A North American shrub in Beijing: Part One

Matthew Gandy’s (2017) film, Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin, provided fascinating insight into the variegated and contested meanings of Berlin’s spontaneous urban nature. Taking inspiration from his approach, this post will explore the tensions between discourses arising from the introduction of a non-native plant, rhus typhina (staghorn sumac), to Beijing.

The ‘Green Olympics’

The 2008 Beijing Olympics sparked a rush to green the city. Extensive greening was undertaken with the installation of ecological belts in mountains, plains, and urban areas (UNEP 2009).

Aerial view of the Olympic Forest Park. It was designed to be an “Axis of Nature” by providing landscapes that connected urban greenery with the city. (Image source: X)

Global roots

The city’s greening efforts brought in plants from all over the world, with 60 400kg of seeds and 31 430 000 woody seedlings from other countries planted across Beijing from 2002 to 2004 (Zhang et al. 2006, cited in Ding et al. 2008).

Greenery as global as the Games: diverse origins of introduced plant species in the Olympic Forest Park. (Data source: Yu et al. 2012: 649)

Of the non-native plants, one particular species, rhus typhina, had a notably unsmooth introduction. It is a shrub species native to North America and was first introduced in China in 1959. For the Olympics, it was intensively planted in the Olympic Forest Park and throughout Beijing municipality (Wang et al. 2011).

Rhus typhina growing in the Olympic Forest Park. (Source: X)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

It is worth noting that a clear link was drawn between greening and beautifying the city for the Olympics, with greening initiatives ‘designed to have a long term impact on the city’s aesthetic beauty’ (UNEP 2009: 60). Rhus typhina was selected with its use as an ornamental plant in mind (Wang et al. 2008), for its red autumn foliage could add vibrant splashes of colour to the cityscape.

Yet, it has been far from beautiful in the eyes of many ecologists. In the lead up to the Games, prominent botanist Jiang Gaoming called for greater wariness regarding the introduction of rhus typhina, describing it as a species with ‘very strong invasive potential’ and ‘extremely harmful to native species’. The ensuing circulation of his views in newspapers incited heated responses regarding the validity of his claims (Wang et al. 2013). These vocabularies are expressed in the “standard” ecological definition of invasive species, which involves a strong element of ‘harm or negative effect to native species, ecosystems or human society’ (Parker et al. 1999 and Young and Larson 2011, cited in Janovsky and Larson 2019: 28) caused by species which have been brought in from their native geographical area (Janovsky and Larson 2019). Ecology papers have also criticised the widespread introduction of rhus typhina as ‘ill-conceived’ (Wang et al. 2011: 2496) and done without prior evaluation of possible harm to existing ecology (López-Pujol et al. 2011).

Charles Elton’s The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants laid the groundwork for the field of invasion biology. (Source: X)

Invasion biology has its roots in Elton’s (1958) The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. World War 2 could have influenced Elton’s outlook on invasive species (Davies et al. 2001). For one, Elton worked on suppressing the population of non-native pest species to reduce their damage to Great Britain’s food supply during the War (Southwood and Clarke 1999). These circumstances lent themselves to the framing of non-native species as invaders who threatened fundamental interests. This echoes Natura Urbana’s take that ‘scientific perspectives on nature can never be neutral … meanings and interpretations reflect historical and political circumstances’; scientific labels are inherently and unavoidably informed by the priorities and agendas of their time.

Thus, there is a jarring contrast between the labels attached to rhus typhina: a plant brought in in part to “be beautiful” has wound up with a label that has connotations of it being a harm and threat. This is a paradox that requires some untangling and will be examined further in my next post!

List of References

Davies, M.A., Thompson, K., and Grime, J.P. (2001) ‘Charles S. Elton and the Dissociation of Invasion Ecology from the Rest of Ecology’, Diversity and Distributions, 7, 1/2, 97-102.

Ding, J., Mack, R.N., Lu, P., Ren, M., and Huang, H. (2008) ‘China’s Booming Economy Is Sparking and Accelerating Biological Invasions’, BioScience, 58, 4, 317-324.

Elton, C.S. (1958) The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, London: Methuen.

Gandy, M. (2017) Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin, UK and Germany.

Janovsky, R.M. and Larson, E.R. (2019) ‘Does invasive species research use more militaristic language than other ecology and conservation biology literature?’, NeoBiota, 44, 27-38.

López-Pujol, J., Wang, H., and Zhang, Z. (2011) ‘Conservation of Chinese Plant Diversity: An Overview’, in Pavlinov, I. (ed.) Research in Biodiversity: Models and Applications, IntechOpen, 163-202.

Southwood, R. and Clarke, J.R. (1999) ‘Charles Sutherland Elton. 29 March 1900-1 May 1991’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 45, 130-146.

UNEP (2009) ‘Independent Environmental Assessment: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games’, Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

Wang, G., Jiang, G., Yu, S., Li, Y., and Liu, H. (2008) ‘Invasion Possibility and Potential Effects of Rhus typhina on Beijing Municipality’, Journal of Integrative Plant Biology, 50, 5, 522-530.

Wang, G.M., Yang, J.C., Jiang, C.D., Jiang, G.M., Yu, J.B., Shao, H.B., Han, G.X., and Gao, Y.J. (2013) ‘Challenge of weed risk assessment (WRA) for ecological restoration in China: The case of Rhus typhina L. and the new officially released weed risk assessment system’, Plant Biosystems, 147, 4, 1166-1174.

Wang, H., López-Pujol, J., Meyerson, L.A., Qiu, J., Wang, X., and Ouyang, Z. (2011) ‘Biological invasions in rapidly urbanizing areas: a case study of Beijing, China’, Biodiversity and Conservation, 20, 2483-2509.

Yu, Q., Mi, C., Xing, S., and Li, H. (2012) ‘Analysis of plant species composition in Beijing Olympic Forest Park’, Ecological Science, 31, 6, 646-651.

3 thoughts on “A North American shrub in Beijing: Part One

  1. A very compelling read! It is interesting to read the efforts to make Beijing green for the Olympics which links to understanding the concept of nature as an aesthetic service for humans. I wonder if you agree with this or support the ecologists? Furthermore I am curious of the economic cost of the greening of the city or whether you believe we cannot attribute a monetary value to nature?

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  2. Fascinating blogpost! What other considerations contributed to the introduction of rhus typhina? Are there no other shrubbery in China that has the same autumn hues? Was the species selected precisely because it grows quickly, and mature in time for the Olympics? Or was it selected because they shed leaves less frequently, reducing the need for tree maintenance? It would be interesting to see how the nature of rhus typhina asserted its own materiality, and changed the decision making calculus!

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