Dong Lei, and as credited
The Gobi Desert, a desolate expanse of jagged rock and golden sand covers the northwest of China’s Gansu Province. A land of extremes — daily temperatures fluctuate some thirty degrees Celsius. It is a harsh and seemingly barren place, a parched and dusty land void of life. To botanists, however, it is a land of plenty: among its sandy dunes and flat rocky plains live precious and rare drought-tolerant plants that have evolved to endure the obscene conditions the Gobi throws at them. These botanical specialists, such as the Mongol cottonspire and songarian sunrose, along with a number of other relict species now confined to this sandy land, have found a home and a place to thrive in this land of extremes. The Gobi Desert is harsh, demanding, and temperamental; but it is alive, and these ground-hugging plants are exceptionally important not only to the desert ecosystem, but also to the study of environmental change and the evolution of plants. They are also in danger of losing their homes.
To the Chinese, Cynomorium is more than just a plant — it is a highly sought after herb that is thought to be an aphrodisiac at its most interesting, and a nourishing herb at the very least. It is quite uncommon to find such a plant on one’s desk. One rarely needs an aphrodisiac at work.
One day in 2014, I set out from the capital of Gansu Province, Lanzhou, and headed towards the small and sandy city of Dunhuang, the home of wild cynomorium. I was headed into this desert with my friend Mr. Feng, a business manager with a PHD degree in geography from Lanzhou University. Driving along the famous Hexi Corridor, a key link along the silk road that served as a connection to traders and explorers between Lanzhou and Dunhuang, we made it a mere few dozen kilometers from our destination when we both heard the unmistakable sound of trouble — a broken exhaust pipe. Mr. Feng, being familiar with the area, said we had to turn to the nearest Guazhou County with a repair shop. Leaving the car in the hands of a trusted mechanic, we wandered
around and ended up at the door of a small, yet vibrant, restaurant.
As we pushed through the doors, a lady standing behind the counter was already smiling and asked immediately what we wanted to order. Lacking the obvious benefit of a menu, we handed over the decision to her, and she suggested that we should try their cynomorium scones. We ordered two.
We took a seat in the corner of the small, empty restaurant and waited patiently in silence. My mind relaxed, and I glanced over to the counter and noticed the owner rubbing a delicate dusting of cynomorium on to the top of both our scones. Putting the scones in the oven, she turned and leaned on the counter and told us that in the past the golden Gobi sand was punctuated with wild cynomorium, but in recent years they were nearly gone. In an attempt to protect them, government of Guazhou County no longer allowed the public to harvest them. Known locally as “desert ginseng”, the plant is quite dissimilar in taste and appearance, but quite similar in terms of its market value. This is a code for “it’s incredibly lucrative”; recently prices have soared, and as a result the wild plants — removed for free and sold for a massive profit — have vanished. The dried cynomorium makes their way to market in a decorative box, just like the one I recently found on my desk, and the desert ecosystem is left without.
They are not all gone, however. Some tall flowering individuals still remain. The oven dinged, and soon the scones, topped with cynomorium, were on our table. I looked at my scone, then to the desert around us. I wondered if anyone purchasing cynomorium knew of the plight of this “desert ginseng”. I wondered, too, if they knew that it was sprinkled freely on the tops of scones, every day for every wanting customer, in a small village amidst the sand and dunes of the Gobi Desert.
After a long wait, and a delicious cynomorium-topped scone, we finally retrieved our car and
for the wind and sun to build.
We returned to our car, briefly checking the makeshift repairs to the muffler along the way, and pointed towards Dunhuang.
That was my first encounter with the drought-tolerant plants. But now, how should I deal with the cynomorium I received?
I give it, along with its ornate box, to Dr. Yang Yong, a botanist with the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, as a plant specimen. Placing the box down and leaving it open, he enters into a weaving biographical tale of desert botany. He skips any mention of cynomorium or cistanche, the comparatively common plants here, and delves into a list of species I had never heard of before: Mongol cottonspire ( Potaniniamongolica ), songarian sunrose ( Helianthemumsongaricum ), nakedfruit ( Gymnocarposprzewalskii ), leathery bract daisy ( Tugarinoviamongolica)… His knowledge of the desert plants is encyclopedic, and he continues to list names as he wanders around the virtual desert etched in his mind. He then moves to specific regions of the Gobi — Ordos and Alashan of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Dunhuang of northwestern Gansu, and the Hami region of Xinjiang — each with their own specific environmental conditions, and each with their own selection of unique drought tolerant inhabitants.
His montage of desert places and species names abruptly stops. A large smile breaches his face and he informs me that he is planning a survey expedition to the Mazong Mountains of northern Gansu. “You should come!” We both know this is a rare opportunity. Not only are all the desert species there, but Mazong is a place well off the beaten track. Without the logistical help of a research expedition, the Mazong Mountains are out of reach.
Mr. Feng and I go in search of two trucks able to make the off- road journey, and within hours are packed and ready to go. Along the way we pass groves of Chinese tamarisk ( Tamarixchinensis ), among other arid region specialists. The tamarisk is notable for its flowers, their beautiful red blossoms like fireworks exploding against the otherwise drab desert background. These are not on Dr. Yang’s list of species to survey, and we pass them by, their firework-like flowers drifting off into the distance as we bounce and swerve deeper into the desert.
“Look” Dr. Yang Yong shouts, raising his voice above the background noise of diesel trucks battling