Fushan Botanical Garden: Taiwan’s Mountain Paradise for the Nature-minded

 Fushan Botanical Garden isn’t easy to get to, but it’s well worth the trip.

Fushan Botanical Garden (福山植物園) is located in New Taipei City’s Wulai District, 10 kilometers as the crow flies from the Atayal village of Fushan. There is no road – and no legal access for hikers – from Greater Taipei, so visitors must come through Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township. But inconvenience is not the only reason why far fewer people visit Fushan than Taipei’s lovely but invariably crowded botanical garden. Permission to enter must be sought well in advance, and no more than 500 people are allowed in each day. The limit is 600 on weekends and holidays.

Because educating the public about ecology is central to the garden’s mission, admission is free. Multimedia presentations are made every half hour (9.30 a.m.-11.30 a.m. and 1 p.m.-3 p.m.) inside the garden’s Nature Center, which is on the right about one kilometer before the main parking lot.

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Covering 410 hectares, Fushan Botanical Garden accounts for approximately a third of Fushan Experimental Forest, which straddles the boundary between New Taipei and Yilan at elevations of 600 to 1,400 meters. The annual average temperature is 18.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 22 degrees Celsius in downtown Taipei. Annual average rainfall is 4,125 millimeters, about 40% more than in the capital. At 94.1%, Fushan’s annual average relative humidity is also considerably higher than Taipei’s.

The garden is not a reserve in the sense of aiming to absolutely minimize humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems. That is the goal of another part of Fushan Experimental Forest, the 333-hectare Hapen Nature Reserve to the immediate south of the garden. The northernmost segment of the forest is the 356-hectare Water Source Reserve, most of which is broadleaf forest. Both reserves are strictly off-limits to the public.

Before the 1895-1945 Japanese colonization period, this area was inhabited by members of the Atayal indigenous tribe. Hapen Creek, a stream which flows through all three parts of the experimental forest, takes its name from a long-abandoned aboriginal settlement called Hbun.

These days, the nearest permanent human residents are a handful of Hakka farming households at Shuanglianpi (雙連埤), more than five kilometers away. In good weather, the 17.2-hectare body of water after which the settlement is named is strikingly beautiful.

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That is a big if, however. Fushan itself gets rain around 270 days per year, and fog is extremely common. Visitors should bring umbrellas or rainproof jackets, even if Taipei and Yilan City are bone dry.

The actual garden is divided into four zones, and it makes sense to explore them in the following order: Natural Classroom, Tree Exhibition, Forest Discovery, and Plants and Human Life.

The route outlined in the English-language section of the garden’s website (http://fushan.tfri.gov.tw) is 3.01 kilometers long. Good footwear is essential as the pathways are mostly gravel, and the boardwalk beside the Aquatic Plants Pond can get slippery.

The pond is artificial but filled with life. Egrets and grey herons prey upon finger-length Candidia barbatus, an endemic minnow species. There are also turtles and frogs. One of the latter, Babina adenopleura, is found only in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. During its March-to-August breeding season, the “ji-ji-ji” calls of male Babina adenopleura are especially audible, although the frogs themselves are hard to spot.

In total, 515 plant species belonging to 329 genera and 124 families thrive in the garden. There are some useful information boards around the garden; all are reproduced on the garden’s website. However, the labels in front of individual trees and plants provide the scientific and Chinese names only. Unless you carry a field guide, you may well find yourself Googling names on your smartphone to find out more. Cellphone reception is serviceable in most of the garden.

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Volunteer guides are sometimes available to accompany visitors if the request is made well in advance to the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, which oversees the botanical gardens at Fushan and Taipei as well as six other learning centers.

Visitors familiar with Taiwan’s low-elevation mountain areas may well recognize one plant before they see any labels. What Taiwanese call “biting people cat” (咬人貓, Urtica thunbergiana) is a nettle whose sting is rightly feared. Not many city-dwellers know it can be cooked and eaten in soups.

