The images in today’s post were taken in the mountains of northern Vietnam, close to the mountain known as Y Ty. This write-up is in large part gleaned from reminiscences and the original expedition blog post entitled Exploring the Rooftop of Vietnam, which was posted in April of 2017. As I wrote previously, Y Ty is a place so richly endowed in amazing plants that it’s hard to drag oneself away. But drag we did, at the end of four days of exploration. As we drove away, still buzzing about our various discoveries, our little group of botanists and explorers happened almost immediately on a wondrous sight. The following is a quote from the blog:
Scott [Scott McMahan, Atlanta Botanical Garden] suddenly yelled “Stop the car!” Uoc [Uoc Huu Li, our mountain guide] stopped the van and we all piled out and walked back up the road to see what he had thought was so important. I thought perhaps he’d seen a tiger or a monkey—both long extirpated from this part of Vietnam—but it wasn’t either of those. Across a small creek and at the base of a steep hill was a tree, perhaps 25 m tall, straight and unbranched for most of its height. The canopy of branches was nearly obscured by gigantic conical inflorescences that appeared to be comprised of large, bright pink flowers. It was quite a sight—magnificent, really—and I could see why Scott had noticed it as we hurtled by. Dan Crowley [Westonbirt Arboretum] had seen the same tree on the way to Y Ty, and he mentioned it to me at the time, but our then driver was not in any mood to slow down. We all stood there somewhat awestruck and puzzling away. Someone picked up a flower and then it occurred to me that we were looking at a particularly spectacular Bretschneidera sinensis, an exceptionally rare tree native across southern China, adjacent Indochina and Taiwan. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List states that the species is “uncommon and thought to be getting rarer” and the “…population in Viet Nam is considered to be threatened.”
Even in a place as rich as Y Ty, we saw this tree only once, here, in this unassuming place. Who can say whether it was cut down the following week for its strong, straight-grained timber. It seems to me that this tree should surely be a protected species, but what did we actually know about it? More importantly, how could we find out about its prevalence, distribution and variability? Immediately apparent when exploring mountainous countryside is just how difficult it is to get around. Without trails, movement is significantly restricted, and the possibility of seeing what is happening at the top of a tree—even one close by—is mostly impossible. In other words, collecting in mountainous regions with dense forest, dense undergrowth or dangerous topography is more than a little challenging. In the field, it becomes clear that there are limits on what can be collected safely or in a timely manner.
The previous year, many in this same group explored Y Ty, as well the mountain known as Fansipan (Indochina’s highest peak at 3143 m). However, during that expedition, we tested an experimental UAV (un-personned aerial vehicle, a.k.a. a drone). Accompanying the group in 2016 was Thomas Robichaud-Courteau, a student, from the research laboratory of Dr. Alexis Lussier Desbiens at Universite de Sherbrooke. Thomas was assigned the task of testing the drone, which has the capability to cut and collect branches from trees. Since that time, we have continued to work with Dr. Desbiens and his colleagues to improve the capabilities of plant-collecting drones.
Working with drones in botanical exploration has obvious appeal. Our group’s goals in this respect are threefold: to be able to survey large areas for particular species, to efficiently collect material suitable for cataloguing purposes (i.e., to make herbarium specimens) and to be able to collect material (e.g., seed) for propagation purposes. This year (2018), we are returning to Vietnam to catalogue and collect plants and also to perform further UAV testing. We’re not there yet, but the opportunities afforded by a drone, that by remote control can locate, grasp, cut and retrieve materials at the top of a tree, will be entirely game-changing for botanical exploration. I’m optimistic about finding more Bretschneidera specimens.