21 Oct 2019

Plant conservation? In Vietnam?

Alex Summers

My journey to Vietnam started on a train bound for Paddington Station from Port Talbot.

After observing my bag containing wet weather clothing and my secateurs in a side pocket, the gentleman sitting next to me asked where I was heading. After learning that I was representing the National Botanic Garden of Wales in a collaborative project between botanic gardens en route to Vietnam, his questions continued. Upon reaching the topic of conserving plants in botanic gardens, he asked perhaps the most common question about botanical expeditions, “why?”.
The reasons why we take plants from the wild to grow them in collections elsewhere for the purpose of conservation (ex-situ) can be confusing and seem counter-intuitive.
Few would argue that conserving plants where they are found, in their native habitats and biological communities (in-situ) is not the best form of conservation. But ideal scenarios in conservation are few and far between.
Rarely do we have all the resources, expertise and conditions required to implement effective in-situ conservation programmes in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
In many scenarios, although never ideal, ex-situ conservation can help safeguard against the loss of plant diversity. I explained to my fellow passenger that, in Vietnam, there are many of these imperfect scenarios that prevent in-situ from being the sole focus of plant conservation practitioners. The examples I used are as follows.
Rate of biodiversity loss: Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. Natural resources are therefore being consumed at an increasing, and arguably unsustainable, rate with few systems in place to protect biodiversity. Agricultural production and construction are also disturbing previously stable plant communities, creating opportunities for invasive or dominant species to colonise at an alarming rate.
Insufficient data and documentation: A sizeable proportion of the plant diversity in Vietnam is yet to be documented; many species remain unnamed and biological data is limited. Without sufficient data and information to guide conservation efforts, it is difficult to create effective strategies and prioritise practical conservation efforts.
Limited resources for in-situ conservation: Government and non-government organisations focused on in-situ conservation are restricted to few projects. There are great examples of work being carried out by the likes of the Institute for Ecological and Biological Resources and Flora and Fauna International for example but Vietnam is a large and diverse country which requires substantial resources to study, manage and conserve their flora.
Unfortunately much of the world’s capacity for conservation, research and management is rarely located in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
After reaching our destination and finishing our discussion about conservation and the work of the botanic gardens, we parted ways and I headed for the Heathrow Express.

Meet the team

Those of us that were flying directly to Hanoi met at Heathrow shortly before departure on our 12-hour flight. Andrew Luke, a veteran of two previous expeditions to Vietnam and Head Gardener at Wrest Park, found me at the check-in desk. Andy has a great knowledge of the flora and plants collected on previous expeditions as he personally grew much of the seed from previous expeditions at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. His knowledge of woody plants and propagation has been invaluable in developing the ex-situ collections that already exist. We latterly met Dr Ángela Cano, who is the Assistant Curator at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, in the departure lounge. Ángela has considerable experience in fieldwork with recent expeditions to South Africa, Colombia and Switzerland. This was, however, her first experience of fieldwork in Asia and she was looking forward to exploring a new flora.
We arrived in Hanoi shortly after 04.30 local time. The Edinburgh contingent was due to arrive much later so we headed to the hotel. Taxi journeys in Vietnam can be eventful as cars and mopeds weave effortlessly across the roads with no clear indication of traffic rules or compliance. They do, however, always seem to know what they are doing or so it seems. Despite being tired from the long journey, the driving and sights of Hanoi kept our eyes fixed to the windows.
The sight of mature bonsai on the roadsides and exotic plants such as Allamanda, Bougainvillea and large Bird’s Nest Ferns (Asplenium nidus) adorning the walls and lamp-posts gave us horticultural clues as to the culture and climate. After a power nap, the three of us took the opportunity to explore Hanoi. We were able to discuss the expedition in person for the first time, drink Vietnamese coffee and walk the streets of the French influenced Old Quarter, enjoying the warmth, sights and sounds of the city.
Later that evening, the two members of the team representing the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh landed. Expedition leader, Richard Baines, arrived with the heaviest bags after carrying much of the essential kit and documentation that we needed. Richard has, like Andy, visited Vietnam twice previously. His expertise and passion for the rhododendrons of the northern region will be vitally important throughout the trip. Hazel France is a Senior Horticulturist and joined the project for the first time. Hazel is no stranger to the region having previously visited the botanic garden in Laos and assisted field studies in Cambodia.

