JARS v39n4 - A Visit to Omei Shan

A Visit to Omei Shan
L. Keith Wade, Ph.D.
Vancouver, B.C., Canada

In the spring of 1981, I had the good fortune to travel to The People's Republic of China as a member of the first Canadian Botanical Delegation to visit this fascinating country. The expedition was the inspiration of Dr. Roy Taylor, Director of the Botanical Gardens at the University of British Columbia. As events transpired, five years were to elapse between Roy's first planning meeting and the date we finally took off on June 1st, 1981, from Vancouver, B.C., for the first leg of our journey.

Volumes of correspondence, innumerable phone calls, and two successive postponements had taken place over this long time period. We had only received word the previous month from Canadian External Affairs that most of our proposed itinerary had finally been accepted by the Chinese and that our long-planned trip could definitely go ahead. The inclusion of Mt. Omei, or Omei Shan, in our itinerary was a great triumph at the time, as very few Westerners had been permitted to explore this most famous mountain in the past few decades. Since 1981, of course, China has opened her doors considerably wider and many Westerners have enjoyed experiences similar to ours.

Dr. Roy Taylor was our delegation leader, but prior commitments prevented him from spending more than the first week of our month-long odyssey with us in China, after which he returned to Canada from Beijing. Roy Forster, Curator and designer of Vancouver's VanDusen Botanical Gardens, traveled with us as deputy leader, while the rest of the delegation was made up of Clive L. Justice, a well-known Vancouver landscape architect and designer of much of the U.B.C. Botanical Gardens, Dr. Henry Marshall, a plant geneticist and rose breeder at the Canadian Agriculture Research Station in Morden, Manitoba, and myself as delegation botanist and plant ecologist. Clive Justice has written a detailed account of our trip under the title "Some Observations on the Flora of Emei Shan, with Reference to Rhododendrons at Different Altitudes", in Volume 1 (1984), of the Journal of the Rhododendron Species Foundation , while Roy Forster has contributed a detailed and beautifully descriptive account of our Mt. Omei visit to the Journal of the Alpine Garden Club . Many other writers, from E.H. Wilson, in 1903, onwards, have described the complex vegetation and majestic scenery of Omei Shan, and in many instances it would be difficult to improve on their efforts.

Our trip had two basic purposes. One was to visit a number of botanical, horticultural, and forestry institutions within China to establish direct contact with Chinese colleagues, with a view to laying the groundwork for future exchanges of both scientific knowledge and plant materials. At that time the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden had formal exchange programs with some of the botanical gardens in China already in place and it was anticipated that our visit could aid the expansion of these. Both the U.B.C. Botanical Garden, with its very large Asian Garden and extensive Rhododendron collections, and the VanDusen Botanical Garden with its Sino-Himalayan Garden and large Asian collections, place great emphasis on plant materials from China. The furthering of exchanges which might result in the establishing of new species or desirable forms of Chinese plants in our Western gardens was therefore an obvious part of this first objective.

The second basic purpose of the trip was to experience the riches of China's flora first hand, to see something of the natural habitats, vegetation zones, and plant communities in the fabled western mountain regions. Collecting plant materials was not a prime concern on this first trip, which was seen more as a reconnaissance mission. As time was very limited, we requested a visit to Omei Shan to satisfy this second objective, since this mountain is accessible, reasonably well known, and supports an extraordinarily rich and diverse flora. We traveled first to Beijing, enjoying a day's stop in Japan enroute, where our walks in the beautiful countryside in the vicinity of Narita rewarded us with sights of Styrax japonica , Cornus kousa , and the incomparable Star Jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides , all in bloom and a nice contrast to the rice paddies, bamboo thickets, and groves of Cryptomeria forest. A week in Beijing provided us the opportunity of visiting several interesting institutions such as the Beijing Botanical Institute of Academia Sinica, the Beijing Forestry College, and the Beijing Botanical Gardens, as well as notable tourist highlights as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall. The last, apart from its architectural splendour, is intriguing also for the wild plants in its vicinity, for several wild lilac species and smoke bushes were in full bloom close to the Wall. At a slightly lower elevation, on the sides of an open rocky valley, the beautiful Golden rain-tree, Koelreuteria paniculata , was in full bloom. This surprised us, as the date was only June 6. In Vancouver this beautiful tree seldom blooms before mid-August, which indeed tells us something of the hot, dry spring weather in Beijing!

