From ancient times China has been a centre and source of sophisticated and elegant garden design. Many of its gardens reflect the surrounding landscape in miniature, using landform, rocks, water and carefully trained plants to create a garden at ease with its environment.
Many garden elements that we use in our modern garden design have their origins in Chinese gardens, such as moongates and carefully managed vistas, using pavilions as focal points, the perfect reflection of elements in a still lake and the beauty of mature trees.
China's gardens also reveal the importance of symbolism in their design, with the careful balancing of the opposing but complementary forces of yin and yang.
"When you visit China you don't just visit one country. Each region is so different. Each has it's own culture, architecture, cuisine, language, traditions and landscapes. From the cosmopolitan sophistication of Shanghai to the Dai People of Xishuangbanna still upholding their ancient traditions, universally the people are friendly, welcoming and want you to experience their unique land."
Garden Travel Guide to China
Garden-focussed travel in China is becoming increasingly popular for several reasons. China is a very safe place to travel and the people are friendly and welcoming. There has also been a significant improvement in tourist infrastructure in China with many good quality hotels now even in remote cities. ‘Westerners’ are also increasingly recognising that China has a very long gardening history and that the Chinese love gardening and value plants, in particular mature trees, although for those living in the built-up metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, public parks are their only chance to get close to nature.
China is also the source of many of the plants that we love to grow in our home gardens and offers the opportunity to see these original species still growing wild, such as rhododendrons, primulas, daphne and magnolia.
Getting to China and getting around when you’re there
Many countries now have international direct flights to several cities in China, including Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Kunming (Yunnan) and Chengdu. Flying via Singapore adds many smaller domestic airports such as Haikou (Hainan), Sanya, Shantou and Wuhan.
Flying time to Beijing is around 10 hours from London, 12:45 hours from Los Angeles, 13:30 hours from New York and 11:45 hours from Sydney.
All visitors to China require a visa, which must be granted before departure.
There is an extensive network of internal domestic flights on Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Changan Airlines.
There is also a China Railway train network with ‘G’ class intercity trains, including high-speed CRH ‘G’ trains which travel at up to 300km/hour. Many have sleeper berths available. If you want to travel in deluxe sleeper berths especially during busy Chinese holiday times, you should book your tickets weeks in advance before you leave home.
Some destinations in more remote areas do not have a rail network – here you can use the intercity buses. Bus tickets can usually be bought a short time before intended travel. Bus age varies and in some more remote areas the rods are not in the best repair, so your journey could be very comfortable…or very bumpy. China’s roads can be quite unpredictable so be aware that your bus journey may take much longer than the distance would suggest.
If you’re thinking of a guided tour of China, you can feel comfortable that your bus will be in reasonable condition and the driver will be well-trained. However in some remote areas, such as mountainous Yunnan, you may need to have strong nerves to deal with the steep hillsides, narrow roads, and rockfalls!
For those of you travelling from countries with a lower population density, it may take you a while to get used to Chinese crowds. Even a smallish regional capital city could have more than 7 million inhabitants and something described as a ‘small town’ might well have a population of 150,000. Footpaths are often very, very crowded and popular tourist sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City will have many thousands of tourists, the majority of them Chinese from other parts of the country. Public parks are also busy places as they provide the green living space for local high-rise apartment dwellers.
China’s topography and natural vegetation
Because China is a vast country (third or fourth largest in the world depending on how it is measured) it is not surprising that you can find a wide range of land forms and climates but to reduce it to simple images it can be thought of in three parts. The east and south are predominantly flat lands and rolling hills. In the north and north west are wide plains and basins and in the west there are high plateaux dominated in the imagination, and in fact, by the Himalayas.
Most of the people in the world’s most populous country live in the eastern plains and this is where most of the agriculture, historical cultures and recent development has occurred. As mountains take up almost one-third of the land and the vast basins including the Gobi desert make up another third, visitors are surprised to find that only 10% of the land area is suitable for agriculture. Outside the heavily populated east coast there are still large areas of undeveloped land in this country of 1.4 billion people, or nearly 20% of the world’s population.
