve plunged into thick fog. On either side, oak and rhododendrons sheltered familiar and less familiar plants: delphiniums, small pom-poms of Pterocephalus hookeri and a clumpy Stellera chamaejasme with its pale yellow flowers over Euphorbia-like leaves.
Our route continued across a lake bed of the whitest clay. The fog had closed in, so dense that all sound was deadened. It felt as if we were walking through cotton wool. At 3,200 metres above sea level some of the party were struggling and had to be given oxygen. Others tramped on as the fog lifted to reveal a wide plain between soaring mountains and a glacier in the distance.
There was nothing and no one else in this desolate valley.
The first gentians appeared on the scrubby grassland beyond the lake, their flower heads furled tightly against the cold. Dr Zhikun Wu, from Kunming Institute of Botany, identified the true gentians from the Gentiana szechenyii. He was one of the three expert guides on the tour that also included Chris Bailes, the former head of both RHS Rosemoor and the Chelsea Physic Garden, and Jim Gardiner, RHS executive vice-president. George Pu, the indefatigable Chinese guide and his team helped make the long, fascinating but exhausting days comfortable.
On the steep wooded sides of the valley, tree peonies, delphiniums, bursts of thalictrum foliage, gentians, potentillas, marjoram, Pyracantha and Berberis jostled with less familiar genera and families such as Sibiraea angustata, a glaucous-leaved shrub, and the leaves of Reineckea carnea, which I kept mistaking for an orchid until Bailes corrected me. With the glacier a few hundred metres ahead we had to turn back with energy levels plummeting and tempers fraying. We left the area as the sun came out. A gentian, snuggled beside a tussock of grass, began unfurling at a rate of about one petal every 30 seconds. The party of 16 gathered to watch. Then clouds muffled the sun and the flower stopped in its tracks.
As the chill factor began to bite I thought of Forrest, Wilson, the US-Austrian Joseph Rock and the English plant hunter Reginald Farrer who all camped in these areas. Here is one of Farrer’s notes from 1918: “It was very pleasant, after days of exploration in the wintry coombes and glens, to sit in the evening over the stove in our snug little cabin, relaxed in the comfort of a Chinese quilted gown . . . I . . . was standing with my back to the stove . . . I felt the heat glowing up my legs. And there seemed a specially pleasant glow of light, too . . . I basked in beatitude, til a sudden movement showed me the facts of the case . . . my padded petticoat was in a vivid blaze.”
Rock had things slightly easier. While plant hunting in Yunnan in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, he lived in a remote village about 20 miles from Lijiang. Today, the route to Rock’s simple, stone-built house is unmarked. Inside, curling copies of the National Geographic and fading photos record some of his adventures. Money is needed to save this precious archive. Rock’s spartan bedroom is exactly as he left it when his family money ran out in the Great Depression.
A couple of valleys away is the area where Forrest found shelter with the Nakhi people after the rest of his party was massacred. The Nakhi remain in the area, the younger generation in ersatz versions of their tribal dress as they herd tourists around the places where Forrest and others collected botanical bonanza such as Rhododendron forrestii and Iris forrestii.
One of Forrest’s favoured areas, a mossy, yak-grazed forest high above Lijiang, is now reached by ski lift. And despite the Chinese government’s careful cordoning off of the sensitive meadows, they have been grazed in such a way that little remains of the plant treasure that Forrest witnessed. But we did find Pinus yunnanensis with its elegant groups of five long needles, purple-flowered Dracocephalum forrestii and yellow Primula forrestii.
Our plant seeking in the Kunming area, four hours’ drive from the Vietnam border, was warmer and more plant filled. The stone forest, a sort of landlocked version of Ha Long Bay, provided the backdrop for old favourites such as Magnolia delavayi and Pyracantha angustifolia, while Clematis armandii and Trachelospemum jasminoides scrambled over the rocks. Just outside the city of Kunming — at Western Hills where Nie Er, composer of the Chinese national anthem, is buried — a ski lift wafted us over the ubiquitous magnolia, Begonia crispa and plenty of small tibouchinas, the glorious deep purple-flowered plant with red early foliage that I first came across in the 1990s when the late English gardener Christopher Lloyd gave me a specimen.
Walking past Buddhist and Daoist temples carved into the cliff face, excitement rippled through the group. A few delicate pink flowers above a whorl of mid-green leaves were just visible in a crevice about three metres above ground level — ground level being 2,000 metres. Bailes and Gardiner conferred: Primula duclouxii they concluded.
Even in well-tended parks there were delights and lessons: Chinese privet or Ligustrum lucidum, which makes a tidy, well-behaved small tree; the shrubby, blue-flowered pea relation Sophora davidii, which “should be grown more in our gardens”, according to Bailes.
So should tree peonies whose buds are fattening as nicely in Yunnan as at home in Oxford where they form part of a kind of outdoor chintz made up of plants, many from China. It is a very English style and, like most English styles it is gathered from around the world in circumstances that might now be considered to be a bit cheeky — piratical even. But that is another story.
These green ambassadors were sending down roots and curling tendrils in the world’s most fashionable beds and borders long before Chinese slipped into western school curricula and China’s economic growth became a matter of envy.
China’s flora at risk
China is one of the most plant-diverse countries in the world being home to 31,000 species of vascular plants — 10 per cent of the world total. However, the country’s rapid economic development and population growth over the past 30 years poses a threat to this biodiversity. Between 4,000 and 5,000 higher plants are now at risk of extinction, constituting about 15 per cent of China’s total flora. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists 827 globally endangered species, of which 189 are endemic to China.
Jane Owen is editor of House & Home. She was a guest of British Airways, RHS Garden Holidays (020 3735 1855, rhsgardenholidays.com) and Wendy Wu Tours. The next Plant Seekers tour, hosted by experts Christopher Bailes and Raymond Evison, takes place between September 15 and 29 2015, and costs from £4,990 per person. This includes international flights, visas, accommodation, transfers, entry to all the gardens on the itinerary, guided tours, most meals and the services of a professional tour manager. British Airways 787 Dreamliner flies direct from Heathrow to Chengdu five times a week
Photographs: Andreas Brandl/ Robert Harding; Holmes Garden Photos/ Alamy; Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library; JA Howard-Gibbon; Jonathan Buckley/ Gap Photos; Arrowhead Alpines; Alamy; Stefanie Gehrig/ Flickr; Jerry Pavia/ Gap Photos