Botanical garden-a colorful treat

By Mike Peters(China Daily)
Updated: 2016-09-05 08:39:29

Covering an area of about 230 hectares, the Hangzhou Botanical Garden can be found at the foot of Jade Spring Hill in the northwest end of West Lake in Hangzhou. [Photo by Chai Shijue/Li Zhong/Lai Shunxing/China Daily]

I keep running into Richard Nixon in the most surprising places.

In China, of course, the late US leader continues to be celebrated for opening relations between the two countries. Right now I'm looking at a photograph of Nixon visiting Hangzhou in 1982, to see the giant redwood tree he presented to China during his historic 1972 visit during his presidency.

Zhou Enlai, then China's premier, decided to send the tree to Hangzhou, where the first botanical garden established after 1949 was flourishing.

"Premier Zhou thought the Hangzhou Botanical Garden was very great at botanical research," says the current director of the garden, Yu Jinliang. "So it came here."

At 2 meters tall-about the size of basketball superstar Yao Ming-the tree was no giant among its own species, Sequoia semperveriens. Turns it, it probably never will be.

"Hangzhou's climate is very humid, compared to the parts of California where the giant trees are native," says Yu. "But with our research and the use of tissue culture, we have propagated other trees and planted them in drier parts of China where they are becoming much larger.

Covering an area of about 230 hectares, the Hangzhou Botanical Garden can be found at the foot of Jade Spring Hill in the northwest end of West Lake in Hangzhou. [Photo by Chai Shijue/Li Zhong/Lai Shunxing/China Daily]

'Silent poem'

The garden is much more than picture-book landscapes. One of its most interesting missions is to showcase garden plants in the broader Chinese cultural context.

In its bonsai garden, for example, you can see how this cultivation style mirrors calligraphy, literature and paintings in plants like Pinus taiwanensis "Hayata". The pine from Taiwan has been used for Chinese bonsai-shaping since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). "Each specimen is like a silent poem," the garden's resident expert Hu Zhong says.

The Chinese phrase for bonsai is penjing, which means "scenery in a pot", he adds.

At the bonsai garden's entrance are three plants that Chinese consider "friends" in winter: A pine, bamboo and a plum tree, because they look their best and also stand out in the cold season.

There are also ginkgo specimens that defy what we've come to expect from Japanese-style bonsai. Instead of limbs that are aggressively shaped with shears to get an artful and miniaturized effect, these specimens are what director Yu calls "natural" bonsai-big trees that have been topped-usually by storms-which have spouted new shoots in appealing forms.

Other collections are native plants, and rare to endangered plants. Yu walks us over to a plant nursery where new specimens, grown from seeds and cuttings of plants in the garden's collection, are bursting with green vigor from gallon-sized plastic pots. Locally discovered species, including the winter-flowering Sinocalycanthus chinensis, have pride of place in the garden.

Covering an area of about 230 hectares, the Hangzhou Botanical Garden can be found at the foot of Jade Spring Hill in the northwest end of West Lake in Hangzhou. [Photo by Chai Shijue/Li Zhong/Lai Shunxing/China Daily]

Year-round attraction

The botanical garden entices more than 3 million visitors each year, about a million of those in the peak month around Chinese New Year, when plum trees become so coated with blossoms they create a pink-and-white "ocean of flowers". In summer, most flowering plants are resting, but the heat brings out the flame-colored blossoms of Lycoris aurea, popularly known as "naked ladies" because the flowers emerge from the ground on long stems without leafy coverage.

Some of the most formally arranged gardens, especially on small lakes and ponds, become brilliant with red, orange and yellow foliage in the fall. Then, after winter turns the landscapes into silhouettes defined by leafless trees and intriguing sculptures, it's time for Spring Festival and the plum, peach and apricot trees recolor the landscape in pastel pinks and fluorescent reds.

"Spring is also the time our rhododendron garden is full of color," says Yu, and the annual rhododendron festival draws a new wave of admirers for those delicate beauties.

The garden reaches out to the community in other ways. Special events for kids include the Farm Garden, which shows where vegetables come from and how they are grown, and expansive summer-camp activities. For adults, there is a flower show competition during the chrysanthemum season, and how-to programs on bonsai and landscaping.

The garden is open 24 hours, and joggers and others who come outside the ticket-booth hours of 7 am-5 pm get free entry.

Officials say you can see different kinds of wildlife that don't come out during the daytime, including hedgehogs, frogs, snakes, fireflies and moths.

Beat the heat

Summer is a hot time in the garden, but when the heat is oppressive in the middle of the day, there are two inviting places to get away. One is the Fish Jumping at Jade Spring, on the site of an old temple where you can enjoy plenty of shade and watch some black carp. One is more than 50 years old, more than a meter long and weighs about 100 kg.

If only air conditioning will revive you, head to the on-site art museum with several galleries of work by Han Meilin. The famous sculptor has works outside as well as an indoor gallery; other sections of the museum feature his calligraphy, his painting and-to a smaller degree-famous corporate logos and mascots he have designed, such as for Air China and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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