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WILD ORCHIDS IN SICHUAN

Phillip Cribb

Orchids have been cultivated in China for over 2500 years, since
before the time of Confucius, yet the Chinese orchid flora is still
incompletely understood and new species continue to be added to
the estimated 1300 native species. The exceptional diversity of
orchids in China can readily be explained by the size of the
country, its geography and its climate. The country is enormous,
5000 km from north to south and 5500 km from east to west, yet
almost half of it, particularly the far west and north are mostly too
arid for orchids to flourish. Temperate species, including many
familiar to those who know their European orchids, thrive in the
north and in the mountains of central and south-west China and
the wetter parts of Himalayas. South of the Qin Ling Mountains,
that bisect China from east to west, the climate is much milder,
predominantly subtropical but tropical in the south and in Hainan
island. Here tropical epiphytic or lithophytic orchids are found
alongside temperate terrestrial ones, the former predominating
below 2000 m, the latter above that elevation. In Sichuan and
Yunnan, the temperate and tropical orchid floras intermingle, over
half of all Chinese orchids having been recorded from Yunnan.
A three-hour drive along the excellent concrete roads west or
north from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan brings one to the foot-
hills of the Tibetan marches, the mountains that form the eastern
boundary of the Tibetan plateau and the great Himalayan chain
that forms its southern boundary. In contrast to the Himalayas, the
mountains here run more or less north–south, rising to 7556 m
above sea level at Gongga Shan (Minya Konka), a spectacular
pyramidal mountain that towers above the valley of the Dadu
River, one of the tributaries of the mighty Yangtze. The country
reflects this pattern with high mountain chains separated by deep
gorges carved out by the tumultuous rivers that tumble out from
the Tibetan plateau. The ranges, mostly above 5000 m, are snow-
capped for much of the year whereas the climate in rivers valleys
from 2000 m down to 600 m elevation can be subtropical. The
valleys are often very dry when in the rain-shadow of the mountain
ranges but, elsewhere, can support wetter forest and woodland.
Further north, the Hengduan Mountian merge into the Min Shan

# The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
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and Qin Ling range which cuts east across central China, providing
an effective barrier to the northwards dispersal of subtropical
elements in the flora. Two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Jiuzhaigou
and Huanglong, are easily accessible nowadays from Chengdu and
provide easy access to the rich floras of the region. The lakes and
streams of these two reserves are hedged by forest-clad slopes that
nestle beneath high snow-peaked mountain ranges.
Western and northern Sichuan are famous as the stamping-
grounds of plant hunters, such as Père Armand David, Ernest
Wilson, Joseph Rock and Harry Smith, but they concentrated
most of their collecting efforts on the temperate trees and shrubs
that now grace so many European and North American gardens.
Only Wilson seems to have collected orchids as living plants, at
least two species of slipper orchid being introduced by him to the
Arnold Arboretum. Nevertheless, he and the other collectors did
make herbarium collections of orchids on their travels and these are
some of the early collections that form the basis of the account of
Chinese orchids now in preparation for the English edition of the
Flora of China by a team that includes Kew botanists (completion
due in 2006).
Sichuan has a rich and diverse orchid flora that includes both
familiar and unusual orchids. On several expeditions in Sichuan in
recent years, I have been fortunate enough to see a variety of them
and will discuss some of the most noteworthy here, starting with the
slipper orchids.

SLIPPER ORCHIDS
The centre of diversity of the temperate slipper orchid genus
Cypripedium lies in southwest China, in the Hengduan Mountains
that stretch from northwest Yunnan to northwest Sichuan. Some
22 of the 48 species of Cypripedium are found here and, in some
localities several can be found growing together. They prefer lime-
stone rocks, screes and stony banks, usually under light shade and
preferable on north-facing slopes.
The panda country of northwest Sichuan is also prime slipper
orchid country. The alpine meadows on the slopes of Sigunian
Shan (Six Maidens Mountain) at above 3000 m in the Wolong
Panda Reserve are rich in slipper orchids. In June, not long after
the snow has melted, the deep maroon flowers of C. tibeticum Rolfe
emerge on short stems from the flattened brown turf. Its deeply

72 # The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005.


