As it has been said before, a book is no more a collection of single words than a piece of music an accumulation of separate notes, and this too can be applied to travel for the purpose of looking at plants. Though the seeds and spores that return with me provide the adhesive of the experience entire, they are no more significant to the sum total than each moment that unfolds and each lesson downloaded.
Along with the unexpected closure of Heronswood in May, my raison primaire of months away observing plants in the wild was also shuttered. With a return to Vietnam to areas previously unexplored, or certainly underexplored already long in the tooth for this autumn, I found myself in a quandary. Realized from a simple inquiry, the board of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle Washington magnanimously provided financial and technical support for this expedition. Without their generosity or their commitment to the basic premise behind the Miller Botanical Garden- the responsible collection and introduction of plants into our gardens as a means to better horticulture, coupled with conservation and education- I would not be here.
I must presume that most of you have experienced the disarrangement of time travel therefore I must presume that you know too well that ‘being there’ does not happen until one emerges from that jar of molasses labeled jet lag. I recall my first moments of consciousness in SaPa at the Royal View Hotel, having arrived that morning by the night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, aroused medially to consciousness by vocalizations in the ceiling, brought fully to place and time by a high dive plunge of a sizable rat to the foot of my bed. And precisely at that moment, I was in Vietnam.
It is my fourth visit, first in 1999 with Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones of N. Wales, returning with them in 2001, and again by myself last November, 2005. I will be joining my Welsh friends this year upon their imminent arrival from S. Japan, along with Peter and Sarah Wharton from Vancouver, British Columbia. As always, it will be an honor to travel in the company of lovely people and passionate plantsmen.
Yet the first leg of this trip in on my own, which is really to say in company of Le Hu’u U’o’c. I call him Uoc, with a soupçon of d put to the u. He calls me Mr. Dan. In North Vietnam, Uoc is to me as the lunar landing module is to Neil Armstrong.
As a 23 year old, he led Bleddyn and I to the top of Fan Xi Phan, the highest peak in SE Asia; that impossibly large forested mountain now with a varnish of early morning light outside my room at the Royal View. On that trip, he emerged from our tent in the midst of a typhoon to miraculously start a fire and prepare a bit of pork steamed in the leaves of Rhododendron sino-falconeri plucked near our camp. Upon each subsequent visit, he has made it all happen in a jovial and efficient manner. As expected, this morning Uoc arrives for our 7am departure on time, but first, this now proud 30 year old wonders if I would like to meet his six month old daughter on our way from town.
Today, Sunday, we head to the Northeast from SaPa towards the border with Yunnan. As a matter of course, we must pass through Bac Ha whose Sunday market still pulsates in activity. The road to and from town is a parade of color and costume, primarily that of the Flower H’mong minority carrying their wares to town and their purchases home. I ask to stop along the road in town to examine an expanse of orchid plants freshly harvested from the surrounding mountains. Bought for pennies, the majority are then subjected to a protracted torture before certain demise. Nearby, there are a group of men selling recently netted songbirds whose fates seem disturbingly parallel to the plants.
It is sunny and hot, and we take our jeep across the ‘short cut’ road to the NE, taking us to elevations of about 1500m. 11 months prior, in a downpour, we were thwarted on this road by soupy, impassable ruts and forced to turned back. Though I consider 2000m to be a valid elevation for collection in the PNW, there existed in the surrounding remnant forest (or jungle as Uoc refers to it) a bevy of interesting plants with potential hardiness. One of these is Disporum tonkinense. Though I have seen this evergreen species on the lower slopes of Fan Xi Phan in the past, here it grew in opulent colonies several feet across, carrying enormous pearls of light blue fleshy fruit. The pendulous flowers of this species range from light pink to purple black. We overnight in the hillside village of Hoang Su Phi, a thermally active area. In the morning, clothes are being laundered in the steamy river that runs through town, the water infused with a rich color of pumpkin soup.
We reached Ha Giang by mid afternoon and I was anxious for a long walk despite the fact that we had insufficient time to achieve any altitude before nightfall. Every trip has to have a little drama. I will resist embellishing for effect; my right knee has recently been operated on for a torn medial meniscus, ruptured during a long hike in the Cascades in August. Packed in my belongings on this trip is a significant supply of ibuprofen and a canister of doubt that I can physically accomplish what I must. This afternoon, we hike a long stretch of steps towards a radio tower outside of town; 18″ risers interspersed by 30′ runs of vertical ladders. Three hours later, I returned drenched with sweat though with a small reserve of confidence that the knee could handle the business ahead.
A half day’s drive to the north northwest the following day took us to what I would consider our endpoint on this venture. It was in the vicinity of a small village of Bat Dai Son that Callitropsis vietnamensis (first described under Xanthocyparis) was discovered in October of 1999. It not only remains the most recently discovered conifer (assuredly there are more to be found) but also aided taxonomists in more finely tuning the nomenclature of the Cupressaceae, the family to which it belongs. A Pacific Northwest horticultural stalwart, the so-called Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Callitropsis (≈ Chamaecyparis) nootkatensis, heard this shot of discovery half way round the world, with its latin revamped to the same genus of its nascently discovered Vietnamese counterpart.
The geography of the area is karst limestone with steep ridges rising to nine minor peaks to 2000m or more (Bat Dai S0n literally means 9 Large Mountains). I do not possess the degree of knowledge of geology that I would like, however I do now understand karst. What comes mostly to mind is that endearing line from McArthur Park; “Someone left the cake out in the rain.” In this case, the crumbs are sharply grained, highly weathered boulders with the dissolved bits of confection represented by sink holes and crevices too deep to see to the bottom As one attempts to weave through the maze, a light carpet of rotted vegetation covers all footholds and fissures alike. The gaping holes to my right and left as I continued (at times) a near vertical climb looked perfectly sized to slip into but not quite large enough to ever get out.
