Tag Archives: International Camellia Congress

Reticulata camellias – from China with passion

A reticulata hybrid bred from C. lindl and named ‘Liuye Yinhong’, photographed at Kunming Botanic Gardens

A reticulata hybrid bred from C. lindl and named ‘Liuye Yinhong’, photographed at Kunming Botanic Gardens

C. lindl

C. lindl

There is a special thrill to seeing a plant in its natural habitat. The species are often very different to the plants we know and grow in our gardens. So it was with the reticulata camellia known as ‘lindl’ that is indigenous to the forests on Baotai Mount in Yongping County, south-west China. It may be the parent of many of the named reticulatas grown as garden ornamentals, but in itself, it is not a showy garden plant. It is a naturally occurring forest tree – and by tree, I mean anything up to 18 metres high.


C. lindl is the is the dominant indigenous reticulata camellia species on Mount Baotai.

C. lindl is the is the dominant indigenous reticulata camellia species on Mount Baotai.

The city of Dali in the Yunnan Province of China proudly proclaims itself as the homeland of camellias so it was only appropriate that they hosted the International Camellia Congress in February this year. Their literature claims records show that camellias have been cultivated for as long as 1500 years and based on what we saw, you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the world where they are cultivated more extensively than in their home territory. They are a commercially significant plant – to the envy of every nurseryperson who attended the congress.

A private courtyard garden in the village of Longxiadeng

A private courtyard garden in the village of Longxiadeng

Public plantings in parks and temples featured reticulata camellias- or retics, as they are often called by camellia folk. Domestic gardening we saw was largely based around courtyards, densely furnished with container grown plants and the retics were dominant. Ordinary folk walking down the street carrying a plant home were carrying retics in bloom. We saw extensive bonsai being carried out on big old reticulatas that have been dug up and brought in to remodel in a new way.

Zhangjia Garden – a modern recreation of traditional vernacular architecture with extensive displays of camellias (10 000, apparently), almost all grown in containers in the five internal courtyards. The majority are reticulatas, as can be seen in this temporary display in a stone trough.

Zhangjia Garden – a modern recreation of traditional vernacular architecture with extensive displays of camellias (10 000, apparently), almost all grown in containers in the five internal courtyards. The majority are reticulatas, as can be seen in this temporary display in a stone trough.

There is not a big range of different named cultivars. Mark, who finds interest in variety and difference, found the dominance of maybe six to ten varieties began to pall a little. Some are the same as selections seen around New Zealand, although they have been renamed by Western gardeners. There do not appear to be dramatic new breakthroughs in colour, flower form or growth habit in this branch of the camellia family.  They just are. And they are celebrated for what they are and given pride of place in the local culture.

The reticulata camellias in our garden are far more recent with most dating back a mere 50 years or so. In that time they have made small, open trees, maybe 4 metres high. Every year they flower in abundance with blooms that can be up to the size of a bread and butter plate. I mentioned the curse of petal blight in my June column and it is true that reticulatas also suffer from this unpleasant affliction. However, the sheer weight of the large blooms means that most will fall cleanly, rather than hanging about attached to the plant as the japonica camellias tend to.

Reticulata camellias are used extensively in public plantings in the Yunnan, such as this one at a temple in Dali.

Reticulata camellias are used extensively in public plantings in the Yunnan, such as this one at a temple in Dali.

Reticulatas used to be part of the usual camellia offering in this country. Sasanquas for hedging and autumn colour, japonicas and hybrids for mass blooming from mid winter to spring and reticulatas for their big show-off blooms. Sadly, no more and that is a reflection of the downward pressure on plant pricing and the move to plants that can be more easily produced in larger numbers. The issue is that very few reticulatas grow on their own roots so they are not able to be grown from cutting.  They need to be grafted onto rootstock and they are not easy to graft successfully. The prized variegations that can give bi-coloured blooms and, at times, foliage are indicative of virus in the plants and that virus weakens plant growth and makes them harder to graft.

If you see any reticulatas offered for sale, buy one or more on the spot if you want them. You can always hold them in a container until you have their garden position prepared. You may not see them again if you wait until you are ready. The only alternative is to go back to the ways of an earlier generation and learn how to do your own grafting.


Yours truly in the Kunming Botanic Gardens (photo: Tony Barnes)

Yours truly in the Kunming Botanic Gardens (photo: Tony Barnes)

First published in the August issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Baotai (24)

The Final Postcards of China – a land of contrast

I guess every country is a land of contrast but it seemed even more so in China. Maybe the larger the country and the more diverse its history, the greater the contrasts?

