Botanical Impressions From Yulong Shan
Bengt Skoog, M.D.
Author's note: I have tried to use pinyin spelling throughout the text. Lijiang, in the Yunnan province of China was a popular destination for western botanists before the communist revolution. Botanists like Pierre Delavay (though he never visited Yulong shan himself), George Forrest, Heinrich Handel-Mazetti, Frank Kingdon-Ward, Joseph Rock and Camillo Schneider all stayed in the area for long periods. When it again became accessible for westerners in the mid 80's, Ron Gordon from New Zealand, I believe, was the first western rhododendron specialist to visit the area. In the fall of 1986, Roy Lancaster headed a group of botanical tourists to the area. In June 1987, a Sino-British expedition also visited Yulong shan with participation by Chris Gray-Wilson, among others.
I visited the area between April 29th and May 5th, 1987. The first week I toured with the British botanical group with whom I had traveled to Lijiang. As botanical travel guide we had Professor Philip Cribbs from Kew.
The upper reaches of the Yangtze which is here called the Jinsha river, meaning golden sand is in the Lijiang area. Upstream of Lijiang, gold is found in the river gravel. When the Jinsha river hits the Yulong shan it makes a sharp bend at a small village called Shigou. It then continues in a northeast direction as it cuts through the mountain range of which Yulong shan forms the southern part. The narrowest part of this canyon is called Hutiao tan, the Tiger Leap Rapid (it is here so narrow that a tiger is supposed to manage a jump across). The difference in altitude from river level to mountain peak amounts to more than 3 km. After some 40 km the river turns south again, thus demarcating a land area called the Yangtze bend.
Yulong shan rises as a lone snowcapped peak above the surrounding mountains in the north of Yunnan. Its highest peak is called Shanzi and is about 5950 meters high. (It was, as a matter of fact, climbed for the first time when I was there by an American expedition.) Yulong shan consists predominantly of limestone, although the southern spurs are said to be of volcanic origin (Rock 1947). According to Handel-Mazetti (1927) more than 5000 species of higher plants are thought to be found in the area. Several minority people live in the area, e.g. the Nakhi and the Yi of Tibetan origin.
The Lijiang plain
The city of Lijiang is situated on a high plain surrounded by mountains. In clear weather, the scenery is dominated by Yulong shan's glittering peaks towards the northwest. The altitude is about 2400 m at the city. The plain stretches like a broad U-shaped valley 20 km in a northerly direction, the height in the northern part being around 2800 m.
The southern part of the plain is cultivated and irrigated. A half-dozen small villages lie scattered on the plain. The villages are typically situated along a torrent. The largest village on the Lijiang plain is called Boashi in the Nakhi language (Chinese Baisha = white sand). In this village we met a herbal doctor, Dr. Ho. He collects plants from all over the Yulong shan from which he then concocts different "universal" remedies. He does not know much botanical Latin, but if we show him a picture of a plant he can tell us where to find it (rhododendron is called mogö in the Nakhi language).
In the beginning of May we saw a tree 10-15 m high with pink flowers blooming on the outskirts of the villages. It is Catalpa fargesii, a species which seems to belong to a different group of catalpas than the ones we grow in our gardens, It has relatively small poplar-like leaves, dark green and shiny on the upper surface.
Northwards on the road from Boashi is a village called Yulong cun. Just above this village there is a small lamasery (Buddist monastery), Yufeng si. The lamasery, situated in a wood of Pinus yunnanensis and Pinus armandi, is known for its more than four hundred year old camellia tree. Here we were served tea with walnuts and pinenuts (P. armandii) by a monk. The nuts we dipped in the lamasery's own wild honey. (This monk actually stayed in the lamasery during the cultural revolution in order to care for the camellia tree.)
| Map compiled from US Air Force map, Joseph Rock's
maps and author's own observations.
From Lijiang to Daju, a logging road stretches over the plain from south to north. After about 15 km is a stony area (altitude 2700 m) that is grazed by cattle (map near 1). Here the limestone is covered with only a thin layer of gravel-soil, Incarvillea mairei is a characteristic and common flower, its large violet-red trumpet on a short stalk rising directly from the ground. Another common plant growing in clumps is the yellow flowering Stellera chamaejasme. Small grazed bushes of Quercus semecarpifolia added dark-green contrasts to the landscape. Protected by large blocks of stone, the intensely yellow Primula forestii and the dark red Paeonia potaninii flowered. We found a few plants with large pink flowers, Clematis chrysocoma.
