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Three Conifers South of the Chang

Articles: Three Conifers South of the Chang

…as those who have recently travelled in China’s wild places will know, the erosion of her forest, first noted and lamenated by Augustine Henry and others a hundred years or more ago, continues unabated and its future should be the concern of us all.

Roy Lancaster, Travels in China: A Plantsman’s Paradise

Several years ago I planted in my garden a dawn redwood purchased from Bay Area nurseryman Toichi Domoto. I was curious about its deciduous nature (unusual for a conifer) and its similarity to the coast redwoods near my home. To my surprise, it grew rapidly—several feet a year—and was outstanding throughout the seasons. At the time, I knew only fragments of the history and discovery of this remarkable tree. Over the years, I read bits and pieces, learning that, more than twenty million years ago, it was widespread in the Northern Hemisphere and, until recently, was thought to be extinct (see Pacific Horticulture, Summer ‘92). It is a member of the bald cypress or redwood family (Taxodiaceae) along with California’s two redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoiadendron giganteum. Fossils of it have been found from the late Cretaceous period through to the Pliocene.

First discovered by botanists from China and Japan as recently as 1941, seed was collected in 1948 and distributed by the Arnold Arboretum and UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley. In March of 1948, spurred by their curiosity, Dr Ralph W Chaney, a palaeobotanist with the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr Milton Silverman, a science writer with the San Francisco Chronicle made the difficult journey to Modaoqi, where the tree had been found in remote Sichuan Province, China; they became the first Westerners to see a living dawn redwood. At that time, the tree still did not have a scientific name. The name dawn redwood was dreamed up in an editorial office of the Chronicle to help sell the story.

Dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) lining a street in Madaoqi, China. Author’s photographs
Dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) lining a street in Madaoqi, China. Author’s photographs

Though a few of the larger specimens were revered by the local Chinese, Chaney concluded that, due to its small population, dawn redwood was a tree on the edge of extinction. Later that year, it was formally described and named Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Shortly thereafter, as this fascinating conifer entered the world of horticulture, China closed its doors to the outside world. China remained closed until the mid-1970s, and no Western botanists visited the site again until 1980. Without the success of the seeds distributed in 1948 and without Chaney and Silverman’s well-publicized visit to Modaoqi, dawn redwood could have easily drifted into extinction. Later, unbeknownst to the outside world, the Chinese government chose to protect the few remaining trees and to propagate tens of thousands more for planting as street trees throughout China.

Lod Howick and Madaoqi residents in front of their venerable dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Lod Howick and Madaoqi residents in front of their venerable dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

In the fall of 1996, I had the good fortune to visit Modaoqi, in the company of Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Lord Howick of the Howick Arboretum. We were there to document and collect seed of both woody and herbaceous plants in eastern Sichuan. Since we were relatively near the home of the still-living type specimen of dawn redwood (“near” in China can mean three or four days in a jeep), we added a visit to Modaoqi to our itinerary. We also intended to visit the Jinfu Shan in southeastern Sichuan in the hope of seeing the mysterious conifer Cathaya argyrophylla and a rare, isolated specimen of Taiwania flousiana. All three of these fascinating conifers are relict species that occur south of the Yangtze River in central China, in an area of tremendous biological diversity. They also are protected species; therefore, any collecting would be strictly forbidden. We were accompanied by Dr Yin, an ecologist, Professor Zhong, our interpreter, and Mr Liu, our “armed” guard, all from the Chengdu Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. My previous plant collecting journeys to China had been to western Sichuan, northern Yunnan, and southeastern Tibet. I was therefore excited to be heading east from Chengdu, Sichuan into new and different territory.

Three long days later we arrived in Wanxian, a large city on the way to Modaoqi. Wanxian is an old city on the Yangtze River, crowded with grimy high-rise buildings. We were told that the first six stories of buildings along the riverfront would be under water when the new dam in Yichang is completed. Estimates are that this controversial project will force the relocation of over five million people. Wanxian and the surrounding towns will be particularly affected. The Yangtze River is one of the most silted rivers in the world, in large part due to extensive logging in the upper reaches of the river in Yunnan and Sichuan. This was certainly evident here as a ferry filled with trucks, cars, carts, ducks, pigs, bicycles, and people took us across the muddy Yangtze.

It took almost all day to get to Modaoqi from Wanxian, winding up and over countless mountains and through dozens of villages. It is now located in Hubei Province at an elevation of 1275 meters (4200 feet). We were traveling in two jeeps, and everyone was tired and cranky from the many days of bad roads. All that was forgotten though as we pulled into the small town with its streets lined with young dawn redwoods. We first stopped for some noodles, and while they were preparing them, Tony and I wandered up the road hoping for the first glimpse of the legendary type specimen. Not finding the tree and fearing another rebuke from our hosts (we were always wandering off at the wrong time), we headed back to the ramshackle restaurant. After a quick but tasty bowl of spicy noodles, we climbed back in the jeeps and drove a short distance up the road. On our left, less than a hundred feet away, stood a lone Metasequoia glyptostroboides. We quickly hopped from the jeeps, strode up to the base of the famous tree, and, like Buddhist pilgrims, circumambulated its trunk.