From Beijing we flew southwest on June 7 to the old university city of Chengdu, situated near the western edge of Sichuan Province's Great Red Basin. Here we spent several days preparing for Omei Shan. This included visiting the Biology Department of Sichuan University, where we spent some time in the Herbarium of Sichuan Flora, and where we visited Professor Fang Wen-pei, author of a 1947 paper "Rhododendrons of Mt. Omei, Western China," which was published in the R.H.S. Rhododendron Yearbook of that year. Professor Fang and his son proved delightful hosts, as did Liu Zhao Guang, the director of the Sichuan Institute of Biology of the Academia Sinica, and his staff, where we also spent an afternoon. At this last institution we were introduced to Mr. Hu Siao Hung, botanist, and Mr. Lü Rong Sen, horticulturist, who would both accompany us to Omei Shan. On June 10 we left the hot and humid near-subtropical city of Chengdu for the 120 km minibus drive southwest to Omei Shan, where this account really starts.

Omei Shan is an immense limestone massif on the western edge of the Great Red Basin, an eastern outlier of the great mountain ranges that form the border between Sichuan Province and Tibet. Unlike the huge granite peaks to the west, such as Minya Konka, at 6900 m Sichuan's highest mountain, Omei Shan is limestone, which helps account for both its very rich flora and its spectacular topography. As on limestone mountains in many parts of the tropical to warm temperate world, the high rainfall and differential weathering on Omei Shan have over the millennia created a scenic masterpiece of sculpted, flange-like buttresses radiating out from the central mass, of immensely high vertical cliffs and jagged knife-edged ridges, and open, slot-like chutes where one least expects them. The peak lies at 29° 28N and 103° 41 E, and is 3150 m or 10,335 ft. high. At this rather southerly latitude even this considerable height is too low for alpine vegetation and the summit region is covered with open subalpine forest and shrub communities. Omei Shan has been sacred to the Buddhists for thousands of years, a happy situation which has resulted in its being left relatively untouched, except for a network of very old and steep trails linking a series of monasteries which stud the mountain at different elevations. These monasteries have always played a dual role as hostelries and continue to do so today. Although the number of flowering plant species found on Omei Shan is not precisely known, it is probably in excess of 4000 species, which is a vast number when we consider that the Province of British Columbia, larger in land area than Washington, Oregon, and California combined, is home to only about half that number! To borrow Roy Lancaster's description, a hike on Omei Shan is indeed like walking through the pages of Rehder's Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs . Every turn of the trail, literally, seems to bring new plants, many of which are old friends well-known in cultivation.

Although our delegation was keenly interested in the vegetation of Omei Shan in a general sense as well as having particular interest in several individual plant groups, the wealth and colour of the mountain's rhododendrons attracted the most interest. Dr. Wen-Pei Fang recognized twenty-three species of Rhododendron native to Omei Shan, which, curiously, is a closely comparable figure to the totals for several comparatively-sized mountains further south, Mt. Wilhelm in Papua-New Guinea and Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo. It is also only fair to note that several of Dr. Fang's species now enjoy only sub-specific rank or less. While rhododendrons are a very conspicuous and dominant element on Omei Shan, particularly at the higher elevations, they did not seem to me as overwhelmingly abundant as they did on an earlier trip to Sikkim in the Eastern Himalayas. Compared to Sikkim, rhododendrons seemed rather spotty in occurrence on Omei Shan, as illustrated by the fact that we saw only single individuals of several species and only a half dozen or so of several others.

