Anyone who has come to Asia proper to look at plants in the wild, or at least in the parts of Asia where I have traveled, will concur that there is no fun in getting there. Between the far flung vestiges of preserved forests lie a torment of noodle-jarring reruns; miles of roads in deconstruction, the lack of any line remotely reckoned as straight, the discomfort of starving dogs, sometimes on the way to market, and pigs in baskets always on the way to market. Yet if one allows oneself to look beyond the sublunary, one can see a most remarkable landscape unfold before them. Unlike any other place on earth, when I am here I can perceive the curvature of the planet.
In autumn it seems all of Asia is on fire, with rice straw lit and fuming on laughably and admirably steep, neatly terraced mountainsides. Rice smoke in Asia is the original smog and only adds to the signature haze that has become the stuff of over-romanticized paintings in the Oriental device. It still accumulates in the lungs and smarts the eyes, but all-in-all it seems an honest pollution.
Smoke does no good at all in accentuating a prairie or plain or even a timid landscape of rolling hills. For it to be any good at all, there must be drama, in weird peaks and stacks with their plunging necklines to fathomless valleys. And in Guizhou Province, there is no lack of topographic theatrics nor is there any lack of smoke in autumn.
We have woven our way from Jinfoshan to Fanjingshan via the Dashahe Cathaya Reserve near Daozheng. The latter is a project under construction and where my friend, the late Peter Wharton of the UBC Botanical Garden, visted for two weeks in the mid-90’s. It was his assessment of the area that had made me wish to see it first hand. Indeed its karst cliffs and spires topped by Cathaya argylophylla, a rare conifer and primary concern of this reserve, were impressive. I wish we had been afforded a longer visit.
Oddly enough, the environs outside of and leading to the Reserve were of greater interest in a botanical sense than inside the boundaries, where I had watched a large herd of goats having their way with anything remotely palatable. (As I observed a rather sizeable specimen of Hydrangea aspera disintegrate before my eyes, I considered if it would not be better in the long run if goats were hitherto confined to petting zoos).
It was undiluted frisson to at last encounter Mahonia duclouxiana (aka Mahonia mairei) in the wild, with its long and elegant leaves to 2.5′ and striking pendulous clusters of blue fruit at the terminal of each 3-5′ stem. It blossoms in winter with bicolor coral and butterscotch yellow flowers. An evergreen spicebush, Lindera communis, was present as well with colorful crops of red fruit plastered along its stems. Also here was the deciduous vine, Akebia trifoliata var. australis.
The latter possessed the largest fruit of any ‘Lardizabaloid’ I had ever seen, resembling small lavender melons held along its fine and unassuming stems clad.
The following morning, a drive south and east to the base of Fanjingshan, which I will visit for the first time in the morning, took nine hours of grueling tedium in pouring rain. Yet we are now poised to readily experience one of the most beloved and sacred mountains of this Province.