The garden has few notably tall trees, because those that grow above the canopy are often blown over during typhoons. Unlike some other managed woodlands in Taiwan, fallen trees at Fushan are moved only if they block a pathway. The damp climate means the risk of forest fire is minimal, and rotting lumber plays an important role in arboreal ecosystems. Various creatures hide from predators or shelter from the sun inside dead trees. Beetles, spiders, and worms move and feed within the decaying wood. Most of the logs on the ground at Fushan host fungi.

Several of the species here have medicinal functions, including Mahonia japonica, sometimes called Japanese Holly-Grape. Scientific and common names notwithstanding, this perennial woody evergreen is native to Taiwan rather than Japan. It bears fruit that are no more than one centimeter in length and full of seeds, but quite edible raw or cooked. The seeds can be used to decoct a febrifuge – a substance that reduces fevers – while the roots and stems are said to have anti-rheumatic, detoxifying, and expectorant powers.

Standing out like a sore thumb – or in this case a sick tree – is a mature specimen of Prunus zippeliana. Most of its bark has come off, leaving the trunk and main branches a patchwork of ochre and clay brown, which is likely why this evergreen’s Chinese name is 黃土樹, “yellow-soil tree.” This sloughing is in fact proof of good health, an entirely normal mechanism to shed borers and parasites.

Lagerstroemia subcostata is another tree that sheds its bark. Because of its smooth exterior, it is often called the “monkey slip tree,” yet in truth macaques are able to scale the trunk without too much difficulty. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Han pioneers in Yilan used this tree’s wood to make charcoal.

Several different cinnamon species are represented, including Cinnamomum osmophloeum, which is indigenous to northern and central Taiwan. The variety of ferns is also impressive.

The wheel tree (Trochendendron aralioides) is sometimes considered a living fossil, as it is the sole surviving species in the genus Trochodendron. The sap of this large evergreen is exceptionally sticky, and has been used by rural folk to make flypaper.

The monkey slip tree, so called because monkeys are said to slip from its shedding bark.
The monkey slip tree, so called because monkeys are said to slip
from its shedding bark.

Visitors able to read Chinese will notice that some scientific names allude to species’ local origins. One example is the evergreen Phoebe formosana (Taiwan Phoebe, 臺灣雅楠). Another is Quercus tarokoensis (Taroko Oak, 太魯閣櫟), which is found in mid-elevation locations in Taiwan’s east, and seems to prefer growing near chalk or limestone. A third is Litsea morrisonensis (a type of laurel known in Chinese as 玉山木薑子), first identified near Mount Jade. For several decades after World War II, English speakers referred to Taiwan’s tallest peak as Mount Morrison, in honor of the Scotsman Robert Morrison, a pioneering missionary in China.

All three trees were first described by Bunzo Hayata (早田文藏), a Japanese botanist who made several research trips to Taiwan between 1900 and 1921. Hayata’s contribution to the study of the island’s biodiversity is comparable to that of Robert Swinhoe, the British diplomat whose brief stays in Taiwan in the third quarter of the 19th century yielded a tremendous amount of information about its animals, birds, and butterflies. Swinhoe was the first naturalist to describe Sus scrofa taivanus, a wild boar species that often visits Fushan Botanical Garden.

Fans of Taiwanese teas will be interested to see the range of tea plants. Among them is another of Hayata’s discoveries: Camellia nokoensis (能高山茶).

The plant Helwingia japonica formosana (台灣青莢葉) is interesting because of the miniscule four-petal flowers that grow out of the center of its sizable leaves.

Specimens of all of Taiwan’s 16 native rhododendron species grow in one section of Fushan Botanical Garden. In the wild, they thrive at altitudes of between 150 meters and over 2,500 meters, and produce flowers of lilac, purple, and maroon, as well as white, yellow, pink, and red. The best time of year to see the garden’s rhododendrons in bloom used to be March and April, but this is becoming less predictable, possibly because of climate change.

Green-fingered visitors adore all this flora, but for others the real stars of Fushan are its insects and animals. The former include a dazzling array of crane flies, dragonflies, robber flies, weevils, and other beetles.