Omei Shan can be divided into four reasonably distinct vegetation zones. The foothills, to an elevation of about 610 m (2000 ft.) are almost subtropical in nature and vary from thick forest in which the banyan Ficus infectoria , Michelia species, various oaks including Quercus variabilis and Q. serrata , and the Chinese Chestnut, Castanea mollisima , are common, to more open drier headlands supporting an open parkland of Pinus massonianus . Tree ferns occur sparingly in the closed forest, and in the deep gullies Mussaenda congestifolia , familiar from the New Guinea tropics, and blue flowered Prerna , add colour. From 600 m (2000 ft.) to 1500 m (5000 ft.) the laurel zone occurs as a manifestation of the warm temperate broad-leaved evergreen forest. Here the general aspect is lush but sombre, a sea of dark shiny green leaves with little relieving colour. Broadleaf evergreen trees dominate, but deciduous species such as Ailanthus altissima and a few conifers including the China "Fir", Cunninghamia lanceolata , are also evident. Araliads add a textural contrast.

Above 1500 m (5000 ft.), and extending to 1830 m (6000 ft.) the evergreen oak Castanopsis zone is found, still part of the broad-leaved evergreen forest and not visually very distinct from the laurel zone below it. Above 1830 m (6000 ft.), however, there is a gradual but very evident transition to a much lighter, brighter type of forest in which deciduous trees predominate. The greater diversity of leaf colour, shape, and texture in this forest type suggests the erroneous conclusion that it is richer in species than the zones below. Several species of conifers occupy this zone as well, the hemlock Tsuga yunnanensis prevailing at the lower levels and the beautiful Silver Fir, Abies faberi , becoming increasingly prevalent above 2500 m (8000 ft.) In the summit region this fir forms closed forests in some areas and comes close to excluding the myriads of accompanying deciduous tree species.

Arriving at the base of Omei Shan around noon on June 10, we checked into our guest house and then spent the afternoon exploring the accessible evergreen oak-chestnut forest in its vicinity. The guest house had been the wartime summer home of Chiang Kai-shek, and was beautifully situated near a lookout from which the plains below were framed by Pinus massonianus forest. Large trees of Michelia doltsopa framed the guest house itself, their white magnoliaceous flowers perfuming the warm spring evening air. The following morning we boarded our minibus for a drive up the first 2000 m of Omei Shan, to a point from which we would hike to the summit. This drive occupied much of the morning and proved to be a very circuitous route up the "back" of the mountain, much of the time on narrow winding roads replete with many hairpin turns. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, as every curve brought new plants into view. At the 1830 m (6000 ft.) level, after a quick lunch stop, we started off up a very steep, narrow, wet and muddy trail through dense bamboo thickets on the first leg of the 1200 m (4000 ft.) climb to the summit. At first we saw little, as the bamboo obscured our view, but anemones and tiny creeping Lysimachia species along the trailside attracted our attention, the more so as we had to keep our eyes constantly on the trail to avoid slipping backwards. At length the bamboo thinned somewhat and the first rhododendrons appeared in the form of huge plants of Rhododendron calophytum , long past flowering but still most impressive. Some were 8-10 m in height, with old gnarled trunks. As we progressed further, rhododendrons increased and thickets of Rhododendron calophytum and R. argyrophyllum became common, often below an understory of Abies faberi . In keeping with the disturbed "pioneer" nature of the vegetation along this first part of the trail, Actinidia kolomikta was common, along with other species of Actinidia and dense thickets of the scrambling magnolia relative Shizandra chinensis . The bright red flowers of this beautiful plant were at their best and made a nice contrast with the white flowered Rosa sinowilsoni , also abundant. The steep muddy trail, happily, was only a side access trail to the road up which we had driven and at about 2200 m it joined the much drier, often rocky, main trail called the Pilgrims' Way. By this time we were well within the uppermost main vegetation zone on Omei Shan, the deciduous forest, in which were interspersed individuals and groves of Abies faberi . The silver fir grows much taller than most of the other trees at this altitude, and with its dark green foliage and visually arresting open layered profile, tends to dominate most of the mountain vistas. Here we saw a single specimen of what appeared to be Rhododendron discolor in full bloom. At 2500 m the steep ascent eased somewhat as the trail followed a long, humped ridge and here we were treated to a most spectacular sight. A deep crevice reaching to the pathway opened out on a vertical drop of thousands of feet, hanging out over the top of which was an enormous specimen of Rhododendron wiltonii .