The natural vegetation of many of these areas has been replaced over thousands of years of human habitation but there are still some areas which display the diversity which makes this area famous as the source of many of the plants and trees now familiar in other parts of the world. Nearly every major plant found in the northern hemisphere can be found here.
Pine and fir forests of the north east include Metasequoia and Ginkgo which are rare or extinct elsewhere. In the southern areas subtropical evergreen forests dominate. In the south west towards the Himalayas, vegetation changes with altitude so there are conifers, deciduous trees, cypresses and bamboo all in close proximity and, to the north west, the natural vegetation is steppe grasslands.
Like the topography you would be expect to see a wide range of climates over such a large country but it too can be simplified, especially in rainfall patterns. The rain in the south east is regular but heavier in summer because it is driven by the monsoons. The annual rainfall reduces as you move north-west towards the arid desert areas bordering Russia and Mongolia. There is a line running roughly north-east to south-west which defines an area of about 40% of the country – to the north west of this line the annual rainfall is 350mm per year or less and agriculture can only survive with oasis farming or irrigation.
The temperature averages show a little more regional variety but the summers over most areas are still warm to hot with temperatures over 30°C common except in the very high plateaux of Tibet, but remember the summer can be quite short in the north. Generally it is hot and dry in the north and west, but hot and humid as a result of the monsoon in the south and east.
The winter temperatures vary more across the country. A winter in the north and north east can be bitter. Harbin, known for good reason as the ‘Ice City’, has an average overnight in January of -24ºC. In the central regions, such as Wuhan 0ºC is common overnight and in Hong Kong in the south east, 14ºC is an average winter’s night minimum.
With the enormous growth in industrial development over the last 30 years the other feature of climate for which China is unfortunately infamous, is air quality. The problem of smog is well known and reported in Beijing but can be an issue in any large city in most eastern and central areas. Euphemistically called “haze”, it is highly dependent on the seasonal wind patterns but unfortunately there is no guarantee of clear air at any time of the year.
Smog is usually worse in summer and winter in Beijing and slightly better on average in autumn and spring, although even in these seasons the average is 7 times the maximum recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In Shanghai on the east coast the problem is not as prevalent and it doesn’t suffer the summer extremes. But Shanghai is similar to Beijing in winter, improving through the year to a minimum of only 2 times the US EPA recommended maximum by August.
Chinese garden style
Chinese gardens take both the natural landscape and other cultural inputs like poems as their inspiration. Many are designed to recreate the essence of a picturesque landscape, usually involving a combination of mountains, water, rocks and plants. But they also incorporate elements of Taoist philosophy such as the yin-yang of elements that are both complementary and opposites, like water and rocks. Rather than look out to external views of the countryside as is common in western gardens, Chinese gardens make their own internal views.
Typically the garden is built around a large central pond, home to koi carp, lotus and water lilies but also used to set off pavilions and beautifully-shaped trees and create meditative reflections. Around the outside of the lake a winding path meanders its way through and past elegant pavilions, and large mounds that represent mountains, zig-zags across bridges, beneath mature trees and through groves of bamboo. ‘Mountains’ are an important element as they symbolise stability and virtue. As the path winds through the garden, the viewpoint is always carefully managed to create many internal vistas, with screens, moongates and mounding restricting the view, almost like a series of paintings.
Gardens are usually enclosed by a wall that gives them seclusion from the outside world as well as providing a plain backdrop against which to show colourful pavilions and the rich green, autumn colours or spring blossom of the many trees. Often a garden will have several buildings within it, including pavilions, pagoda towers and covered walkways. The pavilions both reflected the interest of the garden maker and were created as viewing points and places of rest. Pavilions often have very beautiful and poetic names such as the ‘Peak-worshipping Pavilion’, the ‘Pavilion of the Moon and the Wind’ and the ‘Listening to the Rain Pavilion’.
Sometimes the garden tells the story of a well-known poem and will feature carved calligraphy on decorative stones.
