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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 August 2011 by John Richards

Chinese lilies and frits. Entry 189.


Continuing an account of some of the plants seen last month in China (read the last three entries for more background), we managed to see four lily species, one more than on the tour I took in 2007. In fact, only one species, Lilium lopophorum was common to both trips. Two of the species we saw this time seem to be rather little known and deserve further comment. One better known species, Lilium sargentiae, was only seen from out of a moving bus window on part of the Erlan Shan where it was impossible to stop!

The two more interesting species were both seen in the vicinity of Weng Shui, below the Da Xue Shan. One, Lilium langkongense, occurred quite commonly along the road verge to the east of the village, but almost all were in bud. However, one spike did open its first lovely flower on the day before we departed.




On our last day, we walked up the very spectacular Bi Rong gorge a few km to the west of Weng Shui. This is obviously becoming a well-known tourist spot, rightly so, and an excellent safe footpath has been engineered for several kilometres through a magnificent limestone gorge which is quite the equal of any in Crete, for instance. It is also a rewarding trek botanically, with Primula polyneura in abundance, and lots of the attractive gesneriad, Corallodiscus kingianus, which reminded me of Jancaea heldreichii on Greek Olympus.


However the most interesting plant was a little yellow turkscap lily which none of us knew. This grew quite commonly on the talus slopes below the vertical cliffs above the river. It proves to be L. xanthellum, and if it is in cultivation, it must be very uncommon.

Some of the plants had flowers marked with speckles.

I had already mentioned L. lopophorum from the high screes of most of the mountains we visited, and it is pictured two entries ago. This is an exciting species, but in truth we saw so much that it was difficult not to become blase! What was interesting, on the lower southern slopes of the Zi Chou, was another relatively lowland variety of the species which was new to me, L. lopophorum v. linearifolium. This is a forest margin plant from about 3500 m. It is a good deal more tenuous and less exciting than its alpine counterpart, but it is different!

Here is another picture of a population of the normal alpine form for comparison, this time from the Da Xue Shan..

Moving on to the related genus Nomocharis, we only saw these lovely plants in the vicinity of Zhongdian, northern Yunnan. The spotted N. aperta is widespread on the plateau, and driving back from the Da Xue Shan, we found an area beside the road not far short of the city with many hundreds of plants. However, during the couple of days I spent exploring the middle reaches of the Shika Shan (while most of the others went high on the cable car), I noted that some of the plants in one area were completely without spots on the flowers, and seemed to have a different shaped flower from N. aperta. I suspected that these were N. saluenensis, and on consulting Flora of China online on my return, this seems to be confirmed. Apart from the spotting (and N. aperta always seems to have some spots, if only a few, and they are always missing in N. saluenensis)the main difference is the style. This is long, so that the stigma just exceeds the anthers in the mature flower in N. aperta, but is much shorter, not exceeding the ovary in length in N. saluenensis, and as the anther filaments are longer in the latter species, the anthers overtop the stigma in the mature flower. It is very important that this comparison is made in a mature flower, as the following picture of two flowers of N. aperta shows. In the mature flower the stigma overtops the anthers, but does not do so in the immature flower.

N. aperta can be much more heavily spotted that this, but in some cases, spots are almost absent, but in each case the stigma overtops the anthers.

Contrast the flowers of N. saluenensis, totally without spots, in which the stigma never overtops the anthers, and in consequence can be very difficult to see. This was much more local on the Shika Shan, and I only found it in one small area near masses of Daphne calcicola. Clearly, this was an isolated limestone outcrop, which might be a factor in the occurrence of this species.


Moving on to Chinese frits, those from the south-west related to F. cirrhosa have been notoriously difficult to name, and many authorities have held up their hands and bundled them all under the latter name. However, since the authoritative account in Flora of China has been available online, with a largely workable key and excellent descriptions, there are fewer excuses for not attempting to find a correct name. There are problems: for instance an early and vital dichotomy in the key asks whether the stigma is entire or trifid; easy enough to determine 'in the flesh' but not usually visible in a photograph. Also, one is used to many frits varying in flower colour with co-existing white and purple, or yellow and brown etc forms. Flora of China seems to accept that every species is of one colour and this is worrying when yellow and leaden forms grow together, as at Huai Hai Zi, but key down to separate species.

Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that the speckled yellow plant with broad leaves and three robust bracts at the latter locality answers well to the description of Fritillaria crassicaulis.


There was at least one other frit at Huai Hai Zi, with much darker flowers, and smaller, narrower bracts and leaves. I believe this to be F. sinica, a species we had identified from the nearby Zhedou Pass in 2007. This year we also saw it several times on the road to Kangding airport, north of the city.

I am not yet sure whether a third plant at Huai Hai Zi is F. taipaiensis, which it keys down to, is an extreme F. sinica, or possibly a hybrid between F. sinica and F crassicaulis. My guess is the latter. It has much longer, more robust bracts than F. sinica and a different shaped flower.

As I say, all these have been identified as F. cirrhosa, but Flora of China is adamant that that species has somewhat cirrhose (curled at the apex) bracts, which none of the foregoing have. We did see what I believe is F. cirrhosa, high on the Da Xue Shan, in pouring rain! This plant has much more yellow flowers than usual.


We did not see F. unibracteata during the present tour, but in 2007 we found it commonly on the Mengbi Pass, south of Danba in north-west Sichuan, so I am adding a photo here for sake of completeness. The small single bract is distinctive.

I shall finish with the two Lloydias we saw. L. delavayi (the same as L. flavonutans) is an attractive plant that we saw several times on most of the mountains we visited. Here it is beside the road to Kangding airport.

Much scarcer was L. longiscapa which we only saw on the western side of the Hong Shan. It is principally a Himalayan species not often encountered in China.

I did wonder about the identity of this rather ugly little plant we found beside the road near the summit of the Da Xue Shan road however. Is it just a form of L. delavayi, or could it be a  hybrid between the two species?

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