Tree whisperer

( China Daily )

Updated: 2021-09-30

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Tree whisperer

An aerial view of Chenshan Botanical Gardens in Shanghai. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

Botanist dedicates his life to improving greenery in Shanghai, Zhang Kun reports.

Few people can claim to have played as big a role as Hu Yonghong in shaping Shanghai's green landscape. He was the key figure who helped to turn Chenshan Botanical Gardens into the largest of its kind in the country's east.

Located in the Songjiang district of Shanghai, the garden area was occupied by old residential compounds, rice-farming plots and a limestone cave before the local government in 2004 decided it would become a place to grow and study plants. Hu, then-general engineer and vice-general manager of the project, created a comprehensive plan for the garden's development over the coming decades.

Following his involvement in this project, Hu spent a year in Europe working as the personal assistant to the director of Kew Gardens in Britain, the most acclaimed botanical garden in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During his time in Europe, Hu had the opportunity to visit other institutions, and that made him wonder what a botanical garden in the 21st century would look like.

His answer: one with a global vision, aligned with national strategy and able to fulfill the needs of the public.

After returning to Shanghai in 2011, Hu was appointed executive director of Chenshan Botanical Gardens. One of his significant contributions was launching a project in 2017 to improve the soil-scientists had found that much of the initial soil was suppressing the development of new plants. According to Hu, the initial soil brought to the area consisted mostly of river silt and rubble, meaning it was fit for farming rice but not for the growing of trees.

What transpired was an engineering marvel. Within two years, the garden introduced a whopping 2 million cubic meters of fertile soil and adopted special measures to create a conducive environment for the growth of plants. The fruits of this labor made the headlines in the spring of 2020, with images of cherry blossoms in Chenshan splashed across new sites and social media.

Hu's ex-colleagues from Kew Gardens who visited Shanghai five years ago were astounded by the stunning transformation of Chenshan. "They told me that what we had achieved in five years would have taken them 50 or more years to complete," Hu says.

Today, Chenshan is a member of the international community of botanical gardens and has a collection of more than 15,000 species and varieties of plants from 71 countries and regions. Every year, about 1 million visitors flock to the garden area, which hosts seasonal blossom and harvest festivals and other events. The picturesque venue has also won several awards, including the 2020 National Award of Botanic Garden Excellence in memory of botanist Chen Fenghuai, and the Landscape Institute Award in 2018 for its Quarry Garden, which was reconstructed from a stone mine.

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