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April 10, 2010

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Forest park ablaze with azaleas

LUSH, multicolored azaleas - and rare red azalea trees from Guizhou Province - are drawing visitors to Binjiang Forest Park.

The 8th China Azalea Exhibition will open next Friday and run through May 16 in the park valley covering nearly 7 hectares and filled with red, pink, white, purple and yellow azalea shrubs.

Local azalea growers, professional and amateur, will display their azaleas in a special grassroots hall.

From mid-April to mid-May, more than 10,000 shrubs are in bloom.

China is said to be the birthplace of the azalea and contains around 600 varieties, about two-thirds of the world's total, say experts. Its bright colors are considered a symbol of prosperity and enthusiasm.

The exhibition features a 2,200-square-meter exhibition hall showcasing China's 14 most famous azalea-growing areas. They include Bijie in Guizhou Province, Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, Yixing in Jiangsu Province and Dandong in Liaoning Province.

The highlight is the intact wild primitive Baili azalea from Guizhou - a huge red flower on a tree, not a shrub. It is believed to be the world's largest azalea-growing region. The 125-square-kilometer area features 23 types of azalea, such as the Maying, Ehuang, Baihe, Qinglian and Ziyu. China calls the Baili area "the world's flora belt and the Earth's garden."

Baili azaleas thrive at a higher elevation in a warm, humid area with mildly acidic soil - very different from unwelcoming conditions in Shanghai. Guizhou growers have brought 17 trees, eight species, to Shanghai and a special environment and soil have been prepared so the trees will thrive after the exhibition.

There's a local legend about the azalea. The story goes that during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Madame Shexiang, a leader of the Yi ethnic minority, was taking tribute to Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. She was also herding nine cattle and when they passed a large patch of red flowers, the animals were enchanted by the blooms and reluctant to move. The lady too was overcome and they fell asleep for eternity near the beautiful flowers.

Visitors to the area today can see a mountain ridge vaguely shaped like nine cattle.

"Our higher-elevation azaleas are wild primitive big trees, while those planted in the plains are short flowering," says Li Run, an azalea expert from the Baili Forestry Bureau. "It's because of the unique climate, water, soil and altitude."

It's the first time Li and his colleagues have moved, and transplanted, so many trees. They were transported in truck filled with local soil. The journey took more than 40 hours.

Keeping the azaleas alive and well in Shanghai is a challenge.

"The water, soil and climate in Shanghai are definitely not fit for Baili azaleas," says Xu Zhong, director of Binjiang Forest Park. "The flowers love mild acidic water and soil with a PH of 5-6, but PH here is over 8."

Preparations began a year ago to create a new home for the flowers.

The experts added ferrous sulfate to the water to change the PH and brought in around 100 tons of special low PH soil used to grow jinzhengu, tiger lily buds, a kind of mushroom.

The investment in the flowers' new home reached 1 million yuan (US$146,532).

Umbrellas will be set up during the scorching summer to solve the problem of excessive sun exposure.

"Parks elsewhere have experimented with the Baili azalea but few have succeeded," says park director Xu. "It's worth a try."

The Baili azalea zone will become a permanent scenic spot covering around 200 square meters along the park's central avenue.

Binjiang, opened three years ago, is the city's only park specializing in azalea planting. Growing azaleas is costly and difficult, says Xu.


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