Three Conifers South of the Yangtze




By William A. McNamara 

Several years ago I planted a dawn redwood in my garden that I had purchased from nurseryman Toichi Domoto. I was curious about its deciduous nature and its similarity to the coast redwoods near my home. To my surprise, it grew very rapidly, several feet a year, and was outstanding throughout the seasons. At the time, I knew only fragments of the history and discovery of this remarkable tree. Over the years, I read bits and pieces learning that it was once wide spread in the Northern Hemisphere, and was until recently thought to be extinct. It is a member of the Taxodiaceae family along with California's two redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens (D Don) Endl. and Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) Buchholz. Fossils of it have been found from the late Cretaceous period through to the Pliocene. In 1941, from his studies of the fossil record, Shigeru Miki, a Japanese palaeobotanist, gave it the name Metasequoia, meaning "close to" or "before" Sequoia.

Coincidentally, a forester, T. Kan, came across a tree new to him the very same year in a remote village in what was then Sichuan, China called Modaoqi. The villagers called the tree shuishan, meaning water fir. A few years later, some incomplete specimens found their way to Professor W. C. Cheng of the National Central University. In 1946, Professor Cheng sent his assistant, C. J. Hsueh, to collect more material for further study. Upon receiving Hsueh's quality herbariums, Professor Cheng disregarded any initial supposition that the tree might be a Glyptostrobus lineatus (Poiret) Druce, and concluded that this was a species new to science. Professor Cheng passed herbariums on to Dr. H. H. Hu, director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology. Dr. Hu realized that the tree in question was indeed of the new genus Metasequoia. It didn't take much time for the information to get out of China, as this discovery of a "living fossil" caused quite a sensation.

By January of 1948, seed was arriving at the Arnold Arboretum and at the University of California, Berkeley from a seed collecting expedition funded by the Arnold through the efforts of their director Dr. Elmer D. Merrill. Dr. Merrill generously dispersed seeds to botanic gardens, universities, and colleagues around the world. In March of 1948, spurred by their curiosity, Dr. Ralph W. Chaney, a palaeobotanist with the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Milton Silverman, a science writer with the San Francisco Chronicle made the difficult journey to Modaoqi, becoming the first westerners to see a living dawn redwood. At that time, the tree still did not have a scientific name. The name dawn redwood was dreamed up in an editorial office of the San Francisco Chronicle to help sell the story. "If this is confirmed, it will rank as the greatest botanical discovery of the century", Chaney reportedly told Silverman before their journey. Though a few of the larger specimens were revered, Chaney concluded that due to the remaining small population, the dawn redwood was a tree on the edge of extinction. Later that year it was formally described and named Metasequoia glyptostroboides Hu & Cheng. Shortly thereafter, as this fascinating conifer entered the world of horticulture, China closed its doors. China remained closed until the mid-seventies and no western botanists visited the site again until 1980. Without the success of Merrill's distribution of seeds and Chaney and Silverman's well-publicized visit to Modaoqi, the dawn redwood could have easily drifted to extinction. Unbeknown to the outside world, the Chinese government chose to protect the few remaining trees and propagated tens of thousands more to be planted as street trees throughout China.

In the fall of 1996, I had the good fortune to visit Modaoqi.   I was traveling with Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Lord Howick of the Howick Arboretum.  We were there to document and collect seed of both woody and herbaceous plants in eastern Sichuan.  Since we were relatively near the home of the still living type specimen of the dawn redwood, (“near” in China can mean three or four days in a jeep), we added a visit to Modaoqi to our agenda.  We also intended to visit the Jinfu Shan in southeastern Sichuan in the hopes of seeing the mysterious conifer Cathaya argyrophylla Chun et Kuang.  As an added plus we were surprised with a visit to a rare isolated specimen of Taiwania flousiana Gaussen.  All three of these fascinating conifers are relict species that occur south of the Yangtze River in Central China in an area of tremendous diversity.  They also are all protected species and therefore any collecting was strictly forbidden.  We were accompanied by Dr. Yin, an ecologist, Professor Zhong, our interpreter, and Mr. Liu, our "armed" guard, all from the Chengdu Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  My previous plant collecting journeys to China had been to western Sichuan, northern Yunnan and southeastern Tibet.  I was therefore very excited to head east from Chengdu, Sichuan into new and very different territory.

