Bleary eyed from arriving to our lodging at midnight, after over 50 hours of continual travel, we arose early the next morning to sodden skies in the village of Shennong. This mountainous area of eastern Hubei has both the highest peak of this part of Central China (Shennong Peak, just under 11,000’) as well as the perfect collision of eastern and western floral elements. We worked up a small road in starts and stops, piling out of our transport, piling in, progressively more saturated. Yet the plants were exciting to see and unexpected all in one place together holding onto their own tiny bits of real estate; Hydrangea longipes, Cotinus coggygria, Epimedium fargesi, Metapanax davidii, Chloranthus fortunei. The richness was beyond our most hopeful imaginations. Yet, it continued to pour buckets the entire day, making photography and the logistics of collecting seed and taking notes wearisome. Factoring in our collective fatigue with the weather, there was little argument when we made the decision at 4 pm to drive back to the village and our accommodation.
As we had seen small specimens of Emmenopterys henryi during the day, Scott mentioned having seen a tree along the road on our way in that appeared to be just that and in flower and fruit. One’s eyes often play tricks at 45 mph, and many more times than I care to recall, we have turned around or walked back to find that an Epimedium was in fact a Smilax, an Actaea an Anemone hupehensis, an evergreen oak that Lindera we had hoped to see.
Yet in dimming light and rain, there it was indeed. Not only a 150’ towering centuries old Emmenopterys growing up from the river valley, but one whose crown enveloped us where we stood.
A member of the Rubiaceae (coffee, gardenia, Cepahalanthus), this extremely rare deciduous tree is rare in China, though not endangered. Ernest Wilson, right from these parts a century ago, described it as one of the most beautiful hardy deciduous trees in all of China. The flowers could best be described as those of a Schizophragma (Hydrangea) with flattened corymbs surrounded by broad elongated white bracts.
Despite our sodden condition and jet-lagged souls, it was a red letter moment for all of us; a good ending to our first day in the field with promise of more excitement to follow.