Fig. 3. The Huanglong valley in north-western Sichuan (above) and Cypripedium flavum (below), photographed by
Phillip Cribb in June 2004.
slipper-shaped lip is usually rimmed around the mouth with a thin
white band. Reginald Farrer, ever quick with an apposite phrase,
referred to them as like ‘squat toads’. The plants here have some of
the darkest flowers I have ever seen in this species, from a distance
they appear black with the plum colour only visible in transmitted
sunlight. Another choice species here is the dwarf C. guttatum Sw.,
often overlooked, because its small, urn-shaped, white flowers,
spotted with purple, are borne within a few cm of the turf. It
often grows in open clumps of up to ten flowering stalks, each
bearing two, almost opposite, elliptic, pleated leaves. Unlike most
species, both C. tibeticum and C. guttatum can grow happily in full
sunshine; where they are more shaded, the stems grow taller.
In the deep wooded valleys of Wolong a fine butter-yellow form of
the widespread C. flavum P.F. Hunt & Summerh. (Fig. 3) can be found.
Whereas in northwest Yunnan, plants usually have single growths,
each bearing a pale yellow flower with a maroon staminode in the
centre, in northwest Sichuan, plants bear their flowers on taller
stems, each flower being pure yellow with a yellow staminode.
Cypripedium franchetii E.H. Wilson, a close relative of C. tibeticum, is
frequently found growing with C. flavum on stony banks by the Pitiao
River that flows through the reserve. It has a paler purple flower than
C. tibeticum and an ovary that is villosely hairy rather than glabrous or
sparsely pubescent. Another close relative is the plum-coloured
C. calcicolum Ames (syn. C. smithii Ames), first found in north Sichuan
by Harry Smith some 75 years ago. It has a fuller lip than C. tibeticum
with large translucent windows at the back and also lacks a white rim
round the lip aperture. It grows in light shade in deciduous woodland
on banks, usually well above the streams where C. tibeticum is so
common.
Less easy to find because of its diminutive stature and greenish
flower is the delicate C. debile Rchb.f. It is, however, one of the
easiest species to identify, bearing two opposite leaves and a lax
inflorescence with the single flower, nodding and often partly hid-
den below the leaf. It seldom exceeds 10 cm in height and often
grows in small colonies on banks in light to deep shade. I found a
particularly fine colony, growing overshadowed by Arisaema wilsonii,
on Emei Shan, the sacred Buddhist mountain not far south-west of
Chengdu made famous by Ernest Wilson who collected seed of the
Dove tree (Davidia involucrata) on the mountain. The rare C. palang-
shanense Tang & Wang (Fig. 5) was discovered in northern Sichuan

# The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005. 73


on one of the snow-mountains that tower over the Min River that
flows south from the Min Shan into Sichuan’s Red Basin. It is as
small as C. debile but its two leaves are prostrate on the ground and
bear an erect, pubescent, one-flowered inflorescence between them.
The small, nodding flower is plum-coloured and the sepals and
petals form a pointed hood around the lip.
The most intriguing of all slipper orchids, to my mind, are those
with a solitary leaf, belonging to section Trigonopedia. Like C. debile,
C. gutattum and C. palangshanense, they appear to have two leaves,
although the upper one is a bract, with the solitary flower sitting
between them on a short pedicel emerging from the bract’s base.
The pedicel is also unusual in the genus because it elongates to
three or four times its original length once the flower is pollinated,
thereby raising the flower well above the leaves. The leaves of
several species are spotted with black, unknown elsewhere in the
genus. The best-known species in the section are the Yunnanese
C. margaritaceum Franch. and C. lichiangense P.J. Cribb & S.C. Chen,
both of which have black-spotted leaves and bracts and a large
flower. As late as 1985, only five species were known but that
number has now risen to nine as western China becomes better
explored. Four species are found in northern Sichuan, namely
C. bardolphianum Farrer, C. micranthum Franch., C. fargesii Franch.,
and C. sichuanense H. Perner. The first of these was described by
Reginald Farrer who named it for its lip which is covered by ‘‘warts
and welks and bubuckles that it could only make one think of
Bardolph’s nose’’. It is a tiny orchid, easily overlooked except
that it grows at about 2900–3200 m elevation on tufa islands in
mountain stream beds under the shade of shrubs such as Lonicera,
Rhododendron and Salix. Its leaves are usually green with a maroon
margin, but plants with a spotted leaf are occasionally found.
Flower colour is variable, in some localities the flowers are pure
yellow, in others yellow with a deep maroon dorsal sepal, petals and
staminode. Cypripedium micranthum is not dissimilar and also has a
green leaf and bract. However, its small flowers have a villose-hairy
stalk, ovary and sepals. It grows in mosses on limestone scree and
banks under low woodland and scrub at 2000–2800 m.
The best-known of the Sichuan members of the section is
Cypripedium fargesii, named for the French missionary Paul
Guillaume Farges who discovered it in eastern Sichuan in the
1890s. It is similar in plant and flower-size to C. margaritaceum

