Gingko tree in the autumn

China is the only country in the world with unbroken transition from tropical to subtropical to temperate to boreal forest. There are over 31,142 species of plant in China, an eighth of the world's total and third largest total in the world after Brazil and Indonesia. All of them are described in the 126-volume “Flora of China”. The gingko, cathaya and metasequoia, — trees that date back to the dinosaur — can still be found growing in the wild in China.

Much of China's natural vegetation has been replaced or changed by thousands of years of human activity. Isolated areas still support one of the world's richest and most varied collections of plants and animals. Large areas in the west are covered by sparse grasses or desert. The most dense forests are in the southeast. There are bamboo forest, where giant panda’s live in Sichuan Province. Nearly every major plant found in the tropical and temperate zones of the northern hemisphere can be found there.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: In all, more than 7,000 species of woody plants have been recorded, of which there are 2,800 timber trees and over 300 species of gymnosperms. Among flowering plants, 650 of the 800 known varieties of azalea occur in China, while 390 of the 450 known varieties of primrose and about 230 of the 400 known varieties of gentian are also found there. The tree peony, which originated in Shandong Province, appears in 400 varieties. The richest and most extensive needle-leaf forests occur in the Greater Hinggan Ling (Khingan) Mountains of the northeast, where stands of larch, Asian white birch, and Scotch pine flourish, and in the Lesser Hinggan Ling (Khingan) Mountains, with stands of Korean pine and Dahurian larch. In the Sichuan Basin, vegetation changes with altitude to embrace a variety of conifers at high levels, deciduous trees and cypresses at middle elevations, and bamboo in lower elevations. Farther south, in subtropical Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, broadleaf evergreen forests predominate. Forests give way to natural grasslands and scrub in drier western and northwestern areas, especially in the semiarid regions of Shanxi and Shaanxi, in the steppes of Inner Mongolia, and along the desert margins of the Tarim and Junggar basins. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: ““Among other plants and plant products, two have risen to positions of very considerable world importance within the last few decades. One is tung oil, extracted from the nuts of the tung tree, grown in Central China. Tung oil is used in almost all varnishes made today because it dries so rapidly. The other is that wonder plant of modern biochemistry, the soy bean. Grown in North China since time immemorial, it is now being used more and more in this country. It not only makes a flour incredibly rich in food elements of all kinds, but is converted into plastics and a thousand and one other products used in modern industry. Although Manchuria still remains the chief source of the world's supply, the soy bean is being grown in steadily increasing quantities in our Middle West, and may in time become one of America's leading crops. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Three Friends of Winter: Pine, Plum and Bamboo

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The “three friends of winter” refer to the pine, plum, and bamboo. The origin of this term is found as early as the “Record of the Five-cloud Plum Cottage from The Clear Mountain Collection” of literary writings by Lin Ching-hsi (1241-1310, a Song Dynasty loyalist); “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted. Every year, as the season progresses from autumn to winter, the days become progressively colder. While many plants and trees begin to wither away or shed their leaves, the pine, plum, and bamboo seem to do just the opposite with their surprising display of vitality. Indeed, this unique quality was not lost upon the ancient Chinese. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“In Chinese thought, the always green and fragrant pine (bearing craggy and twisting branches) reaches up to the skies with its straight and powerful trunk like an upright person imbued with the strength and virtue to overcome all. In “The Analects of Confucius” (551-479 B.C.), it is written, “In winter, the pine and cypress are known as the last to fade away Consequently, the pine became considered as the ultimate test of time, symbolizing a wise old person who has withstood and experienced much.” Therefore, in “Records of the Grand Historian” by Ssu-ma Ch?ien (145-86 B.C.), the pine was already known as “Chief of the Trees.”

“Although the bamboo may not be nearly as imposing or sturdy as the pine, it too remains mostly green through the winter as segment upon segment reach out with abundance and stamina to withstand the cold. Unlike the pine, however, the stalk of the bamboo is hollow, which came to symbolize tolerance and open-mindedness. Furthermore, the flexibility and strength of the bamboo stalk also came to represent the human values of cultivation and integrity in which one yields but does not break.

“The plum tree is renowned for bursting into a riot of blossoms in the dead of winter. Its subtle fragrance spills forth at one of the coldest times of the year, making it difficult to go unnoticed. Though neither the plum tree nor its blossoms are very striking, they manage to exude an otherworldly exquisiteness and beautiful elegance during the desolation of winter. The demeanor and character of the plum tree thereby serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display under adverse conditions.

