Taiwan has 14 or so species of Rhododendron, all blissfully unaware of splitters and lumpers. Ten of these species are endemic. For the Taiwanese Rhododendron formosana is the queen of the group. Arguably the best for western horticulturists is Rhododendron pachysanthum. It’s a surprisingly recent introduction, coming to us from John Watson. From his initial paper in the ARS “On 14 November 1971, Dr. Chien Chang Hsu and Mr. Chiang-Sen Kuoh left their base camp at Chi-li-ting; Ca., 2000 M. and made an unequipped assault on Nan-hu-ta-shan between breaks in the weather. It is interesting to note here that they met three different sport climbing groups returning from failed attempts at the same climb! The result of this successful and dangerous climb is seed lot RV #72001.” It’s unclear how many of these were raised to mature plants, while John indicated in the initial collections he thought these were very distinct, in the Taiwanese flora they are referred to as Rhododendron hyperythrum. Kenneth Cox states “Most R. pachysanthum in cultivation originate from Glendoick from hand pollinated seed of the first introduction RV 72001, introduced 1972”. There are a number of discrepancies between the Taiwanese understanding of the 5 endemic members of the Hymenanthes subgenus in Taiwan and our views in the west. Clearly, observed in habitat some intergrading occurs where distributions merge. I’ll muddy the waters with a personal communication from travelling companion, Jens Neilson. “The way I see Taiwanese hymenanthes Rhododendron is; formosanum, close to adenopodum of the mainland and possibly other species from south mainland china. Wilson’s hyperythum (rubropunctatum) related to anhweiense of the mainland. Both formosanum and Wilson’s hyperytum occour in North Taiwan as do a lot of other relict species. In central Taiwan there is psedochrysanthum/”pachysanthum”/morii complex, which we can keep as 3 separate species, but there are clear links between them, I could quite happily jump to the conclusion that the last three are more recent and possibly still evolving. I can’t think of a mainland counterpart, well nothing as close as the first two. Maybe the rather western sikangense, or have i missed something?” I had expected R. pachysanthum to be somewhat common, it’s not, and a number of factors including the confusion surrounding these 5 species, not to mention the numerous ways Cantonese is phonetically transcribed into English, made this plant more of a challenge to find than I initially anticipated.
Certainly I didn’t travel to Taiwan just to see Rhododendrons. Its temperate flora offers some great garden plants barely or not at all cultivated. From Vancouver there’s a 10 hour red-eye to Taipei, a city of 10 million souls, where with a Chinese practicality they have integrated their Chinese background with a political need to associate with the west. It has been said that Taiwan is the China that should have been. Apparently the perceived need to westernize was so strong that at one point garbage trucks in rural areas were equipped with loudspeakers that delivered English lessons along their route. In China I would need to hire a driver, here I don’t. Friendly people, my international driver’s license, a Tom Tom GPS unit and a blissful ability to ignore my oncoming potential death at the hands of cabbage trucks careening down one lane mountain roads make travel throughout the island no more difficult than in North America. Taipei itself is a surprising gem, those with culinary interests could easily spend an entire vacation here just sampling the extraordinary cuisine, and diversions could be the like of the National Palace Museum, housing one of the worlds 5 great art collections.
Yamingshan mountain, also known as 5 star mountain, lies at the northern outskirts of Taipei, the number 330 bus from central station takes an hour on its milk run route to reach the entrance to this national park. If you’re beset with not walking uphill, one of the numerous and embarrassingly cheap taxies can then ferry you to the peak for an easier hike down. There are sulfurous clouds wafting from volcanic vents in the area, dramatic but presenting no real danger. The peaks here rarely see even a dusting of snow; much of the city turns out for such a rare event. Near the top great colonies of Dipteris conjunta can be seen. It’s one of the stars of the overwhelming fern flora of this island, a shame this dramatic and unique fern has not yet come into cultivation. Rhododendron savant and enfant terrible Jens Neilson and I spent a number of fruitless hours wandering the trails of this mountain looking for Rhododendron hyperythrum. There is form here that is reportedly a bright pink rather than the typical white. Perversely, as is often the nature of these things, it was only as we prepared to leave that Jens spotted several clumps of it just off a trail entrance from the parking lot. The leaves of this plant with its in-rolled margins are very distinct and it has potential in the breeding heat tolerant large leaved Rhododendrons.
