Saxifrage is my flower

Just found this poem by William Carlos Williams. Pretty good but there should probably be more Micranthes poetry out there. Oh well, this will have to do for now. Enjoy!


Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

William Carlos Williams (The Wedge, 1944)

China 2015: July 9 Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau

Micranthes atrata in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.

Due to the impending feeling that I was running out of time just as my plants were coming in to bloom I started flying to the distant corners of China. On July 9th I flew to Xining, Qinghai. Our guide in Qinghai and an expert on Chinese Saxifrages, Dr. Gao, met us the next morning with a driver. We drove from Xining towards the town of Guide into the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Sometimes referred to as "the roof of the world" the Tibetan Plateau lies between the Himalayan range to the south and the Kunlun Range to the north. The average elevation of the plateau is over 11,000 feet but this area feels unlike any of the other 11,000 feets I have experienced elsewhere. For one, the plateau spans slightly less than one million square miles and has some inhabitants - mainly Tibetan ranchers. The sky was the bluest I had seen in weeks due to the fact that we had driven above the dense air pollution found in the cities. We steadily climbed in elevation and I felt instantly happy as I noticed the dwarfed and caespitose plants - we were in alpine tundra! We approached the pass and stopped the car a few hundred feet before a temple. It was a majestic area, but Dr. Gao later told us that the temple a faux temple for tourists (no monks lived there). But I soon forgot all of that as I started noticing the flowers: big yellow poppies, bright purple gentians, bold orange saxifragas, and beautiful Micranthes atrata. Within a few hours of beginning our plant hunt we had found our first Micranthes!

Plant collecting in the Tibetan Plateau. 

We didn't waste much time and continued on to the Tibetan town of Zeku (or Zekog). If there was an Old West in China this would be it - dirt roads, people riding bareback on horses down the middle of the road, and men clad in the traditional Tibetan herdsmen garments. This was not a town visited by many outsiders and I drew a lot of attention anywhere I went, but Qinghai was quickly becoming my favorite province in China. The next morning we drove for a few hours passing herds of goats and yaks to a small village where we began our search for an obscure temple. This temple was the only landmark for the mysterious Micranthes zekoensis. In the village Dr. Gao and our driver asked passerby for directions. While they were doing that a young man riding bareback on a white horse tried to get me to get on the horse with him to take a picture. I did not. Anyhow, we got in the truck, turned off of the main road, and started winding around the plateau on dirt paths. We were driving farther and farther away from developed structures - most of the ranchers lived in yerts - and it seemed less and less likely to everyone that we were going to find a temple. We round corner after corner with no leads when we encountered a monk in a maroon robe. Dr. Gao explained what we were doing and told him the vague instructions we had about the locations of this plant. The monk pointed this way and that way and there we were at the temple. The temple in this instance was more of a small village with three or so main structures and lots of dwellings where the monks lived. We split up to search for my plant, so naturally I head up to the highest point I could find. We searched for a few hours but, unfortunately, we did not find any Micranthes. In the late afternoon we turned around and drove back to Xining passing and stopping at many beautiful places (see China 2015 Photos). We said our goodbyes and I began making preparations to fly across all of China from the western border where I was to the eastern border near North Korea. 

The view looking down on the temple. The temple in this instance included a few sacred buildings surround by the homes of the monks. The inhabitance of the village were only the men who were monks and their students. 

China 2015: July 5 Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Tea with Ya-Ping in a tea house in Lijiang.

We arrived in LIjiang, a popular destination in Yunnan province, on the fourth of July. We met our host and expert botanist for the area Dr. Wu and agreed to start of early the next morning for Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (or Yulongxue Shan). So, Ya-Ping and I went to explore the town. The old town in Lijiang "has retained a historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over many centuries". It was pretty touristy but this is to be expected as it is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Nevertheless it was a pleasant stone-clad area to stroll around and even better place to people watch. When we returned to our hotel I was surprised to learn that at dinner that night we would be joined by not only our driver and Dr. Wu, but six other researchers and their driver. It was a lively dinner, to say the least, and I enjoyed chatting with botanists from Europe who were in China studying Rhododendrons.  

Dr. Wu and me examining Micranthes pallida

I had mixed feelings about the next days journey to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I was excited because I had multiple records confirming locations of Micranthes on the mountain, which was further supported by Dr. Wu who has been studying the flora of the area for years. But, everything I had read about the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain sounded too much like an amusement park: hundreds of people filing up the mountain on well maintained stairways, ski lifts for those tourists who didn't want to take the stairs, and it was overall very expensive to get in and around the park. You can imagine my elation when I learned the next morning that we were going up a different side of the mountain by the research station! There weren't any people or lines or fees! But we did see lots of cool flowers including two Micranthes, epic scenery, and my first encounter with a yak. Dr. Wu was an amazing guide and this ended up being one of the best hikes of the whole trip!