Rocks are an essential of Chinese landscape style and unusual limestone ‘scholar’ rocks in contorted, eroded forms are highly prized, often interpreted as resembling a famous mountain’s shape or perhaps that of a dragon or lion.
Plants favoured in Chinese gardens depend on the local climate but will always include substantial trees. Unlike European gardens where trees are pollarded and clipped into regular shapes, Chinese garden designers favour natural and asymmetrical or even unusual shapes. Flowers and fragrant plants are added to bring pleasure and atmosphere to the garden.
Pots with penjing trained plants are common. Penjing, or ‘tray scenery’ is similar to bonsai, where trees are kept in small pots and miniaturised by regular root pruning but it is for the purpose of creating complete miniature scenes, perhaps representing a mature tree, or a landscape, or water combined with land. Trees are wired and bent into contorted shapes – it’s not uncommon to see branches that have been trained into a complete 360 degree loop- and often combines with specially selected rocks.
Where to see gardens in China
Many of China’s public parks are beautifully landscaped, with carefully sculpted landform, paths winding around a central lake, beautiful mature trees and a succession of decorative pavilions, bridges, moongates and sculpture. Potted penjing displays (the Chinese plant-training art that’s similar to bonsai), are often on show around the lake or in separate pavilions.
Newer parks, often rehabilitating polluted and degraded waterways, feature world-class urban and ecological design, however not all have been maintained to the high standard of their original construction.
Locals living in surrounding high-rise apartments use their parks as their ‘backyard’ and outdoor living space. Most of these parks are free entry. Expect to see people practising their musical instruments, playing in bands, exercise dancing to recorded music, performing tai chi (including with swords), playing chess, cards and mahjong, or painting and drawing. It’s a much more active use of a park than most western tourists have seen before, and it’s wonderful experience. Whatever city or town you’re in, make sure to visit the main park in the early morning or late afternoon and join in!
Expect to pay an entrance fee to visit a botanical garden. You can see a list of China’s botanical gardens at the BGCI website
The majority of China’s open gardens date from the Ming Dynasty (16th century) or the Qing Dynasty (mid 17th century to the early 20th century) although there a few gardens from the earlier Yuan dynasty around Shanghai. Although some were created by members of the royal family, many were built by wealthy court officials around their mansions, indicative of the high cultural value placed on gardens.
Another place to see Chinese landscaping and gardens is around many of the temple complexes. Although some of these have suffered either from earthquake damage in the past century or during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, most towns will have an attractive temple set within a garden area with lake, trees, potted plants and interesting stone walls and paving.
Inside the temple courtyards you will often find very ancient trees.
Hotels in regional areas (where space is not an issue) often have lovely gardens with an interesting modern twist on interpreting traditional Chinese garden style. Other family-owned hotels have developed beautiful gardens over many years, often featuring very old penjing.
If you’re on a garden tour of China with a knowledgeable and well-connected local guide, you may be able to see a ‘real’ person’s home garden. This might be a small courtyard area filed with ancient penjing, or a vegetable garden or a koi pond with lotus and water lilies and a small surrounding garden.
Although landscape architecture is a relatively new discipline in China, some exciting modern landscapes have been created in partnership with European, Japanese, American and Australian design companies, often where site rehabilitation work is required in and around cities, as well as for the new wealthy housing estates springing up all over China to satisfy its burgeoning middle class. Internationally, the most famous of these newer parks is the ‘Red Ribbon’ park in Hebei province, designed by Turenscape.
What’s old and what’s new in China?
China has seen many upheavals over the centuries. Devastating earthquakes have destroyed significant historical cultural treasures, including both buildings and gardens. Upheaval of a different kind swept through China during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, when many old buildings and historical landscapes were seized, damaged or destroyed.
Some are still preserved in their state of ruin, such as the old Summer Palace in Beijing. But many have been rebuilt, sometimes recreating an accurate reproduction of what was there before, but sometimes not. Many rebuilt culturally-significant landmarks are bigger and more embellished than they were before, partly to make them seem grander and partly to accommodate a much higher number of (mostly local Chinese) tourist visitors each year.