Before making the long drive to Modaoqi, we spent several days in the Daba Shan range in northeastern Sichuan. It took us three grueling days up and over endless low mountains to get there from Chengdu. This part of Sichuan is much lower in elevation than the remote and rugged west. The summits rarely reach 3000 meters but the mountains are quite steep with occasional dramatic limestone outcrops. Misty mountains and deep river canyons just like Chinese paintings dominate the landscape. It is mostly secondary forest and what is left of primary forest; they appear to be logging as fast as possible. Countless small farms fill the valleys, and where possible, terraces for rice climb the hillsides.

The flora was surprisingly rich with a wide variety of deciduous and evergreen trees. The dominant species were maples, sassafras, birches, wing nuts, dogwoods, limes, chestnuts, beeches, and oaks. Curiously, there were few conifers other than the occasional hemlock. Of special interest for me were the Liriodendron chinense (Hemsl.) Sarg., Sassafras tzumu (Hemsl.) Hemsl., both classic examples of disjunct taxa distribution between China and eastern USA, and Dipteronia sinensis Oliv., an unusual member of the Aceraceae. All three of these deciduous trees are quite ornamental but remain rare in cultivation.

Liriodendron, a member of the Magnoliaceae, is a genus of just two species. They are found, however, on opposite sides of the globe. Liriodendron chinense, occurs sporadically in central China and is listed as "rare" in the CHINA PLANT RED DATA BOOK. The other species, Liriodendron tulipifera L., makes its home in the eastern USA from Vermont to Florida. Liriodendron were once widely distributed in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. The two surviving species have remained very similar in appearance even though they have been separated for several million years.

The three species of Sassafras have a similar story with Sassafras tzumu in central China, Sassafras randaiense (Hayata) Rehd. found in Taiwan, and Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees. occurring in eastern USA. They are members of the predominantly evergreen family Lauraceae.

Like the Liriodendron, the genus Dipteronia also has only two species; both however, are endemic to China. Dipteronia sinensis occurs mainly in Sichuan and Hupeh and Dipteronia dyeriana Henry occurs only in southeastern Yunnan. Both are listed as "rare" in the CHINA PLANT RED DATA BOOK. It is the only other genus along with Acer of the maple family. Their pinnate leaves do not at all resemble the typical maple leaf except in their being opposite.

The Liriodendron and the Dipteronia appeared only occasionally, with the former towering above the forest and the latter much smaller but usually as wide as it was tall. The Liriodendron grew on steep mountainsides, while the Dipteronia preferred the edges of fast moving streams. Young Sassafras trees of between three and five meters were very common indicating a recent good seed year. Mature individuals were rare and we saw seed on only one very tall specimen. Unfortunately it was down a steep ravine and had a long straight single trunk with no branching for the first five meters. Lack of time and proper climbing gear meant leaving that seed alone.

Three long days later we arrived in Wanxian, a large city on the way to Modaoqi. Wanxian is an old city on the Yangtze River crowded with grimy high-rises. We were told that the first six stories of the buildings along the riverfront would be under water when the new dam in Yichang is completed. Estimates are that this controversial project will force the relocation of over five million people. Wanxian and the surrounding towns will be particularly effected. The Yangtze River is considered to be one of the most silted rivers in the world, in large part due to the extensive logging in the upper reaches of the river in Yunnan and Sichuan. This was certainly evident here as a ferry filled with trucks, cars, carts, ducks, pigs, bicycles, and people took us across the very muddy Yangtze.

It took almost all day to get to Modaoqi from Wanxian, winding up and over countless mountains and through dozens of villages. It is now located in Lichuan County in Hubei Province at an altitude of 1275 meters. We were traveling in two jeeps and everyone was tired and cranky from the many days of bad roads. All that was forgotten though as we pulled into a small town lined with young dawn redwoods. We first stopped for some noodles and while they were preparing them, Tony and I wandered up the road hoping for the first glimpse of the legendary type specimen. Not finding the tree and fearing another rebuke from our hosts (we were always wandering off at the wrong time), we headed back to the ramshackle restaurant. After a quick but tasty bowl of spicy noodles, we climbed back in the jeeps and drove about 100 meters up the road. On our left less than 30 meters away stood a lone Metasequoia glyptostroboides. We quickly hopped from the jeeps and strode up to the base of the famous tree, and like Buddhist pilgrims we circumambulated its trunk.

