Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Advancing the Conservation, Study, and Cultivation of the Flora of Asia

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Fall, 2009 Expedition to China

Fall, 2009 Expedition to China

Sloppy Slogging in Sichuan

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Zhang, Welti, McNamara, Hill, Barnes


Executive Director Bill McNamara spent a month in Sichuan, China collecting plants for Quarryhill this past fall. Corey Barnes, Quarryhill’s Nursery Manager, Andy Hill, Curator of the David C. Lam Asian Garden at the University of British Columbia, Liyun Zhang, a Ph.D. student from Sichuan University, and Joanna Welti as trip photographer joined Bill on the expedition.

Due to space constraints in the garden, Quarryhill has recently decided to sharpen its focus, concentrating on collecting a smaller range of plant groups that are both endangered and have ornamental appeal. The purpose of the China trip was to hunt for new species of magnolias, maples, and plants in the Theacae (Camellia family) to expand the garden’s collection. “One of our goals is to develop the finest collection of  Asian magnolias in the country,” said Bill.

With two jeeps and drivers, the exploration party headed into the high mountainous regions of western and southern Sichuan. Although densely populated in some regions, the province is rich in biological resources, with more than 10,000 different plant species, 19 of them magnolias.

Mud and Monkeys, but No Magnolias

Getting to the collecting areas in Sichuan was easier than in past years due to China’s major efforts in highway construction. However, once in their target collection area, traveling was much more difficult. A
longer and wetter than normal rainy season turned the dirt and gravel roads into mud, and the steep
mountain passes were prone to landslides. During a couple of their toughest days, the group hiked 35 kilometers down vertical stone stairs chopped into the side of Mount Emei. Famous for its many Buddhist temples and 3,000 plant species, Mount Emei is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The party spent the night in an old Buddhist monastery and continued another 7.5 kilometers the next day. Monkeys were a problem along the pathways, aggressively grabbing for any items that stuck out of their packs. The group had to carry large sticks to keep the monkeys at bay.

The heavy rains that extended into October also hampered collection efforts. The group found populations of five different species of magnolias, but only one tree, Magnolia sargentiana had a single seedpod. “It was very disappointing, said Bill, “But on the other hand, we gathered 102 specimens from other families, including Aceraceae, Rosaceae, and Ericaceae.

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Conservation in China’s Multiuse Nature Reserves

Quarryhill conducts its expeditions in China’s large nature reserves, which are managed somewhat like
our National Forest lands. Villagers living within their boundaries are allowed to farm, harvest timber, and collect medicinal and culinary plants. Bill noted, “The reserves were initially set aside to protect animals like the pandas, but have been expanded to protect more biodiversity. However, subsistence farmers who need fuel and food put pressure on these areas, so only the steepest areas have a chance of remaining untouched.”

Witnessing Change in the China Landscape

Quarryhill has fielded collecting trips to Southeast Asia every year since 1987 and Bill has been on all but one of them. Organizing these trips requires months of careful planning, working with scientists like Sichuan University’s Professor Tang Ya to secure government permits, determine the best collection locations, and hire vehicles and drivers.

Bill has seen the country change dramatically in the past 22 years. Roads are better and distances that
used to take all day can now be covered in less than an hour. “In the early years, our jeeps encountered only government cars, trucks and buses on the roads. Now, private cars are everywhere,” he said. “Scooters and motorcycles have replaced bicycles that used to crowd the city streets. The pace of change really picked up about ten years ago. The skies are just filled with hundreds of building cranes around the urban areas.”