Perhaps my favorite Micranthes in China, Micranthes melanocentra

China 2015: First week of July

In the first week of July Ya-Ping and I hired a driver to take us to the infamous Gaoligong Mountains. We made a few stops along the way including in Gongshan in the Hengduan Mountains where we drove up a very windy mountain road for hours. We parked the vehicle at the top and wandered around in the dense fog but could not find any of my plants. On the way down we were able to find some of Yaping's mints (Isodon, Lamiaceae) before stopping at what looked like someone's house for lunch. We were the only people for miles but sure enough there was a Mom and Pop restaurant tucked away on the side of the mountain. We had a delicious meal with a view and there were not any other people around. Amazing food in seemingly unlikely places remains a theme for my entire China trip. 

Lunch with a view on the side of the road in Gongshan, China. 

We continued on to Nujiang on the Nujiang river (In Chinese Nu = New, Jiang = River). If you search Nujiang you will find the tagline "in the middle of nowhere, at the center of everything" as Nujiang is a starting point for some popular scenic destinations. We had a lively dinner at a Sichuanese restaurant before heading to the grocery store to stock up on supplies for the next few days. The next morning we began the drive to the town Dulongjiang. The Dulongjiang Valley is a biodiversity hotspot in China and if it wasn't for the difficulty and dangerousness associated with getting there it would likely be national park.  

Ya-Ping and me after a long day of hiking in the pouring rain. No, we did not ride those dirt bikes up. We never saw another person the entire 10 hours we spent out there but Yaping said they were probably medicinal plant collectors from the local village.

An important point in the history of Dulongjiang is that it was the last village in all of China to be connected by a road. And road should really be in quotes here because the route that was carved up and over to the Dulongjiang Valley was seasonal at best. Some years it was impassable for most of the year due to land slides and inclement weather. A few tribes, which had been in the valley long before there was a road, persisted year round, but for the last few decades the valley was given the nickname of the Valley of Death due to its inaccessibility and the constance threat of being trapped there. Sounds inviting, huh? 

As it turns out, the new underground tunnel officially connecting the valley to the rest of China was completed a few weeks before we arrived. We were likely some of the first people to pass through this tunnel, and though we avoided the dangers of going up and over the pass the remaining drive through the valley was still on a sketchy one-and-a-half lane road susceptible to rock slides. Once we were through the tunnel we took a sharp left to head up the now defunct old road. We barely made it a few miles before we encountered our first landslide so we got out and began hiking (my preferred method of travel). It rained the entire trip which seemed fitting for how lush and green the landscape was, but it was pretty cold and wet. I also got to break in my new gaiters due to the blood-sucking land leeches known in this area (yes, you read that correctly). We saw tons of cool plants ranging from Primulaceae to Orchidaceae to Euphorbiaceae, but alas, no Micranthes. When we finally made it back to the car we were cold, soaked, and tired. We drove back down the road to continue on to what was once the most remote village in all of China, Dulongxiang Village, which also was cold, soaked, and tired. Though Dulongxiang was amazing I was disappointed to have not collected any plants so Ya-Ping suggested we continue our adventure and head to Lijiang to hike up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. And that we did.

Tiny orchid (about the size of a penny) spotted in Dulongxiang. 

Go West

Spent the last few weeks in the mountains of California collecting Micranthes tolmiei and Micranthes bryophora! Thanks to the California Native Plant Society for providing funding for this trip. The Sierra Nevada was awesome as always, and though I am proud to be an Iowan there is something about the Eastern Sierra that always feels like home. I'll be uploading a few pictures from this California trip as well as continuing to post about my adventures in China now that I am back for the semester.

Also, a friend and colleague at UF started a pretty sweet YouTube Channel to demonstrate how cool science really is - check out Mike Gil's marine biology research here:



China 2015: June 24 Mt. E-mei

Mount E-mei or E-mei-shan (shan = mountain) is the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China and is included in every guidebook about Sichuan Province. I was excited for this trip - how could I not be? I read that there were monkeys and you can sleep in temples on the mountain. I have collected plants in pretty amazing places but never with monkeys overhead, and I have set up camp surrounded by epic scenery but never among monks! It's funny in retrospect how much I romanticized, and was subsequently wrong about, the appeal of both of these things.

