Thursday, July 14, 2011

The trees that shade Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

Despite industrialization and population growth, trees cover a much greater percentage of Taiwan than do concrete or rice paddies. They deserve a place in the hearts of all who live in Taiwan, and not only for aesthetic reasons. They nurture wildlife, anchor slopes prone to landslides, and reduce flood risk by drawing up rainwater. Also, one particular tree species – camphor – played a crucial role in Taiwan's economic and social development.

The government’s most recent comprehensive land-use survey, completed in 1995, found that 58.5% of Taiwan’s land area was covered by trees or bamboo. Hardwood stands – many dominated by non-native Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) – accounted for more than half of this total, while another fifth supported a mix of hardwoods and conifers. Different countries define “forested land” in different ways, yet there can be no doubt that for its size, Taiwan has many more trees than France or Britain.

The ban on logging in Taiwan's natural forests that came into force in 1991 followed 300 years of exploitation. In the early 1700s, demand for Taiwan's first major export – camphor, derived from the Camphor Laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) – resulted in large-scale clearances. According to Taiwan: A New History, edited by Murray A. Rubinstein: “Camphor making forced the pace of exploitation of the densely wooded uplands of northern and central Taiwan, which in turn provoked incessant Sino-aboriginal clashes...The product for which [Han Chinese] literally risked their heads was obtained by felling stately camphor trees and reducing them to large heaps of wood chips. Whitish camphor crystals were then extracted from the chips by a crude but effective distillation apparatus set up on the spot.”

Until the 1880s, camphor was used mainly for medicinal purposes and as an insect repellent. Later it became an ingredient in smokeless gunpowder. Around the time of the Japanese takeover in 1895, Taiwan was supplying two-thirds of the world's camphor, and the trade was enjoying a second wind thanks to demand in the West for film and other products based on celluloid (then manufactured using natural camphor). This lasted until the introduction of petrochemical-based products and synthetic camphor in the 1920s.

The camphor trade drove the growth of inland settlements such as Daxi in Taoyuan County and Puli in Nantou County. It also facilitated the expansion of Taiwan's tea industry by clearing upland areas, which were then planted with tea.

Camphor Laurels thrive in Taiwan's climate, and despite the massive harvesting of yesteryear, they are nowadays quite common, in both mid-elevation forests and public places. Typically three times the height of an adult person, these trees are easy to recognize, having rough bark marked by vertical fissures. In fall and winter, they produce black berries almost a centimeter in diameter.

The tree species currently most important to Taiwan's economy is, of course, the betel nut palm (Areca catechu). The negative impact of this shallow-rooted tree on the environment and on the health of those chewing the nut are well known, yet its popularity has not abated. Between 1961 and 2008, annual betel nut production in Taiwan increased from 3,718 to 144,195 metric tons. Only India grows more.

The trees people in Taiwan most often encounter are in parks, on campuses, or along city streets. Many bear labels giving the species' scientific name and its common name in Chinese, but only rarely is there information in English.

A great many schools, including National Taiwan University's main campus, are shaded by tall, gun-barrel straight Cuban Royal Palms (Roystonea regia), often called Florida Royal Palms by Americans. The bark is pale and smooth, and the upper third of each palm tapers.

There are two good reasons why these ornamental trees are popular in towns. Firstly, their profiles mean they seldom topple during typhoons. Secondly, because their roots only grow longer but not wider, they do not damage foundations by infiltrating cracks when thin and then expanding. In addition, Blackboard Trees (Alstonia scholaris) can be found on many campuses. Their bark is rough and light gray or charred-looking.

Abandoned houses torn apart by trees are a common sight in Taiwan's countryside, and one of the most dramatic examples of arboreal voracity can be found in Tainan. What is now known as Anping Treehouse is a 19th-century former warehouse filled with Chinese banyans (Ficus Microcarpa). These long ago grew through and destroyed the roof. Their roots have grown across walls and openings in a manner that is almost surreal.

A mature banyan can be a beguiling sight. Aerial prop roots knot themselves around the main trunk or strike out on their own in search of nutrients. Tresses of much thinner roots hang down from the branches. Many of Taiwan's "sacred trees" – large trees believed to be the homes of spirits – are Chinese banyans...

The complete article appears in the Travel & Culture special issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and can be read online here. Rich Matheson, who took the photos for this article, has added some superb images which didn't appear in the print edition of the magazine to his blog. Too many of Taiwan's trees are hemmed in by concrete or asphalt; the photo here (which I took on land managed by the Forestry Bureau in Changhua County) shows a lucky tree that has been given space to grow.

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