Cypripediums of Northern Sichuan (with photos)

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Abgeschickt von Holger Perner am 27 November, 2002 um 16:10:08

Since September 2001 I work as a senior consultant for the administration of the Huanglong nature reserve in the Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Region of Northern Sichuan. In 1992 Huanglong was inscribed UNESO World Natural Heritage because the Huanglong valley in the center of the 700 square km wide reserve contains a spectacular geological treasure: The valley is 7 km long, starts in 4100 m at the foot of a steep mountain wall with a crest in 5000 m height and ends in about 3050 m in the valley of the upper Fu river. The travertine stretches from 3600 m down to 3050 m and consists of over 3300 ponds, several waterfalls, caves and a 1.2 km long tufa bank. The entire structure, the biggest of its kind in the world, is formed by limestone tufa, which is constantly deposited in the shallow water coming from several geothermal mineral springs. Its yellowish color and long winding appearance has lead to the name Huanglong, which means yellow dragon.

Fig. 1 (left): The colorful pools behind the Huanglong temple at an altitude of 3600 m are with 660 ponds the biggest group of sinter pools in Huanglong valley.
Fig. 2 (right): A round way leads through the spectacular scenery of the Huanglong valley, here in 3300 m.


The tufa deposits keeps the valley floor open, which would otherwise covered by dense mountain forest as it grows on its slopes. 28 orchid species can be found in the valley. They profit from the shallow soil cover on the porous but rock-like tufa. In this shallow soil no dense layer of competing herbs can come up. Open shrub insures some protection from the strong high-altitude sun and the total appearance of the orchid habitat in the valley is that of a 3.5 km long and up to 100 m wide natural garden with a spectacular scenery ( in my eyes the most beautiful I ever have seen anywhere), numerous species of trees and shrubs, alpine flowers and of course orchids. Of the latter the slipper orchids give a fantastic display in the mid of June, when over 10 000 stems of Cyp. flavum, tibeticum and bardolphianum as well as a few Cyp. calcicolum are in full flower. Cyp. smithii is a synonym of Cyp. calcicolum. Both taxa (names) are based on specimens collected in Huanglong valley by the Swedish Harry Smith and refer to the same species. Until recently, Cyp. smithii was used to name this species and Cyp. calcicolum was regarded as a synonym. Unfortunately, Cypripedium smithii was already used before the description of the species from Huanglong for an artificial Paphiopedilum hybrid and thus cannot be used for our plant. Therefore we have to call it Cyp. calcicolum Schltr. All cypripediums and most of the other orchids can be easily seen and photographed from the round trail, which leads through the valley. In the valley many guides and a state of the art digital camera system ensure, that the tourist stay on the trail so that the fragile travertine as well as the orchids are well protected.

Fig. 3: Typical sight in Huanglong valley in June: masses of Cyp. flavum, tibeticum and, not apparent in this picture, Cyp. bardolphianum.

Another spectacular growing site in the reserve is the Danyun gorge, some 18 km east of Huanglong valley and part of the upper Fu river valley. The gorge begins in 2500 m, has walls up to 1000 m high and ends in 1700 m. In the upper part as well as in higher parts of some side valleys of the gorge Cyp. flavum, tibeticum and calcicolum (syn. smithii) can be found. From about 2300 down to 1850 m Cyp. henryi grows scattered in open shrub on limestone as well as on metamorphic rock, sometimes even by the roadside. The same distribution has Cyp. plectrochilum, but I found it also up to 2400 m. Usually it grows scattered, but in one area of the gorge I know a colony with about 1000 flowering stems. At 2000 m some Cyp. sichuanense grow in open shrub, sometimes in nearly full sun. Flowering time for Cyp. henryi, plectrochilum and sichuanense is May. Other orchids in the Danyun gorge are for example Epipactis mairei, Pleione bulbocodioides and 6 Calanthe species (Cal. tricarinata, brevicornu, alpina, davidii, cf. hancockii, cf. caudatilabella). In total 58 orchid species (with 7 Cypripedium species) have been found in Huanglong.

