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Growing together: Partnerships for people and plants in China

Volume 8 Number 1 - January 2011

Stephen Blackmore


The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has a long tradition of engagement and collaboration in China. Historically, there have been three distinct phases to this connection, the first of which involved a one way flow of plants and information to Europe.  Happily, the subsequent chapters benefitted both countries and built the foundations for present day partnerships.  Today, RBGE enjoys close collaboration with the family of botanic gardens supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has an especially close relationship with the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), with which it is twinned.

Building the partnerships

The roots of this relationship date back over a century to a period when RBGE began receiving herbarium specimens from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris collected by French Missionaries working in China.  These European pioneers included such notable people as Jean Pierre Armand David, Jean Marie Delavay, and Jean Andre Soulié.  Many of the new plant species they discovered and sent back to Monsigneur Léveillé in Paris were first described by Adrien René Franchet who, in the 1880s and 1890s, arranged for duplicate specimens to be sent to the herbarium in Edinburgh.  The riches of this new temperate flora, hitherto unknown in the West, inspired a number of plant collectors to explore western China in the early part of the twentieth century.  For RBGE, the most important of these was George Forrest, who made seven expeditions to China between 1904 and 1932 and sent back seed of numerous species and over 30,000 herbarium specimens. At the time when Forrest was travelling in Western China there was no local herbarium to receive a set of his specimens, so it was pleasing when the Royal Horticultural Society provided a set to KIB a few years ago.  Edinburgh began to establish itself as a centre of excellence in the plants of China as Forrest’s explorations progressed under the directorship of Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper. This led other pioneering collectors to bequeath archival materials to RBGE including the dairies of Joseph Rock and papers from Reginald Farrer. Taken together, the herbarium, archives and living collections at RBGE are a major source of information for scholars of Chinese botany.

Thanks to the efforts of pioneering botanists, Edinburgh has become a centre of excellence in the plants of China.”

Early visitors to Edinburgh

Their importance led to the second chapter in the story of relations between RBGE and China which was represented by Chinese scientists visiting Edinburgh to pursue their education and research.  One of the most important of these visitors was Chen Fenghuai who came to Edinburgh in 1933 and subsequently became known as “the Father of Chinese Botanic Gardens”. He was instrumental in establishing the South China, Wuhan, Lushan and Sun Yat-sen Botanical Gardens. Soon afterwards, from 1936 to 1938, Fang Weipen came to Edinburgh to study rhododendrons with Sir William Wright Smith.  Wright Smith had been an assistant to Isaac Bayley Balfour and succeeded him as Regius Keeper in 1922.  He himself had travelled widely, serving as the Director of the Botanical Survey of India and collecting Himalayan plants in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet.  After returning to China, Fang Weipen became the Director of the Sichuan University Herbarium in Chengdu.  From 1947 to 1950, Yü Tsetsun, who had travelled and collected plants widely in Yunnan, came to work with Wright Smith in Edinburgh.  After returning to the Institute of Botany in Beijing, he continued to send seed of wild plants to Edinburgh and many of his introductions are thriving today.  A personal favourite of mine is a fine specimen of Pinus armandii which inhabits a peaceful spot away from any of the major paths through the garden.  For many years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 contact and communications between China and the wider world were limited.  Fortunately in the 1980s, when the political reforms that started under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping led to the redevelopment of scientific and political links between China and the West, the third chapter in the relationship began.

Collaboration today

A key figure in ushering in the latest chapter of collaboration was Professor Wu Zhengyi who in 1981 facilitated the Sino-British Expedition to China, the first by Western botanists since 1947.  This expedition marked an important turning point, because the herbarium specimens it generated came back with the names of both Chinese and British botanists on their labels.  The area visited by the expedition, in Yunnan Province, centred on the Cang Shan mountain range near Dali, an area well known to George Forrest in his day.  One of the Chinese members of the team was Fang Mingyuen, the son of Fang Wenpei who had worked with Edinburgh botanists forty five years earlier.  Wu Zhengyi is one of China’s most celebrated scientists.  Now in his 94th year, and a Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Science, he was awarded China’s highest scientific award, the State Preeminent Science and Technology Award by President Hu Jintao in 2007.  Together with Peter Raven of Missouri Botanical Garden he launched the amazingly ambitious Flora of China project, which is now nearing completion and will provide accounts of over 31,000 species of plants.  When Wu Zhengyi himself visited Edinburgh to take part in the first international committee meeting for the Flora of China project he and David Ingram, Regius Keeper, signed a twinning agreement between RBGE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB).   This launched a new set of collaborative projects between the two institutions.  One of these, led by David Paterson, then the Deputy Director of Horticulture at RBGE, was the creation of the British Garden at the Kunming Horticultural Exposition in 1998.  The British Garden was awarded one of the top prizes and the Expo site in Kunming continues to attract millions of visitors every year.  The British Garden project received the energetic support of Sir Anthony Galsworthy, the British Ambassador to China and once it had been completed he was keen to support further initiatives.  By now the focus of collaboration between RBGE and KIB had moved on from simply collecting plants to working together to conserve them. 