Our long peregrination now complete, we took dozens of photographs. Village life rolled to a halt and a crowd gathered to gawk at us while we gawked at the dawn redwood. To the laughter of the many children and the amazement of their parents, we then measured its girth and height. It was 7.1 meters (twenty-three feet) in circumference at breast height, and 34.65 meters (114 feet) tall. It did not appear to be in the best of health, though time did not allow a thorough examination. No cones had been produced that year, and along the trunk were clusters of epicormic shoots that we took as signs of possible stress. The soil around the tree was compacted from frequent foot traffic. In an attempt to protect the tree in recent years, a lightning rod had been placed on it and a concrete fence built around the trunk. We saw no other naturally occurring dawn redwoods in the vicinity. We attempted several feeble conversations with villagers in the hope of prolonging our time in the presence of this historic tree. After much pressure from our hosts about reaching the town of Shizhu in time for dinner, we reluctantly moved on.

Taiwania flousiana
Taiwania flousiana


Our next destination was a taiwania tree near the village of Maoba in Youyang County back in Sichuan. Like dawn redwood, it is also a member of the Taxodiaceae. There are two species of this large conifer, one occurring in the mountains of Taiwan (Taiwania cryptomerioides), discovered in 1904, and Taiwania flousiana, discovered only recently in upper Burma and western Yunnan. Even more recently, isolated specimens of the latter had been found in Sichuan. Both remain rare in cultivation.

We headed for one of the lone giants, a trip requiring yet another grueling three days of driving. Our route took us through heavily logged limestone mountains and small villages busy with the rice harvest. The final approach was along a limestone ridge with scattered groves of Emmenopterys henryi, a tree that botanical explorer Ernest Wilson called “one the most strikingly beautiful trees” in China. A member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) with broadly ovate leaves and terminal clusters of large white flowers, it is rarely seen in cultivation.

Our reception was even grander in Maoba as literally hundreds of people gathered around to stare at the foreigners. So tightly did they crowd around us that it was difficult to move. We were told that we were the first Westerners to visit their tiny one-dirt-road town. Most of the people were Tujia, one of the many minority groups in China. Like most of the other minorities I had seen in China, they appeared to be exceedingly poor, but were quick to smile and offer help.

We still had a forty-five-minute walk to the small farming settlement of Cha Yuan, at an elevation of 735 meters (2400 feet). About a dozen young boys joined us as we hiked down a steep path into a lush, narrow valley. The tree came into view towering over a farmhouse as we made our way around a rice paddy ready for harvest. Yao Bengqing, who farmed the land where the tree grew, proudly explained to us that he had been given specific orders from the Chinese government to protect this special tree. We saw no others, though we were told that there were numerous young trees in the area. Growing with bamboo, windmill palms (Trachycarpus), and cultivated Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica), which it resembles, this Taiwania flousiana stood approximately forty-one meters (135 feet) high. Its circumference at breast height was 3.55 meters (twelve feet).

Knowing that we did not have much time, but wanting to enjoy the company of these wonderful people who were so proud of their beautiful tree, we agreed to have tea at a neighbor’s home. We sat on low hand-made chairs in their open-air living room answering questions about our homes. I asked about two interesting large wooden boxes that sat in a corner. With a wide grin, the farmer told us that they were coffins for him and his wife, made from local yew. I thought to myself, what a great way to remind oneself of the importance of appreciating each moment. As we got up to leave, I made the mistake of admiring the comfortable chair. Despite my protests, the poor farmer insisted that I take it with me. The young boys would not even let me carry it during the one hour uphill hike back to the village of Maoba.

Foliage of Cathaya argyrophylla
Foliage of Cathaya argyrophylla


Two more long days driving through never-ending mountains and crossing countless rivers brought us to Nanchuan in southeastern Sichuan. Our goal was the Jinfu Shan, the mountainous home of the extraordinary conifer Cathaya argyrophylla. This monotypic genus was discovered by Chinese scientists in 1955 in southeastern Sichuan and has since been found growing in parts of Hunan, Guangxi, and Guizhou. A member of the pine family (Pinaceae), it favors limestone outcroppings in areas of heavy summer rainfall and is extremely rare in cultivation.

