The Topiary Thieves

My regular trips to China offer few opportunities to observe nature up close. By and large I’m confined to big, ugly cities few people in the UK have heard of, but today I am in Hangzhou which must be one of the greenest and smartest cities around. On my last visit I wrote about the city flower Guìhuā (桂花) (Osmanthus fragrans) which perfumes the streets with its unmistakable, spicy fragrance. You know you’re in Hangzhou when the Guìhuā is flowering.

En route to Hangzhou from Ningbo we visited a small factory in a rural area. The farmland around was studded with peach and cherry trees, rice paddies and poly tunnels planted with strawberries. Each tiny rice field was golden yellow, spangled with amber grains waiting to be harvested. Here and there small patches of pak choi glistened in the warm, hazy sunshine.

From the first floor window of the typically austere factory I spied a small field of cloud-pruned trees, which the factory manager explained to me were owned by a farmer living in a remote spot in the mountains. He brings his trees here to a more accessible place so that designers can come and select them for local landscaping projects. The finest can fetch up to 10,000RMB (about £1000) and are nearly 70 years old. Their value makes them a magnet for thieves, who recently made off with three precious specimens, so they are now kept out of harm’s way, behind locked gates.

My bird’s eye view offered little detail, but two very old trees in front of the factory carried small, burgundy leaves which would soon be followed by fluffy magenta flowers. Further research has revealed the shrub’s identity as Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum commonly known as Chinese fringe flower and related to witch hazel. As a simple bush it is commonly used in landscaping in this part of China, but seemingly only on the middle of busy roads where would-be thieves would have to risk life and limb to get at them!