A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Back to Nature ... Again

Can one ever have too much of a good thing? Having spent a good part of the day in Beijing’s Botanical Gardens, Xuefei suggests we should ask her friend Songkai if he would mind showing us around the gardens of The Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences – just across the road from the Botanical Gardens. 
The IOB has over 500 staff members, about 80 percent of whom are scientific researchers. Songkai is one of these researchers and, it turns out, he is more than happy to show us around.
He meets us at the Botanic Gardens exit and steers us across the road to the Academy entrance.
The Institute of Botany started life as the Fan Memorial Institute of Botany and the Botanical Institute of Beiping Academy of Sciences, set up in 1928 and 1929 respectively. The two institutions were then merged into the Institute of Plant Taxonomy in 1950 and given its present name in 1953.
The IOB is mainly engaged in research into the eco-environment, modern agriculture, sustainable utilization of plant resources and the systematic evolution of national strategic needs. It has eight Research Centres, 10 field stations and a number of laboratories.
Perhaps it’s most famous for its herbarium – one of the oldest in China and the largest in Asia which goes back over 80 years to the original herbarium of the Fan Memorial Institute in 1928.
We walk round the main buildings and into a wooded area – so different from the manicured gardens we have just vacated across the road.
We walk past a sign depicting a map of the Academy grounds. Apparently if you enter from the direction we came from, no one stops you as it is assumed you have business in the Academy.
But should you care to enter the grounds from the other end, you are charged the princely sum of 10 kwai as you are obviously just a rubberknecker. Many people get totally confused, pay their entrance fee to get in and only then discover they really should have crossed the road first to get into the real Botanic Gardens which is what they came for in the first place!
Some visitors, however, are oblivious to such niceties and prefer to snooze away the afternoons…
The Academy has developed into a national centre for Chinese plant collections and is the largest research centre for plant taxonomy in Asia. It contains more than 2.6 million specimens, ranging from fossils to seeds, mosses, ferns, and seed plants, with more than 17,000 type specimens involving more than 6,000 taxonomic names.
But unlike the pristine conservatory across the road in the Botanic Gardens, the greenhouses here are quite definitely showing their age.
But one has to remember that these are fully working research houses, rather than a display for visitors.
In one of the glass houses there are even bananas growing high above our heads
And though the facilities are not designed with visitors in mind, there are still plenty of explanatory signs dotted around the place.
My favourite area is the collection of cacti, especially the round “furry” ball types…
And on another cacti succulent, people have carved graffiti onto the leaves over the years
Songkai also shows us a Ficus religiosa specimen, presented to China by India. This was grown from a cutting taken from the "botree", the tree under which Buddha is said to have sat when he attained enlightenment after meditating for three days and nights.
In this motley collection, there are also numerous bonsai trees
as well as this gorgeous furry-fluffy-plant whose name escapes me (anyone able to tell me?).
But it is the outside gardens that are the most captivating within the grounds of the Academy. It was here that China’s last emperor – Puyi – worked when he became a commoner … not in the Botanic Gardens across the road that many people mistakenly believe. Apparently he was very much into tending the orchids here.
Throughout the gardens there are little paths that lead you down unexpected avenues of trees, or plants, or beside pools…
In fact there are five pools in the gardens, though this one is by far the prettiest and most interesting.
Those plants in the middle are Victoria Regia water lilies – named after Britain’s Queen Victoria – and originally a native of the shallow waters of the Amazon River basin. Some specimens have been known to be as large as three metres in diameter, though they are more normally found in cultivation up to around 40 cm. Their flowers are white the first night they are open and become pink after the second night.
Further along from this pond is an experimental vine garden into which visitors are not admitted.
But tragedy strikes. Within the grounds is a museum which I have never seen listed on the web. My blog fans know that I’m very much in to going round Beijing’s museums.
Here is a museum that is devoted to displaying pressed wild flowers. Oh wow. I want… I want… But Songkai informs us that only researchers at the institute are allowed inside.
OMG – so near and yet so far! What a way to end our visit – knowing that I am to be denied setting eyes on such a collection. A new challenge has been thrown in the direction of your favourite blogger. Watch this space!