R. wiltonii
Rhododendron wiltonii , View from the Pilgrims'
way at 2200 m of a large specimen hanging
out over the edge of a 1000 foot precipice.
Photo by L. Keith Wade

The scene was backed by an amphitheatre of vertical cliffs, in places dark green with massed shrubs clinging to narrow ledges. Many other Rhododendron wiltonii plants grew in this spot, mostly in completely inaccessible places, but their beautifully veined leaves and rich, rusty indumentum were obvious enough. The breathtaking perfection of this scene was unforgettable and we left it with some reluctance, to begin shortly afterwards the arduous ascent of the two-mile stairway. This infamous part of the Pilgrims' Way is an unrelenting steep slope, in which angular chunks of rock have in the distant past been set as steps. Many are loose now and hinder rather than help. We shared the Pilgrims' Way, appropriately enough, with numerous Buddhist pilgrims who were also climbing Omei Shan. Most were elderly women to whom the ascent of the sacred mountain marked a major milestone in their lives. A few, too infirm to climb, ascended the mountain on the backs of porters. As the long "stairway" came to an end, we found ourselves near the crest of a long summit ridge with a distinctly subalpine atmosphere to it, at an elevation of about 3000 m. Here the silver fir formed open subalpine forests and was frequently draped with Clematis montana , a lovely combination. Maples, viburnums, mountain ashes, bamboos and countless other plants caught our attention, but the rhododendrons were the crowning glory of the summit ridge. Rhododendron faberi was in full bloom and formed massed shrubberies 2 to 3 m high, covering many acres with white and pink. It was highly variable, ranging from pure white to white flushed with deep pink, and en mass formed a most beautiful and impressive sight. Most common on the north and east-facing slopes, it on occasion even grew horizontally out of cracks in the vertical rock faces. Almost as abundant was Rhododendron ambiguum , also in full bloom and forming thickets either alone or mixed with R. faberi . It also appeared quite variable, some bight yellow-flowered plants appearing among the more common greenish-yellow specimens. During our climb and over the next few days of our gradual descent, we were fortunate in having near perfect weather, apparently a rare event on Omei Shan. What we did need more of was time, for despite spending every minute we could examining the plants of the summit region, we missed a number of rhododendrons known to occur in places we visited.

R. faberi growing horizontally
Rhododendron faberi growing
horizontally from a crack in
a vertical limestone cliff,
summit ridge, Omei Shan.
Photo by L. Keith Wade
R. ambiguum
Rhododendron ambiguum , Along with
R. faberi
, this species forms dense thickets
in the summit region.
Photo by L. Keith Wade

We reached the Temple of the Golden Summit in time to watch a spectacular sunset over the great ranges to the west. The 7556 m (22820 ft.) peak of Minya Konka or Gongga Shan, stood out clearly, as did a much closer flat-topped peak, Wa Shan. We stayed the night in a rambling wooden medieval hostel attached to the temple, where we enjoyed quite a feast in a dining room complete with trestle tables and earth floor. Dawn brought a magnificent sunrise which illuminated the great vertical precipices of the eastern slopes of Omei Shan and the thousands of Rhododendron faberi that appear to sweep down them like white waterfalls. The sunrise was heralded also by clapping from the waiting pilgrims assembled for the event.

