Trees and forests of continental Asia

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Post by Neil » Sun Jan 01, 2012 9:55 am

Dear NTS,

Happy New Yr - I wish you all a tree-filled 2012; I know that will be fulfilled.

I also want to take you through my trip to Bhutan in October 2011. The discussion on the big Ostrya in the tropics triggered this series of postings. Wait until you see the Symplocus from southern Bhutan! I will start this series with the travel into Bhutan. It is a long, exciting trip. I started my journey from the city of Shenyang in northeast China. Despite starting on that side of the world, it still took a bit over 9 hours of flying from Shenyang to Paro, Bhutan: Shenyang --> Shanghai --> Bangkok, Thailand --> Paro. Of course, the most exciting portion was on the last leg into Bhutan. As Bhutan is still a hard to reach, but often dreamed of destination, my fellow passengers acted like I recall my first plane ride - total giddiness! Cliched, but the excitement was truly palpable.

The only way they allow planes to fly into Paro during daylight hours and visual meteorological conditions Unfortunately for us, it was cloudy at our cruising height, so it was hard to get an overview of the Himalayas.

Peaks of the Himalayas emerging from the clouds.

As we started our descent, of course, we could see into the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Our final approach included a sharp bend into the narrow valley holding the landing strip (a strip that is from two directions depending on the direction of the wind), a short hop over one final ridge line into the valley, nearly clipping houses and Buddhist structures and then a final hard turn to the left just before touching down.

Want to get a sense of what it is like to land at Paro? Check out this clip:

Obviously we made it. But, this view shows how closed in the valley is.

The drive from Paro to Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, is a little over 50 km, but roughly an hour to drive. I do not generally get car sick, but Bhutan's roads are a real test:

We were delayed coming from Bangkok, so our trip to Thimphu was a race against the setting sun. I did get some glimpses of the two main pine in Bhutan, blue pine and chir pine. The pictures below are from other days and other parts of the trip. First, blue pine.

Like the Korean pine of northeast China, I was blown away by blue pine's resemblance to eastern white pine [or, likely more correct evolutionarily-speaking, vice-versa]. See how the fluffiness of the blue pine's crown resembles other white pines? For some reason, I didn't purposefully take more pictures of blue pine. I was obsesses with seeing the broadleaf species. I did get some other trees in the background of other pictures. The best one is below.

Most of the blue pine we saw were young and seeding in following fire. They apparently planted thousands of blue pine outside of microsite requirements along the road from Paro to Thimphu. During some severe autumn droughts over the last 10 years the blue pine have been dying back. A Bhutanese scientist has connected severe autumn drought to the dieback of blue pine.

What captured most of my attention on the drive in, however, were the chir pine.

Chir pine bark

Chir pine twig

The stout branches of chir pine

needle arrangement of Chir pine

If there were not steep ridgelines in the background, I would have thought I was in the southeastern US [ignoring the cool, dryish October air].

Next stop: Dochula.

Last edited by Neil on Sun Jan 01, 2012 12:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Will Blozan
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Re: Bhutan

Post by Will Blozan » Sun Jan 01, 2012 11:05 am


Oh how I enjoy your posts! My roomate in college was from Thimpu- his father was a high court judge. I really look forward to more of your excellent posts from such cool places.


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Josh Kelly
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Re: Bhutan

Post by Josh Kelly » Mon Jan 02, 2012 9:33 pm

I'm jealous! Thanks for giving us this vicarious view of one of the most unique nations on Earth. Keep the stories and photos coming! I hope you got to see everything you wanted to while there, and if not, I hope you get to go back.


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Re: Bhutan

Post by dbhguru » Tue Jan 03, 2012 8:02 am


Absolutely great report and images, please keep up them flowing. But if you'd found a way to stuff us in your luggage and taken us along, we could have had a first hand experience. I think you were worried about the cost of shipping. I want you to know that I've started a program of weight reduction in anticipation of your next trip abroad.

Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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Re: Bhutan

Post by Chris » Wed Jan 04, 2012 1:29 am

I agree with everyone else, I love these posts [and very jealous]!

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Larry Tucei
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Re: Bhutan

Post by Larry Tucei » Wed Jan 04, 2012 11:27 am

Hi Neil, Cool Post. Wow those Chir Pine needles resemble Long Leaf. Larry

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Jess Riddle
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Re: Bhutan

Post by Jess Riddle » Thu Jan 05, 2012 12:39 pm


Another fascinating post!