Heading north towards the mountains

With our colleagues from the Institute of Ecological and Biological Resources, we travelled by minibus to Sa Pa, a town located at the foot of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. On the way we needed to collect further permits for our fieldwork from the National Park authorities in Lào Cai. While the paperwork was getting finalised, the rest of the group went to a local cafe. From our position we could look across the Red River to China. The border was easily identified due to the use of Chinese and Vietnamese-Latin script on each side. During the expedition the border with China will never be far away and visible from all peaks. Once the permits were received, we continued north towards the mountains and the town of Sa Pa.
Sa Pa was familiar ground for most of us but the epic climb was still awe inspiring. Terrace hillsides made way for sheer mountain slopes as the minibus driver resorted to using his lowest gears. The roadsides were littered with novelty and interesting sights. A boy selling a recently caught cobra was only bettered by the colourful displays of White Ginger Lily (Hedychium coronarium) and exotic tree ferns (Cyathea contaminans). We arrived at our destination six hours after leaving steamy and subtropical Hanoi to find temperate and cool conditions at our base, the Mountaineer Hotel.

Welcome to Cat Cat Station

After an early morning bowl of noodle soup (Phở), we were on our way to the base of the Phan Xi Păng mountain. As you may suspect there are many ways to reach the ‘Rooftop of Indochina’ at 3143 m. This time we started at a new trailhead, Cat Cat Station. The Lào Cai province is populated by a diverse range of ethnic groups and a Hmong community live in Cat Cat. Some are easily identifiable with their brightly-coloured, traditional clothing, worn for the purpose of engaging tourists who may be interested in buying snacks for their hike or spending a night at one of their home stays.
Our group quickly got away from the crowds and headed for the forest, beyond the rice paddies, buffalo and tannoy system. A stone path lead us downhill towards a stream. This was a pleasant start prior to the steep climb which followed. With spirits and temperatures high, our expedition started at pace but slowed as the gradient increased. With each step the views across the foothills became more and more impressive.
The colourful fruits helped distinguish potential collections from the vegetation. Many of the plants were identifiable due to their similarity to garden favourites. Early collections such as beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.), coralberry (Ardisia spp.) and whitebeam (Sorbus spp.) would be known to many gardeners but each had unique features unlike anything seen in cultivation.
The highlight of day one for me was at the very end when Andy found a series of large acorn-like seeds out of a stream. Without seeing the inflorescence, it was impossible to tell whether it was an oak (Quercus spp.) or its close relative stone oak (Lithocarpus spp.). The only way to find out is to grow it and see!
The night before we had created a campsite at 1800m with impressive views toward the mountains beyond. This was to be our base for a further night. We started climbing again early on the second morning, climbing steeply into the forest once more. What was striking about the forest around us on the climb was that it was never dark. The canopy consisted only of aged trees with little understory to replace it. In many valleys, large areas once comprised of complex and stable plant communities, were now the reserve of monocultures of cardamom, many planted for the purpose of harvesting their seeds. The mountain was being used as a resource, for timber and agriculture. As a consequence we were required to look high into the canopy and at our feet simultaneously as we ascended the slippery and varied path. Luckily, we were finding some great things on the forest floor. Species of Arisaema, Begonia and Gesneriaceae were plentiful.
Despite aims to reach a marked population of Rhododendrons at 2500m, our climb peaked at 2100m. This peak however was also of botanical interest. The rocky outcrop was punctuated by woody plants, all rooted precariously into the gaps between rocks and thin montane soils. A hop and several jumps towards the peak revealed a series of new finds. An oak and a chinquapin (Castanopsis spp.) were located growing near a potential new species of Rhododendron (R. aff. irroratum). Tsuga dumosa stood prostrate overlooking them all. Despite temptations to go further, the situation was reviewed objectively. There was little time for further exploration so we retreated down the mountain contented by our new discoveries.
On day three, we packed up our camp to return to Sa Pa to process our specimens, data and bags full of laundry.
An alternative route was used for our descent. This allowed for further collections on the way. The path was less developed and more difficult in sections. The steep path was composed mostly of rocks, roots and clay. The rain fell intermediately, making the surface increasingly slippery. It became a running joke that only Ángela and the Vietnamese could make their way down the mountain with any grace. The Colombian and Vietnamese group members were able to make their with few slips and clean clothes. The rest of us were covered in mud as we used a more ‘bouncy’ technique. The plants observed on the way down were as varied as the landscape. We came across a grove of Magnolia spp. with at least two different species present, a small Primula aff. nghialoensis happily residing in the middle of the path and a specimen of Exbucklandia tonkinensis in flower. On the final section, after a long three days, we were quickly consoled by the sight of our minibus at Cat Cat Station and the promise of a warm shower and coffee.
Our first foray revealed a staggering and beautiful diversity of plants on Phan Xi Păng. It is a truly incredible place and an important part of Vietnam’s natural history. We however also could see a great deal of biodiversity loss, limited regeneration of trees and cardamom plantations replacing the rich tapestry of plant life on the forest floor. Hopefully in-situ conservation and good land management will restrict the degradation. The scale of the challenge however suggests that ex-situ resources may also be needed and play an important role in preserving the flora of Phan Xi Păng.
None of this would have been possible without the support of our sponsors: Royal Horticultural Society, Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, Spencer ECA, Garden Members and visitors. Thank you.