Fig. 4: The Danyun gorge in autumn. In the foreground stands Mrs. Yang, gardener of the Huanglong nursery.

North of the Huanglong reserve lies the also spectacular Jiuzhaigou reserve. Instead of numerous ponds in a dense setting it has big lakes formed by growing tufa at the rim of the lake basins. The water flows out of the lakes in scenic waterfalls. The Jiuzhai valley system is over 20 km long and can only be entered by bus. In some places of this y-shaped valley, scattered cypripediums can be found. Only at two sites Cyp. flavum forms colonies of some to several hundred specimens. Other cypripediums here are scattered Cyp. tibeticum, calcicolum (syn. smithii), shanxiense and the dwarf Cyp. palangshanense, which grows at 2700 m.

Both reserves are part of the Hengduan mountain system, which ranges from southwestern Yunnan to northern Sichuan. This region has 370 orchid species in 91 genera and is the world distribution centre of the genus Cypripedium. 22 Cypripedium species live here and including adjacent areas like eastern Sichuan a total of 26 Cypripedium species can be found. Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou are part of the Minshan (Min mountain range). In this region I have so far found 11 cypripedium species: Cypripedium bardolphianum, flavum, franchetii, guttatum, henryi, palangshanense, plectrochilum, shanxiense, sichuanense, smithii and tibeticum. I expect a further 4 species to grow here, because I know them from nearby areas: Cypripedium debile, fargesii, farreri and fasciolatum.

Let my now briefly introduce these 11 species:

Cyp. tibeticum
This is the most widespread species in the region. It can be found on alpine meadows, in open shrub and humus pockets on rocks from 2400 to 3800 m. It is usually associated to limestone but in alpine meadows the bedrock can sometimes be lime-free. However, also in such conditions it does not grow in acidic conditions! A soil pH of 6.5 is still regarded neutral in soil ecology, although in the chemical sense it is not. In some localities, like for example in Huanglong valley, Cyp. tibeticum can occur by the thousands. Usually it grows scattered with a few dozen specimens around. Main growth form is as a single stemed specimen, sometimes double stemed. The forming of clumps with several stems is rare in Cyp. tibeticum. Flower color is purplish red, with the base color white. If, however, the base color is yellowish to yellow, the red tone goes to brownish or even blackish red. Then Cyp. tibeticum looks a lot like Cyp. calcicolum (syn. smithii) and it is hard to tell the two species apart. Cyp. tibeticum usually has more bluish green leaves, which are relatively evenly distributed on the stout stem, while Cyp. calcicolum has yellowish green leaves which are usually condensed at the base of the short stem. Both species can be glabrous, i.e. with no hairs on the upper stems and especially on the ovaries, or they can be more or less pubescent. Pubescent Cyp. tibeticum are often misidentified as Cyp. franchetii, which has usually a tall stem with wide leaves evenly distributed along the stem and a brighter flower. Its ovary is more or less densely pubescent. Apart from its dense pubescence, Cyp. franchetii looks like a typical Cyp. macranthos, and like this species it prefers more shady situations between shrubs than Cyp. tibeticum, which favors much light but abundant fresh and cool air at the same time. Flowering is in June.

Fig. 5 (left): An „ordinary“ Cyp. tibeticum in the Huanglong valley.
Fig. 6 (right): An exceptional Cyp. tibeticum in Huanglong valley with nearly perfect proportions, a good size and a splendid coloration.


Cyp. franchetii
Pubescent Cyp. tibeticum are often misidentified as Cyp. franchetii, which has usually a tall stem with wide leaves evenly distributed along the stem and a brighter flower. Its ovary is more or less densely pubescent. Apart from its dense pubescence, Cyp. franchetii looks like a typical Cyp. macranthos with its slightly elongated staminode the pale colors (compared to most tibeticums), and like Cyp. macranthos it prefers more shady situations between shrubs than Cyp. tibeticum, which favors much light but abundant fresh and cool air at the same time. I found Cyp. franchetii between 2900-3300 m. Flowering time June.