Do you know Chris Earle, who maintains The Gymnosperm Database ( He mentions that Chir pine has the shortest needle life span of any pine (one year), but the entries for many species outside of Europe and NA are sparse. For instance, for Korean pine he has only general physical characteristics and range information. It seems like your in a good position to add information for several species.


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Re: Bhutan

Post by Neil » Tue Jan 10, 2012 9:26 pm

hi All,

You know, if I could take you all with me, I would. You would point out so many other things in the forest that I no doubt miss.

Jess - yes, I know of the Gymnosperm database. Our lab and another lab has some good info on chir pine. It isn't published yet! Hopefully someday soon.

OK, on to Dochula. Google maps says Dochula takes 20 minutes from Thimphu - - each leg of the round trip we made took at least 40. Those Bhutanese roads!

Dochula is a high mountain pass at a tad over 3000 m. We went there with my partner for the week, Masaki Sano, to check out Tsuga dumosa. Dr. Sano wished to make a drought reconstruction using the isotopes from tree rings. We had a midday meeting before this trip, so I just tagged along for the afternoon excursion. I was saving the boring for broadleaf species.

Dochula has a lovely dzong, or temple, on this pass.

Soon after entering the forest, we saw some fine-looking Tsuga.
Dr. Masaki Sano (l) and my host Mr. Kuenzang (r)

In some places, one would think you were in the southern Appalachians or a hemlock forest in the western US [I've not been in too many hemlock forests out west, so I come back to the SoApps]. Did I suggest watching the movie "Travellers and Magicians" yet? A movie in Bhutan made by Bhutanese. It is a nice story with some incredible forest interior scenes.
North America or Asia?

Asia, of course.

But, the similarities here can be striking. Check out the birch.

Betula alnoides - look familiar?

Perhaps the most exciting part of the day while in the field was happening upon a nice, broadleaf understory species, Gamblea ciliata .

Mr. Kuenzang holding a leaf of Gamblea ciliata

While it was small and not too old according to the raw core - it had rings! When working at low latitudes with broadleaf species, ring formation is often weaker or non-existent. This is more true in tropical latitudes. So, the coring on this trip was completely experimental. The basic question was, "Do these broadleaf species have rings?" There has been coring for some of the species, but angiosperms are often not sampled with the same intensity as gymnosperms: ... iferphile/ - Of course, the high elevation at which we were coring makes it more seasonal and more likely that these species would have good ring boundaries. But, it is sometimes hard to predict. Even Nyssa sylvatica near the Adirondacks has weak ring boundary formation.

So, when it became apparent that this species had pretty obvious rings, I was stoked. Actually, Dr. Sano and Mr. Kuenzang might have thought I was a little crazy from my reaction. A preliminary surfacing of the core form this species does indicate good ring structure. I am stoked all over again.

The next stop at Dochula was to talk down from the pass back towards Thimphu. Just before the pass we saw some towering Quercus semecarprifolia. They are an evergreen oak and, after coring live oak in GA, my arms attempt to flee when my brain thinks about coring an evergreen oak. That stuff is tough.

The towering Quercus semecarprifolia

However, the low stem taper and just plain curiosity helped my brain best my arms. Actually, Mr. Kuenzang was more enthusiastic about coring a Quercus semecarprifolia, so he took the first run at one of these beasts.

Mr. Kuenzang going for it!

To no one's surprise, these were very difficult trees to core; we eventually cored two of them. On the first one, we only got about 1/2 to the center of the tree.

The first Quercus semecarprifolia cored. We only used about 1/2 of the 16" borer before we stopped. I feared we were going to snap the borer on the first oak. There were too many left to core!

Despite this, if what I am seeing in the lab are rings, this oak is over 400 years old - easily. It will take some time to confirm this, but the rings were much smaller than what I had expected [again, if what I see are rings]. So, only two months later did this part of Dochula become the real highlight.

For the last stop on this part of our trip, I'll leave you with a pan of the trunk of the first Quercus semecarprifolia. It has some massive aboveground biomass!

Next up: Chukha & Darla forests.

A lunking oak!

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Re: Bhutan

Post by mdavie » Wed Jan 11, 2012 9:55 am

Great, Neil! Keep 'em coming!

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Re: Bhutan

Post by KoutaR » Wed Jan 11, 2012 5:12 pm


Great posts! Can you estimate how tall those Q. semicarpifolia trees are? And could you say something about the climate? The trees in your photos have so much epiphytic moss that the precipitation must be fairly high.


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