First Flower

Mother of Gardens

When the early 20th-century plant hunter Ernest H. Wilson published a book on his collecting expeditions in China, he titled it "Mother of Gardens." China earned this epithet for good reason: the country is home to some 31,000 native plant species, a third more than the U.S. and Canada combined, and many of these species are endemic to China. Yet a vast number of Chinese species could be adopted in North America and Europe because the regions share similar climates. Gardens throughout the world today are graced with flowering plants—rhododendrons, forsythias, magnolias, camellias, primroses, viburnums, and many others—that originated in China. In this slide show, glimpse just a tiny sampling of some of the most stunning transplants.—Susan K. Lewis

Rock's Peony
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Paeonia rockii
While this particular species of tree peony was named for the Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock, who found it in the mountains of western China in the mid-20th century, Chinese gardeners have cultivated peonies since at least the seventh century A.D. Many of the most beloved, double-flowered tree and herbaceous peonies of today originated long ago in Chinese nurseries. The genus Paeonia is not exclusive to China (some peony species are native to western North America and southern Europe), but China's native species and horticultural traditions have vastly enriched Western gardens.

Dawn Redwood
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Metasequoia glyptostroboides
This prized redwood has been called a "living fossil" and is a testament to why China's flora is so diverse. Like many other plants in China, this species survived the last Ice Age, when glaciation wiped out similar flora in North America and Europe. Until 1948, the genus Metasequoia was known only from the fossil record, but a small stand of trees discovered in the Sichuan-Hubei region proved to belong to this ancient genus. Thanks to seed and saplings collected in China, the dawn redwood now flourishes in gardens throughout the world.

Fortune's Rhododendron
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Rhododendron fortunei
Europe has just nine native species of rhododendron; China has more than 600. When China's floral bounty became available to Western horticulturists in the mid-19th century following the end of hostilities between Britain and China, rhododendrons became highly sought after because many could survive harsh winters. The Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune discovered this species in 1856, growing at 3,000 feet in the mountains of eastern China. It was the first Chinese rhododendron introduced to Britain and has spawned hundreds of cultivated varieties.

Dove Tree
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Davidia involucrata
When it blooms in the spring and a breeze rustles the long white bracts (modified leaves) at the base of its flowers, it's clear why Davidia involucrata has the common names "dove tree" and "handkerchief tree." It is still uncommon and prized in Western gardens, but in the 19th century it was legendary. Around 1870, French missionary Armand David brought it to the attention of Western nurserymen. But it wasn't until the turn of the century that plant hunters, including Ernest Wilson, tracked down these trees and shipped seed back from China.

Primula Wilsonii
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This tall primrose with whorls of bell-shaped flowers was the first species named for Wilson. (It is recognized universally by its scientific name and has no common name.) Wilson collected it from the high alpine meadows of the Hengduan Mountains in 1900, during the first of four expeditions to this rugged region of southwestern China. Of the roughly 500 known species in the genus Primula, which includes many commonly encountered species in Western gardens, nearly 300 are native to China.

Regal Lily
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Lilium regale
In grand botanical garden beds and countless humbler household plots, regal lilies reign supreme. While ubiquitous today, the regal lily's only natural habitat is a 30-mile stretch of rocky cliffs in a narrow valley in the Hengduan Mountains. It is Wilson's most famous introduction, both for its beauty and for nearly costing him his life. In 1910 a landslide devastated Wilson's party as they were collecting hundreds of lily bulbs. A falling rock shattered Wilson's leg and left him with what he later nicknamed his "lily limp."

Paperback Maple
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Acer griseum
The paperbark maple, while not as showy and celebrated as the regal lily, was one of Wilson's introductions that the plant hunter himself favored most. Its trifoliate leaves turn vibrant shades of red and orange late in the fall, often retaining their color well into winter. The common name "paperbark" refers to the fact that the tree's cinnamon-red bark peels away from the trunk, an ornamental attribute valued by gardeners.

Peach Tree
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Prunus persica
Thousands of years before Wilson's time, China was exporting many of its botanical treasures, and the peach tree is a prime example. Its species name, persica, springs from the mistaken belief among European naturalists that the plant was native to Persia. In fact, botanists now think that peaches were introduced to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions along the Silk Road as long ago as 2000 B.C. Other flowering trees with edible fruits, including oranges, may have traveled a similar path.

China Rose
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Rosa chinensis
Roses are native to central and southern Europe as well as Asia and have grown in the gardens of both continents for more than a thousand years. But rose gardens in the West are now indebted to roses introduced from China in the late 18th and 19th centuries, for these roses carried genes that allowed them to bloom repeatedly through the summer and into fall. The Rosa chinensis "Old Blush" pictured here was one of them. Chinese gardeners likely created this cultivar centuries before it reached Europe. Today, thousands of varieties of repeat-blooming roses owe their parentage to roses from China.

Hardy Impatiens
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Impatiens omeiana
This perennial plant illustrates how Chinese flora is once again contributing to gardens of the world. It was introduced to the West as recently as 1983, soon after Deng Xiaoping opened China to Western travel. American ecologist Don Jacobs collected seed from impatiens growing wild in the cloud forests of Mount Omei in Sichuan Province. It was named omeiana after the mountain, a sacred site of pilgrimage for Buddhists and a mecca for botanists. Wilson journeyed to the mountain in 1903 and marveled at its biodiversity. Visitors today can experience the same wonder Wilson did a century ago.


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