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Collecting at the roadside

 

Today proved that plant collecting is not all forests and mountains - as we left the limestone region aubergine relatives began to reappear (solanums do not like limestone soil in general). So we spent most of the day sitting in the middle of roads, near buffalo enclosures, collecting and measuring aubergine relatives. Jin Xiu is taking population samples in each village, so we collect and measure each plant we find.

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Bombax ceiba, the red silk cotton tree

 

Once onto the flat lands of south Guangxi we drove through kilometre after kilometre of sugar cane - all being harvested and the fields burned - the air was heavy with smoke. As in the mountains all the work was being done by hand, and all in searing 34 degree heat. The hero tree (Bombax ceiba, also known as the red silk cotton tree) is common in these regions - the flowers are the size of a fist and pollinated by birds.

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Solanum praetermissum

 

We crossed the Shiwen Dashan (million large mountains) Nature Reserve on our way to Dongxing on the coast where we found Solanum praetermissum - a relatively rare species endemic to SE Asia that grows on cliffs; I had collected its clsoe relative in Yunnan in 2007 - it was great to see this species really is quite different!

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Rhododendron in the Shiwen mountains

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View from Pao Tai (click to enlarge pictures)

 

More amazing karst formations all day long - such spectacular landscapes make up for no solanums! We climbed several mountains to see the truly endemic and interesting forest that grows only on these karst mountains - not easy, as there are often no trails! It is wonderful to be in forest that feels familiar (to a person more used to South America), but with camellias in the understory. Mr Lu, from the forest protection unit, showed us places to go - he also went with us to make sure we did not stray into any mined areas left over from the war in the 1980s. The border between Vietnam and China was heavily mined and this was part of the front line.

 

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Sugarcane, Yao village

 

In our last stop of the day, to climb Pao Tai mountain, we were greeted upon our return by the truly inebriated chief of the village (Yao people, a minority group), who was thrilled to have an English person (the niceties of my actually being American as well we decided to leave out!) in his village and made me photograph the mud walls of the houses to show the world - so here they are!

 

As in the rest of this area - farming is carried out on every available surface - all done by hand or with water buffalo. It is planting season so the fields are filled with people - mind-boggling.

 

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Manganese mine

 

As we approached the border with Vietnam we passed a truly gigantic open pit manganese mine - hopefully restoration ecology will take hold in China soon. The border in this region is a river - red flags with one large golden star and four smaller ones (China) on one side, red flags with a single golden star (Vietnam) on the other.

 

 

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China/Vietnam border

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From Nanning we went north (backwards!) to try to find a locality where an old collection of Solanum macaonense, an enigmatic aubergine relative, had been collected. We failed in that, but did find Solanum torvum (pea eggplant commonly used in Thai cooking) growing in the rubbish dump of Gansu – solanums often grow in the most unsalubrious places!

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On the rubbish heap  (click to enlarge images)           Fields, Naling

 

 

Near Gansu there was ample evidence of the threats to these beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills – mining for stone and gravel is all but destroying many of them, by next year these will be completely gone, along with the endemic flora that grows there.

 

We carried on, passing fields with many people working to prepare for planting, harvesting sugarcane and manioc. Manioc is grown as a starch crop here, where I know it better in South America it is a staple food crop. My companions were surprised at this and asked an elderly man if they ever ate it - he replied something like only if we have to! It is amazing that fields of such extent are all prepared, fertilized and planted by hand, and ploughed by water buffalo.

 

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Solanum violaceum                                                                      Collecting Solanum violaceum


We went to look at the base of some cliffs, found a cave tomb with the deceased in a jar so he/she could be moved if necessary and in the brush found our first exciting solanum – Solanum violaceum. This is a common species, but I am interested in comparing it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.

 

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Field in rocks                                                                                         Polytunnels


Turning south off the main road to head for the Jing Xi, a town near the Vietnamese border, we went through a region of extensive banana cultivation, where many of the crops were being grown as seedlings in polytunnels – the fields looked white striped. This is not only to increase the heat, but to save water – we saw a man with a funnel and a bucket watering each seedling in the tunnel by hand. There has been a severe drought in this region this year – it shows.

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Near Long Ho

 

We then crossed some spectacular limestone mountains, where the Long Ha Nature Reserve is said to be home to monkeys. In these mountains every square inch of cultivatable land is cultivated – between rocks and in spectacular terraces in all the valleys (like near Naling, where the rice paddies were being readied for planting and followed the contours of the land beautifully).

