Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/The Flora of China

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CHINA possesses what is probably one of the largest flora in the world. "The most moderate estimate cannot put the whole flora as containing less than twelve thousand species," says Sir W. T. Thiselton Dyer in the "Index Floræ Sinensis," which enumerates 8,271 species, 4,230 of which are endemic, or not known to occur outside the Chinese Empire.

The popular cry that China requires nothing from abroad, having all that she needs within her own boundaries, is no empty boast so far as her vegetation is concerned. Lying between about 45° N. latitude, where the winters are Arctic, and about 15° N. latitude, where the climate is equatorial, she has an extensive range of climate. From the high line of mountains in Szechwan, whose peaks are covered with perpetual snow, to the flat alluvial plains on the Pacific coast, it is possible for her to cultivate practically all known plants. Not only is her flora one of the richest in a general sense, but it is also one of the most extensive, in so far as decorative plants, suited to the gardens of Great Britain, are concerned, and this survey will be chiefly confined to remarks on some of the most popular of the hundreds of garden plants that have been introduced from China to Britain.

Our knowledge of Chinese flora from a decorative point of view only dates back to 1843, when Robert Fortune, a botanical collector sent out by the Royal Horticultural Society, arrived in Shanghai. He was an intrepid collector and overcame considerable difficulties in his attempts to enrich the gardens of the old country. He had, of course, a new field to explore, and though certain facilities for obtaining plants were afforded him by the nurseries in Shanghai, it is to his own personal efforts that thanks are due for a great number of our most popular flowers. It was he who brought home the chrysanthemum, which, though divided into Chinese and Japanese varieties, certainly originated in China. A peculiarity which is generally overlooked in discussions on the question of Japanese and Chinese forms of this plant is very obvious to those who know the difference between the two peoples. The Japanese plant is light and fantastic, with curved twists of petals; in other words, it is artistic, and typical of what the Japanese admire in art. The Chinese variety, on the other hand, is stiff, globular, formal—like the Chinese character, conservative and solid. There is little doubt that each race, finding the flower adaptable, developed in it peculiarities to suit their tastes.

Amongst the most popular garden plants introduced by Fortune are the following:—Pæonies, azaleas, camellias, Gardenia fortunii and G. radicans, and roses in many varieties. The Tea rose, and its consequent hybrids, were all derived from Rosa Indica, a Chinese species.

Fortune's greatest work, however, was the introduction of the tea plant (Camellia thea), from the vicinity of Chekiang to India. After completing his investigations for the Royal Horticultural Society, he accepted a commission from the East India Company in 1848 lo obtain seeds, plants, and full information relative to the cultivation of tea in China, with a view to starting the cultivation of tea on the Himalayas. Up to that time the Chinese had guarded the secret of tea production very carefully, and it was commonly supposed that black tea was made from the leaves of Thea bohea, grown on the Foochow and Canton Hills, and that green tea was the product of Thea viridis cultivated in Chekiang. Fortune's investigations revealed the fact that black and green tea were both the product of the same plant, Camellia thea, and that the difference in colour was due simply to difference in the methods of manufacturing, i.e., drying, &c. On August 10, 1885, Fortune, who had previously shipped considerable quantities of plants and seeds to India, left Shanghai with eight expert tea cultivators and manufacturers from Fokien. From their arrival dates the great tea industry in India and Ceylon, which now so seriously threatens the China tea trade with extinction that two years ago Chinese commissioners were deputed to visit Ceylon in order to investigate the methods in vogue there. From the fact that the tea plant is not infrequently found growing wild in Assam but never in China, it may be inferred that India was its original home. The probabilities are that the Chinese imported the plant from Assam centuries ago, and that through Fortune they merely repaid a loan.


The vegetation of China is divisible into three well-defined regions. The Northern, or Temperate, region, extends from Shantung northwards. This is the home of numerous pines, the most famous of which is the White Barked pine (Pinus bungeana), so abundant near the Ming tombs in the vicinity of Peking. This tree is greatly venerated, and attains a great age and size. Its stem, when matured, appears as though it were whitewashed, and forms a striking object in the landscape. The Shantung Province and North Honan are the chief fruit-growing areas. Apples, pears, plums, grapes, persimmons {Diospyros kaki), thorn apples (Crateageus pinnatifida), cherries, apricots, and all other temperate fruits are grown in great variety. A plum-cot, similar to the famed Burbank hybrid, is said to have existed for centuries in the vicinity of Weihaiwei, while other peculiar fruits found in this locality are the seedless jujube and flat jujube, the apple-shaped pear, and a large peculiar shaped persimmon.

Amongst flowering plants the more familiar varieties are Anemone Chinensis, Lilium concolor, daphnes, hawthorns, Jasminum nudiflorum, Foroythia suspensa, the China aster (Callistephus hortensios), Clematis orientalis, Thalictrum minus, Anemone hepatica, Adonis vernalis, Pæonia albiflora, Chimonanthus fragrans, Delphinium grandiflora, Aconitum, and Aquilegera.