“The praise that the Chinese have for the pine, plum, and bamboo derives from the natural ability of these trees and plants to withstand and even flourish in harsh environments. They became symbols that encouraged people to persevere in adversity, providing inspiration through consolation and determination. Consequently, these three became common subjects through the ages in Chinese painting and calligraphy. Because artists bring different sets of conditions, experiences and feelings to these subjects, the result is a variety of forms, expressions, and sentiments in their works.

Metasequoia — the Dinosaur-Era Tree of China


The metasequoia, found only in China, is believed to be one of the oldest tree species in the world. Metasequoia glyptostroboides (sometimes called Chinese red wood) is considered a "living fossil." It has great significance to research in paleobotany, paleoclimatology, paleogeography and geology as well as the phylogeny of gymnosperm. Because of its elegant shape, straight trunk and fast-growing quality, it is an excellent reforestation and timber tree in subtropical plains. Metasequoia can be found mainly at an altitude of 1720 to 1920 meters.[Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

A rare species, the metasequoia dates back to the Cretaceous period (145 million to 65 million years ago), when dinosaurs roamed the earth, or perhaps earlier. It was widely distributed across the northern hemisphere until the Ice Age when it nearly died out. Fossils of the metasequoia been found in strata from the cretaceous period to the Pliocene Period (5.3 million to 2.9 million years ago) in Europe, North America and East Asia.

In the 1940s, Chinese botanists found a huge, surviving, 400-year-old metasequoia in Modaoxi on the border between Hubei and Sichuan Provinces. Later on, a relic forest of the tree was found in Lichuan county of Hubei province, near where the the Redwood Dam is located today. More than 5,000 metasequoia there have a diameter more than 20centimeters. A healthy number of the trees was also found in nearby valleys and fields. After that, a number of over-200-year-old metasequoia were discovered in Lengshui of Shizhu county in Sichuan and Luota, Tani Lake of Longshan county in Hunan.

Gingko Tree

The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), a tree associated with China, is regarded as world's oldest living tree species. It first appeared 160 million years ago. One kind of giant ginkgo tree, the dawn redwood, which is found in 100 million-year-old fossils and thought to have been extinct for 65 million years was found growing near a mountain village in 1946 in forest in Sichuan province.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Among trees, one of the most interesting Chinese contributions is the ginkgo or maidenhair tree, with its curious fan-shaped leaves. This tree is geologically among the most ancient of all living things. It seems to be descended from the giant ferns which once flourished on the earth many millions of years ago, before ordinary trees yet existed. In China and Japan the ginkgo has for centuries been preserved from possible extinction by artificial planting around temples, graveyards, and similar spots. There it often grows to huge dimensions. In recent years it has been introduced into the United States, where it is coming into increasing favor as a shade tree for parks and city streets. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

During the Jurassic period (200 million to 145 million years ago) the ginkgo was widely distributed in the northern hemisphere but began to decline in the end of the Cretaceous period (145 million to 65 million years ago). When the Ice Age took hold, ginkgoes in Europe, North America and most part of Asia died out. Today wild ginkgoes exist only in patches in the western mountains of Zhejiang province in China. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

The ginkgo is also a precious tree species for timber wood and dried fruits and is used in Chinese medicine. Having retained many of its primitive traits, it has great scientific value to researches on the phylogeny of gymnosperms, ancient flora, palaeogeography, and ice age climate during the Quaternary period. With peculiar and beautiful leaf shape, it is also an excellent ornamental tree in gardening. The ginkgo tree has good resistance to flue dust and sulfur dioxide. Its seeds can be made into dried fruits. The leaves and seeds are be used in medicine. The ginkgo tree has been introduced to altitudes of 1740 to 1920 meters.

Bamboo in China

Bamboo is a kind of grass that can grow to size of a tree. The stems are hollow, polished and jointed and sometimes reach three feet across. Some flower and seed every year; others only do so once every 60 years or so. Some species of bamboo die off en masse after a single flowering. One such die off killed hundred of giant pandas in China in the 1980s. Depending on the species, the die off can occur everywhere from once every dozen years or so to once every century.

In the short term bamboo reproduce by sending up new stems rather than by producing seeds. A single root may produce as many as 100 stems. These stems break the soil with their nodes already formed and can grow as much as a meter in a single day. Bamboo doesn't have rings like a tree. The hollow nodes are already developed when it emerges in the spring and grows like an uncoiling party favor.

