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In remote China, plant hunters seek clues to climate change

Studying how flowers adapt to global warming in remote China helps scientists consistently demonstrate climate change, say botanists. 

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Yunnan Province, which is close to the size of California, is a particularly fascinating place to study flowering plants because its dense jungles and soaring mountain ranges are jewels of biodiversity. According to Sun Hang, deputy director of the Kunming Institute of Botany, Yunnan’s climate ranges from tropical to arctic, and although it covers just 4 percent of China’s total land area, it contains more than half of the country’s 16,200 documented plant species.

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Western plant hunters began flocking to Yunnan en masse in the late 19th century. They typically shipped their flower specimens by ship from Chinese ports to European and American museums or herbariums, or to wealthy Western gardening enthusiasts eager to decorate their lavish estates with flowering exotics.

One such collector, an American named Joseph Rock, was partly based in the Yunnan village of Yuhu from 1922 through 1949 and collected some 25,000 plant specimens, many of which are in collections at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in Scotland.

Now Hart, the fourth-year University of Missouri graduate student, is traveling to Cambridge, Edinburgh, and other cities to photograph flower specimens that Mr. Rock collected in Yunnan’s Himalayan foothills. In China, Hart creates spreadsheets of Rock’s data on his laptop and hikes the Himalayas in search of the flowering rhododendrons that his predecessor collected nearly a century ago.

Responding to climate change

How are Yunnan’s rhododendrons responding to climate change? "It gets to be a pretty complicated question,” Hart says on a recent field trip to Yuhu. “But it does look like they are being pushed up the mountain."

Hart, who conducts research in China thanks to roughly $120,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation, says it can be difficult to accurately compare withered flower specimens with living plants. And although he is grateful for the logistical support he receives from the Kunming Institute of Botany, he says, he also struggles to access official scientific data and navigate China’s complex science bureaucracy.

But Hart does have access to villagers from the local Naxi ethnic group. Many of them are keenly aware of rhododendron flowering cycles, and their general impression is that flowering patterns are growing increasingly erratic – an observation that complements Hart’s emerging data sets.

The villagers, though, don’t confirm that rhododendrons are moving higher up in the Himalayas in search of cooler temperatures, as his data suggest. Hart says that is largely because such changes happen over centuries rather than decades, and partly because some villagers don’t know what to make of his scientific inquiries.

“What are you talking about?” they reply when Hart asks if their rhododendron bushes are traversing mountainsides. “Trees can’t walk!”

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