Take these two – the man in a working village (as opposed to the tourist village experience), was making traditional brooms. Mark looked at the photo and commented that they may very well be one of the most efficient brooms around and we should maybe have brought one or two home with us. I am sure he was referring to bringing home brooms and not the very modern young woman with the selfie stick who was completely absorbed in her own imagery.

The hotel display of mandarins and bedding plants (there appeared to be an unwritten understanding that helping oneself to a mandarin in passing would be Very Poor Form) was notable for its unabashed vulgarity. We anticipated a display of great exuberance at the National Orchid Exhibition in Dali but instead it was marked by the most exquisite refinement and restraint. There were plenty of colourful cymbidiums in bloom at the time but clearly this orchid show was not the place for them.

The contemporary sculpture was in the Xishuangbanna botanic gardens – a worthy commemoration of recent history, styled on heroic lines?  The wall painting is typical of the domestic decoration seen in Bai Villages around Dali and probably dates back a long time.

I loved the wall painting, both external and internal, on the Bai houses. So evocative of classical Chinese art. I photographed this one inside a private house that welcomed us in Longxiadeng Village. The contrast to the modern hotel in Jinghong could not be more extreme. This was only a four star hotel, for goodness sake, though considerably better appointed than the modest hostelries Mark and I usually choose when travelling on our own.

China is renowned for the amount of litter and rubbish but the urban areas seem to be heavily endowed with street cleaners doing it the old fashioned way – and very effectively too. The city areas we frequented were cleaner than New Zealand cities. Sure, there was plenty of litter in the countryside but as we regularly pick up litter from our own roadsides, we are not at all convinced that New Zealanders are any better with rubbish – there are just fewer of us to litter. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the street cleaner with the ultra modern architecture of Foshan, a city just outside Guangzhou. We were told Foshan had been almost entirely rebuilt in very recent times and it was hard to spot anything that may have existed prior to the recent construction and development frenzy.

The three pagodas in Dali are old, very old. The front one dates back to the ninth century, the other two are newer by 100 years. When you come from the so-called New World, it is hard to comprehend the age and the respect conferred on these religious icons down the centuries.

The new buildings are by the Mekong River in Jinghong City – another symbol of modern Chinese affluence and development. The slowdown in the Chinese economy that is having a major effect on other economies around the world was evident. We saw many major new projects where work appeared to have halted in mid flight.

On the left we have a Dai village where it appeared that life was continuing in a pretty traditional manner. This was an unscheduled stop at a village off the tourist trail and was all the more interesting for that. Our translator told us that this was an official census being taken of all the residents. On the right is Bai hospitality in Longxiadeng Village which has tapped into the huge tourist market in the Dali area. It was a very polished operation at the most local level – full of colour, courtesy and friendliness but nowhere near as personal. They are clearly set up to deal with large numbers of visitors and to ensure that a quality experience is provided.

What can I say about the left image? That must be Confucius in the background. The scene is at the Confucian Temple in the very heart of Dali, where the National Camellia Show was staged. There was a magnificent display of bonsais, including some astoundingly old camellia plants being reinvented as bonsai specimens. To be honest, I am not at all sure what the lady in purple was there for – simply temporary decoration, I guess. The golden spades were lined up for an official camellia planting ceremony in Yu Er Park. Mark spends some time linseed oiling tool handles at home and at times he crafts new handles from scratch so the timber handles caught his eye. Closer inspection revealed that they are coated in woodgrain stickon plastic similar to kitchen drawer lining. It was all about the look for this ceremony.

On the Baotai Mount in Yongping at the forest administration station, the facilities were geared to the local market and a pretty astounding number of people turned out to witness the ceremonies on the day we were welcomed there to unveil a stone monument, enjoy lunch and walk amongst the wild reticulata camellia forest. There were times I felt that we were the exhibit, as much as the camellias, but always we were treated with great courtesy and kindness.

On the right is one view of the magnificent new glasshouse at Kunming. It has not yet been fully completed and opened but it is pretty amazing. It appeared they were giving the new glasshouse at Wisley in the UK a run for their money in the Grand Glasshouse Stakes. We were surprised how cold Kunming was, having understood it to have a similar climate to ours at home. Certainly the spring had been unusually cold, but it was clear that they have much colder winters than we have, though dry. Our winters are neither particularly cold nor at all dry but we grow many plants from this area of China.

