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Investigating aubergines in China

10 Posts tagged with the biodiversity tag
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Last day in the tropics!

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 8, 2010

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Early in the morning I found the fishing boats came in close to shore and tourists from the high rise hotels flocked to buy fish – about an hour later they chugged off to the next door bay, presumably to do the same thing.

 

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Yalong Bay

 

After our exciting success yesterday with Solanum nienkui, Mr. Huang decided we needed to see the tropical rainforest resort where he had provided botanical help, labelling trees and providing environmental impact support. It is great to see trees in a place like this labelled with names (scientific and Chinese), distribution and uses – really possible to learn something.

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Tree label

 

It was truly a wonder and could only be in China – a luxury hotel with cabins (“camping”!!) set in lovely forest, all accessible and ready to host hundreds of guests. One of the (many) swimming pools just dropped off into nowhere – stunning. I did find a solanum - Solanum procumbens, a spiny vine I had only seen once before, so I was pleased!

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We then returned to Sanya to stock up on fruit from the local open air fruit market before our return to Beijing in the evening – what a place! Mangoes from tiny to huge, jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus, related to the breadfruit of Captain Bligh fame) [jackfruit] – and bedlam from bargaining, card playing and general motorcycle plus human traffic.

 

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Fruit seller

 

Many of the vendors were local people from mountain villages – their lips and teeth were stained red from chewing what is often called “betel nut”. The nut is the area but, from the palm Areca catechu, and it is sold together with betel leaves – the leaves of the black pepper (Piper nigrum). The nuts are a mild stimulant with vasoconstricting properties, causing a hot sensation and heightened alertness. The red staining is from the coloured seed inside the palm fruit. The nut is important (in conjunction with the pepper leaves) in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine and is widely used in Southeast Asia.

 

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Betel nuts

 

At 8pm we took off for Beijing, laden with fruits, and arrived nearly 5 hours later – China is a huge country, and we even flew the short axis! The shock was considerable, coming to 0 degrees centigrade from 39 a few hours before – snow on the ground and ponds frozen over. Thank goodness the herbarium is heated!

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Dry forest

 

Today was devoted to searching for Solanum nienkui, first described from Hainan and until recently thought to be endemic there (now it is known from Vietnam as well). It is known from very few specimens, all of which look very ratty. We had no idea what sort of habitat to look for it in, or what it looked like, so thankfully Mr. Huang was along to help – he had seen it before! After a frustrating morning in the heat and sun (35 degrees and rising to 39 eventually!), we headed off to JianFeng on the west coast.

 

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Examining Solanum nienkui

 

There we found Solanum nienkui in the very dry forest at the back of the Hainan University research station! Very exciting – and we now know why the specimens look the way they do – it is a pretty unprepossessing plant – sticks with a few leaves and flowers. The flowers have unequal anthers, something not mentioned in any of the descriptions of the species – I will have to check this carefully against the few specimens I have back at the Museum.

 

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Solanum nienkui

 


As a reward to ourselves, we stopped at the beach at the edge of Sanya on the way back – partly to go to the beach, but also to see the coastal vegetation restoration. There were several species of spiny shrubs, a screwpine (Pandanus) and Spinifex littoreus, an extraordinary grass whose female inflorescences for great tumbling balls that are blown about in the wind. We had races with these on the sand – great fun!

 

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Sanya beach  (click to enlarge images)                      Spinifex

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A find in a pigsty

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 5, 2010

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Wuzhishan (click to enlarge images)                                         Steep trail with Jiang

 

Today we split up – Jiang and I went to climb Wuzhishan (at 1871 m, the tallest point on Hainan Island) and JinXiu and Gao went to villages to look at plants around there. Wuzhishan is called “Five Finger Mountain” for the five peaks; the trail up to the top begins at about 800 m elevation and basically goes straight up the ridge. To climb you have to pull yourself up by trees and roots – near the top there is a series of rickety ladders. The plants were beautiful – this Rhododendron had flowers about 3 cm across. We didn’t quite make it – we had to be back down by 1 pm to go on, so had to turn back. I could see, however, that the last 200 m climb was straight up and very precarious!

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Rhododendron                                                                  The pigsty

We then went on to a small village in the next mountain range – the centre of Hainan is inhabited by people of the Li ethnic group. There we were excited to find a purple semi-wild aubergine or aubergine relative! The villagers had brought it with them from their previous village, but the younger people said they were not interested in it – it was for old people only. It was growing in a pigsty, alongside the normal yellow-fruited sorts of plants we had been collecting all along the way. It will be fascinating to see where this purple-fruited plant fits genetically.

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Purple aubergine

After collecting until neraly dark, we sped on to Sanya, the southernmost city in China. It is a real tourist haven - for Chinese tourists! Lots of people come here in the winter as it is nice and warm (34 degrees C at 7 pm after dark). We were taken to a special seafood place by Mr. Huang from the Forestry Bureau who will collect with us tomorrow - you got to choose your dinner from tanks! The variety was astounding.