Golden summit on Mt. emei complete with temples and massive statue.

On this journey I was joined by graduate student Ya-Ping Chen who studies a genus in the mint family. We took a 19 hour train ride from Kunming to the town of Emei. This in itself was exciting because I have never taken a train before, and we took an overnight train and slept in bunkbeds stacked three high. I slept pretty well considering the circumstances but I was happy to arrive at the station and head to the mountain. As an aside on our way there a tourist from Beijing told me I looked like a movie star, specifically "like Meryl Streep."  Not sure what to make of that.

Mountain islands above a sea of clouds.

Anyhow, we first went to the botanical garden at the base of the mountain to meet up with the head botanist at Emeishan, Mr. Li. The three of us boarded a bus to the highest parking spot on the mountain before hitting the trail. And by trail I mean stairs, thousands of stairs. But, just like Mt. Jiaozi (see previous post) the stairs were needed to corral the thousands of tourist who visit the mountain every year. It was overcast at the foot of the mountain, and once we made it to higher elevations to start hiking we were enveloped by the cold, misty clouds for the next few hours. As we approached the top, appreciating some endemic Rhododendrons along the way, it seemed that the clouds broke and we were greeted with blue sky. Now, I had read about the temples and this being a sacred mountain but after hiking for a few hours through the sub-tropical forest I forgot about all of that. I was, therefore, awestruck when my first glance of the 10,167 ft summit yielded not the barren alpine landscape I expected but instead ornate temples and a massive golden statue. Additionally, I was wrong in thinking that the blue skies were a result of the clouds parting; we had hiked up and through the clouds and were now standing on mountain islands above a billowing sea of clouds. It was stunning.

But, I didn't travel all the way to China to take in breathtaking views, I'm here to look for Micranthes! There was an antiquated collection of M. pallida from the summit but after an onerous search involving crawling over handrails, down cliff-sides, and through stinging nettle / blackberry brambles we safely concluded that since the collection was years older than the temples and sidewalks that species likely no longer occurred on the summit. As sunset was fast approaching we headed over the other side of the mountain to sleep at a temple recommended by Mr. Li. Now the spacious, warm, welcoming temple with chanting monks and colorful thangkas that I was imagining was not only inaccurate but unrealistic. Where we slept was more of a small, dank, dark boarding house, falling off the edge of the mountain with no plumbing. I'll admit I missed my tent and sleeping bag at this point, but our hosts, who were not monks, were very hospitable, and it honestly ended up not being the worst place I stayed while in China. 

Leaves of Micranthes Davidii

The next morning after a strange breakfast of poached eggs in sugar water Mr. Li lead me straight to Micranthes davidii. This species had flowered and fruited over two months ago so without the help of Mr. Li I likely would never have found it - by this date the plant consisted only of a few browning, nondescript leaves. We made the collection and put the plants into our plastic plant bags and headed back towards the base of the mountain. This collection seemed anti-climatic after everything else I had done and seen on Emeishan, but I now know I was a bit hasty in that decision. 

Mr. Li holding the plant bag as the aggressive Monkey glares at us. 

As we rounded a corner, maybe twenty feet ahead, sat a monkey on a fence post with other monkeys swinging around above us. For once there were no other tourists in sight and here was this monkey perfectly posed! Perhaps, too perfectly... I was oblivious to what the monkey was doing as I tried to take his picture, but I did note that it was not the cute, cuddly monkey I had imagined. This was confirmed as it moved towards me, staring at my plant bag thinking it was food, and sat his unpleasant face a few feet away from me. He barred his monkey fangs and growled and hissed! He lunged towards me to grab my plants, and I froze, thinking about how glad I was to have gotten a rabies shot before I left, when he placed his little monkey hand on my plant bag! Mr. Li sprang to action, grabbed my plants, shooed the monkey away, and managed to push him off the trail with a hiking pole. We took a few minutes to regroup as the the impudent monkey glared at me from the fence and the monkeys overhead hooted and hollered in mockery of the whole scene. I put the plant bag deep in my backpack and we made it down to the base of the mountain without any other incidents, but we moved at a slightly quickened pace. 

