Korea Trip

A decision to travel to Korea came from a number of sources. I have good friends who are well travelled, Margaret Charlton and Charlie Sale had been to Korea a number of years before. They were effusive in their pleasure at hiking Hallasan on Jeju Island. I had purchased a tissue culture clone of Rhododendron mucronulatum collected from this mastiff in the mid nineties, today this dwarf in my garden is still less than 18 inches tall. I was interested in seeing this population for myself. Tony Avent’s online article on his tour through the country seemed brilliant, in retrospect he is perhaps given to poetic license. But in writing this I’ve come to realize I saw most of the plants he mentioned, even if not in the great drifts he alluded to. I later came across an anecdote attributed to one of his traveling companions commenting that they seemed not to have been on the same trip Tony Was on. I had also enjoyed an article from another Tony, Tony Kirkham, through his writing with Mark Flanagan in “Plants from the Edge of the World: New Explorations in the Far East”. The clincher, however, were the snippets of stories of   Barry Yingers collections in the 1970s of Camellia japonica from its northernmost distribution, an island 200 km north of Seoul. In the nineties I was still living in NS. John Weagle had been waxing, if not lusting of a collection of Camellia japonica,now trees, braving a setting in rural Pennsylvania. Where they were growing suggested, in sheltered locals, the plant was worth trying in mild areas of Nova Scotia. I had tried growing Camellia oleifera, from Heronswood nursery, purportedly the hardiest of its genus. It promptly turned up its toes at the first kiss of winter in Nova Scotia. In fairness this may have been more due to my horticultural prowess than the plant. By the time the hardier clones of Camellia japonica came to market I was already living in balmy Vancouver. None the less, as there was so little English literature about these islands my interest was piqued.

Seoul, Sept 6, 2008

I recovered from my jetlag in Seoul doing the easiest tourist thing possible, visiting Changgyeonggung, the royal palaces built in 1418.   These were close to the well signed subway, the city bus system on the other hand I found daunting, which limited what I could see. My first glimpse of the Korean hospitality came as I was photographing a collection of shoes at one palace entrance. I just wanted an example of this custom. As I composed the shot someone helpfully started moving them out of my field to improve my view of the palace. It’s the little things. A pleasant enough day, and there are large gardens associated with the palaces to stroll through. Haemul Pajeon that night, Korean seafood pancakes, that most traditional of dishes, my first exposure to the cuisine. I cook them to this day.

Jejudo Sept 7, 2008. Today was clear, flying to Korea’s southernmost island Jeju-do   much of the peninsula appeared flat , punctuated by inactive volcanic cones. Forests were in evidence growing to the peaks, my first inkling that none of the mountains here were going to have the alpine flora I had hoped to see. It hadn’t dawned on me that the pictures of mountain plants in my Korean field guides had all come from North Korea. Jejudo is a very recent tourist phenomenon, the first boatload of tourists disembarked in 1958, and they just kept coming, it’s now the honeymoon capital of Korea. Warren Berg was perhaps the first European tourist to come here to see the Rhododendrons, his trip is briefly described in an online ARS Journal article from 1977.   http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JARS/v31n1/v31n1-berg.htm. I was booked into the Jeju Kal Hotel, I suspect it’s the tallest structure on the island. I spent the afternoon orienting to Jejudo city, its small enough to see on foot and very laid back.   Samseonghyeol shrine and park had two statues sitting at its street entrance, they are Dolharubang, I took a picture without realizing their cultural significance. There are about 47 on the island, carved around 1750 AD, their purpose and origins are matters of speculation, but they are intriguing emblems of the island. The other iconic cultural feature of the island, perhaps even more famous than the Dolhauubang are the haenyeo, the diving women of jeju-do. They’re documented in the museum next door. Purportedly a remnant of a once matriarchal society, it was at one time illegal for men to set eyes on them. I walked about the forested park, it had a classic shrine inside the entrance. At the center of the park, 3 quite unpretentious holes, integral to the origins myth of the islands first inhabitants.