74 # The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005.


from Yunnan but it differs in having duller, non-glossy leaf and
bract, and in flower colour and the villose hairs on the outer surface
of the petals. It grows on mossy banks, tufa and limestone rubble
under the shade of thickets and low woods.
In June 2004, I found colonies of the rare and little-known
Cypripedium sichuanense on banks and in woodlands on slopes in a
deep gorge in the Min Shan range. It was only described for the
first time in 2002, from plants collected in the Wolong reserve
where it grows on shaded banks in deep shade in ridge-top forest
with bamboo at 2800 m. It has now been found further north in the
Min Shan, also growing on shady banks on mossy, limestone rubble
under light woodland of hazel, Philadelphus, Deutzia and birch. It is
much larger than C. micranthum, closer in leaf and flower size to

Fig. 4. Cypripedium tibeticum on stabilised scree near Konka Shan in June 2004.
C. fargesii, but the flowers are very sparsely hairy and spotted and
suffused with deep chocolate maroon. Nearby were colonies of
C. micranthum and the green-flowered C. henryi Rolfe, while on
large boulders in the river-bed nearby were colonies of C. flavum
and C. tibeticum. Cypripedium henryi is closely related to our native
C. calceolus L., but it has two to four, smaller, green flowers. In
Sichuan, it usually flowers in early to mid May.
Mid-May is also the prime time to see Cypripedium fasciolatum
Franch., the largest flowered and most spectacular of all the
Chinese species. It is another close ally of C. calceolus, but has
creamy flowers marked with purple stripes on the sepals and petals.
The large lip resembles the egg of a pigeon. It grows, like so many
of its allies, in limestone rubble on slopes in the shade of woodland
and scrub. Records, from as far apart as Emei Shan in western
Sichuan and western Hupeh, suggest that it was formerly not
uncommon, but it is now hard to find because of over-collection.

HARDY TERRESTRIAL ORCHIDS


Although slipper orchids are the most prominent terrestrial species
in May and June, late June and July brings a wealth of ground
orchids. Many look very much like European species in genera
such as Orchis, Cephalanthera, Corallorhiza, Epipactis, Herminium and
Platanthera and indeed all these genera are represented in China.
However, many of the orchids that look like Orchis species belong
elsewhere, only O. militaris having been reported from northern
China. In Sichuan, the genera Ponerorchis, Galearis and Amitostigma
account for most of the small, purple-flowered, terrestrial orchids.
They are readily distinguishable: Ponerorchis and Amitostigma have
tubers, with the latter usually having one or two basal rather than
cauline leaves, while Galearis has rhizomes. Ponerorchis chusua (D. Don)
Sóo is widespread and common orchid of meadows and woodland
margins in western and northern Sichuan. It resembles a small EARLY
PURPLE ORCHID in the shape and colour its flowers but the leaves are
borne along the stem and are unspotted. In contrast, Amitostigma
physoceras Schltr. (Fig. 7) has two basal, grey-green leaves covered in
fine purple spots. The inflorescence carries from one to several pink-
purple flowers with a couple of purple spots at the base of the lip.
Galearis is represented by G. wardii (W.W. Sm.) P.F. Hunt and
G. spathulata (Lindl.) P.F. Hunt (syn. Aorchis spathulata). The former

