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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 July 2011 by John Richards

Some Chinese orchids. Entry 188.

Cypripediums

Western China is well-known for its cypripediums, slipper orchids, and in some well-known localities such as the Yulong Shan in Yunnan it is possible to see seven or eight species in a day. I have a conceit that it is difficult to see most cypripediums away from the limestone, and on our trip last month we saw little if any limestone until we reached the Da Xue Shan at the end of the trip. However, this limitation does not seem to apply to Cypripedium tibeticum. We started the tour in grand style, for on our first proper morning in the field, travelling northwards from Kangding on the new road to Kangding airport, we came across a strong population above the road at about 3700 m. This seems to be the best altitude for this species in the Kangding area, as it also grows at about this level on the road west to the Zheduo Pass.

Cypripediums

Kangding airport deserves a short note. Kangding is a fair-sized city, perhaps 200,000 in size, but in a remote area and surrounded by steep mountains which slope right into the town, so it is not easily accessed, particularly as the road through Luding on the Chengdu side, to the east, is being rebuilt, involving many hours of tedious queueing. Consequently, the Chinese have built an airport for Kangding, but the surrounding countryside is so vertical that they have had to choose a site 40 km north of the town, and at 4200 m, right up on the plateau, about 1500 m higher! Thus, the experience of unconditioned passengers arriving at one of the highest airports in the world, must be, literally, breathtaking!

One of the features of Cypripedium tibeticum is that it always has a whitish rim to the lip cavity. As we travelled from Kangding southwards to Jiulong, a stop on the northern, Kangding side of the Zi Chou Pass revealed a rather smaller species with browner flowers and more erect lateral petals, in which this white lip rim is missing. This I believe to be C. smithii. Like C. tibeticum it grew on a shaly substrate.

By far the richest area we found for orchids was a tiny patch in the forest beside the road leading from Jiulong to Wuxu lake, a local beauty spot. Much of this area, although interesting, was orchid-free, but in one area only two hundred metres across we found both Cypripedium flavum and C. guttatum, as well as wonderful populations of Calanthe delavayi. C. flavum first. This species used to be locally common in the Zhongdian area (on limestone), although it seemed much rarer on the present trip and I suspect that it has been dug up in large quantities, the fate of many Chinese orchids. Consequently, I am not giving too many details about the present site. However, such was the localised richness (which also involved two primulas we saw nowehere else, P. conspersa and P. watsonii) that I am convinced that there must have been a localised outcrop of limestone nearby.

Incidentally, the first of these images contains yet another orchid, the diminutive Oreorchis erythrochrysea which we found commonly in many areas. Here is Cypripedium guttatum, the only time we saw it on the present trip.

Incidentally, back in 2007, travelling south-west out of Sichuan into northern Yunnan on the Ma'an Pass in the Xiancheng area, we found a large population of C. guttatum which included some 'albinos', plants lacking anthocyanin pigments.

For our final cypripedium, we needed to go to Little Snow mountain which the road to Da Xue Shan (Great Snow Mountain) and Weng Shui skirts as it passes a temple area. Here we are definitely on limestone, and steep wooded limestone screes lead up to low cliffs where Primula bracteata grows, a site hallowed by many alpine gardeners as the place where the 1994 ACE expedition collected the seeds which resulted in the introduction of this magnificent addition to the Show bench and alpine house. The primula was long past flowering in late June (and we studiously avoided collecting seed, now strictly illegal!). However, I thought people would be interested to see how this iconic species grows in the wild.

To revert to the subject, on the wooded slopes leading up to the cliffs was a substantial population of the little Cypripedium plectrochilum, a species I remember from the Gang Ho Ba in Yunnan.

Calanthe delavayi

Cypripediums are justly popular, but for me the outstanding orchid of the trip was the aforementioned Calanthe delavayi which grew with cypripediums on the road to Wuxu Hai.

Calanthe delavayi

Many of the smaller ground orchids belong to the genus Ponerorchis and are not easily told apart, but the commonest species, with several leaves, is the widespread P. chusua. Here is it growing beside the road south from Kangding to Jiulong, but we saw it in many places.

A very common orchid along the roadside banks in the Weng Shui (Da Xue Shan) area was originally mistaken for another ponerorchis, but proved to by Hemipilia flabellata.

Further down the valley from Weng Shui, near the entrance to the spectacular Birong Gorge, Epipactis mairei in an albinistic form grew in a roadside ditch. I was greatly taken by this lovely plant.

Earlier I had mentioned the little, partly saprophytic Oreorchis erythrochrysea which reminded be somewhat of the European coralroot orchid. We saw this in many places, but here it is growing near the Calanthe at Wuxu Hai.

Another rather inconspicuous orchid, Platanthera minutiflora, related to our butterfly orchids, grew with the Cypripedium smithii on the Zi Chou Pass.

Finally, not all Chinese orchids are unfamiliar to European orchid hunters, and such species as Cephalanthera longifolia are frequently met with. On the Shika Shan I was delighted to find the diminutive Herminium monorchis, the so-called musk orchid, which I last saw growing near Cheltenham!.

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