Sept 8 , 2008 -The best way to see the island is by car, the road system seemed straightforward enough that I wasn’t too worried about getting lost. Four main treks ascend the volcano Hallasan, I selected the one on the opposite side of the island from Jejudo City, recommended as less busy than the closer Seongpanak course. At the entrance over 100 Budda statues line the walk to Gwaneumsa Temple. Just beyond this temple the path entered woodland. The first plant to catch my attention was Hepatica insularis, one of 3 species in Korea. Asarum maculatum also tolerated the deep shade. Ampelopsis brevipeduncularis with it’s typical brilliant fruit vined through the trees, a thug in the garden but not out of control here. The other immediately apparent vine is Hydrangea anomaly v. petiolaris. At about km 6 km into the 8.7 km hike the trail climbed above the treeline , becoming a boardwalk ending on an expansive deck some distance from the cinder cone. A good number of species grow in this transition zone,the substrate is volcanic tufa. I spot Hosta venusta, known as the Mount Halla hosta, it’s a recently evolved endemic, arising from isolated populations of the mainland species Hosta minor. Another endemic was in bloom, Chrysanthemum zawadskii, a blue daisy adpressed to the stone. A much reduced form of Ligularia fisheri was the predominant plant flowering at the time, Hallasan seems to have a dwarfing effect on a number of species. Large blocks of a purple thistle, Cirsium rhinoceros, were also in bloom.

Disappointingly the short hoof to the caldera was closed., The alpine area is surprisingly small and as enormous numbers of people hike here each year parts of each trail are routinely closed to allow for regeneration. There were several wardens on duty keeping a close eye on trekkers, they use piercing whistles to keep you on the boardwalk. It certainly but understandably hampers viewing the plants of the area. A group of women shared a box lunch with me, another example speaking to the hospitality of Koreans.



Jejudo Sept 9 , 2008

Having not reached the caldera the day before I resigned myself to another long hike, 9.6 km up the busier Seongpanak course. There is a small endemic deer in the park, the Jejudo Roe deer, supposedly rarely seen. I saw 3, about hip high, moving about an understory of Daphniphyllum macropodum shrubs. Very cute. Now with protected status they are probably becoming much more frequent in that way that deer do. Almost makes me want to have deer in the garden. On the ground in this dense understory the most frequent plants were Goodyera schlechtendaliana and again Hepatica insularis. Just before noon I neared the 6 km mark, there was a manned ranger station, a sign in English i had not seen at the entrance informed me anyone not reaching this point by 12:00 had to turn back, I’d made it with only 10 minutes to spare. More to my dismay it also noted that hikers must start down off the mountain at 1400 hours. I was still in dense forest, I had hardly any time at all. The forest began to clear much closer to the caldera than on yesterday’s hike. Trees turned to shrubs, as the trail flattened I came out to nice specimens of Sorbus comixta in fruit. I’ve seen a number of Sorbus species in eastern Asia, there is a group of them that seem virtually identical except for local. Side by side I’d have a great deal of difficulty distinguishing them. This is among that group. There are other shrubs, Berberis davurica, Elaeagnus coreaenus and then, oddly, the only plant label I’ve seen on the trail, a 10 cm aluminum band wedged into a prostrate shrub of Rhododendron yedoense var. poukhanense. The trail briefly runs under a stand of Abies koreana then the forest is gone, replaced by great sweeps of 3 to 4 foot high ancient specimens of gnarled Rhododendron mucronulatum. It must put on a spectacular display in the spring and again at leaf fall. The trail becomes a boardwalk. I step out to take a picture of endemic Aconitum napiforme, it’s blue flowers the largest I’ve seen on a monkshood. I get whistled at. From here to the peak we are monitored by docents. Empetrum nigrum is easily identified in fruit, and there are bits of Primula modesta long since bloomed. I make it to the cauldera edge with only 10 minutes to spare, the whistle blowers are already giving us the evil eye. And then they start herding us down the mountain, astutely aware of every person on the mountain and making sure no one dawdles. I’ll note that hiking garb seems to be a fashion statement, most people here look like they’re ready for the Matterhorn. I’m the last off the mountain top except for a couple that have bucked this trend, the woman, on less than sensible shoes, looks particularly done in. I wonder how they’ll make it down. As I enter the forest I find out. A monorail runs down the side of the path, the last warden has put them on a flatbed, it appears to be powered by what looks like a chainsaw engine.


