Over a century ago, at the height of the British Empire, plant hunters brought rhododendrons from the Chinese Himalayas to Great Britain, where their large colorful flowers made them wildly popular. Today, rhododendrons are endangered in their native land, where they play a critical role in preserving mountain habitat. In China and Scotland, a dwindling group of conservationists devote their lives to the future of this charismatic genus. How do they navigate the complex economic and cultural forces that confront them? And what does this tell us about our species’ relationship to the natural world?

To answer these questions, Pushed up the Mountain takes us on a visually meditative journey of discovery from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to a famous Buddhist mountain in Sichuan, from Kunming’s enormous seed bank and herbarium to Taipei’s National Palace Museum. Along the way, we meet a conservationist who feels it’s her sacred duty to found China’s first rhododendron garden, a botanist-turned-art historian who studies China’s historic cultural reverence for nature, a horticulturist who lives like a pauper to support his rhododendron obsession, and a philosopher in Beijing who advocates people live like naturalists despite unprecedented urbanization.

The filmmaker’s voice, both speculative and poetic, leads us through the film. Intimately observed footage of conservationists at work interweaves with on-location interviews, early 20th-century plant hunter photos used to map climate change, Chinese landscape paintings, and botanical illustrations. These are complemented by a rich sound design and score combining Chinese and Western instruments. The goal: to shed light on a committed group of people joined together by a plant whose migration across national borders excavates a complicated colonial past and a contemporary conservation opportunity.