There are 300 species of bamboo in China and more than a 1,000 species worldwide. Some bamboos such as “Bambusa Arundinacea” of India and “Phyllostacys” of China reach heights of 100 feet. Moso bamboo, used to make fabrics, can reach a mature height of 75 feet in two months. Hikers who run out of water in the Malaysian rain forest can get a bout a canteen's worth by boring a hole right above the joint of large stalks of bamboo.

Some of China¡̅s earliest records were written on bamboo in the second century B.C. and hundreds of characters in the Chinese language sprang out of pictures of bamboo. Bamboo often appears as a symbol in Chinese art.

According to one Chinese scholar, "Philosophers say the smooth expanse between nodes represents virtue, a long distance between faults, and the hollow interior bespeaks modesty and humility."

See Pandas, See Asian Animals

Uses of Bamboo in China

China is the world’s largest bamboo producer. The province of Guangdong produces about 40,000 tons of bamboo a year. Some of it is exported to Europe for tomato stakes, to Scandinavia for ski poles, and to the United States for fishing poles. Bamboo cuttings used to make these items take only six to eight weeks to mature. Bamboo is also used in making pipes, bongs, vases, and tools. In China bamboo is used in panda food, shoulder poles. and flooring.

The Chinese use bamboo as a construction material: the frames for village huts and scaffolding for high-rise buildings are made of bamboo. Centuries ago Chinese engineers developed the idea of twisting bamboo into cables used on suspension bridges. The great bridge over the River Min in Sichuan, which has stood for over a 1000 years, is supported by seven-inch-thick bamboo cables, which are wrapped around spools and tightened like guitar strings. [Source: Luis Marden, National Geographic, October 1980]

Bamboo shoots, sometimes called bamboo babies, are a favorite spring time food. You can often see people poking around in earth for bamboo before it surfaces, when its is tender and tasty. A day can make the difference between a tender one and a tough woody one. Bamboo shoots are usually boiled and stir fried.

In Chinese medicine, black bamboo is used to treat kidney ailments and prickly heat, while the juice squeezed from plant helps bring down fever.

Bamboo can made into a silky fabric that is highly absorbent and antibacterial, using a process similar to the one that turns wood pulp into rayon. Specialty shops and store chain sell bamboo-based clothing and linens. Green consumers like bamboo-based products because their source is renewable and products are made without many added chemicals. The amount of bamboo for textiles shipped by China increased 10-fold between 2004 and 2006.

Types of Bamboo in China

Q.tunidinoda Hsueh et Yi is a rare species of bamboo indigenous to southeast China. Its big unusually-shaped rings have great artistic and industrial value. In recent years, they have been extensively logged in Sichuan to make walking sticks. In Yunnnan province, people are fond of eating bamboos shoots from this species and collect bamboo shoots in large numbers and cut down bamboo trees for firewood. As a result, Q.tunidinoda Hsueh et Yi is seriously endangered in some places. This precious bamboo species is unique to China and grows best at an altitude of 1800 meters to 2,100 meters. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Pandas like eating arrow bamboo and black bamboo. They prefer bamboo roots, shoots, and leaves, especially shoots. Pandas eat different types and parts of bamboo according to the season. In spring and summer, they like eating different kinds of shoots; in autumn, they enjoy the leaves of bamboo; in winter, their main diet is bamboo roots. [Source: China Highlights]

Arrow bamboo grows best on mountains the slopes at 1,300-2,400 in a warm and humid environment such as Sichuan's eastern area. Many people believe that arrow bamboo reproduces annually but that is not case. It flowers every 60 years on average — blossoming once, bearing seeds, and then dying off. When arrow bamboo dies off like this pandas have to find substitute food of they to die off as was the cases in the 1980s.

Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) is a species of bamboo native to Hunan Province but and is widely found elsewhere. Reaching a height of up to 25 meters (82 feet) tall by 30 centimeters (1 feet) broad, it forms clumps of slender arching canes which turn black after two or three seasons, hence the name. The abundant lance-shaped leaves are 4–13 centimeters (2–5 inches) long.

Garden Plants in China

pink peony

Many common garden plants such as the regal lily, golden-throated white trumpets, white mist poppies, various forsythia bushes, clematis vines, rhododendrons, dogwoods and primroses originated from Hengduan Mountains, a biologically rich area between Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. Most of them were described in scientific literature for the first time by British plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, accompanied by a dozen men and 15 mules, who collected plants in the area on several expeditions in th

The plants form this area became fixtures of gardens in the West because they were beautiful, hardy and could survive the chill of the British and New England winter. Wilson's input is recognized by the number of species that bear his name. Many of the rhododendrons that grace the world’s gardens originated in Tibet and were collected by George Forrest, a late Victorian plant enthusiast who dodged authorities in China to bring seeds for “R. sinogrande” for the potting sheds of J.C. Williams of Cornwall.

Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Our flower gardens are indebted to the Chinese for the chrysanthemum and the tea rose, both of which began to be commonly cultivated in Europe during the eighteenth century. Other flowers which came to Europe at about the same time include the camellia, the azalea, the China aster, and the tall woody-stemmed tree peony. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Wild Rose (Rosa rugosa Thunb) is an endangered species in China. Although roses are widely cultured in China, wild ones are quite rare. In recent years, wild roses have been found along the southern coast of Liaoning province and the Jiaodong peninsula of Shandong province. But their number is quite small and because of careless collecting and digging by local people. Wild roses contain genes that could be useful in cultivating new rose cultivars. The plants have 0.03 percent perfume oil that can be used in making high-class perfume, perfumed soap and cosmetics. It is also used in Chinese medicine to regulate qi, invigorate the blood and serve as an astringent. The fruits can eaten or used as medicine. The big and beautiful flowers are wonderful to look at. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Important Trees in China

Sichuan larch (Sichuan hongshan) is a rare, precious and fast-growing timber wood tree species. It has great significance to the taxonomical research of the larch genus. Its wood is good quality and many trees have been felled for timer. An endangered species, the Sichuan larch is unique to China and can only be found in some areas of Sichuan. In the past, there were large-area forests made up predominately of Sichuan larches; but over time over-logging has reduced and deteriorated such forests., the Sichuan larch is now only sparsely distributed in small plots. The Sichuan Larch is mainly found in areas with an altitude of 1800 to 3200 meters in light forests or mixed forests. It has been used in reforestation in valley areas of low altitudes in west Sichuan. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Picea brachytyla var. complanata is a valuable tree species for timber wood. The excellent wood can be used in making musical instruments, furniture, high-quality building and other things. It is also a good choice for tree regeneration in high mountains and forestation in uncultivated lands.A vulnerable species, Picea brachytyla var. complanata is unique to China and is mainly found in the Qingling Mountain, the mountain areas of the Daba Mountain, and north Sichuan. Due to over-logging, the areas in which it is found have decreased dramatically. At present pure forests of the Picea brachytyla var. complanata are sparse and isolated and due to the deterioration of forest environment the tree now bears very few seeds. Therefore, if protection measures are not taken, the species may well extinct. This tree can be mainly found in on the sunny slopes or half-shadowed slopes of mountains at an altitude of 2000 to 2800 meters, mixed with the bamboo forests or the coniferous forest.

Taxaceae can be found in the evergreen broad-leaved forests and the mixed forests of evergreen trees and deciduous trees. Unique to China and and a relic of the Tertiary period, this tree has fine and tight wood and resistance to water damage and therefore is a excellent choice in hydro-construction projects. The seeds of Taxaceae has over 60 percent of oil that can be used in soap-making, lubricating oil and medicine.

Interesting Trees in China

Pterostyrax psilophylla it is a beautiful tree species that has grand shape, fragrant flowers and beautiful leaves and grows fast. For these reasons, it is widely planted in gardening and reforestation. A vulnerable species in the wild , the Pterostyrax psilophylla is mainly found in the lower and middle mixed forest of evergreen and deciduous trees in the subtropical mountains of China. Due to overlogging, the forest environment it grows in has deteriorated severely. In addition, the tree’s blossoming has a inactive period, resulting in a has a weak natural regeneration ability. The area in which it is found has shrank and its numbers have decreased. The tree can be found at an altitude of 1800 to 2000 meters and grows sparsely on lower and middle mountain slopes.

Big-Leafed Willow (Salix magnifica Schneid) is an unusual member of the willow family, the big-leafed willow has huge leaves that are similar to leaves of a magnolia. New leaves are red in color. Its flowers are long and yellow, yellow-red or reddish in color. A beautiful ornamental tree and in the wild, the big-leafed willow is found only in a small area of wester Sichuan near valleys and streams at an altitude of 1900 to 3000 meters.

Chinese dove tree (Davidia involucrata Baillon) is an ancient, rare and beautiful tree. When it is in full bloom, the two distinctive big bracts under the anthodium look very much like a doves tree with their wings open — hence its name. Because its anthodium and the morphological characteristics of the flower are different from other genera of the same family, some scholars place it an independent family. The fine timber wood of this a world-famous ornamental tree can be used to make furniture. An autogenus plant unique to China, the Chinese dove tree is a relic of the palaeotropical flora in the tertiary period. Due to overlogging and transplantation of wild saplings, both the number and area in which this tree is found of wild is very small now, mostly broad-leaved forest or mixed forest of evergreen and deciduous trees at an altitude 1450 to 1800 meters. Wolong Natural Reserve, famous of its pandas, contains 70,000 hectares of these trees.

