China - spoilt for choice

It is no coincidence that many of the world’s most famous and most successful ‘plant hunters’ headed for China. Though it may vie with Brazil and Mexico for accolade of most diverse flora there can be no denying that when it comes to choice flowers, whether they be alpines or hardy shrubs, then China wins hands down. China is home, often the only home, to an incredibly high percentage of many of the choicest genera. Around three –quarters of all Primulas, Louseworts and Corydalis are found within its borders.

China is a huge country. But much of this fantastic flora is concentrated in the mountains, both low and high, that stretch north and east from Tibet. So where do you go if you want to experience this floral dreamland? Maps of China that stretch out on your dining room table often fail to give you any impressions of distance. A golden rule in China is never to try and cover too much ground. These mountains, though often with surprisingly good roads, make travelling more than even 150km in a day a time-consuming task. At Greentours we’ve already four tours to China all of which concentrate on just parts of various provinces. For the botanically minded we’ve two tours to the northwestern parts of Yunnan, and one to Sichuan. The autumn tour to Yunnan features no less than 14 species of gentian, a couple of Gentianopsis too, and three Comastomas, and no less than seven Swertias. It is not all Gentianaceae though with many Aconitums, Delphiniums and beautiful little Cyananthus. However I’ll not dwell on that trip much here as we hope soon to have a gallery available on this website showing all the marvelous gentians found on our tour last September.

So to Yunnan in June or Sichuan in July? Both offer a chance to explore some of the best floral areas of the Himalaya in relative comfort, the hotels being reasonable or often quite good. We’ve a dedicated team of 4wd drivers who know our ways by now and are entirely happy to wait around on the roadside whilst we go off and explore alpine slopes covered in incredible flowers. For those used to a European alp in fine flower the first sight of the Balang Shan in Sichuan or the Napa Hai in Yunnan is a bit like attaining the next stage in pursuit of Nirava (we guess?!). For in these mountains every slope seems covered in new plants, flower evolution gone mad, and its not just the numbers, it’s the abundance of choice species; Saxifrages, Androsaces, Paraquilegias, Cypripediums, Anemones, Paeonias, Trollius, Meconopsis, Corydalis, Parnassias, Rheums, Deutzias, Philadelphus, Cassiopes, Rhododendrons, Omphalogrammas, Primulas, Incarvilleas, Gentianas, Corallodiscus, Codonopsis, Liliums, Irises, Arisaemas, Pleiones, Ligularias, and those improbable high-altitude daleks, the Saussureas. Not to mention the fabulous Chionocharis hookeri! An indication of the mind-boggling number of some of the above genera found on our tours last year follows – which is your favourite group?

On the Sichuan tour an amazing 26 species of Primulas, but Yunnan eclipsed this with 30. How about those stunning Corydalis? On these trips you can find almost every colour imaginable! Yunnan scored nine whereas this year Sichuan an unbelievable 23 – and there were a number on each trip that we’ve still to work out. The fabulous Blue Poppies, six species on the Yunnan tour and eleven on the Sichuan tour, with several passes on the latter having mixed populations of red, yellow and blue Meconopsis – Mountains of Heaven indeed! Yunnan featured no less than half a dozen Incarvilleas whilst Sichuan had 47 species of Pedicularis identified and still others not! Nineteen Rhododendron species were blooming on the Yunnan tour, more than twice as many as on the Sichuan trip, whilst those lovely slipper orchids scored seven on Yunnan and five on the Sichuan tour. Six or seven Iris species and two or three Lloydias were in flower on both tours, though Sichuan outscored Yunnan six to three on Liliums. I could go on and on about the flowers of the fantastic places, but if you’re still reading at this stage you might as well take a look at the respective trip reports from Greentours’ trips to Yunnan and Sichuan in 2010, both of which are available to download from the respective holiday pages on this website.

For those who have already been and can’t wait to see a bit more of China, we’ve plans to research two trips this year, one to Southeastern Tibet moving up into Qinghai, and another to Northern Gansu. Watch this website for news on these in the summer!

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