Our long peregrination now complete we got out our cameras and took dozens of photographs. Village life rolled to a halt and a huge crowd gathered to gawk at us while we gawked at the dawn redwood. To the laughter of the many children and the amazement of their parents, we then measured its girth and height. It was 7.1 meters in circumference at breast height (1.2m), and 34.65 meters tall. It did not appear to be in the best of health, though time did not allow a thorough examination. No cones had been produced that year and there were clusters of epicormic shoots along the trunk, which we took as a sign of possible stress. The soil around the tree also seemed very compacted from frequent foot traffic in the growing town. In an attempt to protect the tree, a lightning rod had been placed on it and a concrete fence had been built around the trunk in recent years. No other naturally occurring dawn redwoods were seen in the vicinity. We attempted several feeble conversations with the villagers in the hope of prolonging our time in the presence of this historic tree. After much pressure from our hosts about reaching the town of Shizhu in time for dinner, we reluctantly moved on.

Our next destination was a Taiwania tree near the village of Maoba in Youyang County back in Sichuan. Like the dawn redwood, it is also a member of the Taxodiaceae family. There are two species of this large conifer, one occurring in the mountains of Taiwan, Taiwania cryptomerioides Hayata, discovered in 1904, and Taiwania flousiana discovered only recently in upper Burma and western Yunnan. Even more recently, isolated specimens have been found in Sichuan. Both remain rare in cultivation.

It was to one of these lone giants that we were headed. This required yet another grueling three days of driving. Our route took us through heavily logged limestone mountains and small villages busy harvesting rice. The final approach was along a limestone ridge with scattered groves of Emmenopterys henryi Oliv., a tree that Ernest Wilson referred to as "one the most strikingly beautiful trees" in China. It is a member of the Rubiaceae family and is rarely seen in cultivation.

Our reception was even grander in Maoba as literally hundreds of people gathered around to stare at the foreigners. So tightly did they crowd around us that it was difficult to move. We were told that we were the first westerners to visit their tiny one-dirt-road town. Most of the people were Tujia, one of the many minorities of China. Like most of the other minorities that I have seen in China, they appeared to be very poor, but were quick to smile and offer help.

We still had a 45-minute walk to the small farming settlement of Cha Yuan at an elevation of 735 meters. About a dozen young boys joined us as we hiked down a steep path into a lush narrow valley. The tree came into view towering over a farmhouse as we made our way around a rice paddy ready for harvest. Yao Bengqing, who farmed the land where the tree grew, proudly explained to us that he had been given specific orders from the Chinese government to protect this very special tree. We saw no others, though we were told that there were numerous young trees in the area. Growing with bamboo, windmill palms and cultivated Cryptomeria japonica D. Don., to which it resembles, the Taiwania flousiana stood approximately 41 meters high. Its circumference at breast height was 3.55 meters.

Knowing that we didn't have much time, but wanting to enjoy the company of these wonderful people so proud of their beautiful tree, we agreed to have tea at Yao Benqing's neighbor's home. We sat on low hand-made chairs in their open-air living room answering questions about our homes. I asked about two interesting large wooden boxes that sat in a corner. With a wide grin, the farmer told us that they were coffins for his wife and him made from local yew. I thought to myself, though slightly morbid, what a great way to remind oneself of the importance of appreciating each moment. As we got up to leave, I made the mistake of admiring the comfortable chair. Despite my protests, the poor farmer insisted that I take it with me. The young boys wouldn't even let me carry it during the one hour uphill hike back to village of Mao Ba.

Two more long days driving through never-ending mountains and crossing countless rivers brought us to Nanchuan in southeastern Sichuan. We stopped in Pinzhi for the night on the way and were given rooms on the third floor of a dirty hotel overlooking the Wujiang River. While cleaning seed before dinner, Tony and Mark noticed that their bathroom sink drained on to the floor without plumbing and after that, didn't drain very well through a small hole in the wall. Not too concerned and used to plumbing being not quite right in rural China we casually went off to dinner despite the fact that their facet didn't shut off entirely. While we were eating in the hotel's dining room, a rather large rat that appeared to be drunk bumped in to Charles' foot and nonchalantly sauntered away. The filthy floor made its search for scraps easy. Rats and the kitchens and dinning rooms of rural hotels in China have a great working relationship. When we got back to our rooms, Tony's and Mark's had filled up with more than five centimeters of water. Without hesitation, the sensible hotel manager quickly moved Tony and Mark up a floor and simply locked the door to their old room. We of course stayed in the room next to the flooded one and woke up periodically during the night wondering if the walls would collapse. In the morning a large poisonous snake, found in a room on the first floor, further amused us. Two men noisily chased the poor snake with broomsticks around the room and eventually succeeded in bashing its head in as we watched from the window. We were quite happy to move on to Nanchuan.