A few days later we walked from this area towards the foot of the Yulong shan. In a wet depression we saw a Ligularia lankangensis, with a yellow spike and silvery leaves. We followed a small brook up into the pine forest, the ground along the brook was very wet. Here, white flowering rhododendron (1.5 m high R. decorum and R. yunnanense) and a small philadelphus were found. Just by the brook, we saw a small orchid (Calanthe tricarinata) with yellowish green flowers and singular plants of Primula poisonii with dark-red flowers.
The forest reserve at Nga-Ba
The road now continues past a logging control station to a pass at 3100 m. Here we found a thin wood of Pinus yunannensis with solitary bushes of R. decorum (1.5 m high) and plenty of the half-meter high rose-flowering, R. racemosum (it was growing like heather in a Swedish pine wood). Close to a rock we found a lone and magnificently pink-flowered Pleione bulbocodioides. The rocks seem to be glacier-transported limestone. The ground is covered by a 1 x 5 cm thick layer of decayed pine needles. The before mentioned peonies and primulas were also found here.
| Pleione bulbocodioides growing under pines
Photo by Bengt Skoog
After the pass we came to a small plateau (3000 m altitude) at the foot of the highest peaks of Yulong shan. This plateau is known as Nga-Ba (the dry lake) in the Nakhi language. We left the road and travelled in a southwesterly direction to a rubble stone hill (boulder drum) (map near 2). The center of the plateau is grass covered (according to Rock it was temporarily filled with water). We saw dzus, a cross between yak and cow, grazing.
As we approached the hill the Yunnan pine reappeared and the ground which consisted of yellow sand was covered with R. racemosum and small grazed bushes of some evergreen dwarf oak. As we walked towards the north slope, the ground became more moist. Our attention turned to the small specimens of Picea likiangensis with their glowing purple male cones. The whole hill, according to our local Chinese guide, was set aside as a forest reserve although we did not see any large trees.
At the foot of the hill there appeared a 5-10 m high forest of the above mentioned conifer trees and Abies delavayi, Quercus semecarpifolia, Larix tibetana, Populus rotundifolia, birches and maples. The understory consisted of R. yunnanense, Neillia gracilis, Dipelta ventricosa and a two meter high mountain bamboo (Arundinaria nitida), with purple canes (but with more marked nodes than the variety we grow in Scandinavia). We saw the new leaves of Rodgersia pinnata. Usnea longissima was growing sparsely on trees and shrubs. The clay soil on the north side was covered with moss.
The summit is at 3300 m altitude. The Yunnan pine was again the dominating tree (the short needle trees found here should be called P. tabuliformis since the name P. yunnanensis is supposed to be reserved to the long needle form found at lower altitude). Here we saw various herbaceous plants such as Roscoea humeana (violet flowers), Roscoea cautleyoides (yellow flowers), Androsacae rigida and Androsacae spinulifera, Anemone narcissiflora, Adonis brevistyla and Morina delavayi.
| R. rubiginosum on the eastern slope of Yulong Shan
Photo by Bengt Skoog
We followed the crest towards the west and found a half meter high compact rhododendron with purple flowers. The inflorescences seemed to be terminal. It had relatively large, slightly assymetrical flowers with long bowing pistils and stamens. The leaves were 3-4 cm long and had a reddish-brown lower surface (the shrub strongly reminded me of R. cuneatum). In the protection of a rock two specimen of Pleione bulbocodioides flowered.
After one kilometer we came to a splendid vista of the Saba valley with a flat treeless floor of rubble stone. This valley, previously glacier-filled, stretches into the central mountain mass. We then entered a 3-4 meter high wood of Quercus semecarpifolia. We saw a single specimen of the yellow flowering peashrub, Piptantus tomentosus, R. decorum and small shrublets of Daphne retusa. A grazed pasture appeared where the ridge hit the Yulong shan. Here flowered fine, compact 2-3 m high bushes of the red violet R. rubiginosum, with a red brown lower leaf surface. I also saw a cherry with small white flowers. Below, in a damp ravine, the pink R. vernicosum flowered sparsely, its thin growth forced up between the trees.
