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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 July 2011 by John Richards

High Chinese scree weirdos. Entry 187.

Hong Shan screes

Continuing to describe some of the many wonderful plants we saw on our Chinese trip (now back for 11 days, seems an eternity!), what was REALLY new for me were the high scree specialities we saw on those two great ranges which lie just inside Yunnan on the Sichuan border, the Hong Shan and Da Xue Shan. On my two previous trips, the nearest we got to the high scree habitat was on the Beima Shan, in a rather wetter zone closer to Tibet, and although the Beima Shan does have some of the scree specials, I saw rather few of them there.

This time, we had been given notice that as one approached the western (Zhongdian side) of the Hong Shan Pass, there was a distinctive cone-shaped peak just by the road that was a wonderful location for scree specials. So it proved, and we were able to spend a couple of very productive hours here on our way through to our extremely comfortable lodging on the other (east) side of the mountain at Leng Da. Here, first is a picture of this summit (the top is about 200 m higher than the road which tops out at 4450 m). Second is a view of the scree itself.

Hong Shan screes

Rather off the subject perhaps, but the plant which we all wanted to see here was Fritillaria delavayi. Strange how frits seems to go in for diminutive plants with huge bells which sit almost on the ground, often at high altitude and sometimes in screes. I was reminded irresistably of Fritillaria epirotica on the high screes of Smolikas, Greece, and here we were 4500 miles further east! For years, going on the picture in the ACE expedition issue of the Alpine Garden Society Bulletin I had expected the flowers of F. delavayi to be a sort of dull greyish-puce, but it turns that colour (and the petals do no drop) in fruit, and indeed the flowers then act as a kind of rolling dice (Fritillaria was latin for a dice in Roman times), scattering the seeds as they bounce across the scree.

However, the flowers are in fact a lovely lemon yellow, quite the match of Fritillaria aurea or F. moggridgei, which in fact they resemble quite closely.

It is no exaggeration that there were hundreds of frits on that scree, and lots of Lilium lopophorum at the bottom too.

However, such lovely bulbs are not really the subject of this issue. Rather I am talking about a diverse group of plants (although many are in the Asteraceae) which only inhabit these high screes, and which look, at the very least, extremely odd. What these plants have in common is that they are cryptic, tending to be the same colour as the scree, are often 'humped' in shape (against the weather, wind, rain and snow), tend to be very woolly (not all are), and often have inflorescences hidden within the 'Abominable Snowman'. Most characteristic, perhaps, are the Saussaureas, and although we did not see 'classic' species such as S. gossypiphora (which is mostly Tibetan), we saw several other species, of which the most 'iconic' perhaps is S. medusa.

Saussurea wardii also occurred on the same scree. It is less extreme, as the flowering heads are not hidden within the bracts.

Also conspicuous here was the very strange Soroseris rosularis. I think I am right in thinking that this was once classified as a saussurea. The coffee-coloured rosettes were very striking.

Equally odd, but very different, were the lettucy rosettes of Dolomiaea forrestii. Here the flowers are not so much warmed within a furry blanket as heated within a greenhouse, formed by the translucent bracts.

Moving from the daisies to the 'scrophs', Lagotis yunnanensis is perhaps less extreme, but it is also distinctly strange.

Two relatively familiar Lamiaceae follow (they are both widespread in this habitat throughout much of the Himalaya and tend to feature in talks and articles by Himalayan explorers), firstly Eriophyton wallichii (with a couple of 'ears' of  the crucifer Hemilophia rockii), and then Lamiophlomis rotata.

This scree is a wonderful place for corydalis too, and the beautiful C. benecincta, which shows the leaf crypsis typical of many scree plants very well, was in particularly good form here.

Da Xue Shan

Moving on to the Big Snow mountain, visited by the ACE expedition in 1994 (they had to sleep in a roadworkers hut back then; in truth our accomodation at Weng Shui was not that much more luxurious), I had not realised that not all this mountain is calcareous. Indeed, the road pass (4299 m) is on shales and slates, and one needs to walk for considerably more than an hour to the north before the limestone is reached.

It is a steep pull onto the ridge which stretches south from the pass, which we accomplished in dense mist, although this did lift after an hour or two. Parts of these screes are almost unbelievably rich and colourful.

Da Xue Shan

In these photos, the yellow is principally Astragalus yunnanensis, the pink Bistorta macrophylla and the rose Pedicularis densispica.

On the edges, Rhodiola crenulata and Saxifraga glacialis are conspicuous.

Builders of crevice beds will love the next photo!

It was about now that we saw Silene nigrescens, another plant that uses the 'greenhouse effect' to warm its flowers.

Our goal that day was the fantastic Rheum nobile, in what may be its only Chinrese site (this species is principally Tibetan). This is the best example of 'gigantism' in this mountain flora (compare the giant lobelias and groundsels of Africa). It was a long and fairly difficult walk in in the mist (a couple of hours at high altitude), but the rewards were fantastic as the mists cleared and we reached our target.

Over to the calcareous side of the pass to finish this particular section. The scenery is particularly spectacular here, but the walking is no easier. On both sides of the pass, and indeed on the Hong Shan, two Cremanthodium species were conspicuous, the odd, ruby C. campanulatum, and the beautiful yellow C. decaisnei.

When we reached the limestone screes, a real bonus was to find another wonderful Saussurea, also a 'greenhouse' flower, S. obvallaris. Thids was yet to develop fully, but it was a privilege to find it.

There are many more splendid plants to talk about from the Da Xue Shan limestone, but they are not scree plants as such, and will have to wait for another day. To finish with, a couple of shots of the limestone screes and pinnacles on the 'Big Snow Mountain'.


I was going to end there, but a quick weed of a plunge revealed two unexpected late summer flowers, and furthermore, two gentians I had never flowered before. Both were sown in 2010, and seedlings planted en masse into a crock pot where they spent the winter plunged in an alpine house and the summer stood outside in a cool place. Why they have flowered in late summer, goodness knows. Aren't the flowers of the Caucasian Gentiana oschtenica huge? The other one was sent as G. favratii from Turkish seed. It seems at least very closely related to G. brachyphylla.

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