Sept 10, 2008 I spent the day driving the circumference of the island and the roads through Hallasan. A woodland at elevation turned out to consist of a pure stand of Rhododendron weyrichii, their lower branches well above my reach. It’s the provincial flower of Jeju-do. The understory was clear of shrubs. I did a walkthrough, there were scattered woodlanders, notably   Arisaema ringens and Arisaema heterophyllum, Ainslaea cordifolia was in   bloom and there were two orchids, a substantial bed of Calanthe seiboldii and the Elvis Presley on velvet inspired foliage of Goodyera velutina. Hydrangea serrata was growing in large swarths in some of the mountain ditches, I stopped a couple of times for plants that were at their bluest. Another plant slowing my driving was Clematis terniflora, some trees were swamped in white. Good groups of Styrax japonica in fruit led to a stop with my only sighting of Akebia trifoliata, I noticed it only because of the unusual pods hanging off the vine. A recent cataloging of Jejudo pegs 1622 species of flowering plants, including 246 introduced species and 81endemics. And then it was time to head to the airport. By evening I arrived at my abode, the Paradise Hotel, in the port town of Incheon. I had a 7- 11 dinner, the shops were shuttered by the time I arrived. For much of eastern asia this is the go to place for meals, I love fishing chunks of the mystery items out of the soup cauldron inevitably located next to the cash register. It was an industrial area, although that could probably have been said for most of the city. My room looked out at enormous cranes sitting in Incheon Bay on the Yellow Sea.



Sept 11,2008 Today I was off to see those Camellias, they grow on Daecheng-do, an island 202 km northwest of Incheon in the Yellow Sea. It’s the middle of a group of 3 close islands ceded to South Korea by the 1953 armistice. My first mistake , the ferry did not depart from the main passenger terminal. Language problems. I had to spend the morning looking for a smaller secondary terminal, 2 miles away, barbed wire giving it more the look of a military base until inside the gates. The service desk had a dedicated English speaker, she arranged my stay at a minbac on the island. There are no hotels. Two women in traditional garb ushered us up the gangplank. Then the 4 hour fast ferry, landing first at the smallest island of this group, socheong do, before birthing at my destination, Daecheong. I watched it speed on to the largest of the group, Baeongnyeondo. I was met at the Jinri Pier by the manager of the minbac. His employers establishment was on the shores of Nongyeo beach, one of 4 fine sand beaches on the island. My guidebooks had alerted me on what to expect from minbacs. My room was spotless, it was also bare save for a nightstand and folded linens in the corner. I was the only guest on that day, that evening the owners and I got drunk in the courtyard on Korean whiskey, called Seju, while barbecuing local fish and vegetables over a converted oil barrel. We were unable to speak a word of the each others language. Still, I was able to get across the concept that i was here to see the Camellias, they feature prominently in the tourist literature. I was greeted the next morning by the manager in full hiking regalia, and so we hiked across the length of the island before noon. We passed razor wire along the harbor, navy boats and radar towers, all geared toward North Korea, 12 km east. These islands are an anomaly of the armistice, far north of the mainland border. The citizens receive a $50 per month danger allowance for living here. Our trail cut through the middle of the island, most of it forested, crossing near the peak, Samgaksan at 343 m. Here more typical forms of Rhododendron mucronulatum flourished, quite distinct from the forms I had seen on Jejudo 3 days before. A recent survey of the flora of the island lists about 600 species. In bloom along the first km of the trail was Clematis heracleifolia, with a lot of variability in the flower color. I’m told in cultivation it’s a fairly large perennial, subshrub if you prefer, these were all quite small and have remained so in my garden . Then examples from the usual genera of fall bloomers, among them , Aster hayatae, Adenophora grandiflora, a Eupatorium species and Pinellia ternata, a weedy genus close to Arisaema, this one with black spathes. Others of note; Synelisis aconitifolia, Styrax obassia, Quercus mongolica, Viola dissecta, Disporum smilacinum and a white barked Rubus, looking very like the Chinese endemic R. cockburnianus. Back on the road a short set of steps down to the Camellia stand was well signed, though I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own. The groove consisted of perhaps 50 mature specimens behind a fence, the branches were heavy with pods. We caught the one bus that circles the island irregularly and made our way back to the harbor and had lunch at a local restaurant. Screens gave us our own room, we sat on the floor and ate spiced tofu, pickled radish and turnip and cold noodles off the low table, traditional Korean style.   In speaking with several mainland Koreans, many were surprised at the existence of these islands, though having been in the news so much recently it’s unlikely this is still the case. I begged off from my companion, indicating I was going around the island again. A ten kilometer circuit. I hadn’t collected the camellia fruit the first time, and while I expect he wouldn’t have had a problem with it I had no way to ask my companion if gathering a few fruit was acceptable. I had no intention of having come this far to leave the seeds behind. I skipped the bus the second time around, the walk along the road back wound past ocean vistas, beautiful beaches, small temples and 2 villages, an extraordinary days hiking. I puzzled over the numerous oil barrels outside so many dwellings, I’ve since come to realize that various kim chi’s, a part of every Korean meal, were bubbling up in these vessels. The sun was setting by the time I staggered into the minbac. I had picked up more seju, the family’s english speaking sons had arrived from the mainland, we spent another drunken evening over the barbecue, lamenting the beauty of the island and its perplexing lack of tourists. Had I seen it at the time this note from the Korean tourist bureau’s website might have offered some clarity.

