By Cathy Teng / Photos by Jimmy Lin / Translation by Phil Newell

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing at Taoyuan International Airport. The temperature on the ground is a pleasant 24°C. It is spring, and the flowers are blooming. The sidewalk trees in cities around Taiwan are decorating the streets with a stunning variety of colors. If you are visiting Taiwan as a tourist, I suggest that you keep an eye out for their new looks as spring turns to summer. We are preparing to explore the story of trees in Taiwan, and we hope this journey will increase your knowledge and understanding of our island’s rich diversity.”

Back in 1624, when the Dutch first came by sea to Dayuan (today’s Tainan), their attention will surely have been captured by scenes of trees with luxuriant green foliage covering the mountains and plains. Today, traveling from the airport into downtown Taipei or strolling the city’s streets, you will perhaps notice the green corridors that are often at your side. Zhongshan North Road is a boulevard famous for its native Formosan sweetgum trees (Liquidambar formosana), while Aiguo West Road, part of which runs alongside the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, is lined with bishopwood trees (Bischofia javanica), another native species. The camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) along Ren’ai Road present an exuberantly verdant scene in all seasons of the year. And when you come to Cisheng Temple in Taipei’s Dadaocheng area to eat authentic Taiwanese dishes, the shade on the temple plaza is provided by banyan trees (Ficus spp.). On your way through these locations, you will—perhaps unwittingly—have taken in all four of the most common trees found at low elevations in Taiwan: banyan, camphor, bishopwood, and sweetgum.

Scenery in all four seasons

Roadside and sidewalk trees provide the most visually appealing greenery in urban areas, and they can moderate the temperature, clean the air, absorb noise, and assist in water conservation. Their most conspicuous role is to enrich cities’ visual scenery.

Ethnobotany specialist Yang Chih-kai, an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, tells us that trees do not merely provide a feast for the eyes, for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples used plants to distinguish the changing of the seasons. He quotes from Fanshe Caifeng Tu, an 18th-century Chinese illustrated book about indigenous customs in Taiwan: “The savages [the indigenous peoples] do not count the years nor recognize the four seasons, but take the flowering of the tiger’s claw tree as the completion of one cycle.” This indicates that indigenous peoples used the characteristics displayed by plants to mark the passage of time.

Just as the red blossoms of the tiger’s claw tree (Erythrina variegata) indicated the start of a new year for the peoples of Taiwan’s western lowlands, the Amis and Pinuyumayan peoples in Eastern Taiwan knew that summer had come when they saw the reddish-brown fruit of the velvet apple tree (Diospyros blancoi). The arrival of autumn was announced by the Taiwanese rain tree (Koelreuteria henryi), which over the course of a year changes from green to yellow to red to brown as it flowers and fruits and the fruit capsules mature and fall. These changes are behind one of the tree’s names in Chinese, the “four-color tree.”

Golden trumpet trees

The Taiwanese rain tree’s color changes have made it world famous. In Taipei City, you can see rows of Taiwanese rain trees planted along Dunhua South Road in central Taipei and Zhongzheng Road in Shilin District.

The above mentioned species are all native to Taiwan, but Taiwan also has trees that were introduced during the period of Dutch rule (1624–1661), including the cotton tree (Bombax ceiba), frangipani (Plumeria rubra), and the golden shower tree (Cassia fistula), as well as those that were brought here in the era of Japanese rule (1895–1945), such as royal poinciana (Delonix regia) and Cuban royal palm (Roystonea regia). These trees which have crossed the seas to Taiwan link our island to the world and enrich its biodiversity.

Crossing the seas

Today it is common to see people in Taiwan eating mangoes, guavas, and wax apples, but these sweet, juicy fruits “in fact were introduced into Taiwan by the Dutch East India Company and were seminal to Taiwan’s development into a ‘fruit kingdom,’” says Yang Chih-kai. He explains that in 1624 Martinus Sonck, the Dutch East India Company’s first governor of Taiwan, wrote a letter to the company’s headquarters in Batavia (today’s Jakarta, Indonesia) asking for seedlings of fruit trees such as grapevine, mango, lychee, and durian to be sent to the island. Thus various fruit trees were introduced into Taiwan that are still a common sight today. The rows of mango trees planted by the Dutch at Fanzaidutou, now part of Tainan’s Guantian District, formed Taiwan’s first ever planted avenue of roadside trees, and bear witness to this history.

“In fact there were strategic considerations behind the choice of fruit trees introduced by the Dutch. They were grown to provide food or for military uses, and in addition they were environmental agents and had medicinal uses too.” Yang cites the example of the guava tree. Its fruit could be eaten, while the leaves could treat diarrhea and high blood pressure and the branches also had medicinal properties.

The golden shower tree, which every summer displays its long, hanging streams of golden flowers all over Taiwan, “was introduced into Taiwan by the Dutch East India Company for military purposes,” Yang explains. At that time the carriages and platforms used to mount cannons were made of wood, and the golden shower tree grows very quickly and its wood is heavy, stress resistant and durable. “When you see golden shower trees lining streets in Taiwan, their story is really about the Dutch.”

