A bruising 9 hour drive south and east of Fanjingshan delivered us to the base of yet another of the major mountains in Guizhou, the Leigongshan, and the sublime luxury of three full nights in the same location. On the 9th floor of a nearly empty grandiose hotel, I had the opportunity to become well acquainted with a rodent-of-unusual-size that shared my room.
Though the summit of the Leigongshan approaches 7,000 feet, the trip to the very top on this day would be a breeze, as a nicely paved road leads directly to a transmission tower that caps the summit. I believe our spirits collectively sunk as we sped past the flora on our ascent, it appearing to be xeric and denuded. Our attitudes adjusted as we poured from the jeep and made our way down slope via a series of trails.
The upper elevations consisted of a flora that spoke in a decidedly eastern accent, as I had encountered all of the major players in the mountains of South Korea some two decades ago. Symplocus aff. pilosa, a medium-sized deciduous shrub peppered with signature sapphire blue fruit, shared company with Magnolia sieboldii.
Specimens of Clethra cavalierei, with sensational exfoliating bark and orange red autumn color, was superficially a dead ringer for its Japanese counterpart, Clethra barbinervis, while the Hydrangoidal inventory consisted of both Hydrangea heteromalla (referred to as Hydrangea xanthoneura by Chinese botanists) and Hydrangea paniculata. Of the latter, it was the first time I had encountered this species on the mainland of China and was intrigued by the pinkish cast to its very tardy heads of flowers.
By late morning we had hiked a scant distance compared to the miles that lay ahead, we were slowed by distraction and wonderment. A local farmer passed us shyly with her hat brimming full of the fruit of Illicium, or star anise, tipping us off to its presence on this mountain. Attesting to its market value, for use in traditional Chinese medicine, on a subsequent day along the lower slopes we came across a mature 60′ Illicium that had been significantly disfigured, its upper third felled and stripped of every fruit. We are uncertain as to the species that occur here.
At mid-elevations, a robust species of Styrax, or Snowbell, appeared in large numbers, its tawny brown seed littering the trail. It assuredly puts on a remarkable showing when in blossom in spring, perhaps concurrently with Rhododendron fortunei that predominates here at virtually all elevations. At lower elevations another member of the Styracaceae, the family of Snowbells, added a bit of intrigue. Here, Pterostyrax psilophyllus grew as enormous specimens to well over 100′ in height. I grow this deciduous, broadly ovate foliaged species in my garden in Indianola which came from previous collections in northeast Sichuan, however here the foliage is decidedly three lobed, appearing superficially to be that of a spicebush, Lindera obtusiloba.
In late afternoon and, in what has become our daily modus operandi, disoriented as to the direction we should follow, we were forced to hurry down slope to reconnoiter at our predetermined hour. Still, we were unable to resist the perusal of numerous things along the way, including specimens of Magnolia sprengeri (my first encounter in the wild) and an old friend from northern Vietnam, Magnolia foveolata.
With less than a quarter mile to go, we came upon yet another marvel that slowed our progress. The Lardizabalaceae, the family of Akebia, Holboellia and Stauntonia, never ceases to delight me with its carefully guarded diversity.
From what had seemed at first sight a rather staid piece of parched Chinese forest had proven to be amongst the most illuminating and exciting of the trip thus far. We left the day feeling fortunate, having additional days remaining to explore and admire its bounty.