Nanchuan is a small city just north of the Jinfu Shan. After a good night’s rest, we eagerly headed to our jeeps for the drive up into the mountain range. To our surprise, blocking the gate to the hotel were at least a dozen people arguing with Dr Yin and Professor Zhong. Apparently, several of them were determined to keep us from visiting the cathayas. There was a representative from the local police, the local tourist bureau, the forestry department, the public security bureau, the Chinese army, the mayor’s office and who knows where else. Everyone was yelling and gesturing wildly. Finally, they agreed that we could see the trees, but they stated emphatically that we would not be allowed to touch or photograph them. At this point, Dr Yin made a phone call to the governor, who assured the protestors that we could indeed visit and photograph the valuable resource Yinshan (the Chinese name for Cathaya argyrophylla), as we were important scientists from England and America.

Two and a half hours later our jeeps were climbing up steep, mist-covered mountains, with an escort of six Chinese. We stopped at about 1700 meters (5600 feet) elevation in an area of dense bamboo. A thick cloud cover had reduced visibility to less than one hundred feet. We hiked in a light rain for about twenty minutes, slightly uphill to a large limestone outcrop about fifteen meters (fifty feet) high and wide. Our Chinese colleagues pointed to the top of the outcrop and said, “there they are.” Through the mist, we could barely make out several conifers growing above us. As we stood there wondering if they would let us climb up to view them closer, we noticed that someone had already rendered that nearly impossible. Everywhere that it might have been possible to climb, the limestone outcrop had been altered to prevent that possibility. Cracks that might have been footholds had been filled in with concrete, rough areas that might have served as grips were smashed smooth and in areas of easy accessibility, barriers of rock and concrete had been installed. Someone was undoubtedly determined to keep people away from the cathayas.

As we looked around, clearly frustrated and not trying to disguise it, our Chinese escorts surprised us by picking up a small fallen tree and leaning it against the outcrop. They then found another similar log and, together with the first, created a makeshift ladder. Several minutes later, after pushing and pulling each other up onto the top of the outcrop, we were standing in a grove of cathayas. Our hosts further surprised us by telling us that it was all right to climb the trees and to take herbarium specimens. The dozen or so trees averaged about ten meters (thirty-three feet) in height and superficially resembled short-needled pines. The few cones present had already dropped their seeds. They were growing with familiar shrubs such as linderas, cotoneasters, enkianthus, and rhododendrons. After a good half hour of climbing, examining, and photographing the trees, we slowly made our way back down the outcrop. The rain intensified as we walked back to the road. While getting into the jeeps, our colleagues told me that I was the first American to see cathaya in the wild. Though suspicious of that statement, and rather cold and wet, I was nonetheless happy to have seen, photographed, and even climbed Cathaya argyrophylla.

During the long drive back to Nanchuan, we spotted one of the biggest troublemakers from the fiasco at the hotel that morning, with his jeep in a ditch. Apparently, in an attempt to keep up with us on our way into the mountains, his driver had lost control around one of the many dangerous curves. Later that night, the governor came by our hotel to apologize for any inconvenience that we had experienced during our visit to Nanchuan and the Jinfu Shan. “You are warmly welcome to visit again,” he said, echoing a refrain that we heard all over China.

During the long flight home, I mentally reviewed all that had happened during the expedition. Certain experiences quickly surfaced as the most memorable. This journey had been one of our more frustrating, as it had been a poor year for seeds, and the distances between collecting areas were vast. But the good fortune to have seen three legendary relict conifers in their native habitats had made the trip into a pilgrimage. Even if there had been seed on these trees, we would not have been allowed to collect it. Chinese law, thankfully, protects them. Yet, just to be in their presence, admiring their stately beauty, and thinking about their precarious survival over eons, made the long and difficult journey more than worthwhile. They had hid from the modern world until only recently. Pondering the pressure of more than six billion people and the pollution from our industrialized world, I wondered whether the trees would have been better off remaining hidden. I hope that, collectively, we can ensure the future survival of these three conifers south of the Yangtze.

Quarryhill Botanic Garden

In just over 10 years, Quarryhill Botanical Garden has evolved from a rocky hillside above the wine country town of Glen Ellen into one of the premier collections of temperate East Asian plants in North America. Oaks, maples, dogwoods, and roses are particularly well represented among the more than 17,000 plants in the garden. Sadly, Quarryhill founder and benefactor Jane Davenport Jansen died suddenly in May of 2000. Since 1987, she had sponsored annual joint expeditions that sent horticulturists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Howick Arboretum, and Quarryhill to remote areas, primarily in China but also to Japan, Nepal, and India. The plants that germinated from the thousands of seeds collected now grow in arboreta and botanic gardens throughout North America and Europe. All collections were documented and of wild origin. Herbarium specimens collected during the expeditions have been deposited at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Through a generous endowment left by Mrs Jansen, Quarryhill will continue in its mission to advance the conservation, study, and cultivation of the temperate flora of Asia. Continued expeditions to China and the addition of many new accessions are planned for the next several years. The staff and board of directors are committed to carrying Mrs Jansen’s vision forward.





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