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is found in alpine meadows above 3000 m and can be difficult to
spot in the dense herb-rich sward. Its inflorescences are short, often
12 cm or less tall, and bear several off-white flowers heavily spotted
and marked with burnt-red. The latter is a common orchid in
yak-grazed meadows where it often grows in colonies dotted amongst
slipper orchids. It seldom exceeds 10 cm in height and bears small
purple flowers with a simple, elliptic, purple-spotted lip.
Helleborines are common throughout western and northern
Sichuan. Two species of white-flowered Cephalanthera, C. longifolia
(L.) Fritsch and C. erecta Blume, and one with yellow flowers,
C. falcata Blume, can be found from June onwards in woods and
thickets in the mountains. Cephalanthera longifolia is the familiar
European SWORD-LEAVED HELLEBORINE; C. erecta is similar but differs
in having a lip with a short spur at the base. Peloric forms of
C. falcata in which the lip is petaloid and spur-less have been called
Tangtsinia nanchuanica S.C. Chen, a purportedly ‘primitive’ orchid.
Epipactis helleborine (L.) Krantz, BROAD-LEAVED HELLEBORINE, is a
common summer-flowering species throughout the region, but it is
overshadowed by the stately E. mairei Schltr., named for E.E. Maire,
another French missionary of the late nineteenth century. This
magnificent orchid is common by mountain streams and in meadows
near rivers, often growing in light shade. It can form clumps of several
stems that reach a metre or more tall and bear several, well-spaced,
purple and orange, large flowers. Its stems and leaf-bases are often
deep purple, contrasting with the dark green pleated leaves.
The mossy coniferous woods above 3000 m in northern
Sichuan are home to familiar European orchids. The CORAL-ROOT,
Corallorhiza trifida Chatelain, grows in deep shade, often in the
company of Neottia micrantha Lindl., a small BIRD’S NEST ORCHID, and
dwarf twayblades of the genus Listera. More surprising is the occur-
rence of Calypso bulbosa in spruce forests where it grows in deep
shade in damp mossy hummocks. The solitary erect pleated leaf is
common in the woods of the Min Shan but its solitary flower,
resembling a slipper orchid but with two short spurs at the back
of the lip, is less frequently seen.
Oreorchis, a genus distributed from the Himalayas to Japan and
closely related to Corallorhiza but always has a solitary leaf, is well
represented in the Sichuan mountains. Several species grow here,
usually in limestone rubble in light shade of woods and thickets.
Oreorchis fargesii Finet is a widespread species found in deciduous or

76 # The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005.


Fig. 5. Cypripedium palangshanense photographed by Phillip Cribb in Sichuan in June 2004.
coniferous woods. It has a subglobose head of ghostly white flowers
with a lip spotted with brown. The other two species are more
limited in distribution. Oreorchis nana Schltr. has a solitary short leaf
and and a spike of small yellow and white flowers with a purple
spotted lip. Oreorchis oligantha Schltr. is a smaller plant but with fewer
larger flowers, with purplish sepals and petals and a large white lip
spotted with purple.
The closely related habenarias and platantheras are at their best
in July. The white- and green-flowered Habenaria mairei Schltr. is
30–40 cm tall and has a three-lobed lip with fringed lateral lobes. It
grows in grassland and scrub and on forest margins up to 3400 m.
H. davidii Franch., taller and with a longer spur twice the length of
the lip, grows in similar places, being particularly common in
thickets in ravines. Habenaria glaucifolia Bur. & Franch. is more
characteristic of high-elevation grassland. It has yellowish white
flowers borne on a 30–60 cm tall scape that emerges between two
large bluish green prostrate leaves, and a three-lobed lip with the
side lobes twirled like the moustache of a Victorian soldier. At lower
elevation the widespread Habenaria dentata (Sw.) Schltr. is readily
recognised by its rather dense head of pure white flowers with a
three-lobed lip in which the side-lobes are toothed rather than
fringed. The familiar BUTTERFLY ORCHID Platanthera chlorantha Cust.
ex Rchb. is common in the woods from 2500 to 3000 m, but is
usually greenish flowered rather than white. It is put into the shade,
however, by the magnificent P. japonica (Thunb. ex A. Murray)
Lindl. which can reach 80 cm tall and bears large white flowers
with a ligulate lip that curve forwards in an inviting manner. It
grows in shaded places in woods and shrubberies, often in small
colonies of up to a dozen plants.