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Dinner from a tank

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Hainan Island

Posted by Sandy Knapp Mar 4, 2010

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Rice paddies

 

Left Haikou through the most amazing traffic jam of people going back to school, work, you name it. After a few more roadside solanum collections, we entered the central part of the island. It is essentially a huge garden – mostly cultivated in neat squares. Here the rice has been planted in paddies – it is the most luminescent green, and every field has a person in it weeding, planting or just generally tending to things.

 

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Horsemen

 

In the little roadside face where we ate lunch a poster of Mao, Zhou and Liu and their Marshals was on the wall – it reminded me of the horsemen of the apocalypse! On the facing wall was one of the generals similarly astride horse with flowing manes all rushing headlong to somewhere.

 

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Limushan

 

Our destination for today was Limushan Nature Reserve in the mountainous part of Hainan; here the peaks are up to 1400 metres above sea level and although they look completely clothed with forest, they were heavily logged all the way to the tops in the early part of the 20th century. Now, however, the area is a provincial reserve and the loggers have new jobs as park rangers. The forest is interesting, with an understory of bamboo and rattans and some very big trees of Podocarpus (a timber tree) and others. Given time, it will probably recover, especially if the protection continues. Rubber is planted right up to the edge of the Reserve, and Caribbean pines – so the edge is at risk.

 

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Firecracker tree

 

The forest was incredibly dry – it is dry season and it has been a very dry year, so it was a bit disappointing on the solanum front, but we did see some rather lovely other plants, like the firecracker tree – a tree first described from Hainan (Rademachera hainanensis) in the Bignoniaceae, or catalpa family).

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Fireworks

 

Well, the end of the Chinese Spring Festival (New Year holiday) sure puts Guy Fawkes night to shame! In the week I have been here firecrackers have been everywhere, but this evening the really big guns came out. For an full hour and a half (and maybe a bit longer) spectacular fireworks went off in a park by the Hainan Government buildings near Century Bridge - it is obvious these are a Chinese invention. Several hours later I still hear booms and bangs from all directions - it will go on all night. This is really ending things with a bang!

 

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Hainan University


The solanums of Hainan are still awaiting us; we ended up staying in Haikou as the park we were going to was closed for the holiday. So we spent the day in the herbarium of Hainan University instead. The collection is tiny, eaten by insects and kept in a very poor condition, but what the botanists lack in facilities they make up in enthusiasm. We were treated very kindly by Professor Yang; it was a real pleasure to have the day in town - something I usually would never say! Tomorrow we head for the mountains in the centre of the island, one of the few places native vegetation remains.

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Liondancers

 

After a true Cantonese breakfast with dumplings and all sorts, we set off to the tip of mainland China to see what we could find. It was chaos going through town, everyone was out and about; it is nearly last day of Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the celebrations are reaching their peak in south China, where the holiday is taken very seriously! In the village of XiaoLiao we encountered lion dancers who went from house to house to the accompaniment of firecrackers and drums – in some places the firecrackers were so many you couldn’t see the dancers for the smoke!

 

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Aubergines, ready to go

 

This is a true mega-production zone – irrigated and full of vegetables – including aubergines! They were being harvested and readied for sending to the north. We spoke to one farmer in his field where he told us they were all planting the new variety Nong Feng #3, it gave two crops a year and after two years they took the plants out and began again.

 

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Aubergine field

 

We passed through areas of chilli peppers and onions as well, where the air changed scent depending on what crop was being harvested. Despite it being a festival the harvest was going on. We also collected much Solanum undatum, the putative wild progenitor of the aubergine, in several villages – the local people say it is a wild plant and is not now eaten, though it used to be and is still used as medicine.

 

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Salt pans (click images to enlarge)                                                      Fishing boats

 

We reached the southern-most tip of mainland China, after going through black plastic evaporating tanks for making salt. There we found fishermen mending their nets at low tide, waiting to go out again. They had a piece of red coral that had caught in their net (collecting it on purpose is not legal) – it was beautiful, you can see why it is endangered.

 

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Red coral (click image to enlarge)

 

Then off to catch the ferry to Hainan Island. Tiangang and JinXiu said this was truly travelling Chinese style, and they would never do it again – it was wild. The pushing and shoving was intense and the ferry was stuffed with people, cars and buses. We made it though, and the solanums of Hainan Island await!

 

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The Hainan ferry (click images to enlarge)                                            The ferry queue

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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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A trip of contrasts

Posted by Sandy Knapp Jan 25, 2010

In a rush on my way out the Museum door to a conference on biodiversity at UNESCO in Paris, I managed to sort out a ticket for China - I go on the 18th of February and will return on 8th of March.

 

Jin Xiu is organising internal travel, and it seems we will go to Guangxi province first, then on to Hainan Island, both these places are tropical and warm. But first, I go through Beijing, the opposite of tropical in February! It will be a trip of contrasts.

 

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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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