Plant Hunting in the Japanese Alps & Feng Shui Lin in Yunnan

That was the title of the talk at tonight's CalHort meeting, as presented by Bill McNamara, director of the Quarryhill Botanical Garden (where I've never been) up in Glen Ellen. My notes on McNamara's talk follow.

Quarryhill BG focuses on Asian flora, and McNamara has been to Asia many times on plant-collecting expeditions. Tonight he showed 306 slides taken during his recent work in the Japanese Alps on the island of Honshu, and in the Yunnan province in southern China. In addition to showing lots of pictures of plants, he also discussed the actual work of plant collecting (long days in the field collecting seeds, followed by long nights spent cleaning them) and the experience of traveling in far-off lands. He showed several pictures of the food he was served in both countries. Apparently, a popular dish at roadside restaurants in China is fried giant wasps, which he and his crew ate by the plateful. One establishment even put a nest of wriggling wasp larvae on a table outside to entice people in.

Starting in Japan, I was surprised to learn much of Japan has been logged two or three times (although it makes sense). Japanese reforestation efforts are so consistent that forest hikers will sometimes pass through groves of mature trees growing in rows, evenly spaced. Buddha statues and stone "protectors" (obelisks and the like) are frequent sights on mountain trails, placed centuries ago to confer luck and safety on the traveler--helpful commodities to be sure; Japan has half a dozen species of poisonous snake.

Japan is geologically new and its mountains are steep. Frequent, heavy rains contribute to serious erosion problems. Cement trucks are a common sight in the mountains pouring cement to stabilize streams down steep slopes; there are few natural streams left in this area.

With regard to taxonomy, McNamara says the Japanese (like the Chinese) are "splitters", i.e., they are inclined name many varieties of a species where others are more likely to leave species diversity unnamed. He gave Acer mono as an example of a plant that the Japanese have named many varieties of.

Many plants imported from this region of the world have become weeds in the eastern United States (e.g., Ampelopsis brevipedunculata). Plant collectors are aware of this, and McNamara said his greatest fear is having some plant named after him becoming a noxious weed.

Interesting plants he mentioned were Rhododendron makinoi (likes dry heat!), Pinus pumila (a low-growing alpine conifer), Disanthus cercidifolius (amazing red fall color, no successful germination in cultivation), Helwingia japonica (which flowers on the midrib of the leaf!), and Plectranthus effusus (which I admired for the beautiful flowers). I also enjoyed seeing pictures of 75-feet-tall Stewartias. Apparently, the place to see Stewartia in the US is a botanical garden on Martha's Vineyard. I didn't catch the name.

On to China...

The urban landscaping business is booming in Yunnan province. Tree nurseries cannot keep up with demand, and the market is expanding rapidly. (Judging from pictures McNamara showed of small, ill-conceived planting boxes, it's clear the Chinese still have a few things to learn about planting trees in cities.) New plants are being discovered all the time right now in China and plants previously unknown in cultivation are entering the trade.

Meanwhile, a swelling population means more and more land is giving way to agriculture. Peaks are stripped of natural vegetation and terraced for farming. Logging continues even where it has been outlawed. This has spurred botanical conservation efforts, focusing in particular on the Magnoliaceae.

I think McNamara said western taxonomists recently folded 7 or 9 different genera into Magnolia, but I'm not sure. There's a little bit about recent phylogenetic studies on the Wikipedia page, here. His expedition in China was only permitted to collect Magnolia seed, but he also showed many pictures of Manglietia and Michelia, some of which have not been formally identified or scientifically published yet.

To cultivate ginseng, land is cleared of trees and then vast shade structures are built and the ginseng is grown under them over several years. When the harvest is complete, the land is left to regrow and a new area is cleared for further cultivation.

In villages where there is a lot of deforestation and agriculture, one wooded area will be left untouched because the people believe this is necessary to protect the village from harm. The protected woodland and what it stands for is called feng shui lin. In fact, some of the worst flooding in rural China is at least partly attributable to deforestation.

After harvest, peppers and star anise are left out to dry on village streets in large drifts. Peppers are so integral to Chinese cuisine, many people there refuse to believe peppers do not come from China (in fact, the genus Capsicum comes from tropical America). Chinese farmers routinely grow Cannabis sativa for hemp fibers. Many kinds of Begonia and Hedychium are popular ornamentals for village gardens in rural Yunnan province. Common marigold is encouraged to naturalize and McNamara showed whole hillsides of it.


Ewa said...

Thank you for this very interesting post. That is kind of surprising - still some species and kinds unknown on Earth.
Also info about booming gardening in China was interesting.
I wish I could see the slides from the lecture.

lisa said...

Sounds like a really informative lecture. We grow ginseng commercially here in Wisconsin too, must be some decent money in it. (I wondered what all the shade-cloth covered areas were...I guessed hosta growers-ha!) I'm also surprised to hear of yet-unstudied cultivars, especially in China! I mean, all those people...guess it's just not big on their scientific agenda. I find it hard to imagine ANY corner of this planet that hasn't been thoroughly "gone over", y'know?