Ruellia conzattii.jpg Ruellia macrophylla var. lutea.jpg Eranthemum nervosum.jpg Sanchezia stenomacra.jpg Tetramerium sp.jpg Sanchezia parvibracteata.jpg diversity of Ruellia flowers.jpg

Acanth Fact of the Day

Based on molecular systematics, species within the genus Ruellia have undergone evolutionary reversals from hummingbird to insect pollination.
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China Field Work, 3 - 28 March, 2011

3 – 28 March, China, areas visited:

Guangzhou (Guangdong Province)

Xishuangbanna (Yunnan Province)

Kunming (Yunnan Province)

Libo (Guizhou Province)

Guangzhou (Guangdong Province)

Zhang Fang (Hunan Province)

Guangzhou (Guangdong Province)
Libo (Guizhou Province)
Guangzhou (Guangdong Province)

Thursday, 3 March 2011 – Friday, 4 March 2011

My commute across the Pacific, from Los Angeles to China, could not have been smoother. I am en route to Guangzhou to spend 2.5 weeks with a Chinese collaborator and Acanthaceae specialist,Yunfei Deng. He is faculty at the South China Botanical Institute, and author of the Acanth treatment for the recently published Flora of China.

Things are different in Asia! I flew Asiana, a Korean airline I had heard positive remarks of, and can confirm their impeccable service…. slippers, hot towels, and real cutlery (even in coach class! …I wonder what they get up front?). The seating was most spacious, leaving me all but fully horizontal. My meals are something along the lines of: curried potatoes with fresh nutmeg, and bean medleys with coconut milk. The man sitting next to me courteously refuses to eat until I am served my meal. Everybody is drinking wine with breakfast, which eases my guilt about asking for a Korean beer (note that it is happy hour in L.A. right now). 12 hrs 23 mins flight time to Seoul, and another 3.5 to Guangzhou. Could be worse.

Managed to stay awake until 20:00 local time. Flight out early tomorrow morning to Xishuangbanna via Kunming.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

It’s always easier flying west than east. I slept well, although woke up on the hour every hour until I finally went vertical at 04:00. I had been wanting to try the hot tea contraption on my nightstand anyway. We left for Xishuangbanna at 7:00. After two flights, I can substantiate the claim that Chinese airspace is turbulent.

With exception of not being able to interpret any of the city signs (because #1: I don’t read Chinese and #2: Pinyin, or the practice of writing Chinese in Roman letters, which might have helped, is non-existent in most small towns), rural southern China is not too different from rural southern Mexico this time of year: hot and dry and excessive sunshine. We are staying in a staggering locale – at a hotel on the grounds of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden – one of five official botanic gardens of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, funded fully by the Chinese government. I have a bit of a rainforest hanging over my balcony outside my hotel room, with many wonderful sounds to accompany the scenery. The grounds here are extensive, and now I have some sense why Chinese students do their fieldwork in public gardens. There are significant stretches of native, unmanaged, and unharmed forest, and the Mekong River runs right through the middle of the property. We are a few stones throws from the Laos border, and a few more to the Burmese border. I had a brief hot run in the sun, and then we set out to look for a few Acanths. In a short stretch of 100 meters of native forest, we collected six genera including native species of Eranthemum, Phaulopsis, Lepidagathis, Rungia, and Dicliptera. The flowers of Rungia pectinata are the smallest of any Acanth I’ve ever seen. Dinner was terrific – consisting of some unspecified leafy green Asteraceae in sesame and garlic sauce, cucumbers with hot chili, a fried egg dish, green tea, and a Laos beer. For dessert, I saw my first living Pandanus on the grounds!