The mountains of Taiwan run the length of the north south axis of this 400 km long island. Three roads cross these massifs, pragmatically named the Northern, Central and Southern Cross Island Highways. Starting from the west in Ganshi Township on highway 118, 44 winding km leads over the northern Cross Island Highway, rising only to a modest 1200 M at its highest point. At the apogee is the Mingchi forest recreation area and hotel. A pot of native Podophyllum pleianthum sits on its doorstep, the plant is scattered in the woods around as well. The once dominant tree, Chamaecyparis formosensis is being replanted after the deforestation of the last 2 centuries, a few old growth stands of this tree also still exist along this road. Here and elsewhere on the island these Chamaecyparis forest are underplanted with Wasabi japonica. So important in Japanese cuisine, and notoriously difficult to cultivate, it fetches hundreds of dollars per kilogram. An herbaceous hydrangea relative, Cardiandra formasana, hardy on the west coast of North America despite the low elevation, can be seen here. The banks of the road cuts are dotted with a favorite of mine, Ypsilandra umbellata, close relative to the eastern North American swamp pink, Helonias bullata. Chiang Kai-shek, the de facto ruler of Taiwan from 1945 until his death in 1975 had summer homes at both the west and east entrances to this highway. Now run as modestly priced hotels, these are super deals as El Presidente only settled for the very best vistas. At the eastern terminus of this road is one of these hotels, the Chi-Lan Forest Recreation Area. Here or at Mingchih you can sign up for an eco-tour of the Ma-Kou Ecological Park, it’s an old logging road off the 118 sandwiched between these two resorts , where stand scattered old growth specimens of Taiwaniana cryptomeriodes. Despite being described as relatively common, the forest along this road is the only place I have seen Rhododendron kawakami, an outlier in the Vireya section. Noted to occur to 2600m, a high altitude form would make interesting collection and certainly would be among the hardiest of this generally tropical group. Kenneth Cox notes that this epiphytic species has survived for several years on a log at Glendoick in Scotland
My Tom Tom suggests Mingchi, from the west, is an hour and 45 minutes from central Taipei, and another hour to Chi-Lan. Winding your way east a further 40 minutes takes you into the mountains of the eastern range and Taipingshan. Jens, jaded with extensive travel through the rich ecospheres of eastern China, still noted Taipingshan as being as diverse as anything he has seen. Hints of what the old growth temperate forests must have been like can be viewed on a boardwalk above the main hotel. Along this trail, lodged in immense trunks of Rhododendron morii are sheets of Shortia exappendiculata, a plant I had lustfully wanted to see. Rhododendron morii superficially resembles R. formosanum, the lower surface of the leaves are glabrous except along the margins, distinguishing it from R. formosanum with its grey close indument. Here there are also frequent patches of Asarum macranthum and Ainsleia formosana is still in flower. From the hotel a controlled road leads into Lake Cheifong, the largest alpine lake in Taiwan. The 5 km hike around the lake passes by the best specimens of Rhododendron formosanum I have seen; many stands are also visible on the drive in. A few large specimens of Rhododendron mariesii are dotted around the lake. By October this deciduous Azalea has lost much of its foliage, I’ve never seen evidence of seed pods on these healthy looking plants, perhaps they jettison both seeds and pods in the summer. At this time of year immense corymbs of Schizophragma integrifolia are prominent features on the trunks of many trees; these large deciduous vines are another close Hydrangea relative. In 2000 the 3rd known stand of Fagus hayatae was discovered here by DR. Chen Zih-Ying. In their book,”Plants from the Edge of the World” Mark Flanigan and Tony Kirkham document their difficult hunt for this rare tree, now this beech can now be seen on a 40 minute hike from Cheifong Lake.
