China's most iconic tree has a full-time guardian

More than 3 million people visit China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) each year. The mountain range is revered for its scenery and rollings clouds. Among the most visited sites along the mountains is the Greeting Pine.

The Greeting Pine (Pinus hwangshanensis) has been a symbol of Chinese hospitality since the 1950s, according to Sixth Tone. As a result, the 800- to 1,000-year-old tree is a precious environmental commodity to the Chinese. So it’s only fitting that such an important tree have a bodyguard.

Since the early 1980s, a single person has been responsible for monitoring the health of the Greeting Pine, and this person does so around the clock, rain or shine.

Tree watcher

The current guardian of the Greeting Pine is Hu Xiaochun, a former soldier who was selected to guard the pine in 2011. He spent a year learning from his predecessor before he was allowed to keep an eye on the tree by himself.

“I was a soldier for six years. If I receive a mission, I have to do it well,” Hu told Sixth Tone.

Hu’s day is spent monitoring the tree. Every two hours, or every half hour in inclement weather, Hu checks the tree’s support rods and its drainage and lightning protection systems. He uses a magnify lens to check for bark or needle damage and the presence of ants or worms. Everything is recorded in a journal, and there are journals dating back to the first pine guardian. Hu is the 19th such guardian.

In addition to tiny critters, Hu has to keep an eye on overeager humans. The Greeting Pine is a popular selfie spot, and when you consider that more than 3 million people visit a year, that’s a lot of people to keep from loving the tree too much. A security system pings Hu’s phone anytime someone sets foot over a barrier.

“Human sweat damages the bark, and we are trying to ensure that it keeps growing naturally,” Hu told NBC News.

That same security system helps Hu monitor the tree at night. Squirrels and monkeys arrive once the moon rises to forage for food. If he gets an alert, Hu heads out from the small hut he lives in near the tree to scare off the critters.

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Hu is supported by a larger team of about 20 or so. Should any actual threats to the tree arise, Hu immediately reports it, and an arborist is dispatched to remedy the situation. Still, monitoring the tree is Hu’s responsibility.

Severe weather is its own special concern. Hu must keep an eye then around the clock, constantly monitoring its status. When Typhoon Haikui struck in 2012, Hu was unable to return to his home about 19 miles (30 kilometers) from Huangshan to be with his infant daughter who had contracted pneumonia.

“I couldn’t do anything when I got the call from home, because it was a super typhoon,” Hu explained to Sixth Tone.

Hu gets to see his family once a month, and his daughter now calls him the “monkey” when he does return.

But the Greeting Pine has become family for Hu.

“As a pine guardian, if you see the job as only taking care of a tree, then it’s meaningless. If you treat the pine as a family member, then it’s very different,” Hu told Sixth Tone.

And the Greeting Pine has taught Hu things as well, through its resilience.

“The [Greeting Pine] teaches me to be tough. No matter how bad the weather is, nothing brings it down. This is not just a tree. It symbolizes friendship. It opens its arms to welcome people. China is a country of etiquette. The [Greeting Pine] welcomes the world.”

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