Angus StewartCome to Yunnan, treasure trove of plants and ethnic cultures

I am excited to tell you, dear reader, that I have been invited to lead a tour ‘In the Footsteps of the Plant Collectors’ to one of the most botanically diverse areas on earth, Yunnan Province in China. A number of our most treasured garden plants such as roses, magnolias, rhododendrons, poppies and many others come from this floral treasure trove.

Rhododendron growing wild in Yunnan China

Rhododendron growing wild in Yunnan China

One of the great pleasures in life for garden lovers is getting out into the wild to look at plants in their natural environment. The pleasure increases enormously for me when I look at plants that have been brought into cultivation. One of my lifelong projects has been breeding kangaroo paws, with the objective of making them easier to grow in people’s gardens, and so I can appreciate the journeys of other plant people to explore the potential of new plants for horticulture. Seeing any plant growing in the wild provides priceless cues as to what sort of garden situation it may grow in.

Yunnan wildflowers1

Yunnan wildflower2Wild rambling roses, stately deep purple iris, dense clusters of lush rhododendrons – you might think I’m describing an English cottage garden, but these plants also inhabit a very different environment, along with a rich array of other, much more unusual plants, flourishing wild in the mountains and valleys of Yunnan province, China. Many beloved garden plants and flowers originate from this region, including species of camellia, pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), rhododendron, iris, peony, magnolia, begonia, and many more.

Yunnan poppy

Seeing wild forms of these beautiful and well-known flowers is incredible; bushy roses spread over mountainsides, overlooking deep gorges and rivers, dense thickets of rhododendron growing under low cloud. These very familiar plants coexist here with many plants unfamiliar to us, with strange and fascinating forms. The sheer abundance of different plant species concentrated in this region, and the unusual nature of these plants, has proved fascinating and irresistible to botanists and plant collectors from the West throughout the previous two centuries.

Rhododendron in Yunnan

Rhododendron in Yunnan

The first Western botanical explorer to come to these parts was Père Jean-Marie Delavay in the late 19th century; the species Magnolia delavayi and Paeonia delevayi, both collected by Delavay in Yunnan, are named after him. In the 20th century, botanical explorers continued to explore Yunnan and collect plants to take back to Europe, including George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward, and Joseph Rock. Even with this long history of plant collecting, the exploration of Yunnan’s botanical wealth continues unabated, with new species still being discovered up to this day!

Bai people in Heqing

Bai people in Heqing

The tour I will be leading in May 2016 and again in 2017 (if you want a bit more time to plan) will visit some of the most biodiverse areas of Yunnan, across multiple climate zones, from subtropical to alpine, and thus gives a great overview of the fascinating range of plant (and animal) species of the province. In addition to the botanical riches to be explored, we will also be experiencing the cultural diversity of one of the outlying areas of China with its close proximity to Myanmar (formerly Burma). Yunnan is home to around 25 ethnic minorities, each with their own culture, customs and costumes and we will be stopping to experience this in places such as Heshun Old town in Tengchong, the Chongshen Monastery in Dali as well as the Sunsaling Monastery in Shangri-la, a centre of Tibetan Buddhism built in 1679. But more about cultural parts of the tour later!

Yunnan wildflower3

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is the first stop on the tour, a city with a subtropical climate and lush vegetation throughout the year. The Kunming Botanical Gardens will give a perfect introduction to the tour, as they showcase the vast range of plants native to Yunnan province, including special collections of camellias, magnolias, begonias, rhododendrons, and rare plants of Yunnan, all concentrated in one place. The visit to the gardens will give us a good background knowledge before we go into the exploration of the plants in their natural setting. The Botanical Gardens are part of the Kunming Institute of Botany, an institution doing exciting research on the conservation and utilisation of Yunnan’s rich flora.

From Kunming, we will travel to Tongcheng and get out into nature at the Mount Gaoligong Nature Reserve, part of the World Heritage listed Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, described by UNESCO as one of the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystems in the world, a biodiversity hotspot. This park holds a wide array of microclimates within a relatively small area, creating habitats for a wide range of species.

Naxi village in Lijiang

Naxi village in Lijiang

Mount Gaoligong Nature Reserve is one of the only places in the world where there is a complete transformation from temperate forest into tropical forest, supporting many species endemic to this region. Mount Gaoligong has an astonishing amount of different animal and plant species, and is sometimes described as a ‘natural botanical garden’, with many familiar species such as azaleas, roses, raspberry, gentians, irises, orchids and ferns. There are 318 endemic species, including the genera Davidia, Metapanax, and Smithorchis.

