National Geographic : 1947 Jul
Chinese Mountainsides Yield Treasures SOME years ago in tracing the origins of certain economic and medicinal plants I had translated parts of an ancient volume written by Sheng-Nung, an estimable Chinese gentleman who lived somewhat over 4,600 years ago. What struck me so forcibly was not that the Chinese were cultivating plants at so early a date, for theirs is an ancient civili zation, but that already they had selected and named so many varieties. This could mean only that they had been cultivating these plants for many centuries before the time of Sheng-Nung. We know little of the early development of ornamental gardening in China, but when Marco Polo, the Venetian, journeyed to China between A. D. 1272 and 1293 and visited the court of Kublai Khan at Xanadu he was amazed at the splendor of the gardens and the wealth of plant material they contained. Dur ing previous centuries many of these plants had wandered down the old trade routes to Persia, from whence they had been introduced to Europe. Even so, on his return the people of Marco Polo's day refused to believe his account of what he had seen in Chinese gardens. No civilization of any stature has yet arisen which has not developed ornamental gardens of some sort. The ancient Chinese gardeners were especially fortunate, for perhaps nowhere in the Temperate Zones is a region more rich in potential ornamental materials. Also, China is large and has a varied terrain with different soil types and contrasting climates, each with its own set of species. And that is all in our favor, for this makes it possible for us to choose from among the many excellent Chinese species those which will fit almost every type of climate and soil we have. REGAL LILY (Lilium regale): Let us first "consider the lilies of the field; they toil not .." But how we ourselves toil bringing them into perfection in gardens! With its nearly 100 wild species there is scarcely a region in the Northern Hemisphere where the genus Lilium is not present. So striking is this plant that everywhere it grew wild it was brought into gardens. In choosing a lily to represent China, one might easily have taken the old Tiger Lily (L. tigrinum), which, with its tawny-red flowers splotched with purple black, is perhaps the most widely grown species in the genus. Or we might have chosen-but why go down through the list of Chinese species? Let us just take the Regal Lily, thought by many growers to be the Queen of the genus. But have you ever seen Humboldt's Lily growing wild in the Sierra Nevada north of Yosemite, or the towering Lilium superbum I've seen it with as many as 40 flowers on a single plant-in its natural setting in the spruce-rimmed glades of our southern Appa lachians? But the Sierras and the Great Smokies are not in China. ABELTA (Abelia grandiflora): In selecting a shrubby member of the Honeysuckle Fam ily from China we might have chosen any one of several excellent flowering Honeysuckles. Also, there is the increasingly popular Vibur num Carlesii,with its trusses of fragrant white bloom; but actually it is Korean. And what about the showy "Weigelas"? Botanically, they are Diervillas, and D. florida from North China has brought real hardiness and a deep rose color to our modern garden hybrids. But the "Weigelas" bloom early and their beauty fades all too soon. Lastly we come to the Abe lias. Here none of the wild species has been chosen for our painting; instead we have a garden hybrid, Abelia grandiflora,which com bines the most desirable qualities of its several parents. Not too choosy about soils, partly evergreen, usually compact and graceful, and carrying a nearly constant display of flowers from June until heavy frost, often into No vember, Abelia grandiflora certainly is a de sirable flowering shrub. It is the work-horse of the shrubby border and more than carries its load during the late summer vegetative doldrums when so many shrubs seem merely to be loafing. The genus was named in honor of Clarke Abel (1780-1826), physician and author, who lived in China. PEONY (Patonia, various species): The Chi nese have been cultivating the Peony for some thousands of years and long ago selected many varieties. It was one of their favorite flowers, and writings of over 800 years ago record large collections, one Peony enthusiast having 60,000 plants in his garden. Originally with 5 or perhaps 10 petals, the double-flowered forms have been derived by the progressive sterilization of the stamens, accompanied by the enlargement of the filaments into colored petal-like structures. Two main types are grown, the common herbaceous peonies and the increasingly popular "tree" peonies, the latter actually shrubby plants seldom over four or five feet tall. Recent advances in the science of plant breeding have enabled us to make hybrid combinations never produced before, and so we now can look forward to a whole new series of forms in this genus.