The well-tended Beijing Botanical Gardens, set against the backdrop of the Western Hills in the northwestern outskirts of Beijing, between Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) Park and Jade Spring Mountain, make for a pleasant outing among bamboo fronds, pines and lilacs.
The Beijing Botanical Garden was established in 1955. It covers a large area of 564,000 square metres. The gardens include a dozen exhibition districts and halls, such as the tree garden, a perennial bulb garden, a rose garden, a peony garden, a traditional Chinese medical herb garden, a wild fruit resources district, an environment protection plant district, a water and vine plant district, an endangered plant district, and exhibition greenhouses for tropical and subtropical plants. There are also several Buddhist temples located within the areas of the botanical garden.
The gardens cultivate 6,000 species of plant, including 2,000 kinds of trees and bushes, 1,620 varieties of tropical and subtropical plants, 500 species of flowers and 1,900 kinds of fruit trees, water plants, traditional Chinese.
The hothouse exhibition is the highlight of the gardens.
The first room is filled with evergreens and members of the palm family.
The second room is given over to tropical aquatic plants, including water lilies and flowering taros.
The third room displays commercial plants and their breeding and propagation. Here there are specimens of the triple-leaved rubber plant, cocoa and coffee trees and the sugar producing sweet-leaved chrysanthemum which has been introduced into China from abroad.
There are rooms for demonstrating medicinal plants, aromatic plants and succulents. The exhibition of ornamental plants is spectacular with its countless varieties of flowers and grasses. There are over 300 different species of orchid, among them a rootless variety that relies on fine hairs to absorb water vapour and nutrients from the air.
Besides the hothouse, there is also a national plant specimen hall with a floor space of 11,000 square meters. Specimen houses, plant classification laboratories, research rooms and a lecture hall are arranged around a courtyard linked by arches and trellises.
The Peony Garden was opened to the public in 1981. It covers an area of 100,000 square metres and is divided into three sections. The Peony Grove is the most important, covering an area of 35,000 square metres.
The plant collection includes many rare species. There is, for example, the metasequoia first discovered in the region of Hubei and Sichuan by a Chinese scientist in the 1940s. Since it was originally believed that it had become extinct during the Tertiary Period (65 million years ago), the discovery of living specimens in China came as a tremendous surprise to botanists.
Other plants in the gardens include Nepenthes pitcher plants, which are carnivorous plants; the golden butterfly orchid with its lustrous yellow flowers; the American redwood; the Japanese blossoming cherry, and the famous "botree", the tree under which Buddha sat when he gained enlightenment.
Within the grounds and about a 15-minute walk from the front gate (follow the signs) is Sleeping Buddha Temple. The temple, first built during the Tang dynasty, has a huge reclining effigy of Sakyamuni weighing 54 tonnes as a centrepiece, said to have 'enslaved 7000 people' in its casting. On each side of Buddha are arrayed some sets of gargantuan shoes, gifts to Sakyamuni from various emperors in case he went for a stroll.
On the eastern side of the gardens is the Cao Xueqin Memorial where Cao Xueqin lived in his latter years. Cao (1715-63) is credited with penning the classic Dream of the Red Mansions, a vast and prolix family saga set in the Qing period.