Most people only visit Kunming, China, to see the fabulous Stone Forest and the 28 different ethnic groups with their colourful costumes, folk dances, and local dishes.
But Kunming also boasts two gardens worth visiting, the Kunming Botanical Garden and the World Horti-Expo Garden, as well as several splendid temple gardens.
Over 80 per cent of Yunan province is mountainous and the change in elevation is dramatic, from 6,714 to 76 metres above sea level. This wide range means the province offers a wide diversity of plant life, from alpine to tropical and everything in between, including lotus, bananas, fern palms, larch, tea, and Himalayan blue poppies.
Kunming's climate is ideally suited to showcase many of these. Known as the City of Eternal Spring because of its moderate year-round climate, Kunming boasts an average temperature of 13°C (55° F) and it gets no frost. At 2,000 metres (6,562 feet) above sea level the city's climate is ideal for a wide range of plants, including most of the eight famous flowers of Yunan province.
KUNMING BOTANICAL GARDEN
Located 9 miles (11 km) north of downtown, the Kunming Botanical Garden, is linked to the Chinese Academy of Sciences and was created in 1938. Its 100 acres (44 hectares) are home to 4,000 taxa, 13 specialized gardens, and a modern exhibition centre. The lovely photos in the latter unfortunately have Chinese text only, but do have accompanying botanical names.
Yunan province is noted for eight native flowering plants: Rhododendrons/azaleas, Camellias, Magnolias, Primulas, Orchids, Lilies (8 species, including the six-foot tall Cardiocrimum giganticum), Gentians (6 species), and Mecanopsis (6 species). Most of these plants can be seen in the botanical garden, and they appear in a comprehensive book published by the garden in both English and Chinese.
When we visited in early October the lotus blooms were just finishing and leaves on the larch were starting to turn yellow, in sharp contrast to the pink begonias growing in rich red loam of the garden beds. The entrance pathway lined with Ginko biloba led to another laneway called Sweetgum Avenue, which opens onto the medicinal plant gardens which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Spring is the best time to visit the gardens, although different species of rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom in all four seasons. December to January is best for magnolias, January to February for camellias, April to May for lilies. A brief introductory pamphlet with a map of the gardens is available for 1 yuan (about 15cents).
WORLD HORTI-EXPO GARDEN
Located northeast of the downtown area, the World Horti-Expo Garden, which opened in 1999, looks a little tired. If you plan to visit, don't be put off by the kitschy Disneyland-like entrance and the huge China Hall filled with tacky shops. Instead head straight for the Domestic China Gardens.
You'll be rewarded with a display of well-designed gardens from every region of China. Each garden has plants native to its area and is complemented by local architectural and geographical features, from pagodas to towering "mountains".
It's like a huge outdoor Canada Blooms but with plants blooming in their proper season instead of being forced for an early display.
Another section hosts smaller international gardens, but these were not as interesting. The garden representing Canada features Japanese Maples and little else that would be found in a typical Canadian garden.
Admission to the World Horti-Expo Garden is 100 yuan (approx. $15). Plan on spending at least a half day at each of these gardens to benefit fully. It's a great way to recover from the crowds at the Stone Forest.
Kunming's popularity with backpackers makes it a relatively easy city to visit, with international flights from Bangkok and Singapore, and domestic flights from several cities in China.
Written and contributed by Dan Cooper