Expo 2024 Chengdu in full bloom

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Last month, I clocked up a record 19,000 kilometres in just four days. I was in Chengdu, the capital city of China’s Sichuan province, which I had wanted to visit for the city’s Expo 2024 Chengdu. The publisher of this magazine, the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH), is the global organisation which, for the past 60 years, has held a mandate to authorise International Horticultural Expos around the world. Expo 2024 Chengdu is categorised as an AIPH-approved B-category international horticultural exhibition.

This approval naturally comes with many regulations, including the importance of inviting international participation. As a reporter visiting the Expo, I can say my initial reaction, considering the sprawling 242 hectares of Expo landscape, which includes participation from 33 countries, meets the regulations and exceeds AIPH’s expectations.

The Expo organisers, who include members of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the People’s Government of Sichuan Province, the municipality of Chengdu, the Chengdu Eastern New Area Administrative Committee, and AIPH member the China Flower Association (CFA), are challenged to plan and host this 186-day international horticultural event. My visit is nearly two months into Expo 2024 Chengdu’s six-month run.

The ‘Park City, Beautiful Habitat’- themed event opened on 26 April in the presence of China’s Vice President Han Zheng, the Mayor of Chengdu, Mr Wang Fengchao, China Flower Association President Ms Jiang Zehui, Mr Huang Qiang, Governor of the People’s Government of Sichuan Province, and Leonardo Capitanio and Tim Briercliffe, AIPH President and Secretary General respectively.

At the opening ceremony, the organising committee pulled out all the stops for a great show. Soldiers raised the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, and then Expo volunteers raised AIPH’s one. Scores of men and women in colourful traditional outfits and hundreds of perfectly choreographed-waving children and infants dressed in panda suits came together in a great display of precision to celebrate horticulture.

Visitor numbers are expected to be five million. When I arrive at the end of May, the Chinese horticultural extravaganza continues to run like clockwork, with overall attendance more or less in line with expectations. Since my visit, in a 25 June update, organisers have told FCI magazine that the good May and June weather has helped bring in nearly half of the expected visitors across all Expo sites, including the sub-venues.

During China’s public holiday on 1 May, visitors in their tens of thousands flocked to Chengdu for the Expo. The city is affectionately nicknamed ‘the land of abundance’ and famously known as the hometown of the giant pandas, spicy hot pot, and flowers and plants. Along with Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Chongqing, you can understand why this city is also in China’s top five most popular tourist destinations.

Until 28 October 2024, Expo 2024 Chengdu is in the main venue of Chengdu Eastern New Area, a good one-hour and half-hour drive from Chengdu’s city centre and Tianfu International Airport, respectively. Plus, there are four sub-venues dotted around the city ring; Pidu in the northwest, Wenjiang in the west, and Xinjin and Qionglai, both in the southwest.

The event’s layout can be roughly split into three zones dedicated to Chinese Gardens, International Gardens and Corporate Gardens. Star attractions include a giant white Ferris wheel and pagoda offering spectacular vistas over an area that post-Expo will be a mixed-use development with potential for thousands of new homes and a commercial office, park, retail and entertainment district.

Perseverance and dedication
In the Expo’s preparation stage not all was coming up roses. There were the usual cost overruns, delays in construction, and connectivity concerns in particular because the main site is rather distant from downtown Chengdu.

Winds of change played their part. AIPH approved the show in 2020. Soon after, with its Five-Year Plan 2021-2025 for National Economic and Social Development, China ushered in a new type of politics focused on food availability and food production.

With this in mind, influencing Chinese policy about the far-reaching benefits of flowers and plants – from championing environmental preservation to boosting economic prosperity and enhancing individual wellbeing – cannot always be an easy task. So, CFA and its co-organisers deserve credit for their perseverance, dedication, and resilience.

From woodland into floral extravaganza
Until last year, much of the Expo Chengdu land at the main venue was woodland interspersed with farmland. Organisers stress that at the main venue, 80 per cent of the original landscape, hosting more than 100 native plants, has been left intact. Yet some imagination is needed for that as the collage of pavilions, hedges, archways, ponds, fountains, towering pagodas, show gardens, and landscaped areas is endless.

The list of planted trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials, and annuals is long but not exhaustive. Meanwhile, the River Jiangxi is perpetually meandering through the site and is arguably the best example of a truly pristine nature.