“As Daecheongdo is a strategic military point, it is highly advisable that hikers stay on all marked trails as it is not uncommon to see marked mine fields in the mountains. These minefields are normally positioned in heavily vegetated areas between the coastline and the roadsides. If you think you have wandered off the trail or are not sure of the course, please return the way you came until you have regained your bearings.” As might be gathered I’m not typically one to avoid all heavily vegetated areas. Oddly, despite this being perhaps my most memorable experience in Korea I never learned the name of my accommodation or hosts, or if I want to be honest with myself, I lost them in a haze of nightly Seju.


Sept 14, 2008 Having had such a brilliant experience on Baeongnyeondo I was now torn about going to a third island, Uelongdo off the east coast. It’s home to a large number endemic plants, including the very distinct Hepatica maxima. With limited time and knowing rough seas can often cancel ferry service for days I opted instead for

Seoraksan. I hadn’t had qualms driving a car on Jeju-do, on the mainland I was less comfortable with the prospect.. My guidebooks warned that the drivers were notoriously bad, apparently the writers have never been to China. If I had had GPS guidance I might have considered it, but street addresses here are numerically random and most streets have no marked name. Koreans navigate by landmark. I decided to bus the rest of the trip instead.

It took about 4 hours from Seoul on the west coast to the east coast port town of Sokcho. The road wound over the spine of the Taebaek mountains then descended to the Sea of Japan, running along long strands of beautiful beaches, although some were marred by barbed wire and spotlights. Then inland to Seorak-dong, a small village consisting mostly of a hotel cluster just outside the park entrance. I stayed at the kensington stars hotel. There was a contextually odd theme to the hotel, mirroring something british, with double decker buses outside and most floors dedicated to hollywood or korean movie stars. My floor featured pictures and paraphanellia of Korean athletes. Food stalls and t shirt shops crowd the park entrance. I gorged on the street food, much of it a mystery. I thought to finish with something a bit familiar, a donut covered with chocolate and sprinkles, it was skewered on a stick, but even this had its bit of strangeness, I found a hotdog embedded in the middle. Past these bits the park earns its keep as Korea’s most popular national park. Soraksan is a Unesco Bioshere region, the scenery and jagged topography was awe inspiring. Had I been 2 weeks later I would have found no accommodation at all, the fall foliage here rivals the eastern deciduous forests of North America. I took the trail leading to Daecheongbong peak ,1708 m, a 16 km hike. It starts just past the Great Unification Buddha, Tongil Daebu a 14.6-meter/48-foot, 108 ton gilt-bronze statue sitting outside Sinheunga Temple. It winds through the narrow Cheonbuldong canyon, passing numerous high waterfalls cascading into deep crystalline rock pools. At 2.5 km past the entrance is the most famous of these, Biryeong falls and along with other hikers I took a splash in the crystalline clear stone bowl at the