Cork Tree (Phellodendron amurense) is a vulnerable species also called Huang Poluo or Huang Pai in Chinese. The cork tree is a relict of the palaeotropical floran in the tertiary period and a valuable timber wood species of China. Aromatic oil can be extracted from cork tree leaves; and fixed oil and a sugar taken from the tree are used in industry and medicine. Due to overlogging, this species has become very rare. In the wild it is found at an altitude of 1700 to 1859 meters. [Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]


Magnolias are one of the most primitive plants in evolutionary history and fossil records show that magnolias once existed in Europe, North America and Asia over 100 million years ago. Today they are indigenous only in Southern China and the Southern United States. There are about 80 species of magnolia of which roughly half are tropical.

Magnolia officinalis (commonly called houpu magnolia or magnolia-bark) is a species of Magnolia native to the mountains and valleys of China at altitudes of 300–1500 meters. It is widely distributed in the north subtropical zone. Its bark can be used in medicine. Due to over-barking and logging, the number of trees has shrunk sharply. Now, wild magnolias are rarely seen. Most forests of magnolia are made up of artificially planted trees.

The officinal magnolia is a widely distributed throughout southern China. It has scientific significance to researches on East Asia and North America flora and taxonomy of the magnolia family. The officinal magnolia is valued for both it medical use and as a timber wood. Its big leaves and the shade the tree offers as well as its beautiful big flowers make it a popular ornamental and roadside tree species.

Endangered Plants in China

Fan-shaped fern (Neocheiropteris palmatopedata) is a rare fern unique to China. It has great scientific value to the botanical categorization of fern plants, and for this reason has attracted the attention of botanists from all over the world. The roots of the fan-shaped fern can also be used in medicine. The Fan-shaped Fern is vulnerable species mainly found in the subtropical mountain forests in southeast China. Due to over-logging and change of environment, the area in which it is found has decreased rapidly. This plant has been introduced in some areas with an altitude of 1850 meters.[Source: Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences,]

Dipteronia dyerana is the only member of a botanical family. It has unusual fruits and is only found in China. For these reasons, it is of great significance to the understanding of the origin and evolution of some plant families and research on the geographical distribution of some flora. Dipteronia dyerana is sparsely distributed in the mountain areas of central and southeast China. Due to over-logging, the number of full-grown Dipteronia dyeranas is very small. In addition, because of its weak natural regeneration ability, saplings are also very rare. Therefore, this species is in urgent need of protection. It grows best at an altitude of 1700 to 1920 meters.

Invading Plants in China

Hundreds of species of alien plants have been introduced to China since the country started opening up in the 1990s. Of these 400 have been categorized as invasive, with some causing severe damage to the environment. These species have already caused more than $14.5 billion in economic damage according to an article by Chinese and American researchers in the journal. Grass imported from the United States is spreading at a rapid pace.

Among the most damaging are water hyacinth, alligator weed and water lettuce, which were introduced in the 1960s and 70s as cheap animal fodder. These plants grow very quickly and have escaped into rivers, lakes, ponds, and canals, outcompeting local plants, choking waterway, depriving water life of oxygen and light, and blocking water intake pipes. Thus “causing much damage to fisheries, irrigation and natural ecosystems in a many as 20 provinces. Other invaders include ornamental plants.

Subtropical and warm-temperate forests represent the northern and eastern fringe of one of the world's great forest traditions. Starting on the southeastern slopes of the Himalayas, Asia's evergreen broad-leaves stretch in a wide belt clear across southern China to the Pacific seaboard. Along their southern edge they include stretches in northern Myanmar and Vietnam. On reaching the coast, the warm currents permit them to sweep northward to Japan and the very tip of the Korean Peninsula. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, January 20, 2011]

These forests should not be confused with true tropical rainforests, which throughout the region border them on the south. The component species and overall ecosystem of these forest types are substantially different. To the north, the evergreen broad-leaved forests give way to cool temperate deciduous broad-leaved woods, which in some places are dominated by beech and deciduous oak. Evergreen broad-leaved trees have thick leaves that are often covered on the upper surface with a thick coat of waxy substance that affords some protection from the cold. This coating gives the leaves a bright shiny aspect.

See Reforestation

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publication

Updated July 2022

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