With their home-base in the capitol city of Chengdu, Sichuan, Wenqing and Holger Perner own and operate Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, LTD. – a real boon to those interested in the native orchids of China and southern Asia. Currently, no other private company can offer what Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology does.
They sell (with proper documentation) a wide array of orchids from China including many Paphiopedilum and Cypripedium species. They also lead botanical tours into the wilds of China featuring incredible landscapes, a dizzying array of native plants with particular focus on orchids, delicious local cuisine, and of course the cultures of the people who live in these far flung places. And that’s just for starters, so why don’t we have a closer look at this truly unique company.
Dr. Holger Perner is a world known German botanist and orchid specialist, and has worked at Huanglong National Park in northern Sichuan as senior consultant since September 2001. Wenqing, his wife, an accomplished businesswoman and linguist, is fully fluent in English, Japanese, German, and of course her native language, Chinese. They met in Sichuan in 1997 on a botanical tour, were married a year later, and moved to Sichuan (Wenqing’s homeland) full time in 2001. They have two lovely daughters, Stefanie and Isabell.
Since 1999 Wenqing and Holger have been leading botanical tours to see western China’s rare plant flora. In 2010 these tours were extended to the subtropical and tropical mountains of southern China where a number of Paphiopedilum species can be seen. In May of the same year they finally got the go ahead to export CITES protected orchids (both Appendix II and Appendix I) out of China, making it possible for people to legally possess such species as Paphiopedilum hangianum and P. tranlienianum (both Appendix I) for the first time outside of their native lands. Wenqing and Holger also travel extensively throughout the world attending orchid shows, and giving talks to local orchid societies.
I have had the great fortune of personally knowing both of them for some years now. In the summer of 2013 I took it a step further by attending one of their botanical tours to northern Sichuan where I got to know them even better. The experience was beyond my expectations. We were treated to 10 eye popping days in the Min Mountains of Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, followed by a visit to their nursery on the outskirts of Chengdu and to the ancient town of Huanglong Xi on the last day.
From June 20th-30th myself and 11 other plant enthusiasts from around the world were escorted around northern Sichuan by Holger and Wenqing personally. A typical day was spent traveling by tour bus to highly varied habitats in the deep valleys that are made by the massive northern Hengduan Mountain Range on the very eves of the immense Tibetan Plateau. We stopped whenever something of interest was seen – everybody would then file off the bus and the cameras would come out. In addition to these frequent stops, we visited no less than six botanical Edens on the tour, spending an entire day at each of the most choice places.
Night accommodations included four and five star hotels, a nature reserve lodge, and a guesthouse in an authentic Tibetan village far off the tourist route. The accommodations were for the most part more than adequate, and the food delicious. In particular I loved the Tibetan guesthouse since the building was traditional design and the whole place made you feel like you stepped back in time 100 years. The towns and villages we visited added greatly to the experience. Wenqing carefully selected restaurants along the tour route so that we could sample a wide variety of Sichuan foods. As one might expect, the food was often very spicy with heavy use of hot peppers and Sichuan pepper corns.
To get a better idea of what we experienced, please have a look at the video below and also check out the Botany Boy channel for more videos about the trip.
The Perner’s operate two separate nurseries in Sichuan, one in the upper reaches of the Fu River valley adjacent to Huanglong National Park, and the other in the countryside on the outskirts of Chengdu on the vast Sichuan plain. The nursery in the high mountains sits at right around 3000 meters elevation, making it a perfect place to grow temperate species of orchid. It was composed of rows of long shade houses filled with seedling terrestrial orchids, in particular Cypripediums. One house was more or less dedicated to mature Cyps that serve as stud plants for seed production.
Here we feasted our eyes on clumps of C. bardolphianum, various flower forms of C. flavum, C. guttatum, the rare C. farreri, C. fargesii, C. palangshangense, C. sichuanense, C. shanxiense, C. tibeticum, and C. Wenqing (the artificial remake of the natural hybrid between C. farreri and C. tibeticum, C. x wenqingiae), all in full flower.
The plants grow more or less on their own in the ideal conditions of this cold temperate valley. Holger said that he only had to fertilize them from time to time and treat for fungal infection occasionally, otherwise mother nature takes care of the rest. Interestingly, North American species do not grow well at this location, except for perhaps C. reginae. There was one small flowering plant of C. parviflorum v. parviflorum the day we visited, but that was all. The long, dry winters and cool, wet summers are apparently not to their liking. In winter the beds are covered in a layer of mulch, but otherwise are open to the elements.
Their nursery near Chengdu by comparison is like visiting a different planet. It is situated on the subtropical Sichuan Plain, a place that can get frosty mornings in mid winter, but otherwise is quite sultry much of the year. At this location they have a number of open air shade houses inhabited by Paphiopediums, native Cymbidiums (focusing on Jenosa types, AKA “Chinese Cymbidiums”), and a smattering of others such as Bletilla.
Here also is the main greenhouse stuffed to the gills with orchids of all types, with the lion’s share hailing from southern Asia. Paphiopedilums dominated much of the collection but here there were also many young Cymbidiums, Dendrobium species, Calanthe, Phragmipediums, Phalaenopsis, oddball Chinese botanicals like Pholidota yunnanensis as well as real rarities such as the albino form of Hygrochilus parishii, Phaius, Thunia, you name it! All in all there was a pretty even mix of hybrids and species, many of them still seedlings.