R. faberi
Rhododendron faberi , Pink form on the summit
plateau at 3150 m (10,335 ft.)
Photo by L. Keith Wade
View from the summit of Omei Shan
View from the summit of Omei
Shan of the great limestone
cliffs on the south face.
Photo by L. Keith Wade

Further investigation of the summit area turned up numerous little hummocks of Rhododendron nitidulum , growing in mossy rocky areas where the soil appeared too shallow to support its larger relatives. A beautiful little primrose, Primula incisa , grew in moss polsters, its purple flowers closely matching those of the little rhododendron. All too soon we had to leave the summit and begin a four day descent, four days of unparalleled botanical interest and scenic splendour. Even had we spent a month on the descent, however, we would have only scratched the surface, so very rich is this wonderful mountain. As it was, we saw and photographed a great number of plants. Rhododendron thickets were common during the first day of the descent. R. calophytum , R. argyrophyllum , R. pingianum , and R. discolor , all past blooming, composed these thickets, and occurred less often as striking individual specimens. More often, however, their place was taken by a very species-rich deciduous shrub understory.

Primula incisa
Primula incisa . A tiny primrose found growing
in mossy hollows with Rhododendron nitidulum
on the summit plateau.
Photo by L. Keith Wade
Enkianthus deflexus Schizandra chinensis
Enkianthus deflexus . This shrub, ranging in
colour from yellow to red is common in the
deciduous forest zone of Omei Shan.
Photo by L. Keith Wade
Schizandra chinensis . A beautiful twining
shrub of the magnolia family, common
above 2000 m on Omei Shan.
Photo by L. Keith Wade

Enkianthus deflexus , with yellow to dark red flowers, arched over the trail, and species of Berberis , Euonymous , Syringa , Rosa , Hydrangea , Viburnum , Ilex , Hedera , Lonicera , Smilax , to name but an obvious few, were all common. Among the dozens of plants that created particularly vivid impressions was Decaisnea fargesii , a curious plant with long arching stems, elegant compound leaves, and long racemes of greenish-yellow flowers. This member of the Lardizabalaceae is best known for its large, almost metallic blue-hued pods. Styrax hemsleyana was noted several times in full bloom, along with two dogwoods, Cornus capitata with large bracts, and Cornus controversa without. Pterocarya trees hung out over the great abysses, easily spotted by their long pendant catkin-like inflorescences and large pinnate leaves.

Decaisnea fargesii
Decaisnea fargesii growing
at 2600 m on Omei Shan.
Photo by L. Keith Wade

Below 2000 m, we saw relatively few rhododendrons and those we did, occurred more often than not as single specimens. R. lutescens was fairly common in open glades, sometimes growing with R. strigillosum , both, of course, having flowered much earlier in the year. We looked in vain for such obvious species as R. hemsleyanum , but did succeed in finding the epiphytic species R. dendrocharis , growing 5 m or so up on the trunk of a large forest tree. The trail, however, remained full of interest. The monasteries where we stayed each night were remarkable in themselves, each with a spectacular location, often on a ridge-top, and each with its own distinctive atmosphere. Here was the China of old, seemingly centuries away from the regimented life of modern Beijing or Shanghai. One of these was called "The Temple of the Tree of Heaven", and was situated in the evergreen oak-chestnut zone. It had beautiful balconies at forest canopy level, from which we could look out over giant ginkgoes, Michelias, and appropriately, a "tree of heaven", a 120' specimen of Ailanthus altissima . A forest of Dove trees, Davidia involucrata , will always stand out in our minds, as will innumerable other scenes and individual species.

Herbaceous plants were abundant and deserved far more attention than we could give them. Delphinium anthriscifolium , Lactuca graciliflora , (a reddish flowered lettuce), Rogersia aesculifolia , and the colourful giant lily, Cardiocrinum cathayensis , stood out, but these were only a few of the many we saw. The Cardiocrinum was rather an exciting find, to our Chinese guides as well as to us, for it was not on their Omei Shan plant checklists.

