September 5, 2008 update
JC Raulston Arboretum
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I have long wanted to botanize Taiwan, especially after my friend Dan Hinkley came back from his first trip there, telling me it was a horticultural gold mine for the Southeast US. Although it took many years to carve out time to go, 2008 was the year. I began calling my list of interested people I'd accumulated over the years, and one by one, they declined for various reasons from scheduling to funds availability, to work obligations. Our group narrowed down to just myself and Mark Weathington, Assistant Director of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. This would be the smallest out of country group I'd been a part of, but as they say in Hollywood, "The show must go on."
Taiwan was also of interest because of the large number of plants from there that we already grow including Lilium formosanum, Tricyrtis formosana, Tricyrtis lasiocarpa, Rohdea watanabe, Amorphophallus henryi and kiusianus, Rubus taiwanicola, Arisaema taiwanensis, Pyrrosia polydactyla, Pieris taiwanensis, heck, any plant with a name ending in formosana or taiwanensis. While many folks think of Taiwan as all tropical, the 89 mile wide island goes from sea level to 14,000' in the middle and down to sea level again. Taiwan is home to more than 200 peaks over 9,000’. For someone who hates heights, this was a daunting proposition. As you can imagine, any ground remotely flat or mildly sloping is used either for agricultural production, human habitation, or businesses. That leaves only the steepest lands for interesting plants.
One of the interesting things I learned from years of botanizing is that winter hardy plants often grow in the wild, mixed with tropicals. Many times seed fall from higher elevations and adapt to the heat, creating strange combinations such as we would see with cryptomeria and alocasia. In the northern part of the island, the mountains only rise to 3,400', and while this is a solid Zone 8/9 climate, I have no doubt there are certainly Zone 7 hardy plants from there. As you head south, toward the Tropic of Cancer, which bisects the Yu Shan National Park, the "hardy" zone rises to about 4,500' to 5,000', although Zone 8 still extends to about 6,500'. Above 9,300', you rise above the tree line and enter the alpine zone, where plants that require heat don't stand much of a chance. Because of the harsh conditions, many plants that grow at lower elevations are dwarfed here, and have over time become genetically predisposed to remain dwarf even when grown in a more hospitable environment, with the classic example being the dwarf Lilium formosanum var. pricei.
Much of Taiwan's flora is endemic (native only there), with most estimates of 25% occurring nowhere else in the world. Taiwan is particularly known for its incredible diversity of ferns that probably exceed any other country...especially one of Taiwan’s size. The extensive Taiwanese cloud forests make for an amazing array of epiphytic (not requiring soil) ferns. Surprisingly, few of Taiwan's endemic ferns have made their way in to cultivation.
Because of its location at the convergence of the Asian and Philippine continental plates, Taiwan is also a very active island geologically. Hot springs abound on the island, evidenced by both the steam rising from the mountains and the number of hot springs resort hotels throughout the island. Earthquakes are also very common here to the tune of 8.5 per year during the last century. A small earthquake hit just East of Hualien two nights before we arrived...glad to have missed it. Taiwan is also ground zero for a tremendous number of typhoons that devastate the island as you will read about below.
Most of Taiwan’s population lives on the north and west coasts in huge cities, Taipei with 2.9 million, Taichung with 800,000, and Tainan with 700,000. Despite Taiwan’s 14,000 square mile size (245 miles north to south and 89 miles from east to west), most of the high mountains are uninhabitable, and most only accessible by overnight hikes, with surprisingly few roads to access any of them.
I had planned to drive a rental car since Dan indicated the roads were fairly well marked, but I hadn't planned on having so much trouble finding a rental car. It seems none of the standard players in the auto rental industry have offices in Taiwan, despite their being several web articles about Hertz being open there....obviously the folks at Hertz quoted in the article must have been smoking something. I finally found a company, Central Auto Rental and Leasing who had a wide array of cars and were superb at communicating in English. The rest of my experience with Central Auto (a division of the huge financial corporation, Chailease) was nothing short of extraordinary as you shall see later.
Getting good directions in Taiwan is difficult at best. A standard set of directions goes something like JingShan/ChangShan/DingDong/FengHong. You're supposed to be able to find destinations this way. If you anticipate having problems finding your destination, have your travel agent send you the name in Chinese characters also. Despite being told many folks speak English, the only words most have mastered outside of Western-style hotels are hello and goodbye. The Taiwanese people are eager to help, and if you have the Chinese characters, they will go out of their way to assist you. It will be revolutionary if Map Quest ever does Taiwan.
A problem making travel worse is the English language translation from Chinese. Apparently there are several options and each translation style comes up with a different spelling, so the same town or road could be spelled three different ways depending on which map or guidebook you use. Once you get outside the large cities, there aren't enough roads to really get lost...a good thing, as Martha would say. Then, there are the road signs you wish were in English...nothing like a good challenge.
The travel downside is the steep nature of most of Taiwan, resulting in high rainfalls loosening the stability of the mountains, taking large chunks of earth, vegetation, and roads down along with them. I can only imagine the frustration of the Taiwan road crews, having to completely rebuild a road every time it rains hard. There are only three highways which cross the mountains in an East/West direction...the North Cross Island Highway (9), The Central Cross Island Highway (8), and the Southern Cross Island Highway (20). Unfortunately, the Central Cross island highway has had a 20 mile stretch missing since the devastating 7.6 Nantou earthquake in 1999....I'm sure that's put more than a few hotels out of business along that route.
Our choice of August allowed us to see many plants still in flower, while also finding some in seed. The only downside is August is typically a very wet month in Taiwan, being right in the midst of typhoon season. Just prior to our trip, Typhoon Kalmaegi (July 18), and Typhoon Fung Wong (July 28) hit Taiwan with the latter dropping 40+ inches of rain on the central parts of the island.
With our agenda finally set and our hotels hopefully booked, Mark and I departed at 4pm on August 9, for the 25-hour flight to our starting destination in Taoyuan, Taiwan, where the Taiwan International Airport is located. It was a wonderfully uneventful flight, and despite connections in Atlanta and San Francisco, our flight and luggage both arrived on time.