Monday, January 9, 2017

Taiwan 1. Island of Flowers

The coastline of Taiwan consists of hundreds of  miles of
sandy beaches as well as rocky cliffs.
Imagine Florida, with its subtropical climate and sunny, palm-lined beaches.  But instead of a patchwork of lakes and swamps in the center, imagine a mountain range, with peaks reaching to almost 13,000 feet. Well, then you'd have Taiwan. The mountains add hugely to the botanical diversity of the island, being clad in tropical to subtropical rain forest at the  lower elevations and mossy cloud forests higher up. Snow falls in the winter at the highest elevations. So it is an exciting place for a botanical excursion. 
The massive central mountain range of Taiwan contains many peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation.

Taiwan is actually smaller and a bit further south than Florida.  It's roughly 1/4 the size of peninsular Florida, which makes its massive mountain range even more impressive.  Its northern tip is at about the same latitude as the Everglades, and its southern tip would be somewhere in Cuba.  The Tropic of Cancer runs through the middle of the island.  But you get the analogy: Florida with a touch of the Andes.

I was recently there, as often, for non-botanical purposes, but with camera ready, I recorded as much as I could of the plant life I saw.  This first installment can be considered a special version of this website, which should be called "I brake for not-so-wildflowers," as I will focus on the cultivated plant life of Taiwan.  Cultivated plants are often also quite brake-worthy.

Visitors from all  over Taiwan enjoy the many varieties of chrysanthemum displayed at the annual show in December.

The first weekend after our arrival in late November, my brother-in-law took us to the former residence of the late President, Chiang Kai-Shek, which is now the site of the annual Chrysanthemum Festival.  Chrysanthemums originated in China, where there are many wild relatives.  The Chinese began cultivating and breeding Chrysanthemums over 3500 years ago, and now there are thousands of hybrids and cultivated varieties.  They are derived originally from Chrysanthemum indicum, but have involved hybridization with other species.

Some non-chrysanthemums, such as this Liatris, add
variety to the exhibition.
Chrysanthemum trees are constructed for the annual show.
Numerous varieties of chrysanthemum are
displayed and labeled.

Traveling around Taiwan, one sees many other cultivated plants, including marvelous varieties of tropical fruit, orchids, flowering trees, and plants that make a Floridian feel at home, like hibiscus, orchid trees (Bauhinia spp.), bougainvillea, and at the time I was there, poinsettias blooming along the highways.  Even some of the weeds are the same, like the annoying beggar tick, Bidens pilosa, whose prickly achenes will stick all over your clothes if you carelessly walk into a patch of them.

Betel nut palms (Areca catechu) are everywhere in the Taiwan
One thing not common in Florida is the betel nut palm, which is literally everywhere in Taiwan.  That is because formerly the disgusting habit of chewing betel nut was widespread here, as it has been throughout southeast Asia and the Pacific.  In fact it is still relatively common in Taiwan, though chewing in public is strongly discouraged.  Betel nut contains a mild stimulant, and is habit-forming.  It is sold primarily in peculiar little glass-enclosed booths located with fair frequency along city streets and highways.  Distinctive flashing lights outside the booth identify the facilities to prowling betel-addicts.

Radiating spokes of flashing
lights indicate the location of
a betel nut booth.
The booths are typically "manned" by attractive young women, and this evidently is part of the modern betel nut culture - a little eye-candy to go along with your chewing pleasure.  Signs in many places boast that they have the most beautiful betel nut "queen" at their facility.   There are stories that in some locations the girls are dressed in bikinis (or less!), and you can only imagine where that might lead.

The other major attraction among the cultivated plants of Taiwan is the variety of fruit.  We arrived during the sugar apple (Annona squamosa) harvest season, and had the pleasure of sampling two different varieties: the standard sugar apple and the pineapple sugar apple. The tough skin of the sugar apple separates around its scale-like units when ripe to reveal the sweet creamy fruit surrounding several to many hard black seeds.  Dragon fruit and bananas were also fruiting, but they tend to be ripening all year long.
Giant models of sugar apple fruits welcome
visitors to one of the major growing areas in
Sugar apple fruits are protected by paper bags as they ripen.
Sugar apples are ready for customers at a roadside stand.
Roselle is the fruit-like fleshy calyx of Hibiscus
sabdariffa, and quite popular in Taiwan.

Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) for the florist trade are grown in
running water in Taiwan.
One surprise was to find a calla lily farm in the mountains east of Taipei.  We'd just come down from Yang Ming Mountain, where we had seen a rich community of native plants (to be described in a future installment) and were looking for a lunch spot.  Someone recommended  a new restaurant, which happened to opened by a calla lily grower in the middle of his farm.  Calla lilies are native to South Africa (see South Africa, part 1), and of course are a staple of the floral trade throughout the world.