During the Zheng Chenggong era (1661–1683) many trees were introduced into Taiwan from South China, including peach, plum, and Japanese apricot (Prunus mume). Under Qing-Dynasty rule (1683–1895), other plants that are now familiar to Taiwanese, including longan, lychee, and moso bamboo, were also introduced.


Chinaberry trees

In the Japanese era, a large number of plants were brought into Taiwan for trial cultivation. These included the Cuban royal palm, the blackboard tree (Alstonia scholaris), gingko (Ginkgo biloba), weeping paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra), Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), and teak (Tectona grandis). These all wrote new chapters in the story of trees and people in Taiwan. No wonder Yang Chih-kai says: “Plants are the storytellers of the island.”

Connections between people and trees

Taiwan’s enormous natural diversity is due in part to introduced species, but the stories about our island’s native and endemic species, and our emotional connections with them are even more interesting and moving.

“Do you know the origins of Taiwan’s oldest ‘seven-day quarantine’? It comes from the Paiwan people,” says Yang suddenly. In days gone by Paiwan villages had two kinds of trees marking their entrance, the bishopwood and the large-leaved banyan (Ficus subpisocarpa). Both of these are common trees at low to medium elevations. The Paiwan would set up grass huts under the trees, and when an outsider wanted to enter the village they would first have to spend seven days of quarantine in one of these huts. Only once the villagers had assured themselves that the visitor was in good health were they allowed to enter the community. Yang says jokingly, “This wasn’t a matter of following some policy set by the Central Epidemic Command Center, but was part of the ancient wisdom of the Paiwan people.”

Bishopwood trees can be identified by their gray and reddish-brown colored bark, and in the case of old trees, the large burls that frequently grow on their trunks. An old saying has it: “If you have someone to talk with, then speak. If you have no one to talk with, then speak to the bishopwood tree.” Yang Chih-kai describes this saying as originating in a situation whereby, if one has arranged to meet a friend beneath a bishopwood tree and the friend has not yet arrived, one may quietly face the tree and speak one’s innermost thoughts, creating a kind of companionship. “This saying highlights an important connection between people and trees, through which trees have a special power to calm us. I feel that this expresses a kind of philosophical outlook, involving a closeness on a spiritual level.”

Yang specially draws our attention to the chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach), which is native to Taiwan. This elegantly shaped tree produces clusters of small pale purple flowers, and when the trees bloom in March and April they seem to be covered by a purple cloud—their appearance is very romantic. All parts of the chinaberry tree are useful. The leaves can promote ripening of bananas, and a decoction or extract of the leaves has antimicrobial properties and can be applied to the skin. The flowers yield essential oil, while the fruits, which are golden-yellow drupes, are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is currently popular to travel to view trees in their flowering seasons. While it is cherry trees that are popular abroad, in Taiwan why not visit chinaberry trees?


Cotton trees

Taiwan also has many place names and scenic locations connected to trees, from which one can surmise the landscapes of days gone by. When the Dutch architect Francine Houben was designing the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts at Weiwuying, she found inspiration in the old banyan trees with their gnarled, intertwined branches and complex aerial roots, and the center includes a broad, open space called the Banyan Plaza.

The little hill town of Jiufen in New Taipei City’s Ruifang District has been getting renewed attention recently thanks to the rerelease of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 film A City of Sadness. The town’s name is in fact related to camphor trees. Taiwan was once the world’s “camphor kingdom,” and the mountains around Jiufen were covered with camphor trees. In those days stoves were used to distill the camphor from the chipped wood of the trees. Ten stoves were called “one unit” (yi fen), so the name Jiufen (“nine units”) indicates that back then there were 90 stoves located there, says Yang. By the same logic, a majority of places whose names contain the character fen had some connection with the camphor industry.

Welcoming of trees

Taiwan may not have a very long recorded history, but if you are willing to really get to know this island and listen to its stories, you will find that “although we are just a small island, during key moments in world history, Taiwan has been right in the middle of the action.” Yang says proudly, “For example, the Dutch East India Company was once a powerful force in the world, and yet who knows that Taiwan was once one of its bases and that this close relationship had a lasting impact on Taiwan’s landscape?”

“I feel that Taiwan is a very welcoming island, and so long as you are willing to settle down here you can do well! Just look at the plants on this island and you will know this is true.” Taiwan has a special talent for embracing diversity and has innovative technology as well. For example, says Yang, although it was the Dutch who originally introduced green mangoes into Taiwan, the Taiwanese have improved them, and today a great many varieties are grown here, including Xiaxue, Jinhuang, Taichung No. 1, and Tainung No. 2, to mention just a few. Moreover, the sweet and sour flavor of the original green mangoes has been preserved up to the present day and become an element in Taiwan’s rich culture.

This article was originally published on Taiwan Panorama. Read the original article here.

READ MORE: Ancient Giants of the Forest

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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