Thursday, January 7, 2016

Gardens of Splendor (En Voyage)

Visitors who tour Taiwan quickly realize it is both densely populated and stunningly mountainous. However, few outsiders know that mid- and high-elevation forests dominated by hardwoods occupy a third of the island, and that other large areas are covered by conifers, softwoods or bamboo. As a proportion of its total land area - almost 59 percent - Taiwan has twice as much forest as Norway.

Understanding what goes on in these arboreal realms, and educating the public about the ecological role of woodlands, is the job of the government’s Taiwan Forestry Research Institute. Of the eight botanical gardens managed by the institute, five were established during the early years of Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial rule of Taiwan. The best known and most accessible of these is just 2km south of Taipei Main Railway Station, and within 20 minutes' walk of Wanhua.

Taipei Botanical Garden has been a research center since 1896, and a place where the public can immerse themselves in nature since 1921. As Taiwan’s capital has grown outward and upward, this 8.2-hectare enclave has held fast as a biodiversity hotspot.

The garden is divided into almost 30 themed zones, and several of the categories will not surprise those who know something about plants and trees. One zone is given over to aquatic plants, another to gymnosperms (whose seeds are not enclosed in fruit), and a third to palmae (palm trees). More unusual is the collection of trees, flowers and herbs mentioned in great works of Chinese literature. Because the Chinese language abounds in homophones, writers have often used plants as emblems. For example, the willow tree (柳, liu) is a symbol of wanting a person to stay (留, also liu). Another section displays plants associated with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Because the garden’s avians have become used to humans, Taiwan’s bird-photography fraternity is out in force here every weekend. 

As the crow flies, Fushan Botanical Garden is just 33km from Taipei 101. However, because there is no road from the Taipei side, visitors must come through Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township. No buses go near the entrance, and the road is sometimes closed after typhoons. In addition to driving themselves to the garden, visitors must also apply for permission to enter well in advance. The daily limit for tourists is 500 on weekdays, 600 on weekends and holidays. The garden's 409.5 hectares are 600 to 800 meters above sea level. The climate is therefore cooler and wetter than downtown Taipei’s. Mist is common; visitors should bring umbrellas or rainproof jackets, even if the capital is bone dry.

Inside Fushan, as in most of Taiwan’s botanical gardens, the labels attached to plants and trees usually provide the Chinese and scientific names only. To get more out of a tour, visitors should carry a field guide, or stop frequently so they can google names on their smartphones. 

According to TFRI, Fushan is home to 515 plant species. Some are far from rare, such as the nettle Taiwanese people call “biting people cat” (Urtica thunbergiana), and Japanese Holly-Grape (Mahonia japonica). The seeds, roots and stems of the latter are used in traditional medicine. Several trees’ scientific names reveal their local origins. One is Phoebe formosana, sometimes called the Taiwan Phoebe. Another is Quercus tarokoensis (the Taroko Oak), which is native to mid-level mountain areas near Taroko Gorge. A third is a kind of laurel, Litsea morrisonensis, named for Mount Morrison. That peak, the highest in Taiwan, is now better known as Mount Jade. 

The green fingered will adore all of this flora, but for others, Fushan’s real stars are its insects, which include a dazzling array of crane flies, dragonflies, robber flies, weevils, and other beetles. 

Because Fushan is far from major human settlements, the area has a sizable animal population. Mammal activity peaks around dawn and dusk, yet tourists - who are only allowed in between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. - may well glimpse a Formosan macaque, or perhaps even a Reeves’s Muntjac. The former is Taiwan’s only monkey species. The latter is a small deer which yaps like a dog.

Only the luckiest outsiders get to see other creatures, but evidence of nighttime visits by pangolins and wild boars is everywhere. The former scratch out basketball-sized holes while seeking ants and termites. The latter dig up large areas of topsoil while hunting for the long worms they like to feed on. 

Residents of Taichung and Chiayi are fortunate to have botanical gardens on their doorsteps.  Taichung Botanical Garden is managed by, and located a stone’s throw from, the National Museum of Natural Science. More than 700 plant species are crammed within its 4.5 hectares. The garden’s highlight is undoubtedly the Tropical Rainforest Conservatory. This is no bland conventional greenhouse, but a striking marquee-shaped steel-and-glass structure 31m high and 56m in diameter. Remarkably, it contains a waterfall and a small creek. In addition to retaining warmth and moisture, the building’s shell traps flowery scents which in turn attract butterflies. 

The small city of Chiayi has two TFRI-run sites. Beizihtou Botanical Garden is popular with birdwatchers but gets few other visitors, despite having such curiosities as Garcinia subelliptica and Canaga odorataThe first, also known as the Happiness Tree, bears a fruit resembling the satsuma and related to the mangosteen, but which does not taste nearly as pleasant as either. In Japan and Taiwan, this tree’s leaves have traditionally been used to produce a yellowish dye. In Chinese as well as English, the second is often called “the perfume tree.” If you stand downwind of this fast growing evergreen, a pleasant fragrance is quite noticeable.

Chiayi Arboretum - nearly twice the size of Beizihtou at 8.3 hectares - fills with strolling families and joggers on weekends. In the first few decades of the 20th century, when rubber was considered a strategic material, both sites served as experimental rubber plantations. Nowadays the arboretum is home to an impressive range of tree species, including teak and mahogany trees more usually seen in Southeast Asia or Central America. Here, as in all of Taiwan’s botanical gardens, it pays to pause from time to time, and gaze closely at the surrounding foliage. You are sure to see something you would otherwise have missed: An unusual dragonfly, a parasitic flower, or perhaps a patch of fungus. Some little marvel that, for a few moments at least, will wash away your stress, and convince you these verdant enclaves are not just free, but also priceless. 

This is a shortened and modified version of the article which appears in the January issue of EVA's inflight magazine. This link will take you to the first page of the article as it appears in the magazine's online edition. I took both of the photos here; the first shows a moth in Beizihtou, the second is of Hapen Creek in Fushan.

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