There are also imitation natural landscapes such as the popular limestone terraces at White Water River near Lijiang in Yunnan which reproduce the original (but much harder to access) Baishuitai Terraces at a scale that can accommodate the thousands of tourist buses of a rapidly-expanding Chinese tourism market. Although this might seem like fakery in one way, in another it allows the original landscape to survive relatively unscathed, which it would not if subjected to full tourist numbers, much as the French did with the replica Lascaux Caves now visited by all tourists.
Garden tours to China
Garden tours to China tend to concentrate on three areas:
Shanghai to Suzhou, with its many fine historical gardens
Beijing and the Summer Palace
Yunnan and Sichuan wildflower tours
Some also include the Luoyang Peony festival in April and nearby Xi’an.
While a garden tour of China is a fabulous experience, before you book on a tour you should consider a few things that might be a bit different to what you’ve encountered travelling in other countries.
First is the food. Real Chinese food is fabulous, varied and delicious, but unfortunately many hotels and ‘western-style’ restaurants have decided that all you will want to eat is bland-tasting sweet and sour pork and cashew chicken. Every night! If you’re not adventurous and this is to your taste, you’ll be fine but if you’d prefer to eat the intriguing dishes and delicacies being served to the locals, you will need to check that your tour operator has catered for alternative dining options, or you will assuredly have bland stodgy food every night, and probably every lunch as well.
Second is the public toilets. Unfortunately Chinese public toilets are often not cleaned as regularly as you might prefer, especially in remote areas. And all (except in hotels) will, of course, be squat toilets so, to travel in China if you’re not used to this, you will need to be fit enough to squat and stand easily.
Third is the crowds. Intellectually you might know that China has 1.4 billion people, but when you find that pressure of people around you, it can take a while to get used to, especially if you come from a quiet, regional area. In some Chinese cities, whichever direction you go, you will feel as if all the world is pushing past you headed the opposite way, until you turn around and walk in that direction!
Fourth is communications. If you are a social media junkie, get used to the idea that you will not have access to Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube or WhatsApp when you are in China as these are routinely blocked by the Chinese Government. Some travellers have found that paying for access to an outside-China VPN allows them to circumvent the blocking.
Finding a garden tour to China
Garden tour companies that take escorted tours to China have outbound tours from various countries but many sell land content only so you can choose a tour itinerary and timing that suits you from a very wide range of international companies. Most tours are between April and September.
From Australia: Renaissance Tours, Opulent Journeys, Wendy Wu Tours, Ross Tours, Botanica World Discoveries, Asia Discovery Tours, Destination Management, China Birds, and Tea Total Australia.
From the UK: China Holidays, Journeys of Distinction, RHS Garden Holidays (Wendy Wu Tours)
From the USA: Globotours, Interlake China Tours
Tours within China – Suzhou: China Odyssey Tours; CnAdventure: Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai.
Best open gardens to see in China
Best open gardens to see in Shanghai and eastern China
Best open gardens to see in Shangahi and environs
• Shanghai Botanical Garden – over 80 hectares with large collections of bamboo, peonies, roses, magnolias, maples and conifers. Significant 4 hectare penjing garden and 0.5 hectare ‘Tropicarium’. A highlight is the recently refurbished Quarry Garden.
• Yuyuan Garden – Ming Dynasty garden (16th century), restored in the 1950s. The 2 hectare garden or rocks, lotus ponds, paths and bridges is divided into 6 garden areas by spectacular ‘dragon’ walls
• Qiu Xia Pu Garden (or Qiuxia Garden) in Jiading town – an elegantly designed 16th century classical garden. Beautiful internal views, lake and mature trees.