After numerous cups of teas and long conversations in the H’mong dialect, we secured a guide who knew of this tree. There have been others, two parties, we are told, who have come to see in the past five years.
Even in late October, at 300m in N. Vietnam, it was steamy hot. With such a porosity of geology, there is no running water and all liquids must be carried in. The first hours were along a steep greasy trail of clay which I found (wearing my high tech gortex REI hiking boots) equally frustrating to get a foothold as well as irritating that Uoc, our porter Huan (both wearing tennis shoes) and our guide (wearing bedroom slippers with teddy bears depicted atop each) are having no difficulties what-so-ever.
After four hours, we were well into the forested area which was, for me at least, very hard going. I am wearing gators however repeatedly cursed myself for having left my gloves in the jeep. Leaches find their way beneath my watch band and was able to remove all but one before it attaches. My hands already hurt from clinging to the grainy rocks and inadvertently grasping spiked stems of a prominent Aralia for handholds as I pulled myself up and over yet another wall. Our guide takes us up a narrow draw where we a sheer impassible cliff greeted us and painfully had to retreat downslope. He tries another route while we wait. In ten minutes, he returned, again seemingly confused.
In the meantime, I absorbed the vegetation. Though only slightly under 1000m, there existed here some exceptional plants. A maple with enormous leaves, green above and deep maroon beneath is intriguing. Most are small saplings indicating it is cut frequently from the mountain. I believe it might be the same species I observed in Tom Dao, north of Hanoi, last year, where it held large racemes of still unripened, brilliant red samara. The trees are comprised of mostly evergreens in both the Lauraceae and Fagaceae (Lithocarpus, Castanopsis, Quercus ) while at least two palms are also present. Shrubs, among many, include Dichroa febrifuga in the Hydrangea family as well as Callicarpa. The herbaceous flora included three species of Arisaema, Amorphophallus, Typhonium, Begonias, Impatiens. The Arisaemas were particularly interesting, with a trifoliate species closely resembling the autumn flowering taxa from higher elevations on Fan Xi Phan; here these are fully ripened.
The Impatiens speices was fantastic. It is a rounded robust species, seemingly perennial with large salmon pink tubular flowers. Being a common component throughout Asia, I have come to expect a significant degree of variation in flower color from each species, however this one was stunning. Huan, our porter, joins in to help me gather its fruit and screams in surprise when his first capsule characteristically detonates in his hands.
As an aside, I also found on this day, by default, a sensational species in the Urticaceae whose identity remains still a mystery. The slight prickle on my arms and exposed legs were symptomatic of nettles, a normally temporary and minor annoyance. In this case, the irritation continued to intensify to the smart of a serious bee sting and by evening and throughout the night, a crescendo to a throbbing, systemic needle-like torment. I am familiar with the genus Giardinia from the Himalaya and its frightfully painful barbs however this was not present in the area. Should anyone read this who has an interest in or knowledge of the Urtids, I would appreciate hearing from you. Know thy enemy.
By mid-afternoon, we had reached 1100m and the flora had changed significantly. I was excitedly led to a conifer that my guide believed to be the one I wished to see. This proved to be either a Taxus or Amernotaxus. Another 100m up, we encountered another conifer which I believe to belong to the genus Nageia, very close in appearance to Podocarpus chinensis. No fruit were visible on either tree. By 4 pm, and with a somewhat shaky leg, we began the hike down to the village. I was annoying slow, guarding my knee, and we arrived to the camp near the village at dusk.
That evening, we talked to others in the village about this tree that I wished to see. When I described its foliage, we were, in quickly dimming light, quickly led a h’mong homestead nearby. The owner had recently planted two trees in his yard, transplanted from the mountain above. By flashlight, one proved to be a curious three-needle pine while the other was indeed Callitropsis vietnamensis. Uoc laughingly pointed out to this home landscaper, after inspecting the general health of the specimen, that they had failed to bring any roots along with the tree during the transplanting process. Yet, still it is provided a handy herbarium specimen to ask others for its whereabouts in the hills above the village.
The following morning, having met a villager who knew his mountain very well and the trees that grew on it, agreed to take us to see his forest. He knew it very well. There was another oily trail through corn interspersed by blocades of limestone that I took on all fours. In just under three hours of hard going, we were again in uncut forest approaching the top of the ridge at 1000m where I had expected to find it growing. And there it was, I am told, with our guide pointing excitedly to Fokienia hodginsii.
I would not normally be disinterested in seeing this conifer in the wild. Though it occurs on Fan Xi Phan, I had never actually seen a living specimen of it there. A valuable rot resistant ‘cedar’ with very fragrant wood, most have been cut throughout its range, being used for interior finishing, furniture and boat building. It successfully grows in my garden at Windcliff and appears superficially to Calocedrus, or the incense cedar (the specimens here ranged in size from 20-40′ and numerous seedlings were noted).
As we were nearing the more open cliffs on which Callitropsis has been reported growing, we carried on for another hour until we came to rest under yet another conifer that our guide suggested to Uoc was simply another Fokienia. A lower limb, showing the distinctive foliage blend of juvenile (needle-like) and adult (scale-like) foliage confirmed its identity. There were numerous individuals here with some reaching what I approximated to be 45′ in height, though I did not note any seedlings nor any fruiting branches on the trees. Our local guide was surprised to learn that this was a different species than the Fokienia that he knew very well. (a somewhat concerning note if one considers education of the local villagers regarding conservation of this species, as harvesting in these mountains continues).
It may not have seemed a very momentous occasion to my guides or porters. Uoc was, of course, pleased that I was pleased. For me, however, it was unalloyed excitement.
Up Next; Back to Fan Xi Phan and a return to Seo Mi Ty.