Speaking of intact nature, although the Chengdu Garden in the Expo’s Chinese Gardens zone is a man-made landscape, it seems to have walked away directly from Chengdu’s surrounding snow-capped mountains. The space uses contorted pines and grasses, the standout Aspidistra elatior ‘spectacular’ [more on that later] and a dramatic waterfall. It is a powerful reminder of how beautiful nature can be just by looking at it. The Chengdu Garden is peaceful and immersive. It combines rocks and boulders with plants, creating well-drained conditions that mimic the botanical treasure trove of Sichuan.

The province is claimed to be home to 10,720 heritage trees composed of 123 species belonging to 42 families and 81 genera. Standing out prominently are the protected Phoebe zennan (a large tree up to 30 metres tall in the Lauraceae family), the Chinese weeping cypress, Cupressus funebris, and Malus halliana, the small Hall crab apple, without forgetting the highly venerated Gingko biloba, which is considered a symbol of longevity, endurance, and hope in China.

In particular, Western Sichuan is a hotspot for biodiversity. There, more than a hundred years ago, European plant hunters found and brought back home species they had never seen before such as the Chinese hardwood Davidia involucrate- known as dove tree, Cornus kousa, Lilium regale, and Begonia grandis (featuring notched olive-green leaves to 10cm long, light green or sometimes reddish beneath, and clusters of slightly fragrant pale pink or white flowers 2-3cm across, on long reddish stems in summer, not exceptionally hardy).

Instagram-able Beijing
It is no surprise that Beijing, the country’s capital, has its name written in capitals in the Chinese Gardens zone. The city of Beijing built one of the Expo’s largest gardens, home to a score of ‘Instagram-able’ buildings and an exciting planting theme, with Hemerocallis and Cynara cardunculus being the stars of the flower show.

I loved wandering across this gorgeous spiritual place even if I couldn’t read the Chinese signs. Poor signage for international visitors is a missed opportunity now that we are on this subject.

How wonderful it would have been if the Expo in tech-savvy China had used digital signage to convey cultural, historical, and botanical information. In a crowded expo environment, capturing attendees’ attention quickly is difficult, particularly when signage—if present—is only in the native tongue.

In the host’s Chengdu Garden, for example, botanical diehards endlessly discussed the right name of a standout foliage plant with dotted leaves. Was it Aspidistra elatior ”spectacular’ , or Aspidistra sichuanensis ‘Ginga’. [Anyone who knows the correct answer, please holler!]

Anyhow, with the kind help of Ms Rhong Luo of the horticultural consultancy firm Rhong Consultancy, we could eventually decode the messages of what Rhong says are typically Beijing-style buildings, annexe teahouses, and restaurants.

The antithetical couplet on both sides of the door (which in China brings good luck) reads that the house overlooking the lake is named after ‘Ju Fangge’. The text invites people to come inside and enjoy good wine and excellent food. It also references the garden’s aesthetic beauty.

Floral bonanza
Shanghai’s butterfly-shaped Yuanyi Garden and the plantings surrounding the Expo’s Hibiscus petals-shaped pavilion largely contribute to the floral bonanza.

More than 25 hibiscus varieties are on display, including a showstopping undulated landscape planted with three-metre tall Hibiscus mutabilis trees.

In Western Europe, such heights are unthinkable as the plant will mostly remain a large, spreading, frost-sensitive shrub with stems covered in soft star-shaped hair and lush green-toothed foliage. We slightly regretted being in late spring. It is too early to admire the plant’s funnel-shaped flowers in white and pink.

Hibiscus is the official flower of the Expo 2024 Chengdu and symbolises the city of Chengdu. Its reddish and pink hues are used in the Expo’s logo. Hibiscus embodies nobility, determination, unity, and harmony, expressing the organisers’ heartfelt wishes and aspirations for a successful Expo 2024 Chengdu.

The Shu Brocade Flower Field was inspired by Chengdu’s century-old tradition of brocade manufacturing. A planting scheme of differently hued heuchera, hollyhocks, peonies, primula forbesi and hydrangea strigose mirrored the fabric’s elaborated and lustrous design. Granted, you also need a bit of imagination here.

