Visiting Metasequoia in Hubei, 2001

Metasequoia and other relict species caught my imagination when I first heard of them as an undergraduate student in the 1960s. The picture of trees like the Giant Redwoods and the Coast Redwoods of western North America, growing all over the northern hemisphere, leaving fossil records and even the Brown Coal deposits in northern Germany, was exciting. Metasequoia was described as a distinct fossil genus in early 1941, and it is an extraordinary coincidence that it was found alive and growing in central China that same year, in the small town of Mou Dao in Hubei Province. For me there is also an almost personal link, as I was born in Anlu, in the same Province, in 1940, one year before Shui shan was "discovered".

Shui Shan in Chinese - later to be given the Latin name Metasequoia glyptostroboides and the English name Dawn Redwood.

When visiting central China in the northern hemisphere summer of 2001, I travelled from Wuhan to SW Hubei to see Metasequoia glyptostroboides living in its native habitat.

I went with a student from the Botany Institute of the Chinese Academy of Science in Wuhan. We flew Wuhan to Enshi - try for a window seat on the plane: there are great views over the central plain of China. From Enshi to Lichuan the road passes through some modest sized but spectacular mountains, and it does not matter whether one travels by bus or taxi but we took a taxi to Lichuan as we had missed the bus. If you have a little Chinese take the bus and enjoy the company.

The second day we took a mini-bus/taxi to Metasequoia Valley (in which lies the small town of Xiaohe), 2 hours 50 minutes, arriving just before 10 am. The road was excellently engineered though the surface was rough in places. The views are so spectacular that I promised myself a hired motor bike next time to enable frequent stops. It is a bit too far for a pedal cycle.

Over a late "breakfast" we talked to several people. A elderly local man told us that Xiaohe was 200 years old, visitors come from all over Europe and North America to see their famous trees, and he gave us a potted history of the 'discovery' and naming in Latin of Shui shan.

On the way to Xiaohe the road had been lined with 20 to 30 year old Metasequoia, and some Cryptomeria and Cunninghamia. After breakfast we walked round inspecting the various large Metasequoias, up to 35 m tall. I was told the tallest was 42 m. There were fields of Metasequoia seedlings ready to be transplanted, and some plantations of 10 year old trees, but I did not learn about the destinations and economy of cultivated Metasequoia.

I was interested in the growth, the distribution of ages, and natural habitat of the Metasequoias in the valley. Was what we could see 'natural', ie anything like pre-H. sapiens? I ask this because it must have been vegetation pressures, not H. sapiens, that had nearly extinguished M. glyptostroboides. H. sapiens is a Johnny-come-lately to the Dawn Redwood's problems.

However, the big trees' ages were uncertain, and their distribution in the local forests were said to be infrequent. After walking about seeing trees 400-500 years old (have ring counts been made?) I eventually decided to climb one of the local mountains and see for myself what the vegetation was like and if there were any smaller Metasequoias growing amongst it.

I set off across - no! round - rice paddy fields. A lady working in the field asked what I was doing, and we had a short and friendly explanation, after which I continued to the bottom of the hill ahead. Following along some way behind were a group of children of ages about eight to twelve. There was a faint trail uphill and I set off, but by this time the patter of tiny feet behind me was quite audible. "Right. I'll show them!" I thought, and surged up the hill, but every time a thicket of shrubs and ferns slowed me down they were again behind me. At last after 25 minutes I stopped. No Metasequoias. The pines and Cunninghamia were still present, but Cryptomeria had disappeared (conifers are my particular interest). One day I will climb for another hour, but that day I had to get back. A video scan of the vegetation gave me something of what I wanted. The eight or so kids were crowding round, so I videod them and showed them themselves, and then we all set off down again, politely holding branches out of each others way.

Back on the rice fields, I recorded the valley from another angle, and then we organised a walking video of my friendly children. They went off and grouped themselves, then all came walking along the edge of the rice field, across the field of vision of my camcorder, and as soon as they'd passed came rushing round to look. I sat down with them all clustered round and we ran through the scene with giggles and laughs. Finally we returned to meet up with the others, where we did a bit of mutual grooming - twigs rather than nits out of each other's hair.

It would have been pleasant to stay a night, but there was no obvious hotel, and I could not find whether accommodation was available. When I do this trip again, I shall aim for Xiaohe on the first day from Wuhan, stay overnight, and travel to Moudao the second day and on to WanXian on the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) in the evening, taking two days rather than three but increasing the amount of time available for looking round.

The third day we took the bus to MouDau, a small bustling town. The famous Metasequoia type specimen (the one on which the species description was based) stands 50 m back from the road, with open fields in a small valley beyond. Photos generally show the tree to best advantage, with sky and greenery behind. From the other direction the Shui shan would be backed by houses and a busy road. The tree is 600 years old, I understood, relatively young compared with the biggest Sequoias and Sequoiadendrons, but of course much older than the Metaseqoias in the rest of the world, which mostly derive from this tree and were planted in 1946 and after. Even on this big tree you cannot punch the bark as you can with Sequoia and Sequoiadendron.

From Mou Dao I travelled on by bus to WanXian while my guide returned by bus to Wuhan. At WanXian I joined the ferry down the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), leaving at 5 pm. Six am on day 4 saw us entering the Three Gorges; by 6 pm we were through and had passed The Dam. Day 5 we chatted across the great central plain of China, arriving about midnight in Wuhan.

We travelled Wuhan Airlines from Wuhan to Enshi; 640 km; 70 minutes flying time, 500 yuan each. Enshi to Lichaung by taxi since we had missed the bus ĘC 100 km, 1 hr 30 min, 100 yuan. Day 2: Lichuang to Xiaohe - 75 km and return, minibus/taxi, 2 hr 50 mins each way; 100 yuan. Day 3: Lichuang to Moudao - 42 km; from Moudao to Wanxian is 84km. Days 4 & 5: ferry to Wuhan, taking just over 48 hours; about 270 yuan.

(Editor's Note: Yuan is Basic Unit in China; and c. 8.20 - 8.30 Yuan = US$ 1.00).

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