| View overlooking Lijiang, R. traillianum in foreground
Photo by Bengt Skoog
On the eastern slopes of Yulong shan
A week later I took a day trip 3 km north, with two other tourists, towards the foot of the central massif on the Nga-Ba plateau (map near 3). We followed the path that the American mountaineers had marked. At the foot grew a 20-30 m high conifer forest of mostly Picea likiangensis. Rhododendron rubiginosum flowered commonly among the trees at an altitude of 3200 meter. A cleared pasture had been almost completely overgrown by mountain bamboo. On some naked cliffs Primula forestii flowered. At a height of 3600 meter and in an Abies delavayi forest, we found 3-4 meter high bushes of R. beesianum with large compact pink inflorescences. Most of the bushes had single trunks which were, at the base, pushed along the ground indicating a substantial snow cover during winter. The large petioles were striking - squared and dark red. A half meter thick layer of moss and needle humus covered the ground. Single leaves of a bergenia species were growing under the rhododendron bushes. We saw a specimen of R. traillianum (probably) with brown-frosted flowers growing outside a fir grove. Small drifts of snow still remained under the flowering bushes, but in spite of this I could not detect any frosted soil. The soil was not wet but just slightly moist. According to the American mountaineers a small pink rhododendron flowered at the tree line.
| R. beesianum
Photo by Bengt Skoog
My English group also made an excursion towards Baishui. We continued on the road towards Daju and past Nga-ba, entering a valley (2900 m) where the Baishui flowed. On the south slope, the valley had a Scandinavian character. Birches with white trunks and fresh leaves (probably Betula platyphylla var. szechuanica) grew among the pine trees. I saw a poplar tree with new red leaves and a deciduous oak with thick corklike bark.
We foilowed the stream westwards. By the gravel beach we found mountain bamboo and a meter high rhododendron like the one on the boulder drum but with a slightly more intense violet flower. Several perennials were also found: Cypripedium plectrochilum, Pinguicula alpina, Pleione bulbocodioides, Iris pseudorossi and Iris ruthenica. On a rock (which looked like some kind of limestone) grew a blue dwarf rhododendron with only cm-long leaves: R. telmateium. A bush-like dwarf willow with relatively large catkins and silver leaves turned out to be Sibiraea tomentosa.
I then walked up the north slope. It was forested with Pinus yunnanensis and some P. armandii. On the pines grew a yellow-green mistletoe, Arceutolobium pini. I also saw a little flowering shrub of Syringa microphylla. About 300 meter above the valley floor I came to flat ground again and entered a virgin forest of 20-30 meter high trees of Quercus semecarpifolia, Abies delavayi, Picea likangiensis and Tsuga yunnanensis. Berberis julianae (probably), R. yunnanensis and R. vernicosum grew as understory. Clematis montana, with white flowers, climbed the lower tree branches. Most trees were richly festooned with usnea.
The road to Daju
When the British group had left, I hitch-hiked to Daju on one of the many logtrucks that operate on this road. After Baishui, the road continued past a Yi woman working the soil. She wore a typical black and squared headgear. Beyond the fields I passed relatively newly-lumbered virgin forest. Burned trunks (of what must have been magnificent trees) rose above the young forest of birch, aspen and maples. Some high hemlock trees remained by the roadside. In some groves white and rose rhododendrons flowered. As the road descended toward to Daju, pine forest predominated. On the Jinsha river bank (height approximately 2200 m) a dry and hot wind blew. The climate seemed mediterranean. On the headlands a strawberry species was in fruit.
The southern spur of Yulong shan
I made this trip alone although I used a bicycle and rode shank's mare. Just north of the lamasery at Yulong cun, I found a path due west that led towards a dam upon the ridge (map near 5). The path(s) are partly eroded but in dry weather I quite easily found my way up. The flora was typical for altitudes below 3000 meter. By the torrent that came from the dam grew a laciniate red maple and a helwingia species.
Where the path hit the ridge (just before the dam), there is a pass called Har-ler-man in Nakhi language. It means "The Pass of the Winds." During my walk there was a steady strong wind at this place.