Sunday, 6 March 2011

I laid eyes on some great plants today, and ate some too. My culinary experience in my short time here so far has been nothing short of spectacular. I have foraged on a different kind of leafy green each meal including a native, edible Euphorbiaceae that they wild harvest: Sarupus; two composites: Chrysanthemum coronarium and Scenecio sp.; an Apiaceae introduced from Europe: Foeniculum vulgare; and the leaves of: a native Acacia, one native (Coccinea grandis) and one non-native (Cucurbita moschata) Cucurbitaceae, a native Saruraceae (Houttuynia), a native Ficus, and sweet pea leaves (Pisum sativum). I also had Bauhinia variegata flowers today for lunch. Yes – giant, face-sized flowers of a canopy tree blooming abundantly. These people seem to eat everything out of the forest – so much diversity you’d be certain that you’d get sick as an unaccustomed traveler. Yet I feel great! Also regularly on the menu has been a very delicate sort of cucumber in sesame and hot chili oil. Breakfast includes a very hearty bowl (what I call ‘substantial’) of rice noodles with any number of toppings including a fried egg, braised cabbage, carrots, garlic, and hot chilis. The books don’t lie when they note that Chinese take their food very seriously. The only odd combination I can speak of is the scorching hot Thai chilis and hot tea – the latter amplifies the burn of the former.

Xishuangbanna is extremely diverse. One could learn almost all families of seed plants in the tree canopy alone. A perk of traveling with Yunfei is that I was able to do some general collecting too (i.e., not just Acanths). Regarding the latter, there are entire understories that are composed of Acanthaceae here. With a couple of local employees at from the botanic garden, we walked through a large nature reserve (a failed ecotourism venture) 2 km from Xishuangbanna, with an elaborate set of concrete paths and hanging bridges through mixed primary and secondary forest. In and around it, we collected three species of Justicia, two Pseuderanthemum, one Strobilanthes, another one, possibly two Rungia, one Andrographis, and a member of the basal lineage of Acanths, Nelsonia—a very cool plant with spots on the upper corolla limb and stripes on the lower. We also collected other plants including fertile Sabia, Gnetum, Piper, Hoya, and some lovely Sterculiaceae. The Sabia has juicy bright blue fruits, and lurking just below them are some extraterrestrial looking insects. Back on the grounds of the garden, we spent the late afternoon wandering through the “tropical rainforest section”, which is native, unmanaged habitat again of the mixed primary / secondary sort. Collecting there feels nothing like a botanical garden. We found four species of Strobilanthes, one Barleria, and another basal lineage Acanth – Ophiorrhizophyllon. We found only one plant of the latter in the entire forest. It has the strangest anthers I have yet seen in the family. Of the two-pronged pitchfork sort. We also picked up another Sabia, and Pittosporopsis kerrii (Icacinaceae) – a common component of the understory shrub layer.

Monday, 7 March 2011

We traveled 40 km NW of the botanic garden today, to collect in the Jinuo Shan (Jinuo Mountains) – a beautiful range of mixed primary and secondary forest. Traveling with us has been a few employees from the herbarium – Qing Liu, Li Jianwu, and Tan Yun Hang… all very helpful, and all familiar with the flora. We collected a few plants including one Strobilanthes, but nothing newsbreaking, and then spent the afternoon triaging the press in preparation for our drive to Jinghong (1.5 hours) and late night flight out to Kunming. Revision to the newsbreaking bit– on our ‘backroads’ drive to the airport, we collected Hemigraphis fluviatilis on rocky banks of the Mekong River… diminutive but spectacular yellow-flowered epipetric thing, endemic to China and the only native species of the genus in this country. And, another Rungia.

The Chinese are fun people to travel with. They speak very few words of English (though more than I do of Mandarin), so communication through body language and Botanical Latin has been the norm, and has been entertaining! I also get to sit silent all day (a welcomed relief) wondering what they are talking and laughing about. Somehow, it makes me laugh too.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

This morning we are en route to a forest known for its limestone caverns, about two hours east of Kunming. None of my traveling companions have been there, so it is an exploratory outing, which I look forward to.

