He's blooming passionate about rhodies

An 86-year-old retiree in Minhang shares his story about how he tends  1,000 pots of rhododendrons in his garden over 60 years.


Cao Yuanqing loves flowers. So much that his time is preoccupied by 1,000 pots of rhododendrons in his garden.

 “During our 66 years of marriage, I always had to do all the housework, even with a sore back,” Cao’s wife Ren Guiying said. “But what can I do? He’s obsessed with his flowers.”

Qin Congcong / Ti Gong

Cao Yuanqing and his wife enjoy the beauty of rhododendrons intheir home in Minhang. Cao, 86, has 1,000 pots of rhododendreons in his garden

Cao, now 86, has traveled away from home only three times in his life. Last year, he took a train to Jiaxing, a city 85 kilometers from Shanghai, to sweep the tombs of ancestors for the first time in decades. The trip made him determined never to leave his flowers again.

“I asked my daughter to come over and water them,” he said. “In the five days I was gone, the flowers never left my mind. Thank god I came back in time to save two pots of rhododendrons that my daughter had overlooked in watering. One of the plants is 30 years old.”

Qin Congcong / Ti Gong

Rhododendrons produce exquisite blossoms in a variety of colors. Their cultivation requires an experienced green thumb. The shallow-rooted plants prefer a slightly acidic, well-drained soil.

Qin Congcong / Ti Gong

Cao’s love of flowers goes back decades. When he was in his 20s, he won a prize in a gardening competition. His friends marveled at his success in growing the finicky rhododendron.

 “Rhododendrons can just die for no reason,” he said. “Sixty years ago, no one was growing them as a hobby, and few of the flowers were available in the marketplace. There wasn’t any beginner’s handbook on their cultivation.”

Cao was an engineer at the Shanghai Turbine Works. His relatively high income allowed him to indulge in his hobby. Still, two pots of rhododendrons from Japan would cost him a month’s salary.

He tried consulting gardeners in public parks, seeking cultivation knowledge. With no experience in growing rhododendron, they simply shrugged off his questions and suggested he give up the idea.

In his first years of cultivating the plants, few pots survived. Cao concluded that growing rhododendron is very similar to repairing machines. You just need to work out when and how to fertilize them. He recorded all his efforts.

With 40 years of experience now under his belt, Cao is viewed as something of an expert in growing rhododendrons. He’s also a bit of a celebrity in his neighborhood, even in the district, after mounting three flower exhibitions.

Lin Qihua, 80, who lives in a housing estate across from Cao’s, takes photos of the rhododendrons every year.

“I heard about Cao from neighbors,” said Lin. “I took up the photography of flowers two years ago, but I could never find perfect rhododendrons. The ones that grow in some parks are less expensive varieties and not as beautiful as Cao’s.”

Qin Congcong / Ti Gong

Cao has been generous in sharing his knowledge with others, but few of his acolytes have met much success.

“It takes years to master the skill,” he said. “All my ‘students’ failed or quit, except one.”

That “one” is Tang Yaohui, who took lunch breaks from construction work to visit Cao and learn about gardening. Tang lives in a home without a garden area, but he still visits Cao regularly to satisfy his own passion for gardening.

In 2010, Cao was nearly forced to give up his flowerpots when his home was earmarked for demolition under an urban renewal project.

“The compensation plan they offered was to give me three flats,” he said. “But none of them had a balcony or a garden area. The redevelopment manager told me that my flowers weren’t his concern and refused further negotiations.”

Desperate to keep his rhododendron pots, Cao wrote a five-page letter to Chen Jing, then mayor of the Minhang District, pleading for help. The government pulled some strings, and the developer finally agreed to provide Cao a home with a garden.

Friends travel from all over the country to gather at Cao’s home for the spring blossoming season.

“Even now, some of the flowers die mysteriously at times,” he said. “It takes a lot of wisdom to garden, and none of my kids has that. My nephew will inherit my flowers in the future.”




Special Reports
Top