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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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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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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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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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Some of the spectacular scenery that Sandy Knapp has photographed on her fieldtrip to China

 

Sandy Knapp continues to search for aubergines (Solanum melongena) and other interesting Solanum species in China, and I've been reading her blog with interest.

 

Aubergine varieties seem to have evaded discovery so far - a farmer in one of the locations she visited said his crop had failed due to the cold weather, but there are apparently lots of other interesting crops and plant life to be seen, and in some cases eaten.

 

On Monday Sandy was served the leaves of the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, which is a common weed in Britain and thought to be poisonous! She says it was obviously not very, at least in China. A braver approach than I'd have, and I was relieved to read from her blog posts later in the week that she didn't seem to be any the worse for it.

 

Sandy's not just exploring fields, brush and spectacular limestone mountains: she found another species, Solanum torvum, growing in a rubbish dump in the north of China. Who said fieldwork isn't glamorous!

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It's worth it though. Yesterday she wrote that they'd found their first exciting Solanum species - Solanum violaceum (shown right). Although it's a common species, she wants to compare it carefully throughout its range to other species that may or may not be the same.

 

Not all of her observations have been positive. She has seen first-hand evidence of habitat destruction in the beautiful and biologically interesting limestone hills near Gansu. She says mining for stone and gravel will have destroyed many of them by next year, along with the native flora that grows there.

 

I look forward to finding out more about Sandy's travels, including whether she finds the elusive aubergine and whether she's served up any other risky dishes.

 

Read Sandy's blog, Investigating aubergines in China.

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The cultivation of aubergines has been recorded in Chinese literature as far back as 96 BC

 

Sandy Knapp, one of our Museum botanists, is travelling to China in February. She’ll be studying the origins and domestication of aubergines with a colleague from the Institute of Botany in Beijing.

 

Aubergines are native to southeast Asia, but were brought to Europe sometime in the 1500s, eventually becoming popular and being exported around the world. You can find out more about this regularly used cooking ingredient on Sandy’s recent Solanum melongena (aubergine) Species of the Day page.

 

Sandy will be keeping us up to date with her trip preparations, progress and experiences on her new blog Investigating aubergines in China, so check it out to stay posted.

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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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