Yesterday we traveled from Kunming to Mopan Shan (Mountain), about 3.5 hrs SW of Kunming and just SW of the city of Xinping. Traveling with Yunfei and I were En-Dei Liu (Collections Manager of the Kunming Institute of Botany Herbarium) and Li Haining (professor of botany at the Yunnan University of Traditional Chinese Medicine). We traveled specifically to this mountain because Li had earlier seen and collected Pararuellia there, while on a field trip with his students. We searched in the morning for the plant, which is endemic to China and is among the more critical taxa I am here to attempt to collect, but found nothing. Noting that habitat is most awkward for an Acanth to begin with – pine forest – I was doubtful from the start. Feeling a bit of defeat, we retreated to Xinping for lunch, where we happened upon a local medicine man, Xue Yuan Yang, walking down the street. Li knew him because of their common interest in medicinal plants. Because Pararuellia is used in traditional Chinese medicine, Xue knew the plant well, and confirmed its existence at Mopan Shan. After lunch, we returned to the site with him, and he took us directly to the plant. It was under our feet the whole time! And also underneath much plant debris: all leaves of Pararuellia are completely prostrate against the ground, and the inflorescence stalk is so thin, it blends in with the broken pine needles. Although not flowering, and with only a few fruits, I was ecstatic to see the genus alive, in its native habitat. Preliminary data suggest it is among the earliest evolving genera in the entire Ruellieae lineage. It was by pure luck that we encountered Xue, and were thus able to collect it. In addition to Pinus yunnanensis that dominated the forest, other common tree and shrub species included Ketelerria evelyniana (very cool plant, also in Pinaceae), Schima wallichii (Theaceae – tea family), and Michelia yunnanensis (Magnoliaceae).

The mountain valleys are extensively farmed for vegetables, and as cleared landscapes go, the tiered topography and neatly organized rows of a diversity of crops is a striking sight. Adding to its scenic aspects are the many hard working individuals – and in China, women are not exempt from manual labor, which is a cultural aspect to be appreciated. In fact, among the many small farms, often seen are families working together. No tractors – all done by hand.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The limestone caves from yesterday (Jiu Xiang scenic area) and nearby karst formations were an incredible sight to see – top 15 on lifetime geological phenomena list. We did a bit of “Rhodo surfing” in the nearby forests afterwards (very much like off trail hiking in the southern Appalachians), though we found no Acanths. Still, we did some general plant collecting in the area. Nice mountains. Cold and mesic.

However, the highlight of my day was in the greenhouses 100 meters behind the Kunming Herbarium – Pararuellia glomerulata, a newly described species by Yu-Min Shui (research botanist in the herbarium), in full flower! Spectacular! He has been cultivating it since he collected and described it a few years ago; the species is very distinct from all others in the genus. We are now two for two: two species of Pararuellia in two days. Yu-Min was so kind to allow me to voucher a couple of his living plants. Unfortunately, because he is away doing fieldwork, I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, even though we have corresponded for years. On our way back to the Kunming Herbarium to load presses and dry plants, we collected a nearby Cystacanthus that is in cultivation in their Botanical Garden. Also a terrific plant, and a new genus for me.

Another highlight: tonight I ate Amorphophallis for dinner. Flowers of Caragana (a papilionoid legume) were member to my lunch. Both Yunfei and En-De Lui have been incredibly helpful and fun to travel with. And I like the Chinese pace. Fast, and lots of walking.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Yunfei, En-De, and I went to nearby nature reserve this morning. We collected a couple of Acanths and lots of other families. In the afternoon, En-De treated me to a long walking tour of Kunming Botanic Garden, and then I spent a couple of hours in the herbarium. Check out these cute, retinacu-less fruits of Staurogyne that I saw in the KUN Herbarium before leaving.

Incredible 8.9 mag tsunami just hit Japan. Meanwhile, we narrowly missed a deadly 5.8 that hit southern Yunnan yesterday near the Myanmar border, not far from where we were.

