Fall Foliage—“Huyang” Trees –by Jinny Batterson
Vermont has its maples, Colorado its aspens. The Taklamakan region has its “variegated leaf poplars,” known in Chinese as “huyang” trees. These trees are desert-hardy, and have been spotted even deep within the Taklamakan. Their leaves at different stages and on different parts of the tree can mimic poplar, willow, and even maple leaves. In the autumn, they turn a golden yellow, lighting up the area around them. Until I went to Xinjiang, I had never heard of these trees (also called “Euphrates poplars,” though not so often in sometimes ethnically tense Xinjiang).
Recently, the trees have become increasingly endangered, and I worry they may follow the trajectory of the American chestnut trees which once formed an important part of the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. During the early 20th century, nearly all American chestnuts succumbed to a fungal blight accidentally introduced from Asia—only a few isolated stands remain. So far, no biological blight is affecting the variegated leaf poplars, but the incursion of more and more people into the areas where they’ve grown has put increasing pressure on these “trees of the desert.” Some of the characteristics that make them most adapted to their geographical region—deep, extensive roots and slow-decaying wood—have also made them most susceptible to human invasion. Their harvested wood is popular for building materials; their intrusive roots make them anathema to those constructing housing or irrigation projects near stands of the trees, whose roots over time will invade foundations and pipes.
The Chinese national television network, CCTV, in 2009 broadcast a 12 part series titled in English, “The Last Stand of the Euphrates Poplars.” Shortly afterward, in 2010, the P.R.C. applied for UNESCO World Heritage status for parts of the Taklamakan/Tarim Basin region, including the Euphrates poplar’s extensive stands there as part of the justification for a designation:
“The Tarim Basin is the world’s core area of these poplar trees which cover 352,200 ha, accounting for 90% of their total area in China and 54.29% of the global distribution. The largest natural poplar trees in the world occur in the Tarim River drainage area and large areas of undisturbed poplar forests have been preserved in this region.”
The application is still under review.
As a town resident in the Tarim River oasis settlement at Ala’er, Xinjiang, I got few initial chances to see these poplars up close. That changed one autumn weekend when a work colleague arranged a group day trip out into the desert. We packed up a small van with tarps, water, and a picnic lunch, then set out from town. We stopped first at a fairly high set of sand dunes, took some pictures, and took turns horsing around and rolling down the sides of the dunes. A large trash heap near the dunes only slightly marred the idyllic scene. (Why bother with landfills when the desert winds will sooner or later cover your trash for you?) Even here there were a few poplars, their roots burrowing deep under the dunes.
Next we stopped at a construction site where several tributaries that flow out of the surrounding mountains meet the Tarim River. Since it was autumn, flow from the glacier-fed tributaries was minimal or nonexistent, but there was a lot of piping and several dams—trying to capture as much of the water as possible. For our picnic site, we went downstream about a third of a mile to a large grove of poplars, golden and just starting to shed their leaves. There was a slight breeze, and the trees murmured in a way I associate with aspen groves in the American West.
It is possible that ancestors of the current trees developed as much as 65 million years ago. It is my hope that, despite our busy efforts to “conquer” the desert, these beautiful trees will continue to thrive where little else can for millions of years more.