The old and the new in Xizhou Old Town, snapped in a moment of time (which is why it is a little fuzzy). The gentleman on the right appeared to be at home there – not a visitor – though he greeted us in English as he strode purposely on. He was one of the very few Western faces we saw not attached to our group. Visiting the areas we went to was a total immersion experience.

The fence on the right had me briefly fooled. From a distance, I thought it was a beautiful example of an old technique using tree branches. No. It is actually a fine example of what you can do with concrete. The shade of green new paint is a bit of a giveaway but I imagine it may age quite gracefully.


Postcards of China 3: Food!

Zoucheng Village - the Bai people's "Eight Bowls of Dishes"

Zoucheng Village – the Bai people’s “Eight Bowls of Dishes”

An army may march on its stomach. Tour groups do not march but food becomes extremely important. I was looking forward to the food in China and some of it did not disappoint.

An uninspired photo but my only one of the vege fields at Longxiadeng Village

An uninspired photo but my only one of the vege fields at Longxiadeng Village

We saw huge amounts of productive land growing seasonal crops – mostly what we call Asian greens in early spring.  I returned home with an almost total lack of photographs of these but that is because we saw them from moving coaches. Around Dali, the plantings were on some of the best land and they remain in small plots. We were told that each individual was entitled to an area of 20 metres by 10 metres and the plots appeared to be a patchwork of those dimensions, worked largely by hand. We did not see mass production or amalgamation of plots, except at one Bai village.

On the long drive to Baotai Mountain, the steep hillsides were terraced and still being worked intensively for food production. It looked like an old painting but alas, the windows of the small coach were so dirty and we were pressing on at speed to keep up with the entourage making photography impossible.

Mark, feeling his own ageing body, took special note of the posture and techniques of the locals working their plots, hoping that he could learn from age-old techniques passed down countless generations of peasant farmers. He was disappointed to see them using their backs as cranes and making all the mistakes that have led to his dodgy back.

Newly-made American friends on the tour commented that they walked back to the hotel in Dali by a back route and passed an area of vegetable growing where, somewhat to their surprise, they were still using night soil as fertiliser. The stench, they said, was indescribable.

Crops growing on a very domestic scale on what appeared to be public land alongside the Mekong River

Crops growing on a very domestic scale on what appeared to be public land alongside the Mekong River

Down in Jinghong, Mark and I strolled along the Mekong River and were charmed to see that even public spaces like this are utilised by locals to grow produce, albeit in less than ideal conditions. It takes a lot of produce, of course, to feed a population the size of China’s.

We will draw a veil of silence over the hotel food that was served during the Camellia Congress itself. I have never been a fan of hotel food anywhere in the world, and catering for very large groups is always challenging. The most interesting new taste we experienced there were the scales of Lilium brownii which appeared on the salad bar – slightly sweet and crisp and altogether delicious. It would be worth growing as an addition to the diet.

More Thai-influenced food down near the southern border in Jinghong - one of the most delicious meals we were served

Thai-influenced food down near the southern border in Jinghong – one of the most delicious meals we were served

Allegedly cured goose but it might equally have been cured beef except that we were rarely served beef . With orchid.

Allegedly cured goose but it might equally have been cured beef except that we were rarely served beef . With orchid.

It was when we were out and about that the food  was a great deal more interesting – usually served at tables of 8 to 10. I like shared meals that are typical throughout much of Asia because it gives the opportunity to try many different dishes and avoids that typically Western envy where the person sitting opposite you always seems to have ordered something that looks more appealing than the dish you ordered. The sheer volume of food was daunting at times, especially when it appeared at lunch and at dinner and I was not alone in wondering what happened to the leftovers. However, in a country where many of the older people will still remember famine, I am sure it wasn’t wasted. I was surprised at the high protein content, especially in relation to the vegetable dishes, though that may have been a reflection of our honoured status. A meal usually involved chicken, duck, pork, somewhat indeterminate cured meats, fish and tofu though the pickings would have been lean for strict vegetarians (especially as the tofu was often part of the fish dish), let alone vegans, though paleos may have been happy.

As a New Zealander, the near total absence of any dairy products was interesting. Even the milk offered with tea or coffee was soy milk as often as UHT from a cow. I am not sure how easy it will be for NZ’s dairy industry to make huge inroads into the Chinese market beyond infant formula when it will involve changing the age-old dietary habits of a nation.

I think it may have been the lack of dairy that had a friend who was on the tour craving what he called “western food”. He later confided that when he took a day off to spend on his own, he found a cheesecake in a shop window and despite an exorbitant price (nearing $NZ 70), he fell upon it and consumed the lot.