The focus now is on working together to conserve plants.”

My own first visit to China, apart from school days in Hong Kong in the 1960s, came in 2000 when together with David Paterson, Tony Galsworthy and others I visited the region around the ancient town of Lijiang.  Like other parts of Yunnan, Lijiang has a rich cultural diversity, being home to several ethnic minority peoples.  When Joseph Rock lived in a village near Lijiang in the 1930s he not only collected plants but studied the culture of the Naxi minority people, writing the first dictionary of their unique pictographic language.  Rock lived in the shadow of the Yulong Xue Shan, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, an extensive mountain range reaching 5,995 metres with some of the most southerly glaciers in the northern hemisphere.  The Yulong Xue Shan was also well known to George Forrest, who camped on its lower slopes and explored the highest alpine meadows of the mountain. The purpose of our visit was to identify a site for the establishment of a new botanic garden and a field station to support research and conservation projects.  In the 1950s KIB had started what proved to be a short-lived botanic garden not far from Joseph Rock’s former residence, now a museum.  The site selected for the new garden lies between Yufeng Buddhist Temple and a tourist attraction called Yue Xue Jai with flowing pools and restaurants.  In May 2001 a stone laying ceremony took place at the site of the proposed garden to celebrate the launch of the project and the purchase of the land by the Chinese Government.  Whereas in Europe such a ceremony would have placed the first stone in the construction of a new building, this ceremony consisted of burying a stone engraved with calligraphy.  As a living celebration of the occasion we planted a Lijiang Spruce (Picea likiangensis) in the lower slopes of the garden at 2,800 metres above sea level.  The site we selected for the associated Jade Dragon Field Station was four hundred metres higher up the mountain, close to a small dam which provides water for some of the many rivers flowing through Lijiang.  Thanks to generous sponsorship from several multinational companies investing in China and funds from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, construction of the Field Station moved ahead rapidly.  The Field Station is built in traditional Naxi architecture, around a walled courtyard and was carried out by people from the neighbouring villages. All of the materials for its construction had to be carried up the mountain by people or horses.  Today, a short spur from the road constructed between Lijiang and Wen Hai village makes it possible to drive to the Field Station, which now has mains electricity and internet connection.  Some of the highest glasshouses in the world, at 3,200 metres, provide facilities for the propagation and bulking up of rare plant species from the surrounding mountain.  The Field Station is being used as a base for a steadily growing number of scientific research projects including my own research on the Quaternary vegetation history of the region, studies on pollination biology and on the conservation of threatened plant species.

“The vision is to develop the Lijiang Alpine Botanic Garden as a focal point for education, tourism and the conservation of alpine plants under China’s biodiversity action plan.”

In recent years the warm relationship between KIB and RBGE has led to new relationships with botanists at a range of institutes in China including the Institute of Botany in Beijing, the South China Botanic Garden and the Guanxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants.  The latter is funded by the Chinese Academy of Medicinal Sciences and is working to design and create a small garden of Chinese traditional medicine plants at RBGE.  Working in China has given me the opportunity to visit many other botanic gardens there and to observe how each of them is moving ahead rapidly with support and investment from the Chinese Government.  There is little doubt that the sheer scale and rapidity of this investment means that China must be regarded as one of the leading nations of the word when it comes to the development of botanic gardens as centres of excellence in research, conservation and education.  As international participants at the 3rd Global Botanic Gardens Congress saw in Wuhan a few years ago, China’s botanic gardens mean business – they are expanding purposefully and it is going to be exciting to see their achievements in the years ahead. 

Stephen Blackmore,
Regius Keeper and Queen’s Botanist,
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
20a, Inverleith Row
Edinburgh, EH3 5LR, UK