Fig. 7: Cyp. franchetii

Cyp. calcicolum (syn. Cyp. smithii)
This species was long known as Cyp. smithii, but as mentioned above, the name Cyp. smithii was already used for a horticultural Paphiopedilum hybrid (for a long time, the Paphiopedilum species were included in Cypripedium) and the next available name for the dark colored Cypripedium is Cyp. calcicolum. It prefers slightly different growing sites than it close relative Cyp. tibeticum and can be found on grassy slopes and in grass between open shrubs, usually on limestone, at altitudes between 2400 and 3300 m. Flowering time June.

 Fig. 8: Different clones of Cyp. calcicolum (syn. smithii) on a grassy slope in the Minshan.

Cyp. flavum
Though not as common as Cyp. tibeticum it can be extremely numerous where it occurs. It is closely related to the North American Cyp. reginae and like it prefers lime at its growing sites. Thus it usually can be found in limestone areas but sometimes also on lime-free rocks. In such a colony in porous (!) clay on schist I checked the soil around the roots. The pH was 8 because from above the slope water enriched with calcium carbonate (lime) was percolating through the soil! In the Minshan it grows at altitudes between 2400-3400 m. Usually it is around 35-45 cm tall and has a single flower. But on the slope mentioned above the plants were between 40 and 60 cm, some even higher, and many carried two flowers per stem. The flowers were also bigger than in most other populations and the total appearance was very much like Cyp. reginae. The flower color of Cyp. flavum ranges from pure yellow with a yellow staminode to the typical yellow with a blackish brown staminode. The sepals and petals can be flushed with pink or even becoming more or less solid brownish red at the outside. Inside the pouch is spotted maroon and sometimes the spotting can also occur on the outside of the pouch. It often grows associated with other cypripediums: in Huanglong valley with Cyp. tibeticum and bardolphianum, in a side valley of the Danyun gorge with Cyp. tibeticum, plectrochilum and sichuanense, in Jiuzhaigou with Cyp. calcicolum (syn. smithii), tibeticum and palangshanense, elsewhere in the Minshan I saw it together with Cyp. guttatum and shanxiense. Flowering time June.

 Fig. 9 (left): One of the stout double flowered Cyp. flavum on the slope with rich soil mentioned in the text.
Fig. 10 (right): Two clones of Cyp. flavum in Huanglong valley showing different coloration.


Cyp. shanxiense
This species has probably its southwestern most distribution in northern Sichuan. I know it from two localities in the Minshan where it grows at altitudes between 2500 and 3100 m. Like most other cypripediums in the region it prefers limestone in the underground. This species seems to be obligatory self-pollinating, a character first observed in plants around Vladivostok by the Russian orchid specialist Prof. Leonid Averyanov. Every Cyp. shanxiense specimen in the Russian Far East as well as in China I checked for this feature has showed self-pollination: the honey-like pollen is slowly dripping onto the stigma. The fruit-set in one big population in the Minshan is around 90 %. Flowering time is June.

Fig. 11 (left): Plant of Cyp. shanxiense.
Fig. 12 (right): Flower of Cyp. shanxiense.


Cyp. henryi
This species is a close relative of Cyp. shanxiense and also related to Cyp. calceolus and Cyp. parviflorum. I haven’t found evidence that it is self-pollinating like its cousin Cyp. shanxiense, but fruit set is also very high in Cyp. henryi. It has a strong fragrance, in fresh flowers like spicy honey, later more unpleasant. With this the inconspicuous green flowers obviously successful attract potential pollinators. A further supporting circumstance is its early flowering time before onset of the monsoon rains in June, therefore much more insects are active during its flowering time. I have found the species so far only in the Danyun gorge at altitudes between 1800 and 2300 m on limestone as well as in soil between metamorphic rocks. It prefers dappled shade between shrubs but can sometimes also be found in rather open situations amidst other tall herbs on the roadside. Flowering time is May.

Fig. 13 (left): An over 60 cm tall specimen of Cyp. henryi in the Danyun gorge.
Fig. 14 (right): Close up of a flower of the Cyp. henryi specimen.