China 2015: June 16 Mt. Jiaozi

Where to begin in the story of my first fieldwork in China? Perhaps with the drive there. Something I did not know about China is that for fieldwork you hire a private driver and car to get you from one place to another. It is quite expensive but to take buses would, in some cases, take days instead of hours. So, for this trip to Mt. Jiaozi, approximately three hours away, Dr. Xiang hired a driver that was considered one of the safest used by the Kunming Institute of Botany. At this point in time I had only experienced motorists from the pedestrian perspective, rather than as a passenger, so here are some basics about cars and traffic in China: no one wears seatbelt (except for me which provoked a series of questions), you never see police, traffic is monitored by cameras (that a radar-detector can warn you about as you approach), and horns serve a much wider range of communication than in the U.S. With that in mind, meet our driver - Mr. Du. Mr. Du was in his 60s and had been driving researchers on trips to the field for many decades. He would later drive me on a week-long adventure through Yunnan, and though I speak little Chinese and he speaks even less English, we became good friends. One additional thing to know about Mr. Du is that if he had been a stock car racer, he would have won.  

walking through the clouds on Mt. Jiaozi.

Well, Mr. Du and Dr. Xiang picked me up at my hotel and we were off to the mountains! In addition, we were joined by then grad student, now graduate, Guoxiong Hu, who studies the genus Salvia. We arrived at Mt. Jiaozi in the early afternoon where we parked and were ushered to a shuttle that would take us farther up the mountain. It was cold and cloudy that day so luckily there were not many other people but we still had to wait for the shuttle (I later learned that shuttles are the norm for getting to popular nature spots). We began walking up the mountain and taking step after step after step; the entire trail up the mountain was either steps or boardwalks! At first I was slightly disenchanted by this, focusing on the fact that the designated walkway limited exploration, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made - this mountain was heavily trafficked and received lots of rain and moisture so without these designated paths the mountain would be one giant mudslide. It occurred to me what an undertaking it was to build this trail, and this was later confirmed when we saw men lugging the heavy metal planks that composed the stairs on their backs, five planks at a time.  

hidden waterfall on mt. Jiaozi. 

As we continued up the mountain on one of the many staircases Dr. Xiang pointed out some rocks  that looked like good Micranthes habitat. At his urging we crawled over the handrail and climbed around the boulders, and it wasn't long before I spotted some Micranthes leaves. We continued to scour the boulders but we could not find flowers. I was a little dejected, thinking that my first attempt to find Micranthes was going to be futile, but I soon forgot this thought because as we wrapped around a boulder we saw a gushing waterfall hidden from the trail. Enshrouded in mist from both the fog and the splashing water I decided that even if I don't find the plant this was still a worthwhile adventure. Well, we climbed higher up the mountain through spectacular Rhododendron forests, and while I was discussing with Dr. Xiang how much greater the diversity of Primula and Pedicularis is in China compared to North America Dr. Hu saw the first tiny white flower of Micranthes clavistaminea. Saying I was thrilled would be an understatement. I am not a fatalistic person but I could not help but think that after traveling 5000 miles to the other side of the world it was a good omen to find my first plant, on my first attempt, within a few hours of hiking. 

Micranthes clavistaminea on mt. Jiaozi. Photo by Dr. Chun-lei Xiang.

I think we all would have liked to continue up the trail, but the mountain closed at 5:30 so we hurried down in time to catch the last shuttle bus back to our car. Coincidentally, as we were leaving we saw two researchers who worked with Dr. Xiang at KIB. They had taken a bus to the mountain so Dr. Xiang offered to give them a ride back to Kunming. So, for three hours I was in a car driving through rural, mountainous China with a chain-smoking, sports-coat wearing, herds-of-goats-dodging driver and four Chinese men stuffed in the back seat. They were apparently telling jokes in Chinese the entire time because everyone was laughing the whole way back to Kunming. It was a good trip.

Ni hao!

I was very fortunate to be an NSF Fellow in the 2015 EAPSI program and visit China for two months in the summer of 2015. This was an experience unlike any I have ever had and I conducted invaluable research. I was unable to access my website from China so I could not write about my experiences on this blog. But, I kept a good ol' handwritten journal and I am planning on posting some of my entries post-factum.

The fellowship I received supports collaboration between Chinese and American scientist and engineers, and I would be more than happy to answer any questions about my grant proposal, fellowship, and program. I am very grateful to the National Science Foundation, Ministry of Science and Technology of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and China Science and Technology Exchange center for this support. Additionally, I was hosted by Dr. Chun-Lei Xiang at the Kunming Institute of Botany and he arranged fieldwork, permits, and collaborations for me throughout China. 

I have uploaded some of my photos from China under Fieldwork 2015 Photos - China!