TENDER TERRESTRIAL ORCHIDS


Pleiones are amongst the best-known of all Chinese orchids and
are widely cultivated, being suited especially to the cold-frame
or Alpine greenhouse conditions in northern Europe. In Sichuan
they grow on rocks and ledges on cliffs between 1800 and 2800 m
elevation. The bright pinkish purple-flowered Pleione bulbocodioides
Franch. is widespread in western Sichuan, for example in the valley
of the Pitiao River at Wolong. In the valleys of tributaries of the
Dadu, plants that resemble P. limprichtii Schltr. can be found. This is

# The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005. 77


very close to P. bulbocodioides but has a rounder lip. It may well be
better treated as a variety of the latter. Pleiones flower here in May
or rarely in early June before their solitary leaf appears from the
apex of the conical or egg-shaped pseudobulb.
In drier places, especially on steep grassy slopes and roadside
banks, bletillas can form extensive colonies. They are early colon-
isers of bare soil but tend to die out as the other vegetation grows up
and shades them out. Bletilla formosana (Hay.) Schltr. is a common
orchid from about 1200 to 2000 m elevation. It has slender, grass-
like pleated leaves at the apex of a small corm-like pseudobulb and
produces a slender wiry inflorescences bearing a few small pink and
white flowers with a bright yellow callus. Altogether more obvious is
the yellow-flowered B. ochracea Schltr., a larger plant with broader
leaves and larger flowers. Most forms have buttercup yellow sepals
and petals and a golden callus marked with purple. Flowers with
bronze or reddish backs to the sepals are not uncommon. It grows
on very dry banks amongst grasses and bushes, often in valleys in
the rain shadow of mountains. However, it seems equally at home
in wetter habitats. In some places, for example, around Baoxing,
the two Bletilla species hybridise to present an array of flower colour
and form that is perplexing, especially when examined in the
herbarium. In the field, it becomes obvious that primary hybrids
and backcrosses produce the variation that can be seen.
Perhaps the most splendid of all the terrestrial orchids are the
calanthes. Several species occur in western and northern Sichuan.
The best-known and most widespread is Calanthe tricarinata Lindl..
It produces a spike up to 60 cm in height before the leaves develop,
the flowers having yellow-green or yellow sepals and petals and a
brick-red lip bearing three raised keels. It frequents shaded places in
bamboo thickets and deciduous woodland. A highlight of a visit to
Wolong in the early 1990s was the discovery of a colony of nearly
100 plants surrounding a steaming pile of panda droppings. Sadly,
my colleagues took more photographs of the panda’s signature than
of the orchids. Calanthe brevicornu Lindl., with pale creamy-white to
pale green flowers with rose-pink markings and a yellow callus on
the lip, is also widely distributed from the Himalayas to western
China. In northern Sichuan it grows under dense stream-side
shrubberies in deep shade. Less showy is the green-flowered
Calanthe davidii Franch. which commemorates Père David who
discovered it near Baoxing. I have seen it on Emei Shan and in

78 # The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005.


