Wednesday 9 December

Many of the travellers’ cafes have a stack of books that you can exchange, including battered copies of Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Frodders and occasionally Frommers. It’s important to check the edition before taking the information too seriously – things are changing fast in China and it’s unusual to find a completely up-to-date copy. Even the latest issue is frequently out-of date as only a selection of venues is revised annually.

I was having a leisurely breakfast at Mei Mei’s on Manting Lu, browsing the 7th edition of Lonely Planet China (2000), and was bemused to read the following observation on the Medicinal Botanical Gardens in Xishuangbanna:

“Staff at the gate might try to deter you from entering by telling you it’s boring. It’s not a trick to keep you out … they’re telling the truth. If it wasn’t for the Y4 entrance fee, it might actually be a good stroll to kill a half-hour.”

Given my interest in medicinal plants and ethnobotany, I was intrigued; I hastened down there to see exactly how boring it could possibly be.

I found this enchanting park much more interesting than the lauded Botanical Gardens and Tropical Research Centre across the road, and which is described as “one of Jinghong’s better attractions”.

Some things have obviously changed since this description was written almost 10 years ago, but not substantially; signage has been improved and the entrance fee has risen to Y30, but the mature planting was clearly extant and it had not been majorly redesigned since opening in 1959.

At the small ticket-booth on the other side of the coach park, the path heads straight through a wooded area before opening out into a wide, grassy park. Unlike most other Chinese attractions there’s no gauntlet of tacky stalls and hawkers to wade through. It’s also more compact than the Botanical Gardens so much easier to navigate – you won’t get run off the road by a people-transporter, and there aren’t hordes of newly weds in ill-fitting, rented attire posing for their photo album against various exotic backgrounds. The signage is sparse, but text in both Chinese and English is informative, generally well-written and interesting.

As its formal name would imply (the street sign says simply: “South Drug Park”) the gardens are a very important centre for Dai medicine and contain the largest germoplasm resource of commonly used plants, with over 200 species and cultivars. Planting is arranged according to the four elements Wind, Fire, Water and Earth: “The basis of Dai medicinal theory comes from the Theravada Buddhist belief that both the world and the human body are made up of four basic elements Ta, Du, Dang, and Si (or Wind, Fire, Water, and Earth); all in balance and all connected to each other.”

So if you know which of these elements you’re short of, you could wander around to the right area and indulge in a little self-treatment. That’s the plague of Kunming Botanical Gardens: people helping themselves to cuttings – or pulling up and removing the whole of the medicinal plant. They also remove high-value plants such as orchids with no sense of proprietary.

One of the notices in the Wind section required a bit of specialist knowledge: “there are all kinds of plants that can be used for medicine for eclampsia, witch, scour and cough…” Eclampsia turns out to be pregnancy-induced hypertension, but I’m still left wonder about “witch”.

There was some fascinating information about the enigmatically named “Mysterious Fruit”: Synsepalum dulcificum. This evergreen shrub is native to West Africa, and the fruit contains the glycoprotein miraculin which affects one’s sense of taste. While it itself is not sweet, it makes other foods taste sweet, with the effect lasting for more than three hours. Important for diabetics, it can be processed into food flavouring, while medicinally it can regulate high blood sugar, hypertension, high blood fat, gout and headache.

The path past the Dragon Tree, (Dracaena draco, exudes red sap, takes 10 years to grow 1 metre and lives for more than 8,000 years) leads to the orchid house which is covered in great cascades of purple trumpeted Pseudocalymona alliaceum.

The light filters through the mock high canopy of horticultural netting: Monstera deliciosa glows a vivid green, perfectly perforated young leaves unfolding to over 1 metre wide. Other tropical plants sprawl and climb across each other, a tangle of leaves and stems, unclear where one plant starts and another takes over.

And while the main orchid season might be over, there are a few spectacular blooms: an enormous, cerise, magenta and yellow flower a good 12cm across and 15cm deep, its deeply ruffed labellum resting languidly on top of a waxy, deep green leaf; leaning provocatively over the path, a spray of perfect, delicate white moth orchids with exquisite yellow edging.

Outside, a Hoopoe lands suddenly into a clearing and plunges its long curved beak deep into the soil, the open crest flaring golden in the afternoon light. Normally a very shy bird, it seems completely unperturbed by close human activity and reminds me very much of the Jay I observed at length in Bath Botanical Gardens – so rare to glimpse in the wild, yet now so adept to city living.

I had not seen Mother-in-Law’s Tongue Sansevieria trifasciata in flower before, yet here were large stands of them in the cactus area, with delicate pale green racemes, each spray holding 2-4 flowers with six long, thin petals rather similar to White Star of Bethlehem or Bath Asparagus. They were not fragrant, but had a slight dusty odour.

I’m not sure exactly what medicinal purposes this plant might be put to, but I needed no persuasion not to get too close to the attractive, glossy orange fruits of Strychnos nux-vomica: the ripe seeds contain both strychnine and Brucine – a nasty combination indeed.

And what might Scaphium lychnophorm be used to treat, whose mature seeds can inflate to eight times their original volume in water? Apparently constipation and sore throat although one might advise caution…

Towards the rear of the gardens the planting becomes more considered giving the minutely clipped open grassy areas enormous grace – massive palms rise in close formation: there is striking simplicity to their form, an architectural elegance. What might have been too formal an arrangement becomes contemplative.

As I leave this quiet oasis, the birds chatter and squabble in the trees; the sun slips low and the heady scent of Frangipani blossom wafts down in the cooling breeze following me out into the streets.

I can’t quite figure out which Planet the Lonely reporter was on, as I have just spent two hours entranced by these gardens. Boring? I don’t think so.

The following website may be of interest: