INEVITABLY, ALL ROCK gardeners have to reckon with the Himalaya. Not only are they the loftiest and vastest mountain range on the planet, the Himalaya also harbor the lion’s share of practically every major group of rock garden plants—particularly androsace, gentiana, meconopsis, primula, and let’s not even think about rhododendron. Although many of us grumble that the highest alpines are hard to grow in our lowland gardens, there are steamy, nearly subtropical valleys and steppe-like plateaus throughout this region that have plants that can adapt to any kind of temperate climate regime. And of course, gardeners who live in cool summer climates – the Pacific Northwest, northern Atlantic seaboard and of course much of northern Europe – find a vast number of plants from China or Tibet that thrive in their gardens.
In my case, I made the mistake as a child of coming across a volume by Frank Kingdon-Ward about his early Burmese expedition. I checked it out of the library again and again and was smitten. My shelf of books dedicated to Himalayan plant exploration has since grown into a bookcase, and I knew I’d have to go there. The decades passed, and thanks to Harry Jans' encouragement I finally undertook a dream trip to Yunnan, in 2018 under the aegis of NARGS with 12 wonderful companions, which we documented in the Quarterly last year. Harry followed up by inviting me to join nearly 20 gardeners from all over Europe on a bus trip from Lijiang, Yunnan to Lhasa in Tibet: 1,730 kilometers (over 1000 miles) in extent. How could I resist? During the first week we retraced some of the highlights I saw on the trip a year before. That turned out to be amazing. The differences in the two years were profound, as 2018 had been a very early and wet monsoon year, and the flowers were fantastic at lower elevations. The difference was not so pronounced at elevation but we found dozens of plants the second trip we missed the first. Oh, to have a chance to go yet another time…and another!
It’s a good idea when taking a trip like this to spend a few days adjusting to the altitude. We did this in Lijiang, with a leisurely day which included a stroll around the Black Dragon Pool, a city park surrounded by hills with wildflowers growing right down to the margins of the trails, attractive containers filled with showy annuals, and a surprisingly large collection of ancient bonsai. In 2018 there was light rain and low clouds, but in 2019 we had a sunny, glowing day and the Jade Dragon Mountains showed up spectacularly in the background
From Lijiang we took a day’s foray at Ganghoba pass where we were plagued with leeches the year before. This year, no leeches were anywhere in evidence. It was parched, with a fraction of the wildflowers blooming we saw the year before. The same drought extended to Tiger Leaping Gorge where the season was much advanced over last year, and again far fewer flowers. The little resurrection club moss (Selaginella tamariscina) we’d admired spreading lushly the year before was curled up this year in little brown balls, as was Coralodiscus kingii.
From there we followed the Golden Sand River (Jinsha, the name given to the upper reaches of the Yangtze) and descended the staircase at the vantage point where the big bend can be viewed panoramically. The vegetation was as sere this year as last and I was frustrated not to have the chance to hop the fence and take a closer look, since it had steppe affinities.
Finally we reached Shangri-La, which sounds a bit grander than it really is. The provincial center Zhongdian has grown enormously in recent decades with a forest of large luxury hotels that have a distinct Tibetan feel since we are in a part of Yunnan where Tibetans are the vast majority of the population.
Our first foray was to the subalpine Lake Tianchi, which we’d visited before. I was thrilled to do this since several of the plants I’d photographed there last year didn’t turn out well. I was surprised to find a number of plants this time around I’d missed the previous visit, including an extremely handsome iris which approximates Iris cuniculiformis but is definitely distinct, and possibly novel. The narrowly endemic Lilium souliei was just as abundant and very appealing in its chocolate brown coloring. There were abundant brooding Arisaema elephas, the highest growing of the Jack-in-the-pulpits. Both going and coming we spied many more Nomocharis aperta than we did the year before and took even more pictures. We’d completely missed seeing a swale filled with Adonis davidii on our previous visit. This year we found it growing with all manner of gems including a vivid form of Salvia flava (S. bulleyana of commerce) with golden flowers with a chocolate lip.
The floral pièce-de-résistance at Lake Tianchi are the masses of magenta and yellow primroses (Primula secundiflora and P. sikkimensis) growing in unbelievable masses. Where these were interspersed with dozens of columns of Rheum alexandrae in full bloom the spectacle was breathtaking.
In 2018 the highlight of our trip was spending three days on the summit of Baimashan pass. I never dreamed we’d be back a year later, and once again we found not only familiar flower faces but quite a few which we hadn’t seen the year before. Both times we seemed to hit peak flowering, with startling masses of color dotting the tundra. The eerie blue-lavender color of Primula zambalensis doesn’t seem to have a match in any other flower. Seeing these forming a cloud of lavender color stretching up a steep scree was inspiring. When I found one growing out of a crack in the asphalt road I had to laugh – not exactly the compost you’d expect for a choice primula.
This was our first encounter with blue poppies on this trip: at first we keyed them as Meconopsis racemosa, but it has since been determined to be M. rudis. It grew on screes in full sun facing south, but at 15,000 feet (4,500 m) the temperatures wouldn’t ever get too hot. The sapphire of the flowers was startling and fortunately translated well onto our cameras. Some had reflexed petals making them appear almost like little animals.
We found a surprising number of crucifers growing on the screes, many of which we have yet to determine. Pegaephyton scapiforum was representative with glowing masses of the flowers almost obscuring the foliage. Brassicaceae tend to be relatively easy to grow in rock gardens. I hope this will be true of some of these alpine tuffets.
