For the most part, the Southern China I know is a continuum of ugly buildings and expressways, devoid of any hint of what the original landscape must have been like. This is industrial China where beauty, if it exists, is normally shrouded by smog. On numerous visits here I have rarely seen the sun or a clear sky. One can’t help feeling that despite our best efforts to counter pollution in Europe and America, China alone can undo it all. Of course the western world has already done its damage, but the scale of development and industry here is still faintly unsettling. Without it we wouldn’t have many of the inexpensive good we enjoy today, which really makes one think. It’s hard to love this part of Asia especially after travelling in India, Thailand and Vietnam. Even Hong Kong feels a world apart.
Nevertheless, it seems that development and road building do go hand-in-hand with a reasonable amount of effort in terms of public landscaping. Every verge, embankment and central reservation is closely planted with flowering trees and shrubs, underplanted with swathes of foliage plants. The sheer volume of nursery stock required to keep up with the building must be phenomenal. Red flowered Hibiscus rosa-sinenis, commonly known as The Rose of China, are the shrubs of choice down the middle of expressways, sometimes punctuated by clipped Ficus benjamina. In urban areas the planting is more intricate and varied, often employing Bougainvillea, Plumeria, Oleander (below), Bauhinia and Caesalpinia, sparking out of the undergrowth like fiery coloured Cleome. This quality of landscaping could never be replicated in the UK, for the cost of labour to maintain it alone. And it’s a reminder of the wealth of fabulous flowering trees out here in South East Asia.
In complete contrast to Europe, where common practice is to plant trees and shrubs small, as “whips”, here the norm is to plant established specimens. These are normally trees of considerable size which have been crudely pollarded, leaving a main trunk with a few chunky branches. The rootballs are also minimal – perhaps a couple of feet across – wrapped in burlap prior to planting. Once in the ground they are propped up by a wigwam scaffold of bamboo poles. The initial appearance is pretty gruesome, but the speed of growth here means that plants establish fast. This is in spite of a soil that looks deeply unpromising from a car moving at 110kph! Today I spotted watering trucks trundling slowly along the fast lane, delivering water to newly planted areas.
I have seen similar planting further north in Shanghai, including flowering cherries and Magnolia. So, despite their shortcomings with regard to pollution, China have one up on us when it comes to decent, attractive roadside horticulture. Long may that continue.
As I fly up to Northern China, the skys are clear. Perhaps I’ll see some sun tomorrow 🙂