Precisely a year ago, most of the same participants on this trip to Hubei Province in the PRC were together in northern Vietnam; Ozzie Johnson, Scott McMahan, Andrew Bunting, and myself (this year we have been gratifyingly conjoined by Dr. Donglin Zhang from the University of Georgia, Athens, graduate student Ms. Tung and Professor Cheng from the Dept of Botany from the University of Wuhan). Twelve months prior, our ‘two day’ trek up and over a sheer mountain range known as Five Fingers had turned into 3.5 day death march. During that experience, the lot of us were not only pushed to our limits, but were adamantly committed to making sure that such a situation would never arise again.
Today we drove only a few dozen miles from our relatively primitive but clean hotel at Baedong, achieving a relatively low elevation of 3600’ before parking our transport at a local farmhouse and piling out, excited to at least move our legs though nonplussed by the integrity of the surrounding forests, comprised mostly by deciduous oaks, Rhus, assorted maples, Hydrangea aspera subsp. strigosa and a preponderance of Metapanax davidii. Of course, the signature plants of overgrazing by livestock predominated the flora: Artemesia, Rubus, Bidens, nettles and Smilax.
A local guide was hired, who spoke in a local dialect to Professor Cheng who in turn spoke to Donglin in Han who then translated for us in English. The plan would be a gentle 4 mile hike downslope along a river valley to a road where our van would meet us. The skies were lucid and the temperature refreshing; after days of waterlogged boots and clothing, in actuality, the lot of us would have been joyous in botanizing on the dark side of the moon no matter the richness of the local flora.
Within a mile of hiking, our lowered expectations were modified upward significantly by finding expansive colonies of a low growing, stoloniferous Epimedium whose identity has not yet been determined. These were growing beneath specimens of Osmunda japonica, a fern we had already come to associate as an indicator species for Epimediums throughout Hubei. Yet around the next bend, on a moist bank, grew a mind-bending species of the same genus that stopped us all in our tracks. Here was Epimedium enshiensis, with enormous glossy leaves held atop stems to nearly 4’ in height.
We dropped to the river along steep terrain, finding an inventory of plants that we had had no expectations of seeing: Enkianthus, Rhododendon, Sarcococca, Pittosporum, Pachysandra, Cardiocrinum, Saxifraga and numerous ferns. The collections were so rich and our spirits so ebullient, and with expectations of a truncated trek, we loitered on ray warmed rocks in the river longer than we should have. Shadows began their stretch before we reluctantly followed our guide down stream.
The river bed was comprised of seductively carved pools of polished karst with deep clefts forcing us high above its banks on razor thin trails. Disturbingly similar to our experience on Five Fingers, we repeatedly were required to cut our way down to the river, cross it and then ascend steeply on the opposite side. At nearly 4 pm, the guide admitted that he had misjudged the time required. Locals, it seems, do not repeatedly halt to admire plants. Though we had brought our head lamps, we were virtually all without water and none savored the thought of negotiating the unforgiving ledges in darkness.
Our guide wisely opted to forego the river valley and lead us up and over a high ridge to our west. Admittedly, the climb was grueling, often without root or stem as a safeguard, yet the effort did not come without its rewards. Nearing 6,000’ the flora transitioned to Aucuba, Hydrangea chinensis and, most excitedly, a large colony of a rare mayapple, Podophyllum versipelle. As this latter is a class 2 protected plant in Hubei, considerable time was spent photographing, taking coordinates and gathering herbarium specimens of the dozen or so plants that existed in the colony.
By dusk, we were gratifyingly over the ridge and relieved to see patches of cabbages and corn. Alerted by her dogs, an elderly, toothless and hearing-impaired woman emerged from her rammed earth home to find a parched hiking party of mixed ethnicity standing at her doorstep. Soon enough, tea was poured, a sense of levity returned to our contingency and we began our march down a steep but well marked path to our vehicles waiting below.