The Southern Cross Island Highway is reached from the west coast motorway in 4 hours from Taipei, driving through some of the worst of Taiwan’s industrial heartland. This mountain road, the number 20, is the least developed of Taiwan’s mountain areas, offering basic accommodation near the top of the road and a hostel/hotel 20 minutes down the eastern side. The highway peaks at 2900 M, in this dramatic scenery at the mouth of the 615 m long Da Guan Shan tunnel, vendors set up stalls selling simple meals such as daylily soup and corn on the cob. Not far below is the Sianyang Forest Recreation area, notable for its stand of Cypripedium formosanum. To my mind this plant is one of the truly great introductions from Taiwan, by far the most amenable Cypripedium to cultivation. They quickly form large colonies; some have existed here in Vancouver for over 20 years. Despite its easy nature it is exceedingly rare in Taiwan. More frequent and seen from the roadside is Trillium tschonoski, like its other 3 Asian counterparts it’s interesting from a biogeographical perspective but otherwise could kindly be called unassuming.
The Central cross island highway was the first and is the most developed of these roads; it can be reached through more than one route. The highest road in Taiwan, Highway 14 climbs to 3275 m, from there it’s an easy 30 minute hike to the main peak at 3415 m. My first arrival in the Heuhanshan area was in the dark after an exhausting days driving through small towns and over switchback roads. Having not seen a hotel since leaving the motorway hours before, I had begun to think about sleeping in the car. Driving into Ching Ching farm at this point was surreal. Sitting below Heuhanshan at about 2000 meters, it seems to be one of the few areas in Taiwan that has a planning department. For a vertiginous moment you could almost think you had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and arrived in the Swiss Alps. Dozens of hotels, all built to chalet style sit on precipitous mountain edges. The whole atmosphere disconcertingly wrenches one away from Chinese temples and busy villages. There’s been some relaxation in this rule of late, on my last visit an enormous gothic castle was being built in the midst of this Switzerwonderland. I have returned here on every visit to Taiwan, the chalets look out on some of the most dramatic scenery on the planet. A 45 minute drive to the peak winds through a jaw dropping number of plants poorly or not at all represented in western horticulture. Three snake bark maples, Acer kawakami, A. serratulum and A. rubescens share this area with dozens of endemic temperate ferns, Camellia transnookoensis and the astounding Schefflera taiwaniana. Another of my must see plants when I came to Taiwan it turned out to be very common. On Heuhanshan it grows between 2600 and 2900 meters, making groves of multistemmed trees to 30 feet. Some have red or yellow leaf petioles, they are stunning. Several species of high altitude Sheffleras have been trickling into cultivation recently, but Schefflera taiwaniana promises to be by far the best, both in terms of hardiness and structure. Dan Hinkley collected seed of this species for Monrovia in 2008; a few of these were released to retail nurseries this year. The seed is moderately ephemeral and highly susceptible to damping off, it is best sown in live sphagnum. I saw large numbers of seedlings; all germinate in the fall on decomposing stumps. These trees are situated in dramatic old growth forests of Tsuga chinensis var. formosana, about 200 meters below the tree line. Each afternoon at around 3: 00 PM dense fog rolls up these mountains and standing among these immense trees at this time of day is mystical. This sea of clouds effect is common on the mountains in Taiwan, beautiful but on the single lane and busy mountain roads one is more apt to describe it as a bitch, or more politely, a challenge to drive through.
On my first visit to this country I was aware R. pachysanthum grew at elevations between 3100 to 3600 meters, I had the naïve assumption that I would just come across it at these heights. But instead on Heuhanshan and in most of this habitat niche grows Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum. It dots large areas on the crown of Heuhanshan, growing through the ubiquitous bamboo, Yushania niitakayamensis. Leaf morphology is variable, it was tempting to group them into 5 subsets but I assume there are intermediates throughout. Some demonstrate a bit of brown indumenta, tantalizingly suggesting an incursion of R. pachysanthum. Slightly lower in exposed aspects near the tree line it’s more common to see Rhododendron rubrospilosum, in the fall it occasionally has a few out of season blooms. I have collected seed of this attractive plant a number of times, and while appearing to be mature and viable it has never germinated. In the trees below, growing between 2500 and 2900m is Rhododendron morii, it seems common in coniferous or mixed forests above 2000 m on many parts of the island. Below, at Ching Ching it’s a 5 minute drive from my hotel to the highest Starbucks in Asia, the caffeine addict in me rejoices. Between the two, leaning off the road banks, the branches of Rhododendron oldhamii are laden with red blooms at this time of year.