By the dam there is a partly boggy pasture. Here by the edge of the wood a glorious clear blue shrubbery of rhododendrons spread out. It was some 30 m wide and 1 m high. After close inspection it turned out to be R. hippophaeoides. The rather thin, approximately 14 mm long, leaves spread out on the shoot. The under-surface was covered with golden-brown and singular dark-brown scales. The calyx was covered with green scales. The corolla tube was 4-5 mm long, the corolla lobe 5-6 mm long and the color clear blue, without any red tinge. The pistil and stamen were of equal length (ca. 10 mm), the stigma discoid. While most closely resembling R. hippophaeoides, this species should not have had singular brown scales on the leaf undersurface. The same species also grew in the boggy forest along the path from which the pasture continued in a south-westerly direction and which led down to the Jinsha river.
To reach the alpine regions, I turned right at the Pass of the Winds. After 1-2 kilometers (3400 m altitude), I came to a forest of 20 meter high Quercus semecarpifolia. A row of large, green parrots dominated the scene: Psitticula Derbiana. Five and six meter high bushes of R. rubiginosum flowered heavily.
Above 3500 meters, R. traillianum became common. It usually occurred as a 6-7 meter high bush with a single trunk between evergreen oaks of the same height. The white flowers all had purple spots. The spots varied from two homogenous patches to streaks. The color, though, was the same. The leaves had a thick cream to red-brown indumentum. This species also occurred above the tree line as single windswept 2 meter high shrubs. Some of these shrubs had more rose colored flowers. I cannot exclude the possibility that some of these lower shrubs could have been R. phaeochrysum. The soil seemed to consist of a golden-brown sand with only a thin humus layer.
By the tree line the wind was fierce. Further to the north, below the first crag, there was a ravine with moist clay soil. Bushes of flowering R. vernicosum grew here together with flowering piptantus shrubs. Close by, I saw the largest R. traillianum trees of the area, measuring upwards 7-8 m. In the whole area very few conifers were found. It is possible that logging had created clearings which gave the rhododendron bushes good growth opportunities.
Above the tree line (4000-4100 meter), the mountain was covered with cushion-shaped dwarf rhododendrons and a low, green juniperus species (possibly J. squamata). The rhododendron shrubs had approximately 10 mm long leaves with a silvery upper surface. The apex was rounded with the leaf edge slightly inclinated. The flowers which were just beginning to open on the south side of the shrubs were violet blue. The corolla was of about equal length to the leaf with the pistil and stamen about the same length (probably R. fastigiatum.) I saw singular flowers of some pulsatilla or dryas, the same species with both white and violet colored flowers.
I had the flowering wealth of the Yulong shan confirmed even though I came in the beginning of the flowering season. During June I would expect to see considerably more flowering perennials. The weather, though, would most likely be quite wet.
Plant communities of the same altitude showed certain differences, for example, on the eastern slopes the climate seemed to be considerably damper than on the southern spur (something which might have been reflected by the difference in rhododendron species). The wind blows mostly from the southwest during the summer months. It is then cooled by I the ice cap on Yulong shan and sinks down cold and moist on the eastern slope.
In the hotel garden several wild collected shrubs grew in pots. I found a Rhododendron wardii (without blotch) said to have been collected on the road between Lijiang and Dali. On the new road between Dali and Lijiang I could not discover any plants of this species so from the rhododendron point of view it was not very interesting. Possibly, the old more eastern road over the Sungpan pass is more interesting. I also found a R. rex with brown indumentum similar to ssp. fictolacteum. It was said to have been collected on the northern spurs of the Yulong shan.
To professor Philip Cribbs, who provided excellent botanical guidance and who did most of the identification of the perennials.
To Mr. Ron Gordon, who gave me invaluable information regarding Yulong shan and who also headed a one day excursion to the eastern slopes of Yulong which is not described in the article.
To Dr. Brian Noga, University of Manitoba, who helped me with the English.
Joseph Rock, (1947), The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of South West China, Cambridge, Mass.
Heinrich Handel-Mazetti, (1927), Naturbilder Aus Sudwest-China, Wien and Leipzig.
George Forrest, several articles.
Dr. Skoog has been interested in temperate woody flora ever since he spent one year in the States as a foreign exchange student. He visited Connecticut and had the opportunity to see flowering kalmias. He comments that in Scandinavia approximately 95% of all woody flora became extinct due to the repeated glaciations. His profession is medicine. He writes, "I have at the present left the rhodo-tracks for those of the spinal cord."