• Guyi Gardens (Guyiyuan) in Nanxiang town – a classical garden dating from the mid 16th century surrounding a central pond (the ‘Frolicking Goose Pond’) filled with flowering lotus. Two historic pagodas, terraces, pavilions and corridors
• Zui bai chi Garden (Drunken Bai Pond) – Songjiang District – 5 hectare classical poem garden with winding paths, elegant pavilions, lattice windows and screens, lotus pond, ancient cinnamon tree.
• Houtan Park, Shanghai – modern 14 hectare park along the Huangpu riverfront, built in 2010 on a former industrial site. Includes a 1.7km wetland walk, modern sculpture, fields of flowers and agricultural crops like rice, bamboo groves and Chinese redwood trees. Designed by Turenscape
Best open gardens to see in Wuxi
• Jichang Garden (Garden of Ecstasy) – a restored version (post 1860 earthquake) of the historic Yuan Dynasty classical 2.5 hectare garden which replicates the surrounding scenery in miniature using rocks, water and trees. Large lake and pavilions.
• Meiyuan (The Plum Garden) – lakeside garden on Lake Tai, famous for its 4000 plum trees in 40 varieties planted by the Rong family in the early 1900s which show spectacular blossoms each spring
• Liyuan Garden (Li’s Garden) – 5.4 hectare garden created on the shore of Li Lake. Four Seasons Pavilion, stone paths, man-made hills, rockeries
Best open gardens to see in Suzhou
• The Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Garden) – 5.2 hectare garden in 3 sections (Eastern, Western and Central) created during the early 16th century with pavilions, lakes, bridges. An iconic Chinese garden that’s much imitated throughout the world
• The Lingering Garden (Liuyuan Garden) – 4 themed rock gardens surround a multitude of buildings making many viewing angles from their corridors and windows. The gardens are renown for their unique rocks, plus pavilions and water.
• Lion Grove Garden (Shizilin Garden) – Yuan dynasty garden with central pond, large grotto, ancient trees and many uniquely-formed rocks, some of which resemble lions, giving the garden its name
• Master of the Nets Garden (Wangshi) – dating from the 12th century, this small and elegant garden has many beautiful framed vistas and smaller ‘gardens within the garden’
• Embracing Beauty Mountain Villa garden (Huanxiu) – symbolising mountain scenery, this garden was built by a government official in the 18th century. Features outstanding rockwork which creates a central ‘mountain’ and a water garden with zig-zag bridges.
• Surging Waves Pavilion garden (Canglang) – 1 hectare scholar’s garden based on a poem, dating from the 12th century. Features central pavilion, sculptural rocks, calligraphy, bamboo and trees.
• Retreat and Reflection garden (Tuisiyuan) – 18km from Suzhou in Tongli Town. Large water garden surrounded by pavilions, tea hall, trees, rockeries and penjing displays.
• Zhangjiagang Town River Reconstruction – designed by Botao Landscape (Australia), this city ecological riverside park stretches over 2km through the city center, rehabilitating the polluted river and providing recreational areas. Designed in “modern Chinese style”, it uses the familiar elements of lakes, rocks, pavilions, sculpture and plants but in a contemporary, sweeping curvilinear design.
• Lotus Lake Park, Kunshan – designed by Integrated Planning and Design Inc, this 4.4 hectare ecological community park highlights the local culture of fishing and aquaculture with a complex of lake and river environments, filled with bamboo, water lilies, lotus, reeds and other wetland plants. Includes a theatre-in-the-round, water projection screen and pathways to wander.
Best open gardens to see in Yangzhou
• Geyuan (Ge Garden) – created hills with rock gardens that represent the 4 changing seasons in this early 19th century garden which has large stands of bamboo, decorative screens and moon gates.
• Heyuan (He Garden at Jixiao Mountain Villa) – an ‘east-meets-west’ garden with winding paths between buildings, ancient trees and colourful bedding plants
Best open gardens to see in Taizhou Jiangsu Province
• Qiaoyuan Garden – 1.2 hectare Ming Dynasty classical garden with pond, rocks and bonsai
Open gardens to see in Hangzhou
• Qu-Yuan Garden – beautiful pavilions surrounding a large lake; mature trees, bridges, willow trees, sakura
• Hangzhou CBD Waterfront Park – running between Fuchun Road and Qiantang River, this new park is essentially a greenroof. It incorporates modern interpretations of a wetland and stream with concrete ‘boulders’ and stepping stones, sculpture gardens, playgrounds, informal forest areas and tree-lined avenues.