Cyp. plectrochilum
It is a common species in the Danyun gorge, were it grows like (and partly together with) Cyp. henryi in mineral soil on limestone as well as in humus between metamorphic rocks. It prefers dappled shade but like Cyp. henryi it can also be found on the margins of shrubs, but not surrounded by tall herbs, instead it prefers open space around itself. Even though this dwarf slipper orchid is easily overlooked. Like its North American cousin, Cyp. arietinum, it is usually only around 20 cm tall. It is not unusual for this species to form dense clusters with up to 20 stems in favorable conditions. Seed set is very high, around 80 % in a dense population in the Danyun gorge. This is probably due to the favorable flowering time before onset of the monsoon rains. Although it doesn’t rain constantly in June, a rainy day is usually followed by some sunny days, at least the first day after the rain the environment is still wet and thus unfavorable to potential pollinators. In May many sunny days guarantee a warm and dry environment around the plants. Because at altitudes around 3000 m the soil is frozen until April, June is the earliest time to flower for the many species growing that high. Cyp. plectrochilum thus takes advantage of the lower altitudes, where the soil is only frozen until mid of March, and not frozen at all below approx. 1900 m! Flowering time is May.

Fig. 15 (left): Colony of Cyp. plectrochilum in the Danyun gorge.
Fig. 16 (right): Close up of Cyp. plectrochilum.


Cyp. guttatum
Also a small plant, Cyp. guttatum is much more colorful than the foregoing species. In the Minshan I haven’t found big colonies of this species but only scattered specimens. A specimen of Cyp. guttatum, however, usually consists of several shoots, which appear in a distance of 10 to 20 cm, connected by the slim and elongated rhizome which runs through the upper layers of the soil, usually between the humus and mineral stratum. Again this is a species of limestone areas with the same exceptions as mentioned under Cyp. tibeticum and flavum. Cyp. guttatum grows in alpine meadows and open shrub, only sometimes in dappled shade, where it is much taller (up to 30 cm) and with much more open flowers than in the more open situations (between 12 and 20 cm). I found it in the Minshan at altitudes between 2900-3300 m. Flowering time is June.

Fig. 17: Cyp. guttatum in the Minshan.

Cyp. palangshanense
This lovely but again very small Cypripedium is only known from Northern Sichuan so far. Its constant appearance in the trade shows how busy certain collectors and the people behind them sell whatever is available! It is hard to find this Cypripedium in the wild, because its tiny flower, often not bigger than the core of a hazelnut, is nodding, as if it would try to escape the shovels. There must have been populations in Northern Sichuan with elongated sepals and petals, which where marketed under the name Cyp. „arachnoides“. The only population I know in Jiuzhaigou has relatively short sepals and petals like the type specimen, which was collected in Wenchuan county. Despite the late flowering time in June it has a high fruit set of about 60 %, as I could confirm this September.

 Fig. 18: Cyp. palangshanense in Jiuzhaigou.

Cyp. bardolphianum
Like Cyp. guttatum this tiny species (usually around 10 to 15 cm tall) seems to have two leaves per growth. In fact it has only one true leaf, the other one is the floral bract, which has gained the size and position of an ordinary leaf. The small flower of the size of a hazelnut is held high above the bract, usually just above the tips of the erect leaves. The pollinator is a small black fly so far as I could observe during the last season. It seems to be attracted by the musty spicy odor that reminds me on moth-balls. So far I have personally seen it only in the thin humus pockets on tufa in the Huanglong valley, where it grows in relatively big numbers at altitudes between 3100-3400 m. Flowering time is June.

Fig. 19: The tiny Cyp. bardolphianum in Huanglong.

