At WildChina Education, many of our experiential learning programs revolve around nature – whether that is environmental service, wilderness survival, kayaking down rivers, or hikes and bike rides through beautiful landscapes. However, we don’t just deliver learning to students; we consider ourselves lifelong learners as well.
Our team members come with talents and achievements across many fields. Today, we take a look into the life of one of our program veterans, Yunya Wang.
Yunya, as well as being the creator of many camping and nature programs for students, is also an incredible independent expert on China’s flora. Her love for botany began one sunny afternoon during a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class. Sitting outside in the sunshine, she was suddenly hit by something from behind. It turned out to be a tiny dried fruit, which she later learned was from Platycladus orientalis (a kind of Cypress). The fruit’s symmetry mesmerized Yunya, making her realize nature was an amazing designer. Eager to learn more, she began her life-long pursuit to learn and share all she could about plants throughout China and the world.
Yunya has documented some of her most exciting discoveries and explorations across China to discover beautiful, exotic, and exceedingly rare plants. Read on to find an excerpt from her field research trip to Gansu.
If you are interested in teaching your students more about China’s immense variety of flora (and fauna), or are curious about the subject yourself – shoot Yunya an email.
Yunya Wang majored in Forestry at the Shanxi Agriculture University and has been conducting independent botanic research in 20 provinces since 2012. Her photo records document over 2,000 species of local and endemic plant species all over China. The below excerpts detail some of her journal entries from her adventures.
A Village Changed by Birds
Sometimes when I travel to a place, people ask me what I am there for. But my answer always seems to make them more confused: “For plants” I say. Their next question is then often: “Are you looking for something people could eat?” or “Is it for a medicine?”
“Er, neither,” I smile.
It is still very normal to think that plants should only be useful to humans. Economic plants – such as corn, apricots, sugarcane, coconut trees – are taking over lands. Farmers live on these plants, but more and more native ones disappear because they’re losing their natural environment. Is there a balance between protecting the environment and earning the money?
I think I found one answer to this question after I visited a place called Nonggang Village. Nonggang is a remote village near the border between China and Vietnam where villagers live on bird-watching tourism. l went there last April, led by a local bird guide, and found plants that only grow in this region.
On the morning of my first travel day, I received a message from the local bird guide Peng. “It’s a little cold. Please bring a jacket with you,” he wrote. So I took a fleece with me. After four hours on a bus, I was in his car, traveling to his village. When I called him the other day and told him I was here for plants, especially ferns, he was neither surprised nor asked me the usual questions. Instead, he paused for a second and then said “Ferns. They seem to grow in humid places. Let me think about where to take you to.” In fact, it was by his own initiative that we stopped at our first spot. Pointing to a rock, he asked me what kind of fern it was. I told him it was Pyrrosia.
The next day, he took me to see the plant that was named after his village. We drove through the beautiful karst landscape and stopped at a field. After a short hike, he showed me Hemiboea longgangensis. Its blooming season was in fall but it still had fruits on it. Its leaves were pubescent.
Then we went to another place that was closer to the Nonggang Nature reserve, where we saw many interesting plants, such as Camellia impressinervis and Lygodium circinnatum. The former is ranked in the IUCN red list of plants – meaning it’s a threatened species – and the latter is endemic to the region. Aristolochia versicolor is a plant that there might be less than ten pictures of online.
But the highlight for the day came as we hiked along a reservoir until there was no clear path and found Begonia ningmingensis in bloom, another plant that was named after a county near where we were. I also found Chirita longgangensis – another plant named after the village – on a rock.
After a long day of hiking, Peng said he was tired. I imagine that for bird watchers, they would stay in one good place and wait for the birds to come. But for me, we had to walk to see the species I sought. Peng said it was worth it though, as I told him that I took photo records of about 70 species, which was a 40% increase in comparison with my average daily number.
On the second day of the research, in the morning I was lucky enough to find an early bloom of Impatiens morsei. A week later, Peng told me the whole area became a sea of flowers.
In the afternoon, he took me to another hill thinking that there might be something more there. On the way, he explained to me that big roads were not allowed here because we were near the nature reserve. The entrance to the reserve was hidden behind a sugarcane farm. At first, we were on the proper path, then he asked me whether I wanted to go into the valley or stay on the path. Thinking the valley might be less disturbed by other people, we went straight down to the valley.
We explored for quite a long time when he suddenly looked up and said “this may be Parashorea Chinensis“, a protected tree species. For the first time, he hesitated, as if wanting to take the branch home to grow. However, when I repeated that he just introduced to me was a primary protected plant, he quickly agreed to leave it alone. We also saw Saraca dives in bloom, which I have only seen in the city before. Before we left the valley, Peng told me: “When I was 10 years old, an adult took me here. I was fearless at that time and I went back alone. The path we are on is actually an animal path. We use it to feed the cows here, but now it is no longer permitted because we are near the nature reserve. Instead, I use it to see something special from time to time.”
Sustainable Tourism and Botany
Climate change, global warming, and the change of land use by humans mean that there are many places in the world where the natural habitat of some plants are threatened. When visiting places with vulnerable species, or when venturing out into nature, it’s important to keep their natural environment in mind and conserve nature for the future. If you are interested in botany but want to invest in a sustainable future, here are a few suggestions of what you can do to help the world.
1. Online planting
There is an app called Alipay in China that it has a small function called Ant Forest. By walking and doing other environmentally friendly things, it will calculate the reduction of your carbon emissions. If you gather enough, a real tree will be planted in places where they are needed, including the places in Minqing mentioned above. Personally, I have planted 4 trees and I am now in a group that when we have collectively gathered enough carbon reductions, we will plant a bigger tree.
Alipay’s Ant Forest
2. Nature collection
Many people like fresh flowers, however, dried flowers also come in a variety of beautiful shapes and colors. Last spring, I brought bunches of different flowers and left them to dry naturally. I found out some common cut flowers that are easily dried, such as peony, delphinium, tulip, rose, thistle, and more. Fruits can also be a good nature collection, such as pine cones: If you gather enough, you can put them in a basket or a clear container in your home and create your own sustainable nature art.
3. Water Planting
What do you do when you leave potatoes for too long and they begin to sprout? Instead of throwing them away, I recommend water planting the potato. Because it is a tuberous plant, it can technically be planted with just water. Find a glass jar, fill it with water, and add your sprouting potato. The glass will be perfect to observe how the roots grow every day. During the first three days, let the tuber dip a bit into the water. When the roots begin to grow enough fibril, then let the tuber out of the water so it does not sink. For me, it took about two months to bloom. Other tuberous plants, such as sweet potato and onion, are also recommended, but they seem not to bloom.
Water planting a potato – in bloom
4. Learn plants by sketching
This is what I do when I want to observe a plant closely. I will choose a picture and simply sketch it little-by-little with ink and colored pencils. Often, I find out things about the plant I didn’t know before.
Beginnings of a plant sketch
5. Flora of China
If you want to learn more about the flora of China, there is a fantastic book written in English. After a great deal of effort, across several generations, the Flora of China (English edition) is now accessible to anyone who is interested in the plants of China. Learn more here.
Plants are actually much more interesting than you think, I promise. I hope more and more people would like the beauty of plants simply for what they are.
As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the people of China – the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you. These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing these real people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. This is #OurChina.