As I trekked on the muddy trail above Dulong River, China, along with other members of the expedition team, mist started to enshroud the lush rainforest. The goal of the day was to find the endangered Nomocharis meleagrina, commonly known in this area as “the leopard flower.” I scanned every inch of the endless green, searching for that delightful hue of light pink. “Let’s see if we get here earlier than the plant poachers.” said Dr. Tsui, our team’s leader and an expert of local flora. Suddenly, excitement burst out in the front, “Leopard flower!” I scrambled down the path and was mesmerized: palm-sized pink-spotted white flowers bloomed on the cliff above and below the trail, smiling brilliantly in the rain. Their airy petals swayed elegantly in the rhythm of wind. Despite this cheerful discovery, however, the rocks on which these plants grew were too far from us, which made getting a specimen and clear photographs almost impossible.
While most of us were feeling pity, Dr. Tsui said, “I’m climbing down to collect specimens. This would be an important record for the local database.” I looked down and gasped: the cliff was vertical and rocky, risky even for one with extensive experience like Dr. Tsui. “Are you crazy? It’s dangerous.” One of the team members tried to dissuade him. “I will feel sorry for myself if I don’t take this chance.” He answered calmly. Slowly but determined, he climbed down the cliff. After taking dozens of close-up photos of the flower, he gently cut off the inflorescence from one of the plants. On his way back, the downpour made the rock face so slippery, that he had to hold the flowering branch in his mouth. Droplets of rain and sweat bounced on the petals of the flower and the bulging veins on his hands. Owing to Dr. Tsui’s bravery, we all got the chance to observe the details of the actual leopard flower.
Dark rosy blotches boldly adorn the 6 tepals with serrate margins, reminding me of an ethereal silk dress with tufts on the hemline, decorated with leopard patterns. The base of each tepal fuses into a black spot at the center of the corolla, like the shape of a pupil. “This is the last intact old-growth forest in Yunnan Province, and it will be open to the public a couple of years later. By that time this trail will be renovated, and who knows how this leopard flower population is going to survive.” Dr. Tsui sighed quietly as he put the flowering branch into the wood frame of specimen press, “It’s time to go. I have someone to meet with tonight.” “He’s gonna talk to the local forestry bureau about setting environmental regulations for construction developers in the area. ” A team member whispered to me. I looked up at the cliff again: the leopard flowers’ slender stems and thin petals seemed fragile, but they stood upright in the wind and rain without showing a sign of wavering. Their deep, dark pupils gazed upon the mountains, the river, and us, just like silent and graceful leopards. The leopard flower is beautiful, so is the heart which is tough as the leopard flower.
Author: Eria Wei
To read another story about working to see a plant, read the story “Teachings from the Colorado Columbine.”