The central region, i.e., that adjoining the Yangtsze Valley, is agriculturally, and also in the extreme richness of its flora, unique. In the vicinity of Shanghai the flat alluvial plains are devoted to agriculture, the rich soil producing excellent crops of cotton, rice, barley, beans, Sesamum Indica and large supplies of vegetables. At Siccawei, which is the chief peach-growing region, good peaches in considerable variety are produced, the favourite being a flat-fruited variety. Unfortunately, the Chinese do not give careful attention to their cultivation, with the result that almost every other fruit has a maggot in it. The peaches are plucked before they are ripe to prevent the maggot from developing and to avoid the risk of theft; consequently, a really ripe, luscious peach—the perfect, delectable fruit that is usually pictured—is unobtainable. Indeed, foreigners may literally be said to be starving whilst in the midst of plenty, so far as this fruit is concerned.

In this region no square inch of land is left uncultivated, consequently, wild flowers are rarely seen, the only exceptions being Anemone Japonica, Lycoris squamigera, L. radiata, L. aura, Lonicera gyno-chlamydea, and Rosa multiflora. On the so-called hills, situated at a distance of about 20 miles from Shanghai, are found Ficus repens, Tracheleopermum, Jasminoides, Harts-tongue, Royal. Sword, Pteris cretica, and a variety of other ferns, and two forms of asparagus.

Other plants which are natives of this region, but can scarcely be said to occur in a state of nature, are Salix babylonica, Ilex corunta, Viburnum macrocephalum, Lignstrum lucidum, L. sinensis, Ailanthus glandulosa, Sterculia Platanifolia, Pterocarya stenopera, and Quercus serratta.

The hills in the vicinity of Ningpo and Hangchow are clad with azaleas, Rhodoendron sinensis, and R. Indicum, like the hills of Scotland with heather, and when in flower a magnificent effect is produced by the varied coloured blooms which appear in great profusion. The natives treat the azaleas as scrub, and in winter remove every branch for use as fuel. Amongst the azaleas are lilies of sorts—chiefly Lilium Brownii, which is found in many varieties from yellow to white. Ferns and lycops, particularly the stag-horn moss, abound. Amongst the more prominent trees are Castanopsis Tibetiana, a large evergreen chestnut, the leaves of which frequently measure from twelve to fourteen inches in length, and four inches in width. This tree is a handsome object, attaining considerable dimensions, and appears to be confined to the vicinity of Hangchow, where it was first discovered by the Right Rev. Bishop Moule. Gleditschia sinensis and Gymnocladus sinensis, the large pods of which produce a saponaceous matter and are employed by the natives instead of soap, are abundant. Various species of rhus, from one or more of which the famed Ningpo varnish is obtained, are more or less cultivated.

Castanea sativa (sweet chestnuts), and some good varieties of "Loquats" (Eryobotyra Japonica), both white and yellow fruited forms, are grown in large quantities; whilst on the island of Pootoo, Chinese strawberries, the fruit of the Myrica sapida, are cultivated for the Shanghai market, where they are purchased by both natives and foreigners. Stillingia sebifera (the tallow tree) is grown in considerable quantities all over the Chekiang Province, and from its fruit a saponaceous matter is expressed which, when purified, forms a high-class tallow that might be found well worth the attention of soap-makers. This tree is cultivated much in the same manner as peaches, that is to say, the larger fruiting varieties which yield the greatest amount of tallow are grafted on to the seedling stock.

The flora of the Yangtsze Valley really may be said to begin in the vicinity of Kiukiang, particularly on the Kuling Hills, where may be found such plants as tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), Lilium speciosum var Formosana, Zanthoxylum piperitum (the seeds of which are used as a condiment), Xanthoceras sorbifolia, Wistaria, Viburnum tomentosum, Vitus inconstans (better known as Amelopsis Veitchii), Anemone Japonica, Akebia quintata, Akebia lobata, and a host of other popular flowering shrubs.

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For our knowledge of the rich flora of the vicinity of Ichang, we are in the first place indebted to Dr. Henry—formerly of the Imperial Maritime Customs service, and now Professor of Arboriculture at Oxford University (vide the "Index Floræ Sinensis")—whose collection reached the large number of 15,700 specimens, each represented by numerous duplicates, amounting in all to 150,000 sheets; and, later, to H. E. Wilson, collector to James Veitch & Sons, who sent to London seeds of 1,800 species, 30,000 bulbs of new and rare species of liliums, and living roots of various herbs, shrubs, &c. His herbarium collection comprised 20,000 dried specimens, many of which were collected in the higher reaches of the Yangtsze and in Szechwan.