Travelling east from Ching Ching and Heuhanshan the aspect becomes drier and entering the upper tree line again it now becomes dominated by what I presume is Pinus taiwanensis. Among these trees in deep shade are open shrubs of Viburnum parviflorum, Despite being red listed in the Chinese flora, it is common here, it presents as a much tighter well berried shrub in more open aspects. Seed takes 2 years to germinate, and while slow presents no other great difficulties in cultivation. Another red listed plant not difficult to find in these forests is Abies kawakami, it has the same beautiful blue cones as Abies koreana. Twelve km on is the town of Tayuling. Here, beneath a mile of florescent umbrellas, vendors sell mountain produce to day trippers from Taipei. A fork to the left takes you north to the number 7 highway and down through cabbage plantations, Wuling Farm and forests of giant bamboo before reaching once again the junction to Taipingshan, the Northern Cross island Highway or the coastal town of Ilan. On this road, near Puli, a small park is dedicated to a 2000 year old tree of Cunninghamia konishii. It makes for a pleasant stop and in the understory we find yet another Rhododendron, R. ellipticum.
However turn right in Tayuling and you begin the descent down the 105 km Taroko Gorge, one of the ten natural wonders of Asia. Enormous stands of Hydrangea aspera are in flower along this route in the fall, at lower altitudes Hydrangea chinensis takes its place. Trees of Hibiscus taiwanensis stand out in the forest, covered in white bloom. At around 1200 meters Arisaema thunbergii var autumnallis is also in bloom, it seems relatively common. This distinctive plant, the only fall flowering Arisaema, was first described by Sue and Bleddyn Wyn Jones in the late 90’s. Near the bottom, 3 hotels in the hamlet of Tienhshiang are the only lodging in the gorge. Its here , over the entrance to the convenience store at the mid-range hotel, Thienshang Youth Activity Center, that I saw , displayed as a mural, my first picture of wild R. pachysanthum. Here and at Wuling farm this picture is displayed on post cards, the following year Jens Nelson put the pieces together.
Supertyphoon Krosa made landfall in Taiwan the evening of Oct, 6th 2007. The day prior Jens and I had made a day hike to the eastern peak of the Yushan mountain range. At 4530 m Yushan’s main peak, Jade Mountain is the highest west of the Himalayas. We met several groups fleeing the oncoming storm; each required our reassurance that we had no intent of staying on the mountain. Along this trail Jens spotted an interesting form of Rhododendron oldhamii, much higher than the reported limit of 2600m. As an adaptation to this altitude it had finished blooming some time ago, at lower latitudes blooming until November. Here too Yushania niitakayamensis gives the appearance of a monoculture, on closer investigation many small plants grow among it as an understory. Paris polyphylla var. stenophylla is frequent, there are small plants of Arisaema taiwanense along with alpines such as Gaultheria itoana and Adenophora uehatae. Specimens of Pieris taiwanensis grow along the trail, and scented before seen trees of what I think were Osmanthus koai. We spent the night at nearby Alishan resort. It’s here that Earnest Wilson stayed in 1918. You can still have your picture taken at the same spot where he was photographed, at the trunk of a now expired Chamaecyparis. Even on this morning, a cacophony breaks out at 4 AM, we tourists are roused out of our beds with the call ‘Yaobuyao kan richu’, to either hike or take the narrow gauge train to the Chushan summit, there to greet the rising sun, an important gesture among the Taiwanese. That day, as the rain started, Jens and I drove back to Ching Ching farm, to hunker down for the hurricane and a day of cleaning seed. As soon as we arrived , we put on our rain gear and headed up the mountain, ignoring the apoplectic staff. There’s not much to see in the rain and fog of Heuhanshan, this more than common sense took us back to the hotel.
