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A company is proving that in tackling environmental and climate issues in China"s arid regions, man versus nature is not always as effective a strategy as man working with nature.
In the Maowusu Desert, sprawling fields of hardy plants and a large peony field can now be seen, sights rarely found in the region previously.
The 53 hectares of peonies are owned by Great Wall Water Supply of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which is testing cultivation of the flowers as an alternative desert plant.
"Ordinary desert flora like willows and dates are effective in curbing erosion and preventing sandstorms, but it is difficult to make money from them so we decided to nurture plants that have both economic and environmental gains," said Zhang Shengren, a peony specialist.
Great Wall began planting peonies in the desert in 2015, but efforts were unsuccessful until Zhang came on board in 2016. He had previously spent 10 years studying peonies in Japan.
"Peonies thrive in damp and cold conditions, so the desert is far from an ideal place for them. But once the plants gain a foothold, their roots go rather deep and they can live 100 years, so they are also expected to be effective in curbing erosion," Zhang said.
The Maowusu covered over 70,000 square kilometers in 2005 including areas of Ningxia, Shaanxi province and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, but its area has been shrinking over the past few years due to targeted measures.
Average precipitation in Ningxia is only 200 millimeters per year, and evaporation is over 1,600 mm. "Water is rather precious here, so we keep water drip devices as close to the seed roots as possible," Zhang said.
Peonies consume around 45,000 cubic meters of water per hectare annually, more than other desert plants. "As peonies grow, their roots will go deep, and water consumption will drop," he said.
From March to October every year, Zhang spends most of his time in the field. Last month, the plants were hit by a sudden frost when temperatures dropped below zero. Zhang and local farmers sprayed an antifreeze mix and added nutrients to the plants, but many buds still died.
After the frost, Zhang selected plants that had endured the cold snap for seedlings.
"This is a whole new challenge for me. The most important job is to find the type of peony that can survive and thrive in the desert for seedlings and explore a set of scientific management methods for the plant," he said.
Great Wall plans to expand the peony field fivefold. This year, the company hopes to sell 400,000 small peony plants, with each plant going for around 2 yuan (30 US cents).
The cost of growing peonies is about twice that of other desert plants, but the returns are expected to be higher.
"Peony petals can be made into tea, oil can be extracted from seeds and the roots can be used for a type of traditional Chinese medicine," Zhang said.
"I hope there will be downstream industries so that jobs will be created for people who live around the desert."