bottom , a relief from the 30 degree Celsius heat. In the fall , as the forest foliage colors, this pool becomes perhaps the most photographed spot in Korea. Small trees of Euonymus sachalinensis overhanging the falls were already beginning the show. In fissures along the rock walls a fair number of plants i normally think of as border perennials were growing lithophytically. In bloom were Sanguisorba hakusanensis, the rare endemic Hanabusaya asiatica, Orostachys malacophyllus and Saxifraga fortunei. Mukdenia acerifolia grew in large clumps, and Anseilia acerifolia was both flowering and seeding. Most of the forest is deciduous , some of what I was able to name included Lindera obtusiloba , Betula ermanii ,Malus baccata var. mandshurica, , Quercus , Capinus cordata and Magnolia seiboldii, lovely with its hanging red seed pods at this time of year. There is an especially attractive maple, another snakebark, Acer tschonoskii var. rubripes, I would grow it for its vibrant cherry red leaf stems. The hike came out along a ridge line bifurcating to two separate peaks, about 2 km from the first shelter and main peak. Scattered specimens of Rhododendron mucronulatum grew in this exposed area, in the forest below I had passed Rhododendron schilippenbachii. Although I missed them both Rhododendron brachycarpum and Rhododendron aureum are also noted in the area. This far along the trail the hikers going in my direction intended to stay at the shelter near the peak. Unsure if I could reach the summit and return before nightfall I choose to turn back at this point.



Sept 15, 2008. Another scorcher, too hot for me to hike, so I spent a lazy day today at the tourist totes, before taking the Cable car that’s at the entrance. It ascends to Gwongeumseong, we are let out a 10 minutes climb from the peak. The views are stunning but the final climb is along an almost vertical rock face. I was too chicken to attempt it, I was appalled to see several young children in tow to the top. There are ruins next to the cable car terminus, Gwongeumseong castle, on returning from the summit I walked about them briefly then explored the forest of the dry hillside above.

Sept. 16, 2008   I decided on Odesan as my last destination, further north along this mountain range and renowned for its temples. It’s an easy day trip from Seoraksan. Rhodgersia, It lacked accommodation inside the park , also absent was the circus atmosphere of Soraksan.   Several minbaks were clustered on a side road 3 km from the entrance, I had booked one the previous week. I had been clutching my Rough Guide for the last leg of this bus trip, it had a tiny map of the area. I had booked Gyeongnam minbak , 3 km from the entrance as the nearest accommodation. Unable to ask the bus driver the book was my only indicator of where to stop. Wary is an understatement at pulling the cord at what appeared to be the middle of farmland but I should have trusted, indeed several houses along an unpaved side road maintained these little rooms for income. Better yet several homey restaurants were open within walking distance, past cabbage fields and sheets of drying hot peppers. Odesan wasn’t the circus soreksan had been, I think most people stay at the nearby beach town of xxxx and come to explore its temples or for hiking.