We remained at the hotel for 2 days before heading to Wuling farm. Heuhanshan had been in the lee of the storm, we realized the extent of the damage only as we drove along the road. In some areas 2 meters of rain had fallen in 12 hours, in places the road had simply slid down the mountain. Repairs are rough and efficient, heavy machinery shaves a new section of road into the near vertical mountains in hours.
Wuling Farm, as mentioned, lies on the number 7 highway, 22 km north of the Heuhanshan peak on the route to Ilan It’s a working farm slash tourist resort, initially developed to employ ex-soldiers from Cheng Ki-shek’s KMT army. Jens provided me with an extraordinary memory of this place. Far afield, in Newfoundland he had proven to have a talent for spotting witches brooms from a car travelling at highway speeds. Here on the grounds of Wuling Farms Hotel was no different. One midnight I found myself on watch for nocturnal strollers while he climbed 30 feet up a tree to retrieve a bright golden broom of Chameacyparis. Here, the following year Gary Lewis, Dana Cromie and I took turns taking our pictures while standing under the umbrella of a gigantic species of Pteris, commonly called brake fern. It’s a rich area, large clumps of the endemic Rhodea watanabee tolerate areas of deep dry shade, and a form of Arisaema taiwanense with pewtered leaves is frequent along the trails. Rhododendron ovatum grows on the steep banks of the Chijiawan River which runs just off the hotel entrance. It’s home to the endangered Formosan Landlocked Salmon. Along this waterway a 2 hour hike to the Taoshan waterfall passes through the habitat of another azalea, it seems to key out as Rhododendron noriakianum. However the most notable plants here and throughout the gorge are 3 more members of the Araliaceae. Tetrapanax papyriferus seems to have been introduced in North America through Cistus Nursery. Rumor is that Sean Hogan picked it up from a California Nursery, where it had spent a number of years struggling in a one gallon pot. Planted out it grew to astonishing proportions. Sean named it, in retrospect a bit erroneously, “Steroidal Giant”. In Taiwan they are all immense, some leaves approach 2 meters in size, as temperate plants go challenged only by Chilean Gunnera magellanica. Fatsia polycarpa is also common, its leaves notched and deeply incised, attractive and very different from Fatsia japonica. At one point I thought I would have to slap Jens, with his constant comment on them, “This one’s even better!!”. Coming down the short road to the hotel are trees of Sinopanax formosana, perhaps the most distinct of the lot. The large palm shaped leaves seem to be cut from green felt; they have a deep cinnamon indument on the underside. It too, unfortunately, is not in general cultivation.
I had been to Wuling on my first trip to Taiwan, here I had seen postcards depicting the same scene as the mural at Thienshang Youth Activity Center at the bottom of Taroko. There are reasons, beyond his tremendous grasp of the genus, that Jens has been instrumental in reintroducing or bringing so many new Rhododendrons into cultivation. As any good detective would do he had already combined a number of details suggesting this was the area where R. pachysanthum was most likely to occur. He was correct. Now with postcard in hand he finished the puzzle. He recognized that the characters on the back indicated a particular peak, from there park interpreters were quickly able to give us the location of the trailhead up the mountain pictured on the card, Nanushan . In retrospect its surprising this trail is not mentioned as part of the park system trails, its well maintained by the government and has a huge detailed signpost at the trailhead, about 15 km east of Wuling along the number 7 highway . Most people take the more popular and well documented trail up Snow Mountain, the trailhead starts at the farm. On Snow Mountain, however, the Rhododendron at the top is again R. pseudochrysanthum. The trail up Nanushan is more demanding, typically the full course would take 4 days to complete, and it encompasses several famous peaks. Jens and I started off well enough, at the entrance the remains of a basement, its floor now carpeted with a ground covering orchid that, despite my familiarity with this family, I am unable to place. Three species of Ararum grow around the lentil, cardigerum, crassusepalum and epigynum. A bit further along standouts include Ligularia kojimae and Styrax matsumuraei. But about 45 minutes into the hike we were met by forestry workers, repairing parts of the trail that had slid off the mountain, damaged by Typhoon Krosa in the same manner as the roads. They turned us back. It’s clear that the first 7.8 km of this trail was once a paved forestry road, most of it has long since fallen off the mountain but occasional bits of asphalt can still be seen . I presume the original collectors were able to drive much closer to the location of this plant.