We slept last night in Guiyang (a 45 minute flight from Kunming), and hopped the shortest flight of my life this morning to Libo (in the province of Guizhou)—21 minutes in air and half that the total number of passengers. There are only two flights in and out of Libo each week: one Friday, and one Sunday.

This place is otherworldly. I am somewhat convinced that we landed on a different planet. For starters, check out the view from the airport. Every inch of the terrain, an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is occupied by inconceivably abrupt, sharp limestone peaks that are swept by cold, clean mountain air and vast stretches of native vegetation and turquoise blue, underground limestone rivers. I can’t figure out why this isn’t a major tourist attraction. Personally, I could live here.

We are here primarily to collect only one species – Echinacanthus lofuenis, but a very important one to the Ruellieae project, and one that, together with a few other species in China, needs to be treated in a different (undescribed) genus. We are working on the property of the Maolan National Nature Reserve (=the UNESCO site), which is some 200 sq. km in extent. After we landed, we spent half a day in the forest for some general plant as well as lichen collecting. Yunfei and I, along with one of his students who is working on a flora of the area for his master’s thesis, Chen Fenglin, are being transported around by a deputy of the Libo Police Department , in his spiffed up 4x4 sheriff cruiser. The police department shares a property in town with our hotel, which are both somehow related to the nature reserve. Must admit it feels very strange to be collecting plants in a foreign country out of a cop car.

We collected Strobilanthes dimorphotricha in full flower, and many other nice plants including Sabia(P1000765), Acuba, Asarum Pittosporum , and the China endemic Stachyurus. Later that night, I had Dioscorea, Toona, and Pteridium for dinner.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Today we drove, in the cop cruiser, about 40 km into the reserve on one of the worst roads (top five) I’ve ever traveled. Deng Bilin, the officer and driver, did things with that SUV that I didn’t know were possible. We spent the morning looking for Echinanthus, and eventually we found it along very steep slopes, albeit only in flower bud. The buds (and will be flowers) are bright yellow, which together with those of Hemigraphis fluviatilis we collected earlier, represent two of the three Acanth species in all of China with yellow flowers (the entire Acanth flora here consists of 300 species in 35 genera). An interesting fact. We also collected the beautiful Justicia spiciflora.

We drove back into a nearby small village that hosts one of four field stations in the Reserve, where we were treated to a festive lunch with grand welcomings and toasts to all. Chinese people like to celebrate! After lunch, we traveled to another mountain to search for a Strobilanthes and a Hygrophila that happens to be a weed. The Strobilanthes was found, but was sterile; the cultivated field that the Hygrophila previously occurred in has since been plowed. Although no Acanths that afternoon, on top of that mountain, was a fire watchtower with one of the best sights I’ve seen in the last decade of life. And despite the lack of afternoon Acanths, we are still getting some great general botany collecting in. Yunfei knows lots of plant families, and I think he enjoys quizzing me. “Do you know?”

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Our flight out of Libo was at first delayed due to “fog”, but soon thereafter cancelled. In addition to Yunfei and I, there was one other passenger in the entire Libo airport. We suspect the true cause for cancellation was too small a headcount. I am so sad to leave, and had fingers crossed that Yunfei would decide we were ‘stuck’ in Libo for another week (next flight not until Friday), but he and Professor Ran arranged a driver for us, and we booked an evening flight out of Guiyang; the drive was supposed to be 3 hours, but owing to a horrific traffic pileup (two big rigs spilling thousands of air conditioners, we missed our flight, and hopped a very late night alternative plane back to Guangzhou. All in all, we had a good run in Libo. Professor Ran was terrifically kind to us.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Ruellia repens is an extremely widespread species in Asia, but remarkably, there is a paucity of specimens from China. Even more remarkably, R. repens is also the only native species of Ruellia in all of China. [Contrast this with Strobilanthes, that has some 120 representatives in this country]. This morning, we visited some villages and adjacent forests (about 60 km from Guangzhou) in attempt to find the species, but with no success. We traveled with a researcher at South China Botanical Institute who had earlier photographed the species there. The place for Ruellia is certainly the Western Hemisphere, where there lives at least 250 species.

