Over 70 percent of travelers stated that they would make green choices if given the chance, according to a 2012 survey by TripAdvisor. Your children may not yet understand the concept of environmental protection and why one might choose to take the bus instead of driving. What better way to instill this value than through an eco-friendly fa mily outing?
We are meeting up with EcoAction, a company founded by scientists and experts seeking to promote environmental responsibility among local and international families. We are getting a taste of one of its tours, which are designed for small groups of six to 12 people. The time for viewing autumn leaves might have already passed, but it is not too late to learn from botanical experts on this early winter tour.
EcoAction takes us to a quaint and often-overlooked garden tucked inside the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is located directly across the street from Beijing Botanical Garden in Haidian District. Although the garden is actually open to the public (RMB 10 for admission), most visitors who visit the Fragrant Hills area just head to the botanical garden, which is over 20 times larger.
But despite its modest size, the Institute’s garden houses 6,000 plant species – roughly as many as its more famous neighbor. There is also a greenhouse for tropical and subtropical vegetation, which costs nothing to enter.
Before the trip, EcoAction sends participants some basic reading materials about the major plant families and how to identify them. Guests are also told what to pack and how to dress for the outing, with directions for public transportation and carpooling arrangements (if needed). Drinking water is available for free from the Institute’s cafe, so participants are encouraged to bring a reusable bottle.
The tour is led by EcoAction CEO Luo Peng, who has a biology background and a Master’s in Ornithology, and Botanist Yingbao Sun from the Institute of Botany.
The Insitute’s intimate, European-style garden is quiet, clean, and easy to access. The plants are divided by type, such as lilacs, crepe myrtles, peonies, and Chinese medicinal plants. As we walk through each garden, Sun explains how to identify each family, such as using parallel lines on leaves to differentiate between lilacs.
As we pass several trees with red leaves, Sun quizzes us about the most common type of tree in Fragrant Hills to have leaves that change color in autumn. To our surprise, the answer is not maple but Cotinus coggygria (better known as the smoke tree), a type of bush with foliage that turns a striking red-violet in the fall.
In the rose garden, Peng tells us about the rose’s many names in Chinese – yueji, meigui, and qiangwei – and the subtle differences between each. In Chinese, yueji (月季) means “monthly,” indicating a type of rose that blossoms every month.
Compared with the greenhouse at Beijing Botanical Garden (which is billed as “the biggest display greenhouse in Asia”), the Institute’s conservatory is tiny in size. The greenhouse gets very few visitors even on weekends, allowing children to get a close look at the many specimens on display.
Among the various tropical plants was a Bodhi tree, which we are told was given as a present by Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru to Mao Zedong in the 1950s. The name “Bodhi” originates from Bodh Gaya in northern India, but the tree’s botanical name is Ficus religiosa. It was under a Bodhi tree that Siddharta Gautama meditated for 49 days and attained enlightenment. For this reason, it has become an object of worship to Buddhists.
When the two children (ages 8 and 11) on our tour start to get tired, we head to the canteen at the western end of the Institute. It sells Chinese dishes such as fried rice, noodles, and mala xiangguo (麻辣香锅, dry hotpot). Rice noodle soup with beef (niurou mifen, 牛肉米粉) costs RMB 12 and comes in a stone pot to keep the food warm.
After lunch, participants usually do two or three activities focusing on birds and plants. Both Chinese and Western families can get involved with the help of an interpreter. On our tour, however, we skip this part because the group was too small.
In the middle of the garden, there is a small cafe where you can fill up your water bottle and shop for seeds, plant food, and tools. This presents a good opportunity to sit back and learn more about the garden’s storied past. We discover for example that Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, briefly grew flowers in the garden towards the end of his life.
After the stories, the children draw leaves in the cafe with Sun’s guidance. The botanist, who also specializes in technical drawing, explains that illustration is especially important in his field when a new species is discovered because a photograph does not capture minute differences between plants as well as drawings can.
Before the children start their task, Sun tells them that the most important part of a botanical drawing is respecting the original size and scale. To get the structure of a maple leaf right, the kids learn how to count the number of lobes and veins, not forgetting the small stipules at the base of the stalk.
“I have drawing classes at school too,” says 8-year-old Xiangchen Liu. “The teacher tells me what to draw and how to draw it, but does not explain why we should draw this way.”
The children are also asked to think about why trees need leaves. The term “photosynthetic” is difficult for them to grasp but Xiangchen is able to tell us after an explanation from Sun that plants rely on leaves to turn sunlight into food and oxygen.
Children learn best through hands-on activities. When they gain first-hand knowledge from nature, they also begin to understand the environment is worth respecting and protecting.
For more botanical fun, join EcoAction’s next trip on December 21. The tour features bird watching at Beijing Botanical Garden with British bird watcher Terry Townshend and Chinese
ornithologist Zhu Le. The trip is designed for a group of six to 12 people with children, but outings can be tailored to each group’s specific requirements. Five percent of all proceeds go directly to EcoAction’s fund to support non-profit projects for conservation within the local community. To reserve your spot, call 6486 2035 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about EcoAction, visit the company’s website at www.ecoactionnow.com.
Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences 中国科学院植物研究所北京植物园
Daily 8am-5pm. 20 Nanxincun, Xiangshan Lu, Haidian District (6283 6063) 海淀区香山南辛村20号 (近北京植物园)
photos by Clemence Jiang
This article originally appeared on p34-37 of the beijingkids December 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com