Tropical Chinese botanic garden puts science in a magical setting

Still in China, to a relatively young botanic garden. The Fairy Lake Botanical Garden (Xianhu Zhiwuyuan), in Shenzhen, was opened to the public in 1988 but already has an impressive reputation for the scope of its collections. With over 10,000 species on display, set amongst 500 ha of semi-natural forest, the standouts are the cycads and ferns (the largest collections in China), and the iconic display the silicified tree garden.

Putting aside the numbers this is a particularly attractive landscape, with the botanical collections integrated seamlessly into this verdant setting. This is one of a handful of Chinese Academy of Science botanic gardens, which establishes its scientific credentials, but it is also ranked as a ‘AAAA’ scenic location in China, just on A less than the highest possible).

I only glimpsed the garden, firstly in the very hot early afternoon and then in the humid evening, as the sun set. The big scenic view at the top was taken from this shelter.

The petrified (silicified) forest though is the dramatic (iconic…) landscape. It's a collection of erect fossil trees, cycads and other evocative plantings. The trees are part concrete and part excavated sections of ‘silicified’ tree trunks (like marble when polished) mostly from north-west China.

Next stop was the scientific cycad collection, also with some evocation of habitat in the form of a vibrant mural complete with animal companions. The cycad collection began with the founding of the garden and in 2002, by then covering 30,000 square metres and including round 240 species, it was designated the ‘National Cycad Conservation Center’.

The collection includes a lot of rare species from China, as well as selections from around the world (including Australia). Some of the larger specimens seem to be ‘grafted’ on top of trunks or other material but that seems impossible so perhaps they are simply very old and odd. All of the big ones have of course been transplanted here.

Thanks to a couple of friends (see comments below the post), I can now put names on the cycads featured in the picture above the dinosaur mural. Karen Wilson tells me that the really big plants near the road are labelled Cycas pectinata and Cycas elongata, with probably more of the latter. Then Jimmy Wu chased up Ms Qing Wang, head of public programs at Fairy Lake, who confirmed the name Cycas elongata and pointed to a website featuring their pollination research on this species. 👍

This next, smaller and younger specimen, I do know the name of myself. It's Cycas debaoensis, a Red-listed species (i.e. extremely rare) from near Banshui in southern China, and surviving in the wild in a population of just over 1000 individuals.

And in this next picture, a mobile of cryptogam balls, for want of a better term. They are dangling clusters of fern-like things such as club moss (Selaginella) - I didn't have time to stop and identify their constituents.

They hand inside a, very big, shade house – around 5,000 square metres – holding part of the Botanical Gardens' rich fern collection. Plus just a few thousand orchids, begonias, bromeliads, pitcher plants and other plants that like a little shade. There is good interpretation of shade plants, with notes about their ecology and evolution.

During a contemplative moment we asked our hosts what a Chinese fairy looked like. Genuinely curious, we wondered if there was a historical figure or concept conjured up by that word (my Irish colleagues noted that fairies in their country are rather sinister in nature). Fairy is a direct translation from a Chinese word that apparently means, fairy. So no help there. Presumably, like in the West, a fairy grove or fairy lake or fairy dell is simply a romantic and apparently magical setting.

After my tours and a workshop on how botanic gardens are responding to the Anthropocene (I spoke about our Landscape Succession Plan and how we are responding to climate change and other management challenges using science and research) we stayed on as special guests for an award ceremony and concert to celebrate a botanical art exhibition organised by Fairy Lake Botanical Garden and the International Association of Botanic Gardens, as a peripheral event to the International Botanical Congress (that’s FLBG, IABG and IBC…).

Then something different.

Another side to the botanical garden, worlds away perhaps from the science and plant diversity. In this spectacular setting around a small lake (not the giant Fairy Lake) and among the penjing (bonsai) collection, we listened and watched a range of classical and modern Chinese entertainment. Flawless and fascinating. Fairy-like even. 

On the way out around 9 pm another layer was revealed as we passed streams of locals using the garden for evening strolls. This is a botanic garden with many appeals, and appealing to many.

There was even a, brief, connection to Melbourne. As part of the evening's festivities we witnessed the awarding of prizes to some of the botanical artists whose work featured in an exhibition associated with the International Botanical Congress. Two of our local favourites, Mali Moir and John Pastoriza-Piñol, got a Bronze and Silver respectively. Lovely work!

And finally, finding relief from the humid evening air, we see Diane Wyse Jackson, from St Louis, and Linhai Zhang,  from Guangzhou. Cool...


Anonymous said…
Hi Tim

Are you able to tell us the species in the 6th image? i.e. The giant specimens propped up by the red poles? Im assuming it is not Cycas debaoensis.

Cheers Rob
Tim Entwisle said…
Hi Rob, I'm afraid not. Definitely not Cycas debaoensis but I can't remember if I checked their labels or not. (I picked up a slight error in my text - a reference to C. debaoensis being above was actually below - when looking for this picture, so it was useful to revisit the post!). Thanks, Tim
Anonymous said…
The enormous cycads at the start/lower slope of the cycad garden near the roadway were labelled variously as Cycas pectinata and C. elongata, Tim. I think the latter was more common.
Tim Entwisle said…
Brilliant! Thank you Karen.
Jimmy Wu said…
Hi, everyone,

Before the new article of talking plants comes out, on behalf of my friend Ms. Qing Wang, in-charge of the public program of the Fairy Lake Botanical Gardens, she would like to share the answer the of the 6th image with friends of talking plants.

It is Cycas Elongata

The National Cycas Conservation Center in Shenzhen Fairy Lake Botanical Garden has done some interesting studies on Cycas Elongata, such as ‘the pollination vectors of Cycas enlongata’. If you are interested, pls click in link below.

In terms of the Chinese Fairy, I agree with Tim, the image of Chinese fairy is flawless and fascinating, and not sinister. The size and figure of a Chinese fairy is like of human being. In Chinese culture, fairy usually lives in heaven, but often come to the world to help destitute people. Maybe she lived near the botanical gardens for a while according to some ancient stories.

Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks Jimmy. Equally brilliant! I've now updated the post... Interesting also to read your thoughts on fairies in China. Tim