This is the natural habitat of azaleas and rhododendrons, with species including the majestic Big Tree Rhododendron (Rhododendron protistum var. giganteum). This species is critically endangered in its native habitat, with only around 100 individuals left in the wild. Young seedlings can often be disturbed and trampled, partly due to tourism, so be mindful of this when visiting the area. There are also uncommon magnolia species, such as Magnolia hookeri, a species found only here and in parts of Thailand and Burma, and listed as endangered.

Tiger Leaping Gorge - the world's deepest gorge on the way to Shangri-La

Tiger Leaping Gorge – the world’s deepest gorge on the way to Shangri-La

At the following link you can see images of the common plants of this area: Gaoligong Plants – there are some familiar plant families here, and many intriguing new forms to encounter!

Black Dragon Pool Park Lijang

Black Dragon Pool Park Lijang

Later we will head into alpine regions to discover quite different flora, from the city of Lijiang on to the renowned Shangri-La county. The tour is not only about plants in isolation though; this part of China is also very ethnically diverse and has a rich cultural history. In Lijiang we will follow the path of Joseph Rock, visiting the house he lived in for many years here. Rock was not only an avid botanist, but also a linguist, and he produced numerous publications documenting the history and culture of the local Naxi people, including a dictionary of the Naxi language. Alongside this, of course, he was always collecting new plants, including the impressive Rock’s Peony (Paeonia rockii).

Tibetan culture in Shangri-La

Tibetan culture in Shangri-La

In the Shangri-La region, the tour takes in Baima nature reserve on the way to the city of Deqin. This isolated nature reserve holds many virgin forests, and extremely unique wildlife, such as the Yunnan golden monkey, the monkey living at the highest altitude. The climate is alpine, with impressive and renowned rhododendron forests, the noble rhubarb (Rheum nobile), Himalayan Eritrichium (Chionocharis hookeri), and many more alpine plants and flowers. The following link features a fantastic photo album documenting the flora of the areas we’ll be visiting in the tour: Yunnan Flora. There is an amazing variety of species and forms in the Shangri-La region, from bushy roses and golden peonies to bizarre orchids and Arisaema species.

Dongzhulin Monastery

Dongzhulin Monastery

This area is also very close to Tibet, and has some beautiful old monasteries we will visit, however, the holy sites of Tibetan Buddhism are all around you in this place, they are the mountains themselves. On the way to Deqin we will see the Sacred Kawakarpo Mountain, the second most important holy site in Tibetan Buddhism. This is followed by further opportunity to get out and about amongst the alpine flowers, at Baima mountain, where gentians, lilies, and orchids abound.

Songtzeling Monastery

Songtzeling Monastery

This region offers an amazing opportunity to see both beloved garden flowers, and new, rare species in a range of highly unique ecosystems. Just as those early explorers ventured out in previous centuries, so we today still have the opportunity to feel the compelling sense of discovery and exploration. On top of this we can experience a new association with many of the wild plants they collected, the attractive garden plants that have found a place in our hearts.

Napa Lake near Shangri-la

Napa Lake near Shangri-la

I am incredibly excited to have the privilege of taking a tour to such a special part of the world, both in botanical and cultural terms. I have spent a good deal of time researching the tour and I would like share some further background about how this tour came to be. One of my botanical mentors is Peter Valder, a retired Sydney based botanist who taught me at Sydney University where I studied Agricultural Science. One of Peter’s plant passions is the plants and gardens of China, a subject on which he wrote an award winning book called Gardens in China. Peter has led several tours of China to look at some of the more amazing gardens as well as the wild plants there and he has helped us ensure that we have a spectacular itinerary of this unique part of the world.

Meili Snow Mountain at Deqin

Meili Snow Mountain at Deqin

Please feel free to email me at angus@gardeningwithangus.com.au if you have any questions about the tour as well as seeing the full itinerary on GardenDrum’s Garden Tour Hub.

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Angus Stewart

About Angus Stewart

Gardening Australia TV presenter, author of 'Creating an Australian Garden', 'Australian Plants for Year-round Colour' and 'Let's Propagate', garden travel guide, native plant specialist and breeder. Central Coast, NSW. Find out lots more about native plants at Gardening with Angus.

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