Cyp. sichuanense
Obviously a relative of Cyp. bardolphianum with also only one true leaf is the spotted leaved Cyp. sichuanense. When I first time came across this species a thought it could be the rather unknown Cyp. wumengense form North-central Yunnan. But a comprehensive investigation of this matter revealed that this species from Northern Sichuan is not identical with the only known specimen of Cyp. wumengense, which is a dried herbarium plant in rather bad condition and reminds me at just an elongated Cyp. margaritaceum from a shady growing site. Cyp. sichuanense is related to Cyp. lichiangense, margaritaceum, lentiginosum and fargesii. The latter also occurs in Northern Sichuan and might also grow in the Minshan, but I haven’t found it so far. The spotted leaves are a good camouflage when these plants are not in flower, and if you don’t know exactly where to look for it, you often overlook such plants in the wild. All spotted leaved cypripediums of flowering size which are currently on the market originate from the wild! The few young plants that have been produced from seed by experienced specialist give hope that one day their cultivation might be possible. Today, most wild-collected specimens of the spotted leaved cypripediums usually die in the first or second year, many at least after the third and I haven’t heard of any plant surviving longer in cultivation than 5 years, which is certainly much less than their life span in nature, as you can tell from the many old growth scars on an old rhizome! So don’t buy the ridiculously under-prized flowering sized specimens of any of these species in trade. If anybody would really master to grow these plants, he would certainly not sell them under the price of a Cyp. macranthos var. rebunense! They are prone to death and are ripped out of the wild where they only grow in very local populations. For example the population of Cyp. lichiangense at Baishui at the Xulongxueshan near Lijiang, Yunnan, is nearly wiped out. This September, when I visited the site were I saw dozens of plants two years ago, I could only find a single specimen obviously overlooked by the local greedy diggers and mindless foreign „orchid friends“! Cyp. sichuanense grows at altitudes between 2000-2400 m and prefers open shade, but can also be found in shady places under bamboo as well as in very open places, where it forms several growth from a single stout rhizome. In shade the leaves are usually much bigger and the plants only single or rarely double stemed. Flowering time is May to early June.

Fig. 20 (left): A stout specimen of Cyp. sichuanense in an open situation in the Danyun gorge.
Fig. 21 (right): Close up of one flower of the specimen of Cyp. sichuanense.


All cypripediums presented above receive a dry and cool to cold winter in the Minshan. At altitudes from 3000 m and higher the soil is frozen from October to April, and a snow cover of a few to several centimeters can only be found where the winter sun cannot reach the ground. Elsewhere the upper 2 cm are bone dry during the winter and the ground below frozen to half a meter or more. At altitudes around 2300 m there is also no snow cover and the soil is frozen from approx. November to March. Below 1900 m the ground is not frozen during winter. A few spring rains moisten the soil around 2300 m and below from March on. At 3000 m and above the ground melts towards the end of April and growth starts. From June on regular rainfalls bring abundant water until September. All cypripediums, however, have a very good drainage and the soil around them never becomes soggy. One has to keep in mind that the sun is very strong here, the Minshan lies at the same latitude as the coast of Tunisia and there is always good air movement with a rather low air humidity.

Today it is easy for everybody to visit cypripediums and many other fascinating plants growing in the wild in southwestern China. One just has to attend one of the botanizing holiday tours to our region, that take place every year. Some tours are expensive, others are reasonable priced and offer good opportunities to see many treasures with ones own eyes. In Huanglong we welcome many thousand Chinese tourists and a few thousand foreign visitors every year. In a well protected and carefully guarded environment numerous flowering cypripediums, other orchids and many choice alpine plants can be seen conveniently while wandering around in the small valley. Please never buy wild collected cypripediums or collect them by yourself. Just a few sum up with many collectors and these beauties of nature would be stolen from further generations! A last word: Sorry, but I cannot satisfy any request for seeds etc. However, if the Huanglong alpine nursery project, started this year, works well, we will be able to produce many seedlings of several Cypripedium species in the laboratory and raise them under control of the Chinese CITES authorities to strong plants. Again, requests for seedlings cannot be fulfilled yet. But you will be informed, if the project is successful in some years and ready to offer legal material of what we all admire so much, cypripediums!

Fig. 22 (left): Full view of the alpine nursery in Huanglong.
Fig. 23 (right): Inside the alpine nursery in the Huanglong reserve.


Photos and text: Holger Perner


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