Best open gardens to see in Wuyuan, Haiyan, Zhejiang Province
• Qiyuan Garden (Feng’s Garden) – 1 hectare garden with large lake, mature trees, grotto and pavilions creating a series of garden pictures with magical names like ‘Enjoying Old Musical Instrument in Quiet Valley’ and ‘Butterfly Drops into Greens’.
Best open gardens to see in Beijing and northern China
• Beijing Botanical Garden – on the outskirts of Beijing, 564 hectares. Special gardens include a rose garden, bulb garden, peony grove, medicinal garden, native and endangered plants gardens plus tropical and subtropical greenhouses.
• Beijing Olympic Forest Park – constructed for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the 6.8 hectare site was designed along feng shui principles and features created landforms that echo natural mountains, lakes and streams. The North Forest Park is a natural reserve and ecosystem and the South Forest Park is designed for recreation and education with amphitheatre, wetland boardwalks and meandering paths. The two halves are joined by a landscaped park bridge over the Fifth Ring Road.
• The Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan) – dating from the mid 18th century and restored after the 1860 war on its original foundations, the huge Kunming Lake and the Longevity Hill form the basis of a multi-garden complex, combining the borrowed landscape of hills and water with palaces, temples, towers, pavilions, rocks, temples and bridges. Includes Xiequyuan – the Garden of Harmonious Delights/Pleasures, and Buddha’s Fragrance Pavilion.
• Beihai Park (Beihai Gong Yuan) – public park north-west of the Forbidden City, with many gardens around the large lake, such as the Daxitian Gardens, Jingxinzhai (rock garden) and Jade Flower Island with its tall white stupa.
• Da Guan Yuan (Grand View Garden) – Xuanwu District – a garden created to bring to life the garden described in the famous Chinese romantic fiction book ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ which was filmed as a TV series in the 1980s. Created in northern Chinese style, the gardens include the Spilling Jade Pavilion, Happy Red Court, Bamboo Lodge
• Ning Shou Yuan (Garden of the Qianlong Emperor; Garden of Tranquil Longevity) – 18th century rock garden within Beijing’s Forbidden City
• Yu Hua Yuan (Imperial Palace Garden) – small Ming dynasty garden in the Forbidden City. Ancient pines, pots, and patterned cobblestone.
• Taoran Ting Park – within the popular 24 hectare Taoran Ting Park is the Park of Famous Pavilions with the historic Qing Dynasty Taoran Ting Pavilion (Joyful Pavilion) alongside replicas of China’s 36 most famous pavilions, and surrounded by lakes, mature trees, and rose gardens.
• Zi Zhu Yuan (Purple Bamboo Park) – Haidan District – a mountain-water landscape garden of man-made mounds and lakes and large groves of 50 different species of bamboo
Best open gardens to see in Hebei Province
• Chengde Summer Palace (Bishu Shanzhuang) or Imperial Mountain Resort (230km north of Beijing) – imperial garden, large ornamental lake with lotus and one of China’s tallest pagodas
• Ancient Lotus Pond in Baoding 150km southwest of Beijing) – 2.4 hectare classical garden has origins as far back as the early 13th century. Large lotus pond surrounded by mature trees and with a central island and pavilion
• Red Ribbon Park, Qinhuangdao – designed by Turenscape this innovative 20 hectare public park on the Tanghe River features a 500m-long ‘red ribbon’ curvilinear bench that winds through forests and wetlands in the park.
• Tangshan Nanhu Eco-City Central Park – built on the site of former open-cut mine, dump and sewage lagoon, this is the largest urban park on north-eastern China. It now boasts more than 600,000 trees and shrubs, providing home to abundant wildlife. Much of the reclamation work was done with recycled materials, including trunks of dead trees that stabilised the foreshore and coal ash as foundations and bricks.