Our final goal was to reach the Jinfu Shan, the mountainous home of the extraordinary conifer Cathaya argyrophylla. This monotypic genus was discovered by Chinese scientists in 1955 in southeastern Sichuan and has since been found growing in parts of Hunan, Guangxi and Guizhou. It is in the family Pinaceae and prefers limestone outcroppings in areas of heavy summer rainfall. It is extremely rare in cultivation.

Nanchuan is a small city just north of the Jinfu Shan range. After a good nights rest in a fairly decent hotel we eagerly headed to the jeeps for the drive up into the Jinfu Shan. To our surprise, blocking the gate to the hotel were at least a dozen people arguing with Dr. Yin, and Prof. Zhong. Apparently several of them were determined to keep us from visiting the Cathaya. There was a representative from the local police, the local tourist bureau, the forestry department, the public security bureau, the Chinese army, the mayor's office and who knows what else. Everyone was yelling and throwing their arms up in the air. Finally they agreed that we could go see the trees but stated emphatically that we would not be allowed to touch or photograph them. At this point the argument was on the verge of getting seriously out of control. Dr. Yin then made a phone call to the governor who told the troublemakers that we could indeed visit and photograph the valuable resource Yinshan, the Chinese name for Cathaya argyrophylla, as we were important scientists from England and America.

Two and a half hours later our jeeps, with an escort of six Chinese to keep us under control, were climbing up steep mist covered mountains. We stopped at about 1700 meters elevation in an area of dense bamboo. Thick cloud clover had reduced visibility to about 20 meters. We then hiked in a light rain for about 20 minutes slightly uphill to a large limestone outcrop about 15 meters high and wide. Our Chinese escorts pointed to the top of the outcrop and said, "there they are." Through the mist we could barely make out several conifers growing on the top. As we stood there wondering if they would let us climb up to view them closer, we noticed that someone had already rendered that nearly impossible. Everywhere that it might have been possible to climb, the limestone outcrop had been altered to prevent that possibility. Cracks that might have been footholds had been filled in with concrete, rough areas that might have served as grips were smashed smooth and in areas of easy accessibility, barriers of rock and concrete had been installed. Someone was undoubtedly determined to keep people away from the Cathaya. As we looked around, clearly frustrated and not trying very hard to disguise it, the Chinese surprised us all by picking up a small fallen tree and leaning it against the outcrop. They then found another similar log and together with the other, they created a makeshift ladder. Several minutes later, after pushing and pulling each other up onto the top of the outcrop, we were standing in a grove of Cathaya. Our hosts further surprised us by telling us that it was all right to climb the trees and to take an herbarium specimen.

The dozen or so trees averaged about 10 meters in height and superficially resembled short-needled pines. The few cones seen had already dropped their seeds. They were growing with linderas, cotoneasters, enkianthus and rhododendrons. After a good half hour of climbing, examining and photographing the trees, we slowly made our way back down the outcrop. The rain intensified as we walked back to the road. While getting into the jeeps, our escorts told me that I was the first American to see Cathaya argyrophylla in the wild. Though very suspect of that statement and rather cold and wet, I was nonetheless very happy to have seen, photographed and even climbed the Cathaya.

During the long drive back to Nanchuan, we spotted one of the biggest troublemakers from the fiasco at the hotel that morning, in a ditch with his jeep. Apparently in an attempt to keep up with us on our way into the mountains, his driver had lost control around one of the many dangerous curves. We smiled as our drivers sped by refusing to offer help. Later that night the governor came by our hotel to apologize for any inconvenience that we had experienced during our visit to Nanchuan and the Jinfu Shan. "You are warmly welcome to visit again," he said echoing a perennial refrain heard all over China.

During the long flight home, I went over in my mind all that had happen during the expedition. Certain experiences quickly surfaced as the most memorable. This journey had been one of our more frustrating, as it had been a very poor seed year and the distances between collecting areas were vast. But the good fortune to have seen three legendary relict conifers in their native home had made the trip into a pilgrimage. Even if there had been seed on these trees, we would not have been allowed to collect it. Chinese law, thankfully, protects them. Yet, just to be in their presence, admiring their stately beauty and thinking about their precarious survival over the eons, made the long and difficult journey more than worthwhile. They had hid from the modern world until only recently. Pondering the pressure of over six billion people and the pollution from our industrialized world, I wondered whether they would have been better off had they remained hidden. Hopefully we will have the presence of mind to insure the future survival of the three conifers south of the Yangtze.