Yesterday (Tuesday) we traveled to Dinghu Shan – a famous nature escape around Guangzhou, China’s first National Nature Preserve, and a rare example of intact, virgin tropical forest here. We went to collect a few different Acanths, including a Peristrophe and another Strobilanthes new to me. The mountain is also famous as a Buddhist retreat, and a visit there, with all that fresh air, will quickly tell why. Our trip was a bit delayed, however, because on the way we got into an accident on the highway. Smashed up cars but for the most part everyone was fine. That night, I had Gingko, Eleocharis, and Nuphar for dinner.

Two days ago (Monday), I had a full day walking tour of South China Botanical Institute. With me was Tang Huimin, Yunfei’s master student who is studying the genus Justicia in China. She has been extremely helpful to me, and also speaks the best English I have yet encountered here. AND – she knows how to choose restaurants. At lunch, she took me to her favorite place for some superb steamed dumplings. It is customary in this part of (Cantonese-speaking) China to wash your dinnerware (including chopsticks) with hot tea before eating out of them.

I am supposed to fly back to the US this Saturday (19 March) but I had such a wonderful time in Libo that I changed my ticket (for free with Asiana!) and will now return the 28th. I leave for Libo again this Sunday, and will be there one week.

Friday, 18 March 2011

This morning, I gave two talks to the research group at South China Botanical Institute – one on Acanthaceae evolution, and one on plants of the Guyana tepuis. Both seemed well received based on the many questions that followed (though I should like to have given them in Chinese!). I spent the rest of the morning pressing plants from an outing yesterday, and the afternoon learning Tang’s technique for counting chromosomes in Acanthaceae using root tips. We will finish the labwork tomorrow.

Wednesday afternoon, Yunfei and I took the “fast train” from the brand new Guangzhou station to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. At a pace of 340 km/hr, we traveled 780 km in a mere 2 ¼ hours. Upon arrival, we were retrieved from the station by Yunfei’s colleague and good friend, Dr. Yu Xun-Lin, a professor of dendrology at Central South University of Forestry. Here in Hunan, Xun-Lin has previously collected Leptosiphonium – a genus in Ruellieae I would desperately like to see, in the wild. We had a sheik dinner in our sheik, modern 3-star hotel named “Orange Inn”), which involved Lilium leaves cooked in Camellia oil, a statue of Stanley Kubrick, and some new sort of tofu (there is a different kind in every town) made with an unspecified fungus that grows atop the soybeans for five days. After dinner, Xun-Lin treated us to a Chinese “footbath.”

The following day, Thursday, was a long one. In attempt to collect Leptosiphonium, we drove several hours to the rural community of Zhang Fang, where I once again, like Libo, found myself at a police station. Something about the combination of botanical fieldwork and China seems to equate to law enforcement assistance. No complaints… I feel very legal! The seven or so cops, Yunfei, Xun-Lin and I went for a long lunch in a traditional family establishment (complete with table tennis, pool, and other festivities while dining), and then hopped a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Chinese Hum-V for an extremely aerial drive to the field site: 2.5 hours up a creek bed. Giant boulders, no road. And unfortunately, no Leptosiphonim at the end. Yunfei suspects it may be an annual plant. It was a long shot to begin with. Late that evening, we boarded the fast train back to Guangzhou. All not lost, however, as it turns out that Xun-Lin has collected (and photographed) the only species of Passiflora (P. kwangtungensis) in China that Dr. Shawn Krosnick, colleague and passionflower specialist, has not collected herself. She believed it to be extinct. Now, Xun-Lin and Shawn are in contact, and can write a short report on the new finding together. Very small world.