Best open gardens to see in Yuci, Shanxi Province (500km southwest of Beijing)
• Chang Family Manor – Qing/Manchu Dynasty garden featuring large pond with water lilies and many inscriptions and sculptures
Public park in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (1,000km west of Beijing)
• Aiyi River Landscape Park – designed by BVLD, this 19 hectare ecological riverine park rehabilitates the Yellow River and reconnects its urban population with the natural environment. Set in a mountainous arid landscape, the park features zig-zag timber and steel paths and many small pavilions from which to experience the tranquil views.
Best open gardens to see in southern China
Best open gardens to see in Guandong Province
• South China Botanical Garden, Guangzhou – 1,155 hectare garden dating from 1929, featuring subtropical and topical plants, including palms. Large greenhouse and herbarium.
• Qinghui Yuan garden, Foshan – 2 hectare garden with pond, stream, rockeries and pavilions as well as Qing/Manchu Dynasty stained glass panels.
• Keyuan Garden, Dongguan – small mid 19th century classical garden, featuring 3 connected gardens and Lingnan-style intricate carving on wood, stone and clay in its gate posts and screens.
• Yu Yin Shan Fang Garden, Nancun (17km from Guangzhou) – a small Qing Dynasty garden featuring many wood, brick and limestone carvings. Stone pathways and steps lead around a central lake with bridges, terraces, hills and pavilions.
• Lingyuan Park, Foshan – built by scholar Liang Airu in the Qing Dynasty, this large private garden features winding paths, large lake, mature trees, interesting decorative stones and 80 calligraphy inscriptions
• Lan Pu Orchid Garden – 5 hectares featuring over 200 types of orchids among groves of bamboo and mature trees and inside several arge orchid houses. Peak orchid flowering season is May-June
Best open gardens to see in western China
Best open gardens to see in Xi’an
• Xi’an Botanical Garden – 20 hectares, individual gardens featuring aquatic plants, aromatic plants, medicinal plants, bio-energy plants plus magnolia garden and large ornamental flower garden. Tropical and subtropical greenhouses. Huge tulip display in early spring followed by peonies.
• Gardens of the Great Mosque of Xi’an – features a series of four garden courtyards with timber and stone arches, ceramic tiling, beautiful stele calligraphy and mature trees.
‘The Soundwave’, Myrtle Tree Garden, Xiangyang, Hubei
Designed by Penda Architects, ‘The Soundwave’ is a visually and acoustically entrancing sculpture. 500 purple steel fins of varying height are set vertically in an undulating concrete landscape with enclosed ponds. The fins catch and reflect the sunlight and are lit at night, responding to the movement of visitors.
Best open gardens to see in Yunnan
Yunnan is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with its unique combination of low latitude (only 28 degrees north) with high altitude of 2,200 to 4,500 metres. The natural home to many of the ornamental plants we grow in our gardens, like rhododendron, magnolia, daphne, jasmine, pieris, indigofera and primula, Yunnan has spectacular scenery and many places to enjoy spring wildflowers such as Mt Cangshan Geopark, Meili Snow Mountain and Minyong Glacier near Deqin. It will leave you breathless in more ways than one! (well, it is over 3,000 metres).
A wildflower tour to Yunnan should be on everyone’s bucket list. Types of flowers vary with the time of year and altitude. In May, between Dali and Deqin, expect to see hillsides and valleys with flowering rhododendrons, azaleas, yellow and pink daphnes, Deutzia, Euphorbia, Berberis, Incarvillea, Indigofera, early primulas, Sophora and deep purple irises. June is the peak season for many species of Primula, as well as yellow and blue poppies (Meconopsis), orange and yellow Lilium and Cyprepedium orchids. By autumn you can see (apart from spectacular coloured foliage) gentians, Aconitum, saxifrages, Swertia, Cyananthus, Allium and Pedicularis.
