beijing botanical garden october 2011

by Cheryl Petty Golden Statements vol.xxxiv No.6 Nov/Dec 2011

The first week of October is celebrated as a National Holiday in China to recognize the founding of  the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.  At the Beijing Botanical Garden (BBG), also known as Zhíwùyuán in the Western Hills 20 kilometers or twelve miles from downtown Beijing, it was a gorgeous early fall day.  The sky was deep blue, and the sun shone brightly in the crisp morning air.

The Garden was established in 1955 and covers a large area of 564,000 square meters or 1,850,393 square feet (350 square miles).  It is visited by about three million people each year.  There are numerous exhibition gardens for rose, peony, Chinese medicinal herb, water, vine, endangered plant and greenhouses for tropical and subtropical plants to name just a few.  It is sited on a Tang Dynasty palace ground, and there are numerous historical artifacts to be seen.  One of the most renowned is the country home of the author, Cao Xueqin, who wrote the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber.  Our destination was the Penjing Collection and nursery.

PENJING COLLECTION

Zhao Jianguo, Penjing curator, greeted us at the gate to the nursery in dark blue pin stripe trousers, chambray dress shirt and navy windbreaker.  Waiting for us in the office was Kuan Yin tea which Mr Zhao served in tiny glass cups.  He rubbed the lucky tea pet, a toad with a coin in its mouth and poured tea over it.

Constructed with support from the government, the Penjing Collection facilites were designed and built from 1993 to 1995. Overall, the young collection has about 350 trees in all stages of development.  Mr Zhao explained that there are three main types of Penjing in their collection, Stone and Tree Fushi Penjing, Stone and Water Shui Shi Penjing and Stone Guanshang Shi Penjing.

Zhao Jianguao and Cher
Zhao Jianguao and Cher

trousers, chambray dress shirt and navy windbreaker.  Waiting for us in the office was Kuan Yin tea which Mr Zhao served in tiny glass cups.  He rubbed the lucky tea pet, a toad with a coin in its mouth and poured tea over it.

Constructed with support from the government, the Penjing Collection facilites were designed and built from 1993 to 1995. Overall, the young collection has about 350 trees in all stages of development.  Mr Zhao explained that there are three main types of Penjing in their collection, Stone and Tree Fushi Penjing, Stone and Water Shui Shi Penjing and Stone Guanshang Shi Penjing.

Mr Zhao began his career at the BBG in 1983 when he transitioned from soldier to horticulture.  He was sent to Shanghai to study under teachers Shao Haizhong and Wang Yi Ding, both of whom are  now in their 70s.  Today he supervises a staff of thirteen, seven of whom are professional Penjing artists.

Zhao's biggest challenge is the climate.  In Beijing they only get five good months in the summer when the trees can make rapid growth.  In winter they can have a full month of temperatures 14 to 15 degrees farenheit or -9 to -10 degrees celsius.  The first week in October they had already begun to move some of the most tender trees inside a greenhouse, one of many prepared for the collection.  Over the next few weeks they will move ALL the trees inside and then out again in spring.  It is a gargantuan project to prepare for winter.

THE TREES

Three types of trees are seen, conifers, deciduous and evergreen.  Pine varieties that do well in Beijing are Song Shu and Baishu.  They cultivate 20 to 30 varieties of cypress.  The most popular are Jing Tiao, Teng Shui and Huang Lu.

Li Zhang, photographer and interpreter

Li Zhang, photographer and interpreter

While walking through the collection I saw Gingko biloba, bamboo, Wisteria, Chinese Elm Ulmus parvifolia, Japanese maple Acer palmatum, Acer discolor Chinese maple and Acer buergereanum trident maple.  Zhao explained they don't use the tree peony for Penjing because the root is too large.

Besides maples, the BBG specializes in flower and fruit trees, apple ping guo, pear li and crabapple hai tang. In the nursery were big trees laden with darling little apples colored yellow to orange to red.   The crabapples had been in their pots only five years.  They have an unusual variety with serrated leaves called Shan Zha.  Also seen were big persimmons with the fruit yellow and saucer shaped, they will gradually become dark orange color later in the season and persist on the tree a long time. In the nursery they had a large pot of manure tea which they use for fertilizing, all the trees receiving a small application every ten days.  Next to the tea was an even larger pot of water which is warmed in the sun and used to water the trees, twice a day at the height of summer.

The BBG celebrates the Spring Festival with a large exhibit of flowering cherry, and they have at least fifty trees that are 10-20 years old in large pots.