Ichang is the home of Primula sinensis, now one of the most popular winter flowering greenhouse plants at home. It is found growing on the face of the rocks, whilst another popular primula P. obconica is found in the moist valleys. Other notable plants abounding in this neighbourhood are Davidia involuerata, probably one of the finest flowering trees extant, Astelbie Davidii, Buddleia variabilis, and B. Asiatica. Daphne genkwa clothes the hills here like azaleas do those of Chekiang, and when it is in bloom the effect is said to be very beautiful. In the province of Szechwan the opium poppy is one of the chief agricultural crops. Tobacco, also, is grown, but not to a great extent. The hills on the Tbibetan frontier are particularly noted for their great assortment of rhododendrons as well as for various rare and beautiful alpines, such as Mecenopsis integrifolia and M. punicia, and a number of rare primulas.


In Southern China the climate approximates to that of the tropics, consequently palms in variety, tree ferns, and other plants of a tropical nature are found in profusion. The fruits grown in this region which find their way into the Shanghai market are Citrus aurantium, C. decumana, C. nobilis, and C. medica (producing oranges, lemons and pumeloes), Nephelium litchii and N. longana (the "litchies"), bananas, guavas, mangoes, wangpee and Chinese olives (Canarinum album). Typical forms of this vegetation are the banyans and other forms of Ficus, Ixoras, Murrya exotica, Hituscus, Rosa sinensis, Garcinia multiflorum, Hoya carnosa, Magnolia, Chamapaca, and Canaga adorata. Orchids are found in considerable variety, especially in Yunnan and Hainan, whence large consignments have been sent home to the English market. This is also the original home of the beautiful little primula, P. Forbesii. From Foochow large quantities of the bulbs of the sacred lily, or joss flowers (Narcissus lazetta var Chinensis), are exported to Europe, America, and also to other parts of China. On the hills near Foochow tea is grown in considerable quantities. Foochow poles, derived from Cunninghamia sinensis, are very largely exported from here to Central China, where they are in great demand for building purposes.

Since Formosa has been handed over to the Japanese, the cultivation of camphor has received more attention in the southern provinces, and, when further developed, this industry will tend to give a more ample supply of this commodity, which at present is obtained almost entirely from Formosa.

Chief among the botanists who have contributed to our knowledge of the Chinese flora may be mentioned Dr. Hance, whose herbarium, containing 22,000 species, is now in the British Museum; Dr. Henry Maries, H. E. Wilson, Dr. Faber, R. Fortune, and Père Delavayi and several other Jesuit fathers. With the publication of well-known works and descriptions of plants the names of F. B. Forbes, W. B. Hemsley, C. J. Maximowicz, Franchet and Brets are best known, and the names of James Veitch & Son, of Chelsea, and Andrieux Vilmorin, of Paris, are prominently associated with the introduction of large numbers of Chinese plants to the gardens of Europe.


The chief fibres produced in China are Crotolaria (Sunn hemp), Bohemeria uivea, hemp (Cannabis sativa), Crocorhus, and Abutilion aveninaceae.


Agriculture in China ranks above all other industries, and is second only to the learned professions, for it is recognised that, in a country with so large a population, a sufficient supply of food is all-important. Once a year the Emperor himself ploughs a furrow. Agriculture in China differs from agriculture in Western lands in that it is more akin to horticulture; it is, in fact, intensive culture, on small holdings, about which so much has been heard at home in recent years. The land is handed on from father to sons, the original area thus becoming in course of time a collection of small plots. Cultivation is mainly by manual labour, though buffaloes are frequently employed in ploughing. For manuring purposes night-soil is applied in a liquid form during the growing season, and bean-cake is also largely used in the same way. The ashes of bean and cotton stalks are carefully collected for use when planting bean and cotton seeds. A form of medicago is largely grown and dug into the soil in a green state, from which it is to be inferred that the Chinese, through actual practice, have discovered the enriching value of the roots of leguminous plants, and have for ages been applying the principle of our "recent discovery" of nitro-culture.

The land generally in the central districts yields two crops annually. The main crops are beans (broad), wheat, barley, and rape during the winter months, and Soja hispida (oil beans), cotton, sesamum, and rice in the summer. Practically all the more common vegetables of Europe are grown in large quantities.


Unfortunately, forestry does not exist in China, and the few forests which remain intact are being gradually denuded. This is the more regrettable since it would be possible to grow nearly all known timbers, as well as many valuable trees that are confined to China. The afforestation of the hills would be one of the most profitable undertakings that could engage the attention of China. As a direct asset her arboriculture in some years would be worth millions of taels—probably it would be of greater value than that of America—whilst, indirectly, the ameliorating effect of trees on the climate would tend to put an end to the floods, droughts, and famines which now occur with such frequency.

Bamboo is utilised by the natives to an almost unlimited extent. With it they can build and furnish their houses completely, and it is not surprising, therefore, that it is a feature of the landscape. Roughly speaking, there are about forty species of bamboo in China, ranging from the small Shantung variety of the north to the great Dendrocalmus of the south.

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