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Staying in the Nanning Public Security Bureau's Science and Technology Hotel and guess what - there is free Internet in the room! We drove from Guilin to Nanning today via Liuzhou, and big industrial (very polluted - you could cut the air with a knife) city. In Liuzhou we went to a protected area, which turned out to the a public park with limestone karst hills - full of people celebrating the New Year! It always amazes me how the concept of wilderness is so foreign in China; in this park, on the top of one of the hills is an endemic species of the Aster family (Asteraceae) found nowhere else. Nature does its best to co-exist alongside people here, and sometimes does quite well in places one might not expect. These public scenic parks are heavily visited, but respected and loved.

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Fireworks in a shop

 

From Liuzhou we drove through kilometre after kilometre of sugar cane fields, all being harvested - by hand. This part of China is a main sugar growing region; we crossed over the Tropic of Cancer, so are now officially in the tropics. Nanning is a very large, thoroughly modern and amazingly clean city - the cleanliness of its streets puts London to shame. Still New Year - the firecrackers go off all night and everyone is having a great time.

We ate the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum (a common British weed, thought to be poisonous, but obviously not very, at least in China), at supper tonight - still no aubergines, but I am hopeful for tomorrow!

GPS coordinates of Nanning: 22 deg 49.075 min N, 108 deg 20.330' E

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Liang Jiang River

 

We went to the famous Liang Jiang River – which is so clear you can see the bottom several metres down; this is because if flows out of limestone (a bit like chalk streams in England). The area is famous for the jagged karst peaks, and even though it was overcast and a bit hazy – they were truly spectacular! Our boatman put us down some 8 km too early (nice to know even natives can be cheated!), so we walked through tiny villages surrounded by neat tiny fields full of fruit trees and a huge number of vegetable crops. A kind of radish was being grown to refresh the soil; all the fields had tidy straight edges and were being intensively cultivated by hand. No aubergines – the farmer we asked told us it had been to cold this year for them and the crop had failed.

 

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Village on the road

 

After walking and taking a variety of buses, we ended up in the town of Yang Shuao, where we climbed to the top of one of the karst peaks called Bifeng. Every tiny piece of usable land is used to build on, farm on or otherwise be on – but the peaks themselves are too steep for farming, so are left alone. This was not always so though, during the Sino-Japanese war in the early 20th century villagers hid in caves in the mountains to escape the fighting, says Tiangang.

 

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View from the top

 

Tomorrow we head for the Vietnamese border, warmer climes and certainly more aubergines. Internet access may be a bit patchy – but I will try!


GPS coordinates for places:
Guangxi Botanical Institute - 25 degrees 04.705 min N, 110 degrees 18.057 min E
Villages with fields – 24 degrees 55.698 minutes N, 110 degrees 29.005 minutes E
Bifeng – 24 degrees 46.649 minutes N, 110 degrees 29.537 minutes E

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Arriving in China

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 20, 2010

Approximately twenty four  hours after I left London, I am at the first  destination in China! Tiangang and Jin Xiu met me in  the Beijing airport and we transfered to a (very)  late internal flight to Guilin in Guangxi Province. Everywhere is full of people, it  is the end of spring festival and Chinese New Year, a time when people go to see  their families and relatives in far-flung parts of China – everyone  is on the move and everywhere is brightly decorated in red and gold.

 

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Guangxi Botanical Garden

 

Guilin used to be  the capital of the province, but as it is in the NW corner, the provincial seat  was moved to Nanning, which occupies a more central  position. Flying into Guilin the most extraordinary landscape unrolled beneath  us – sharp, pointed bare rock mountains interspersed with paddy rice fields; all  very green, even though it is what feels incredibly cold (only about 12 degrees  C). It got dark shortly after we arrived, so we went to the Botanical Institute  where we have been given rooms within the grounds – tomorrow it is the herbarium  and a bit of planning.

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Aubergines await in China

Posted by Sandy Knapp Feb 18, 2010

Well, tomorrow is the big day for  going to China! If I can get through today  with Darwin’s  Birthday lectures and all the loose ends to tie up here at the NHM, it will be a  miracle.

 

Jin Xiu and Tiangang will meet me “outside” Beijing Terminal 3 – hmmmm  – I hope I find them! We then go straight to another part of the airport to fly  to Guangxi, bypassing completely freezing cold Beijing. Aubergines  await.

 

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources-rx/images/solanum-melongena-04_54095_1.jpg

Sandy Knapp

Sandy Knapp

Member since: Jan 21, 2010

I'm Sandy Knapp, a botanist here at the Museum. I'm travelling in China to study the origins and domestication of aubergines with my colleague Wang JinXiu from the Institute of Botany in Beijing. Let's see what happens.

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