Fig. 6. Calanthe brevicornu Lindl. photographed by Phillip Cribb in Sichuan in June 2004.
the Min Shan, growing in the shade and on rocks by water at 1500–
2500 m elevation. Calanthe alpina Hook.f. ex Lindl. is altogether
more magnificent with striking mauve-purple flowers with a fringed,
entire, cupped lip and long ascending spur. It is common in shaded
damp woodland, often near streams and fast-flowing rivers in the
mountains, between 2000 and 2800 m.
The native orchids most prized by the Chinese are cymbidiums,
prized for their elegant habit and sweetly fragrant flowers. The
Sichuanese species are mostly terrestrial and difficult to find unless
they are in flower because they grow in grassy places and their
leaves are remarkably grass-like. Cymbidium ensifolium (L.) Sw.,
C. faberi Rolfe, C. goeringii Rchb.f. and C. kanran Makino all have
fragrant flowers with green sepals and petals and a white lip marked
with red. The first two are similar but C. faberi has large papillae on
the midlobe of its lip that glisten in the sun. The third has a single-
or two-flowered inflorescence, typically with the sepals and petals
somewhat spatulate. The last has spidery flowers with very slender
sepals and petals. Cymbidium sinense (Jacks. ex Andr.) Willd. is easier
to distinguish with its glossy, dark green, broad leaves and spike of
large purple flowers with a white lip spotted with purple. Cymbidium
lancifolium Hook. is a very widespread orchid, found from China all
the way to Indonesia. It grows in forest on rocks, usually limestone
up to 2200 m elevation. Its broad lanceolate leaves borne on slender
stalks on cigar-shaped pseudobulbs and short, few-flowered inflor-
escence of white flowers with a central purple-striped sepals and
petals and purple-spotted lip are distinctive.

EPIPHYTES AND LITHOPHYTES


Many Chinese orchids that are generally thought of as epiphytic
grow more often on bare rocks, attached by their boot-lace like
roots to the surface or to crevices in the rock. One of the finest
sights in the western Sichuan mountains is to see a cliff with
scattered dendrobiums clinging to it. The road from the Dadu
River to Kangding (formerly Tatsienlu) passes cliffs tufted with
the bright yellow-flowered Dendrobium aureum Lindl. Other species
found growing on rocks in Sichuan include the yellow-flowered
D. hancockii Rolfe, the purple and white-flowered D. nobile Lindl.,
and the white-flowered D. officinale K. Kimura & Migo and
D. moniliforme (L.) Sw. Most Dendrobium species are collected for

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traditional Chinese medicine, their stems when macerated and
boiled, being considered an effective cure for bronchial problems.
Coelogyne fimbriata Lindl., another lithophyte that forms extensive
mats is rather common in suitable habitats. Near Baoxing, I have
seen it covering a rock-face on the upper slopes of the entrance to a
gorge at 1200 m. Its cigar-shaped pseudobulbs bear two leaves and
a single-flowered inflorescence is borne between them. The flowers
are buff-coloured to pale green with a dark brown-marked lip.
The large-flowered epiphytic Cymbidium species, C. elegans Lindl.,
C. erythraeum Lindl., C. hookerianum Rchb. f. and C. iridioides D. Don,
have all been reported from southeast Sichuan, growing usually on
trees or rocks but their collection for horticulture has brought them
to the verge of extinction in the wild in Sichuan. They are tufted
plants with large pseudobulbs, often forming clumps, and with
long, linear, glossy, dark green, pointed leaves and large flowers.
The smaller flowered C. floribundum Lindl. is locally still common,
and grows on limestone rocks and low down on trees where it
can form large tufts. It produces erect dense spikes of many small
flowers with dull purple sepals and petals and a white lip marked
with red or purple spots. It is an important species in modern
orchid hybridisation, having been used to produce the so-called
‘‘miniature cymbidiums’’ which are now popular pot-plants.

CONCLUSION
Western China is a rewarding country for the orchid enthusiast.
In particular, Sichuan, with its diverse and spectacular land-
scapes, offers a variety of habitats from high alpine meadows to
deep steamy gorges that suit a wide spectrum of orchids. Sichuan is
a paradise for the slipper orchids of the genus Cypripedium, the diversity
of which is unmatched elsewhere. It is now more accessible than
ever before. The Chinese have pushed new roads into the moun-
tains, and journeys that previously took two or three, bone-shaking
days can now be covered in comfort in a day. Furthermore, there
are excellent hotels in most of the nature reserves, too many in the
case of Jiuzhaigou which caters for more than 10 000 visitors a day.
The nature reserves are well-run and kept remarkably litter-free. A
keen eye and a little advanced preparation can ensure a rewarding
visit to these spectacular mountains and one that will remain firmly
impressed on the memory ever-after. Ecotourism has never been
easier nor more rewarding!

80 # The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2005.


Fig. 7. Amitostigma physoceras Schltr. photographed by Phillip Cribb in Sichuan in June 2004.