A tour of the world
The Expo’s International Exhibition Zone takes visitors on a world tour. Gardens are dedicated to several European countries and China’s less-distant Asian neighbours.

In the Japanese Garden, visitors gaze into the stillness of the ponds and streams used in the 1,200m2 Kofu Garden. Kofu is the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture at the foot of Mount Fuji. The ‘Valley of Heavily Peace and Happiness’-themed Garden reproduces scenes of the Shosenkyo Gorge just up the mountains from the city of Kofu. It uses quintessential Japanese elements such as tea gardens, stone lanterns and red bridges.

Further down the road, the Morocco Garden echoes the atmosphere of the Fez tannery, a popular destination for tourists visiting the country. Inside the real-world tannery, visitors find hundreds of colourful pools reminiscent of an artist’s paint palette. In Morocco’s Garden, colour-blocking tagetes and petunia recreate the tannery’s rainbow of colours.

Morocco’s Expo neighbour, Egypt, brings beautiful archways, colourful columns, and towering palm trees to the event.

A testament to the century-old expertise in rose breeding and propagation marked by famous names such as Kordes, Tantau, and Werner Noack, were in Germany’s Garden. It is dominated by a rotunda-shaped building surrounded by the fragrant ‘Dames de Chenonceau’.

Surprisingly, this rose variety is bred by renowned French breeder Delbard. Also stealing this mini rose show are the China rose (Rosa chinensis) and the climbing rose ‘Billet Doux’, the latter being a creation of Delbard.

Across the way, Chengdu’s giant theatre of nature offers a completely different stage. A yurt and traditional carriage depict the nomadic life of ancient Mongolia, while a warrior statue also proclaims the glories of Genghis Khan.

Explosion of colours
Compared with the Mongolian steppe, the Expo’s Corporate Gardens zone is an explosion of colours. It serves as an international platform for exchanging business ideas and research findings.

According to Chengdu-based flower seed company Jinpin Flower Seedling, which is collaborating with German seed company Benary, Expo Chengdu is helping to strengthen the ties between China and the rest of the world in the bedding plant realm.

In this part of the Expo, stunning, colourful annuals galore with signature gardens built by Sakata, Danziger, Ball Horticultural Company/PanAmerican Seed.

In 2016, the state-owned ChemChina acquired crop protection product manufacturer and seed company Syngenta. Now Syngenta Flowers used its 1,200m² show garden to put massive marketing muscle behind ornamentals such as Helianthus, Nicotiana, Dahlia and Antirrhinum – alternated with cows, windmills and clogs in recognition of the country of flowers.

On day two of our lightning visit, FCI inspected the Expo’s satellite shows in Wenjiang and Pidu, for which, contrary to the main venue, there is no admission fee.

Our first stop in Wenjiang was a park, flower and garden show, retail outlet, market, and school of floristry in one. In the retail shop, Bioloark, a terrarium with sleek built-in lighting and adjustable ventilation, was for sale. However, the site’s biggest draw was the collection of specimen orchids, sure to turn the heads of Dutch speciality orchid specialists such as De Hoog Orchids, Prins, and Inca Orchids.

On display were Bulbophyllum falcatum and Paphiopedilum delenatti. The latter has elegant blooms, attractive foliage and, sometimes, a subtle fragrance. Its leaves feature a mottled pattern, making it an attractive houseplant even when it is not in flower. Among other attention grabbers were Protechea cochleata or clam shell orchid; Dendrobium secundum, or toothbrush orchid; and Dendrobium smillieae, the bottle brush orchid.

In the afternoon, the visit concluded in the vibrant Pidu district, where we visited the sprawling four-hectare Spring Garden site, an indoor complex of offices, schools for floristry, and a wholesale floral market. Here, we witnessed how live online selling of flowers and plants is a significant channel to reach a primarily young audience.

At first glance, it looked like a flower shop, but we saw influencers at work. These are hired by floral wholesalers to sell ornamentals – in this specific case, pots planted with Alcea rosea – on e-commerce livestreams to millions of watching consumers. Non-native speakers may perceive the dialogue between the presenter and the ‘florist’ as a never-ending litany. However, talking away for hours, the influencers provide potential customers with complete product specifications, including pot size, height, variety, colours, and blooming period, plus some information on where the offered product has been grown.

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