Saturday, 19 March

Today was Day 2 of my learning Tang’s method for counting Acanthaceae chromosomes from root tips. The method is pretty simple – and after 8 years of studying the family, I am delighted to finally see these elusive structures. She was so kind to pass along her skills. Pararuellia glomerulata: 2n=28!

Sunday, 20 March

Never a dull. It’s 5 pm, and I’m on a 5-hour bus to Libo. I woke at 5 AM to catch the first of two flights back to Libo from Guangzhou. First flight fine; then in Guiyang, boarded second flight, deboarded an hour later, flight cancelled an hour after that. Though a lengthy chain of missed communications, telephone translations, and lots of courteousness from non-English speaking airport staff, Chen (Yunfei’s masters student in Libo) arranged for his two close friends (also biology grad students) to meet me at the airport. They had planned to take me back to their dorm room for the night because it was too late to catch a direct bus to Libo. The taxi driver thought otherwise. I have never, ever, ever been in a vehicle with a driver that out of control. Ever. Not even in Guyana! He weaved through 20 km of city traffic like we were in a highspeed chase…felt like I was in a video game, and feared my life for the duration. We arrived at the other end of town, and one of the two women flew into the bus station just in time to purchase a ticket. My only complaint: they absolutely refused for me to pay a penny of the whole transaction. Not their taxi fare to the airport, our taxi fare to the bus station, my bus ticket, or the food they bought and sent me away with. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of people in this country.

Our bus driver is pretty good; the only negative aspect of trip is that people are smoking aboard, which has very little ventilation. But then again, they were doing it on the plane, too. There’s something very romantic about a place that’s hard to get to, and under journey parameters less than optimal.


Saturday, 26 March

I have now spent a week in Libo (Guizhou Province), collectinglichens around the Sanchahe Field Station (Maolan National Nature Preserve) with 8 male forest rangers and Chen. I took a particular liking to “Elephant” and Mr. Wang. Mo, the field station manager, was also terrific to work with. I am apparently the first American to visit the Station (and more generally, the second foreigner; a Spaniard visited many years ago). In addition to collecting a few hundred lichens and bryophytes, my return to Libo brought two Acanthaceae suprises: Echinacanthus in full flower, and the Strobilanthes speciosus that was previously sterile also in full flower. I was freezing and hungry most of the week; the building has no heat, so even with 5ºC nights, they just assume leave all the windows open; I didn’t bring enough warm clothes to China, but the very fresh, very unpolluted montane air made the freezing well worth it. For a solid week, the sun shone only 5 brief minutes: 7:30-7:35 AM, Wednesday morning. Food diversity is tough here – I ate only rice, noodles, tofu, eggs, mustard greens, and hot chilis for the entire week – but on the extremely bright side, everything consumed was grown and produced within a 5 km radius. It doesn’t get any fresher. Drive back to Libo today, flight back to Guangzhou tomorrow, flight back to Los Angeles Monday. Again, I am very sad to leave, both the place, and my new friends. Prior to our departure, Professor Ran treated us to a wonderful homecooked meal, by him and his wife.

On this trip, I learned:

like Venezuelans, Chinese are incredibly patient people

unlike Venezuelans, Chinese people of both sexes love their vegetables

toothpicks made of tropical hardwoods never dull

how to play mahjong

the more rural, the harder the bed

you really can cook almost anything out of the forest

why Chinese eat out of bowls, not plates

many uses for chopsticks other than for eating

that I really like China

On this trip, I saw so many terrific:

signs: one, two, three, four, five

On this trip, wild harvested plants I ate include but are not limited to:

Amorphophallus (native)

Bauhinia (flowers; native)

Camellia (oil; native)

Caragana (flowers; native)





Euphorbiaceae (native, genus unknown)

Ficus (young leaves)








Sarupus (only item on this last that was disgusting)


Ulmaceae (fruits; native, genus unknown, self-harvested)