As you’d expect in China, rhododendrons were abundant and spectacular. I was surprised to see a yellow member of the Lapponicum series predominating the parts of the mountain which were underlain with limestone. It’s hard to describe the wonderful shade of primrose yellow these had—or the way they glowed in different lights—but I think Norman Thomas’ pictures come close to capturing the effect. I have a hunch it was growing on dolomite rather than calcium carbonate, since some were growing in crevices where the roots had to be in contact with the nearly white stone with no sign of chlorosis. Just as this yellow mound covered the limestone, bright rose, even dwarfer mats of Rhododendron calostrotum ssp. keleticum painted whole hillsides on the granite slopes to the West side of the pass. Oh, to be able to recreate these at home!
We climbed quite high on the bright limestone screes on the east side of the pass where the diversity of flowers seemed especially rich. We wondered what the bright pink clumps of enormous flowers high above us could be. Closer up, Incarvillea compacta did not disappoint. Wondering how a cousin to catalpa could adapt to such a startling steep alpine slope at so high an altitude truly made me marvel at Nature’s high jinks.
Seeing the masses of Paraquilegia microphylla filling every nook and cranny on the lower cliffs two years in a row really made me feel like a lucky mortal. This time I was even more struck by the fantastic variability in color, from nearly rose-pink through every shade of lavender and purple to nearly pure blue. We were to find this again and again on the trip through Tibet, but never as abundantly or gloriously as here on Baimashan.
For me, almost eclipsing the glory of the paraquilegia were the variety and number of corydalis, some of which had flowers of piercing aquamarine color, like Corydalis melanochora. It was interesting to me, having been in the same spot two years running that we seemed to see far fewer plants of these, although what we did see looked impressive.
The most surprising of the corydalis was Corydalis hemidicentra, which had foliage that had an absurd resemblance to a dark-brown-leaved hepatica. Of course, what hepatica would be growing on a steep, sunny scree at 15,000 feet (4,500 m)? The gorgeous bright-blue flowers made quite a contrast to the foliage. It is surely one of the supreme alpine plants and one that I’d not heard of before first seeing these.
After our last climb on Baimashan we returned to Deqin (known to the explorers in the last century as Atuntse) for our last night’s feast in Yunnan proper before beginning the long trek through Tibet. I’m afraid I have squandered far too much time on the glories of Yunnan, and will not be fair to the fantastic flora we found over the next two weeks. How to pick among the hundreds of pictures of over a dozen meconopsis, countless primula, and androsace? Almost as surprising to me was the startling smoothness of the new highways that wound between the many towns we stayed in along the way. Even more shocking was the elegance and luxuriousness of the brand-new hotels we saw everywhere. In many cities in America rooms we stayed in would fetch $300 a night or more.
A few highlights on the many passes we crossed would have to include the astonishing alpine gentian on Dongda La, possibly the highest point we reached during this trip, measured by Harry Jans at 17,000 feet (5,200 m). What amazed me most about the many high passes we crossed was that practically none of us on the bus (20 people with a mean age well above 60) experienced much in the way of altitude sickness. I can only think of one or two who took a day off, and it was as much to catch up on writing in journals and recharging batteries, so to speak, as a reaction to these amazing altitudes.
The numbers of both blue and yellow meconopsis on Dongda La was inspiring. The enormous yellow lampshades on Meconopsis sulfurea were everywhere—from the saddle of the pass (festooned with masses of prayer flags) well up onto the high slopes. What a contrast to the icy blue Meconopsis racemosa, which was much taller with far more flowers than the M. rudis we’d seen in Yunnan. Of course, both are closely allied to M. horridula which we were to find towards the end of our trip and is much better known in cultivation.
It is hard to limit the hundreds of fantastic plants we found on the top of Galong La, another very high pass between Markham and Rawu. The spectacle of Primula russeola, which at first we mistook for the closely related Primula moorcroftiana, made a mass of bloom just below the highway near the summit. The glowing lavender-blue flowers contrasted with the silvery foliage of this rarely seen Nivalid primula, which I doubt has persisted in cultivation.
The only day when we encountered a persistent drizzly rain was on the stark slopes of Guza La, where two enormous glaciated cirques carved down in opposite directions into a broad alpine valley full of color. We hiked up the road we might have driven up a few weeks later but snowbanks eventually turned us back. The snowbanks covered the vivid purple-blue caltha we were hoping to crown our hike with. But several rare miniature lilies, many choice meconopsis, and countless ericaceae and flowers of all sorts crowded the road on both sides. It is a place I dream of visiting again one day. The hundreds of Omphalogramma tibeticum and Primula agleniana were unspeakably exciting treasures along the road.
How to sum up three days on Serkyem La? It is a remarkably rich pass with acres of cassiope in bloom, as well as the largest variety of meconopsis in yellow and blue and purple, including Meconopsis baileyi in the woodlands, and several species of cypripedium to boot. Here we added many dozens of new plants to our life lists (and cameras), but despite a slight drizzle, the opportunity to climb to 15,000 feet (4500 m) and wander among the giant sentinels of Rheum nobile (one of the few places in the Himalaya where these are near a road) had to be the culminating moment of the most extraordinary trip I’ve been privileged to join. All of us on this trip owe an enormous debt to Harry and Hannie Jans for managing the complex logistics and assembling an extraordinary group of people, and especially to Carolyn Gao, who handled the myriad trip details and on-site planning, and to Norman Thomas, for allowing the use of his pictures.