Sept 17, 2008.   I spent today at the Korea botanic Garden, about a 3 km walk down a side road from my minbac. It’s a pleasant surprise, given its rural location and the wide latitude of what can be passed off as a botanic garden. The poisonous garden was a standout, maybe i just liked the concept. I was taken aback by a bed of Cimicifuga japonica in flower , this collection from Jejudo no more than 10 inches high, another genetic dwarf from that mountain. Two shrubs of Rhododendron micranthum were on display, I suspect it’s natural range is restricted to the high mountains of North Korea. The contiguous scales are heavy on the underside of the 1 cm leaves, as they brown they give the appearance of a good indument. Combined with a dense habit and laden with seed pods they were among the most distinctive shrubs in the garden. They’ve come true from seed, I suspect there is little intrageneric fertility , and as flowering is late it is also temporally disjunct from most other species.

Sept 19 Today I went into the park itself, relieved local buses ran the road through the park every 15 minutes. Getting back to my minbac wouldn’t be a hassle at the end of the day. Most of the riders disembarked at the entrance, interested in the 9 story Woljeongsa temple built in 645 ad. My trailhead was 10 km inside the entrance. At the opening was one of the snakebark maples, Acer tegmentosa. Expecting to be alone, I “explored” the seed set. I should have known, hiking does seem the national sport. A tour bus of hikers pulled up. Before they were out of sight another bus pulled up. This continued. I gave up on the idea of collecting , though all manner of bits were being picked by the hikers around me. I was in national park. And yet, the Aristolochia manchurica swallowing the maple was also heavy with fruit. A few Paris verticillata were also at the this entrance, my only sighting. An 1100 m ascent over the 3.5 km trail leads to the highest peak in the park, 1563 m Birobong. About midway up I passed the beautifully situated temple of Sujong-am, it has open views across deep valleys. Gentiana axillariflora was on flower around the temple base. Shortly after a few specimens of Melampyrum roseum were in full bloom, an attractive and very late flowering perennial. It seems to be absent in cultivation, I assume because it’s in the family Orobanchaceae and a difficult subject. Much of the trail is through heavy forest, but scattered shrubs of R. mucronulatum, Vaccinium uliginosum, Viburnum opulus   Kalopanax septemlobus eack out a living. Nearer the summit there were stands of Cornus controversa, I finally planted out one of the seedlings this year. Significant stands of Rhododendron schilippenbachii along the ridgeline were just coming into fall color, from Birobong this ridge can be followed for about 15 km. I continued only to the next peak, 1493 m Sangwangbong before descending to the road. There were also a fair number of familiar perennials as the forest opened near the peaks, including Cimicifuga simplex, Veratrum versicolor, Caulophyllum robustum, Lychnis cognata , Lilium tsingtauense and Rhdgersia tabularis. I was only caught with seed in hand once. The dirt road back wound through forests, the clearings had nice drifts of Aster hayatae, but Synurus excelcus with virtually black flowers was truly striking. At the end of the day I moved from the minbac into nearby Kensington Flora Pyeongchang, the only hotel in the area. I had noted it on the bus ride in way, it was hard to miss , a 16 story building set amidst the farmland. With no obstructions for miles the views into the mountains are stunning. Here I spent my last evening of travel watching the sunset and eating Korean barbecue. There are about 10 species of Rhododendron in Korea, I had only seen 5. Both Rhododendron aureum and Rhododendron brachycarpum occur in Seoraksan, the others; Rhododendron tschonoskii, Rhododendron redowskianum and Rhododedron parvifolium occur on Korea’s sacred mountain in the North, Baekdu. It’s on this mountain that Rhododendron aureum grows in drifts to the horizon. This mountain extends across the Chinese border, there called Changbaishan. My partner’s family live in the nearest city, Shangyan, a good excuse as any to visit. Or am I supposed to avoid the in-laws? But back to my original excuse for traveling to Korea, those Camellias. Only one of my seeds germinated, they did not seem parasitized. My friend in Nova Scotia, John Weagle, had better luck. This year he gave me cuttings off of 12 lusty plants in his greenhouse. I’m all ears at how they do when he plants them out.


Selected References.

Alpine Flowers of Korea by Dr Young No Lee. Kyo-hak Publishing Co. Ltd, Seoul, Korea Published 2000 ISBN 89-09-05879-X 96480


Plants from the Edge of the World by Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. Published 2005. ISBN 0-88192-676-0