I returned to this location the following year with Gary Lewis and Dana Cromie, we were not prepared for the full hike but our initial foray at least demonstrated how well maintained are both the trails and the refugeo. We spent a fitful night with over 30 hikers at Yunling Cabin, a spotless wooden structure at the 11.9 km mark of the trek. We were the only hikers not equipped with headlamps, like search beams these lights swept over us late into the night. Amazingly, after what seemed to be an all night party, an entire contingent arose at 2 AM, starting on the trail presumably to reach the summit of the north peak (and our Rhododendron) at sunrise. The next day, with no means to stay on the mountain another night we returned to our car, bleary with lack of sleep and still not knowing how much further in was our goal. A month after this second failed attempt pictures of a young women frolicking, (she truly is, it’s not just bitterness on my part) on hillsides of this plant were posted on flickr.com by Bettaman as R. hyperythrum. This is the link. http://www.flickr.com/photos/bettaman/sets/72157602865427037/?page=2 . This fired my determination to see this plant. In October of 2009 I trekked in again, alone this time, reaching the 2nd second refugeo, Shen Majen Cabin on that first night. Passing Yunling Cabin I began to see large clumps of Primula myabianum, Veratrum formosanum with its deep purple flower spikes and a few specimens of Arisaema taiwanense f. stenophyllum. It’s very distinct, with threadlike leaflets, the narrowest I know of on any member of this genus. Photinia niitakayemesis shone, in other areas it had been a narrow shrub of the understory or mountaintop, here it presented in the open as a round topped tree ablaze with red fruit. At about 16 km I reached the tree line, the second refugeo is at the 17.9 km mark on this trail. I had started seeing the first specimens of what was clearly R. pachysanthum about a kilometer before this point. Exhaustion trumped excitement, coupled with the failing light I settled into one of the 2 tin huts. This year I had encountered not a sole on the trail. Here I toasted with a small flask of brandy schnapps, the only alcohol that had been for sale at the convenience store in Wuling. The rare pictures of this plant taken by the Taiwanese inevitably show it, not as it flowers but as the leaves flush, a testament to one of the finest foliage plants in the genus. The next morning I too had my moment amidst this plant, until realizing with horror my watch had stopped; I had to be off the mountain before dark and had no idea of the time. Most of the seed on R. pachysanthum had already dispersed by October, a few pods remained from a secondary flower flush, and these I collected. I suspect its range is very limited; there are no more than 4 or 5 km of mountain spine at this altitude. I would have preferred to traverse the whole trail but such is life. I think I’ll return one spring and devote 4 days to the full trek. I hope this article serves to give an idea of the diversity of the temperate flora of this island and hints at the means through which many of these plants have come into our gardens. Taiwan, in so many of its aspects, is a wonder to explore. This collection was available in the 2009 ARS Seed Exchange.
1. Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan. Robert Kelly and
Joshua S Brown Lonely Planet Publications 2007. ISBN 978-1-74104-548-2
2. Plants from the Edge of the World. Mark Flanigan and Tony Kirkham Timber Press 2005 ISBN 0-88192-676-0
3. The Encyclopedia of Rhododendron Species. Peter Cox and Kenneth Cox Toppan Printing Co., Ltd. 1997. ISBN 0-9530533-OX
Pictorial reference covering much of the vascular flora of Taiwan. One of the best web reference sites I have seen.
The Online Flora of Taiwan
A guide to the forest recreation areas, including hikes, facilities, ecological notes and driving instructions.
John Patrick’s original article for the ARS