We also visited their laboratory, located on the same property. It was impressive, with multiple laminar flow hoods for flasking and an extensive grow room for flasks. We had to look from a hallway through glass windows since entering the lab requires being adequately clean and donning suits to maintain sterile conditions. Nevertheless, Holger went in to show us various things, holding up flasks of P. hangianum and P. helenae, Cypripediums, and even some Australian terrestrials. Here also they produce various strains of blueberries via tissue culture (meristem cloning) for another branch of their business – fruit production.
These are some recommendations and comments about going on a tour based on my experience:
During the tour you will be completely cared for – food, transportation, lodging, translation needs (via Wenqing), and even entertainment (Holger is a one man walking show). You need no special skills or abilities to attend a tour, but you will see more if you are in good shape. Some areas we visited required a fair amount of walking and at altitudes where oxygen is a bit more scarce, ranging between 1,500-3,500 meters elevation (4,875-11,375 feet). We spent one afternoon in an alpine meadow at 4000 meters (13,000 feet). The trick is to take it slower and drink plenty of water. I got an occasional mild headache, but that was all.
Items I suggest you bring would be disposable hand wipes, a small flashlight, basic medication like aspirin and anti-diarrheals, and always have some toilet paper on hand. If you are a coffee drinker, I recommend you bring enough for the whole time since it is basically unavailable in any form you would understand as coffee, if at all. Ziplock bags are nice too since you will be wet and outdoors often.
Rain-gear is a must, at the very least a poncho, and don’t forget warm clothing when visiting high altitudes since they are not truly warm in any season. Hiking boots, preferably waterproof, will also help out immensely. Basically, you should prepare as you would for a hiking trip, though in truth you won’t be required to do any serious hiking. Skip true winter gear unless you are exceptionally prone to cold. Bring a small umbrella for photography on rainy days as well – believe me, you’ll need it. I’d say it rained 60% of the time we were in Sichuan.
I also recommend bringing clothing for the whole trip since washing clothes in the back country (and on the move) is not very convenient. I, like an idiot, didn’t bring enough and had to hand wash my clothes in hotel sinks, drying them as best I could. One more thing, don’t expect nice modern bathrooms in the backwoods of China – you won’t find any. To be honest, after walking into the first one I never used another the whole trip (yup, I dug a lot of holes). Hotel and guesthouse toilets were fine, but the ones we encountered on the road were pretty horrible on average.
Food safety and quality was good to excellent during the tour. To my knowledge, no one got sick eating anything, in fact we mostly had vegetables and rice in Sichuan, very healthy fare. Chinese snack “sausages” will throw you for a loop however – I personally skipped them. Cookies and cakes were fine and filled in the calories needed between meals. In the back country, beer is cheap, low in alcohol, but drinkable. Wine is much more iffy. Soft drinks and snacks were always available on the bus and could be bought even in small village stores.
You don’t really need a lot of cash, but it is nice to have a little for this and that. Access to banks, cash machines, etc. is limited while on the move since you often are truly “out there”. China is a pretty safe country, so don’t feel odd about having money on hand. You’ll need some now and then, but make sure it is in Chinese currency, not traveler’s checks, plastic, dollars, etc. Anyone interested in attending a tour or to get on their mailing list should contact Wenqing at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or visit the Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, Ltd. website.
A couple times a year they issue price lists in the form of PDF files, one in the early fall for the Cyps and another soon after for other orchids. Since sending orchids out of China legally is a long, expensive process, shipments to countries are usually done only once or twice a year. Pre-ordering plants therefore is a must. They can be delivered to your home or be picked up at one of the many shows Holger and Wenqing go to each year.
Do not expect to receive the plants as you would from a domestic nursery – you will have to make arrangements with Wenqing ahead of time instead. If you require CITES documentation (for example if you want the plants to be considered for judging from official orchid organizations like the AOS), that will cost extra to get a copy, and again you need to make arrangements for them ahead of time. Important: List prices in the PDFs include the costs for CITES documents, phytosanitary certificate, and importing costs, so all you have to pay extra is postage within country (unless you pick them up in person at a show). Again, if you wish a copy of the CITES, phyto, etc. that will cost extra. Payment can be made by electronic bank transfer or PayPal, however there is an extra 3% added for the latter since Paypal China charges a 6% commission fee (they split the cost with you).
The plants offered by them are 100% correctly identified and laboratory grown. I saw first hand the quality of the plants they grow – that being top notch. Of course when shipping overseas all plant material must clear customs, and the requirements of the receiving country can vary widely. Before ordering it will be necessary to check with the appropriate agricultural agency to see what procedures are involved. If you live in the EU, USA, or Japan there should be no problems since plants can be brought in by Holger and Wenqing themselves. Other countries may not be as easy. Australia, for example, is notorious for being very strict about the importation of plants (flasks are much easier), so be well versed on the necessary steps before ordering.
Holger and Wenqing travel widely in America to orchid shows and society meetings when possible. This is a great time to meet them. They are fun folks just to hang out with – Holger being a blend of stand-up comedy mixed with an near endless stream of botanical knowledge. Wenqing is more reserved, but a great person with extreme depth, no doubt stemming from her broad international experience and facility with languages. They also travel to Germany and Japan on a regular basis, so look for them there as well.
What more can I say about these people and their company? They are great folks to deal with professionally, and yet they treat you as a friend. If you have the chance, attend one of Holger’s presentations, get some rare plants from them, or if you can swing it, attend one of their tours. Word of warning – should you go on a tour you are likely to go again since the experience is addictive!
[Author’s Note: I am sad to report that Dr. Holger Perner died in April, 2017. Wenqing is continuing the business, including the international sale of plants, botanical tours and speaking engagements around the world. Let’s all wish her the best of luck. Holger is sorely missed by all.]