In the lower reaches, deep in the darker forests of the laurel zone, the trail followed a clear stream, bordered by moss and fern covered banks, and giant limestone boulders. Here we saw bright pink flowered gentians and gigantic species of Gleichenia a common genus of scrambling ferns of the tropics and subtropics. The lack of periodic flooding was evident from the delicate mosses and ferns reaching the very edges of the water in a completely undisturbed state.

It was with great reluctance that we left the lower edge of the primeval forest at mid-afternoon on the fourth day of the descent, and entered the prosaic cornfields of the adjacent agricultural lands. Omei Shan had proved to be much more than equal to our expectations, and we had expected a great deal! All of us who visited Omei Shan felt greatly enriched by the experience, and we would give a great deal to be able, at some future date, to spend a much longer time on the forested slopes of this mountain. To begin in very early spring at the lower elevations and ascend the slopes slowly, in time with the upward march of the peak flowering period, would be an unforgettable experience.

Although Omei Shan was the undisputed highlight of our trip, the remainder was hardly less interesting. From Chengdu we traveled by train south to Kunming in Yunnan Province. This was a most pleasant 24 hour trip, and gave us wonderful views of the terraced river valleys and the mountains dividing Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, to say nothing of the great Chang Jiang or Yangtze River, which we crossed en-route. Our few days in Kunming were hosted by Professor Feng Kuo-mei, of the Botanical Garden of the Kunming Institute of Botany of the Academia Sinica. Professor Feng, the author of "Rhododendrons of Yunnan", guided us through the "Stone Forest", a region of intricate limestone Karst topography and distinctive flora, about 120 km west of Kunming. Another delightful day was spent on the forested hills and crags above Lake Diananchi. Of many interesting native plants, two trees most interested me, the rarely seen Keteleeria evelyniana , a conifer closely related to the true firs and very rarely seen in cultivation, and the elegant cypress Cupressus duclouxiana

Our last stop in China was Guangzhou, better known as Canton, whose almost tropical climate is obvious from the number of exotic tropical tree species from all over the world, which grace its streets and Botanical Garden. All in all, a most memorable trip, and one which the participants fervently hope will prove to have played a role in furthering the exchange of botanical and horticultural information between China and the West.

American Rhododendron Society/Rhododendron Species Foundation, 1980, Rhododendrons of China , Translated by Judy Young and Dr. Leu-Shen Chong from Iconographia Cormophytorum Sinicorum, Volume 3, Portland, Oregon: Binford and Mort.

Fang, Wen-Pei, 1947, "Rhododendrons of Mt. Omei, Western China," Royal Horticultural Society, the Rhododendron Yearbook 1947, pp. 115-123, London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co., Ltd.

Forster, Roy, 1981, "Ascent of Omei Shan", Journal of the Alpine Garden Club , Vol. 24, No. 8, Oct. 1981, and Vol. 24, No. 9, Nov. 1981.

_____ 1981, Plantsman's Paradise, Vancouver Botanical Garden Society Bulletin , Oct. 1981.

Justice, Clive L., 1984, "Some Observations on the Flora of Emei Shan, with Reference to Rhododendrons at Different Altitudes," Journal of the Rhododendron Species Foundation , Vol. 1, 1984.

Lancaster, Roy, 1981, "A Plant Hunter in China," Pacific Horticulture , Vol. 42, No. 2.

Wang, Chi-Wu, 1961, The Forests of China , Publication No. 5, Maria Moors Cabot Foundation, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Willmott, Bill, 1981, A recent visit to Mount Omei. Letter to a friend, with photos, privately printed.

Wilson, E. H., 1913, A Naturalist in Western China , Two volumes, London: Methune and Co., Ltd.

Dr. Wade teaches at Capilano College in Vancouver, B.C. He is a research associate at the University of British Columbia Botanic Gardens and is on the Board of Governors at VanDusen Botanical Gardens, Vancouver.