• Cui Hu Park (Green Lake Park), Kunming – popular public park with large central lake, pavilions, mature trees and walkways. Enjoy watching how the locals use their park for band performances, practising instruments, tai chi, dancing and exercise.
• Kunming Botanical Garden – tree arboretum, pond and water garden. 6000 species of plants. Display areas explain the range of Yunnan flora
• Yuantong Temple gardens in Kunming – Taoist temple with beautiful and peaceful surrounding gardens with many interesting subtropical plants
• Lijiang Old Town – enjoy a walk through the picturesque old town of Lijiang along the tree-lined canal.
• Three Pagodas Dali – ignore the fake and recently-built multi-temple complex up the hill and enjoy the gardens below and surrounding the original pagodas
NOTE: before travelling to Yunnan to see wildflowers, be aware that the tour will ascend to at least 4,300m altitude when crossing the Baima Pass. The tour itinerary should allow for a gradual ascent to higher altitudes to allow you to acclimatise over several days but you should also consult a travel doctor before you go, who may prescribe altitude sickness tablets for you.
Best open gardens to see in Hong Kong
• Nan Lian Garden (南蓮園池) on Diamond Hill – beautifully-maintained public garden with picturesque combinations of rocks, trees and water. Designed in Tang Dynasty style. Features cloud-pruned trees, conifers, lotus pond, the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection and the stunning vermillion Zi-Wu bridge.
• Hong Kong Park – surrounded by highrise, a popular 3 hectare park with artificial lake with fountains, cascades and waterfalls, large conservatory and many subtropical flowering trees
• Hang Hau Man Kuk Lane Park – a modern take on traditional Chinese garden design, featuring a spectacular stone block waterfall, zig-zag bridge and ‘bamboo’ pavilion
• Hollywood Road Park (荷李活道公園) – small Chinese style landscaped park with moon gates, pavilions, mature trees
• Kowloon Walled City Park (九龍寨城公園) – 3.1 hectare park of planted beds, grassed areas, mature trees and winding paths. Chinese Zodiac garden, Red Leaf Path of colourful foliage, many interesting subtropical flowering trees. Designed in the Jiangnan garden style of the early Qing Dynasty.
• Victoria Peak Garden – views over Hong Kong from this Victorian-era garden which once surrounded the Governor’s hilltop residence. Gazebo, pergola, colonnade, lawns, flower beds and sundial.
• Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens – 5.6 hectare garden features over 900 species of subtropical and tropical plants, with both native and exotic plants. Hong Kong Orchid tree, Camel’s Foot tree, coral trees and Spider trees.
• Edward Youde Aviary – 3.2 hectare aviary in Hong Kong Park. Elevated walkways wind among the canopies of mature trees and palms. Part natural vegetation
• Hong Kong Wetland Park – an award-winning 61 hectare biodiverse wetland with specialised habitats for a variety of water birds and animals. Mangrove Walk, Stream Walk and Succession Walk. Self-guided or guided tours, visitor center
• O-Farm Community Garden, Tan Chuk Hang, Fanling Organic Farm – allotment gardens rented by Hong Kong residents where they grow organic food. Located on Hong Kong Island, at Tai Po, Sai’wan
• Lai Chi Kok Park – traditional Chinese garden and also Lingnan-style garden decorative stone, brickwork and metal fencing, lake, pavilion, moon gates, and very interesting stair garden leading up from Mei Foo Station
• Sha Tin Park (沙田公園) – 8 hectare park with a variety of gardens including a walled garden, azalea garden, scented garden and amphitheatre. Large lake and unusual stone bridge, colonnade, waterfalls
For many gardeners the word camellia conjures up images of a reliable shrub that produces gorgeous autumn and winter displays of flowers. A recent visit to the Yunnan Province of China has taught me a whole other side to the versatile camellia genus.
Come with me in the footsteps of the plant collectors to one of the most botanically diverse areas on earth, Yunnan Province in China, home to many of our most treasured garden plants such as roses, magnolias, rhododendrons and poppies.