Golden camellia tea

Golden camellia tea

I miss my cup of good, strong, fresh coffee in mid-morning more than dairy and didn’t mind how much the coffee cost on the odd occasions when I found it – generally about $NZ 6.50 which was expensive for China. Tea, often green, was routinely served as part of the generous hospitality we were offered on many occasions. The golden camellia tea was a beautiful addition to the tea range.

elephant park (1)Finally a few snippets: If there is one thing I absolutely loathe on purchased fruit, it is the sticky little labels which do not even break down in the compost. I often peel them off in the shop and leave them behind. These apples solved the problems of labels but we have no idea how imprinting the branding on the skins is achieved.

IMG_7176IMG_7178I do not know if children’s Saturday sports matches continue to serve up segments of orange as half time refreshments (this may be a tradition that has died out at Saturday netball, rugby and hockey), but if they do, I feel that we could practice more class in the presentation….

IMG_7647Similarly, the displays of fresh produce in New Zealand can leave a lot to be desired when compared to the care taken with the street stalls that lined a road near Dali.

Kunming (3)Buddha fruit! Not carved. Grown in plastic moulds, the ever-useful internet tells me. There is a labour intensive way of growing a novelty crop. These may be pears. If your curiosity is whetted, there are many images on line  including Chairman Mao shaped fruit. Only in China?

Chinese portaloo

Chinese portaloo

Finally, what goes in must come out etc. Not only does food take on new meaning when travelling in a large group. So do loos. This was the immaculately clean Chinese version of the squat portaloo which amused me at the time. While the hotels we stayed at all had Western-styled toilets, the same was not the case when out and about. I did hear a few rueful comments from some of the older women who struggled with their thigh muscles and flexibility in this situation.

A trip to Baotai Mount

Baotai (16)
We returned from China last week, but alas brought with us a bad dose of Chinese flu which has kept us laid low ever since. Very low, in fact, but we are inching our way back to the Land of the Living.

Baotai (14)The International Camellia Congress in China was certainly an extraordinary experience.

We travelled around in matched purple coaches – seven or eight of them in total – headed by a police car, with another police vehicle and ambulance bringing up the rear. And as we made sedate progress (often travelling at about 40k/hour) with police on hand at every intersection to stop traffic that we might have unimpeded progress, all I could think was that we resembled the stately galleon from the old Joyce Grenfell song (“Stately as a galleon, I sail across the floor…”). Either that, or a ponderous, purple mechanical dragon.
Baotai (4)
On the day we headed off to Baotai Mount, in Yongping County, we transferred to small coaches for the mountain roads – a fleet of somewhere near 20 of them sailing through the countryside under police escort and all with hazard lights flashing. You know you are part of something unusual when villagers come out in numbers to line the roads to see what is happening!

Baotai (3)The day promised a four hour journey to Baotai Mount, the unveiling of The Stone Monument, tour of primitive camellia forests, mountain azalea, red lotus flowers and more in the natural landscape. The unveiling happened at lightning quick speed as most of us strolled up to the vibrant welcome. With a huge turnout of locals, it began to dawn on some of us that maybe WE were the exhibits, the sight to see on this occasion. China is a country driven by huge domestic tourism where foreigners still have novelty value.
Baotai (43)
Do not smile at the sight of the medical support team. While it is true that such events as the International Camellia Congress attract an older demographic who may well be prone to the occasional heart attack, there were also altitude issues on Baotai Mount. There seemed to be some debate as to whether we were at 4000 or 6000 metres, but given that NZ’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, is less than 4000 metres, we were a fair way up and some folk were certainly suffering, needing oxygen.

Baotai (34)Baotai (36)After lunch, we wandered in the woods of ancient reticulata camellias – primarily Lindl. Most of the wander was on a four metre wide paved walkway, but it is different in a country with a massive population. There wouldn’t be much nature reserve left if thousands, hundreds of thousands or more feet were able to trample root systems in the wild.

Baotai (19)
There was a Magnolia campbellii in full bloom at the visitor’s centre which was such a delight that we will only whisper that it wasn’t a particularly good form of that species.

Baotai (47)We never did see mountain azalea and red lotus flowers though Mark was pleased to see a little Daphne bholua growing in the wild. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and embrace the unexpected. Botanical variety may have bypassed us on this occasion, but I will never forget the unexpected sight of four soldiers (Red Army?) marching through the ancient camellia woods on Baotai Mount. You don’t see that sort of thing back home in Tikorangi.
Baotai (49)
And then we drove the four hours back to Dali for dinner.