Evergreen ficus and podocarpus were easy for me to identify.  A little more difficult were the many  indigenous varieties used here at BBC.  Some came from the local Beijing mountains near the gardens.  Others from as far away as Hubei province such as Murraya paniculata Orange jasmine and Bougainvillea from South America.

Mr Zhao told us that there are four sizes in Penjing which correspond roughly to large, medium, small and miniature.  A fifth category is 'in ground.'  Most of the trees I saw that day would be in the large and medium size and many 'in ground.'

EXCEPTIONAL TREES

There are a few extremely old trees on the Garden property.  One is an aged --- pine at the Wofo Temple.  A large 'Recumbent Buddha' sculpture created in 1321 is the main feature of the temple,  but the 1,300 year old tree was there 600 years before the current statue replaced the original sandstone one.  This reclining Buddha is 5.2 meters or 17 feet long, made of bronze and weighs 2.5 tons.

Another extremely old specimen is a Gingko biloba, also around the 1,300 year old mark.  Zhao explained it had been originally brought there from Sechuan province.  It has a trunk about one meter wide and is full of cavities and character.  The tree is not that tall, perhaps 6 meters or 19 feet tall by the same canopy width and is being used for propagation.  It is a male.  Not far off is a grove of female trees planted for companions and to gather the fruit for more propagation.

In the Penjing exhibition area we saw several Cheng Liu Tamarix chinensis, only 100 years old with trunks in twisted leaning shapes, some with holes completely through, and being supported by iron stands.

Zhao showed us his pet project, a Yo Song pine, about seventy years in this location.  He says it will take ten years to shape it for an 'in ground' penjing.  The top has been removed and the lower branches are pegged down with sturdy guy wires.

In the same area, companions to the Yo Song, are two big Magnolia denudata, about four meters or thirten feet high, which have been trained in the Dragon style with a curving sinuous trunk.  It was hard to see the trunk for all the leaves, but must be gorgeous in spring when the palm sized flowers open before the leaves show.  They do their styling on these trees in winter when they can see the shape but leave on some flower buds for a show in spring.

At the entrance to the new exhibition area are a series of potted ----- Xuan Yashi that Zhao explained are about thirty years old and were some of the first trees he and others in the early days had started, all cascade style in large pots about one meter high.

Indigenous

Zhao showed us where they are carving on the trunk of a ---- tree from Sechuan province, a deciduous type which has small leaves and small yellow axe shaped flowers and golden fruit.

They had a couple Jin Jier trees in pots showing yellow to green foliage similar to an elm and black bark.  They say the fruit of this tree is called golden egg or baby feet.  It is from the local mountains.  They will enhance the natural black color of the bark by burning with a propane torch.

Another interesting plant is called Ying Tiao from the Beijing mountains.  It has deep roots which they excavate over a long period, digging the soil away from the roots in stages, before collecting for Penjing.  The exposed root takes fantastical shapes and makes a very interesting specimen.

A camellia with small yellow flowers and small leaves is native to south China.  Xiao Ye Hei Tan has handsome black wood and is used to make expensive furniture.

Stone Penjing Guanshang Shi Penjing

Zhao and Dongyan led us through an indoors exhibit which housed a very extensive collection of stones.  They fill several galleries and are sometimes paired up with Nandina as well as some HUGE stones in the gift shop.  Zhao drew our attention to a stone and water arrangement which was made of a beautifully carved pumice rock which has been tinted with a pale green wash and has tiny waterfall rivulets added with delicate brush strokes of white.

Tools and Shaping

The tools they showed me looked very familiar:  knob cutters and small trimmers forged from black steel in Wenzhou or Zhejiang provinces.  For bending branches they first wrap them in hemp and then use a big homemade bender that Zhao made himself.  One of the young men in his department gave us a demonstration.

Zhao explained that they use aluminum wire, leaving it on for two to three years and then removing for two years to give the tree a rest.  This is the same practice we are used to here in the west with slow growing specimens such as pine.  They can leave the wire on for what seems like a long time because of the very slow growth that the trees make due to the short growing season.  Branches are held down with guy wires.

All the trees are repotted every three to five years.  They import soil from the regions the trees are collected or to which are native.

LINKS

Beijing Botanical Garden Director Zhao Shiwei; Curator of Penjing Collection Zhao Jianguo

AKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Liu Dongyan, staff at the Garden for her assistance in conducting the interview and preparing the text for the article.