The garden’s opening hours (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) have been set so only researchers are present during the dawn and dusk peak periods of animal activity. Visitors are therefore unlikely to see anything more unusual than a Formosan macaque (Macaca cyclopis) or a Reeves’s Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). The former is Taiwan’s only monkey species. The latter is a kind of barking deer (so called because its yapping sounds canine), but almost never grows more than one meter in length.

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The garden’s notable “yellow soil tree”

Evidence of other mammals litters the garden. During their nighttime visits, wild boars dig up large areas of topsoil while searching for long worms to feed on. Soccerball-sized holes are the result of Chinese pangolins (Manis pentadactyla, also known as scaly anteaters) scratching for ants and termites. The crab-eating mongoose (Herpestes urva formosanus) and Chinese ferret-badger (Melogale moschata) leave subtler marks on the terrain.

For most of the year, the garden’s Bat Pavilion is unoccupied. During July and August, however, up to 300 Formosan Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros armiger terasensis) take up residence here. These bats have wingspans of up to 50 centimeters and are the largest you are likely to see in Taiwan; only the Formosan flying fox (Pteropus dasymallus formosus) is bigger, and that endangered species is found only on Green Island, Lanyu, and Guishan Island.

Like animals, birds are most evident early in the morning or around the end of the day, but even then the garden has some treats for ornithologists. Fushan is part of an internationally recognized Important Bird Area (IBA). According to the website of Birdlife International (www.birdlife.org), eight endemic avians are commonly seen in the IBA, and a total of 141 species have been recorded. Black bulbuls (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) are especially evident, and those willing to walk a kilometer or two along the road back toward Yilan have an excellent chance of spotting Grey-chinned minivets (Pericrocotus solaris) – as well as enjoying stirring views of the unspoiled landscape that surrounds the botanical garden.

Getting Permission and Getting There

Anyone wishing to visit Fushan Botanical Garden must register online at http://fushan.tfri.gov.tw at least 35 and not more than 75 days ahead of the day on which they hope to visit. For groups of 10 or more, applications must additionally be printed out and mailed. Successful applicants are notified 30 days in advance. Those who narrowly miss out on a slot are put on a waiting list in case there are cancellations.

The garden is closed each Tuesday, for at least five days around Lunar New Year, and on certain other public holidays. Most years, no applications are accepted for March so that maintenance work can be completed. Having a permit commits you to a particular day but no particular time, as long as you enter before 3 p.m.

Visitors are not allowed to bring pets into the garden, and feeding wild animals is strictly prohibited. There are no garbage cans inside, so pack a plastic bag for any trash you might produce. Ideally, visitors should not eat snacks that could leave behind crumbs or peels, but because you are likely to stay for at least a few hours, bringing provisions is a good idea. No food or drinks are sold anywhere near the garden.

The garden is easy to find. Drivers exiting Freeway 5 at the Yilan Interchange should head into the center of Yilan, then take Highway 9甲 through Yuanshan to its very end at Shuanglianpi. From there, a narrow but safe road continues on to the botanical garden. Getting from the freeway to the garden takes around one hour.

HapenCreekNative Plants in an Urban Setting

Residents of the south eager to learn about the island’s flora should plan a trip to Kaohsiung’s Protogenic Plants Garden (原生植物園). Taiwan’s second-largest city is perhaps a surprising location for a collection of local plants and trees, since the metropolis has only recently shed its reputation for heavy industry and pollution, but there is enough in this 4.66-hectare plot to keep nature lovers busy for at least two hours.

A decent amount of bilingual information is available inside the garden, which is within one kilometer of the Kaohsiung Zuoying High Speed Rail Station, the Zuoying train station, and the Ecological District Station on the KMRT’s Red Line.

Several of the species growing here can be put to good use. Barringtonia racemosa (和穗花棋盤腳), sometimes known as the Powder-Puff Tree, has huge leaves and long, hanging strands of green buds that become pink or white flowers. In Taiwan as in Okinawa, its seeds and leaves were once used to make a toxin that stuns fish so they can be scooped from the water. The berries of the Chinese Flame Tree (Koelreuteria henryi Dummer, 台灣欒樹) can be crushed and soap made from the pulp. As recently as the 1960s, people in the Taiwan countryside used these to do their laundry.

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