If you are a fan of sakura – the cherry blossoms that draw legions of adoring sightseers to parks and hillsides throughout Japan – plan your next visit to Taiwan to coincide with the Hakka Tung Blossom Festival.
The festival, which takes place in April and May, celebrates the beauty and beneficence of Vernicia fordii, a deciduous species better known as the tung tree. Native to southern China and northern Vietnam, the tree was planted in several locations in northwestern Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule.
For a while, tung plantations played a major role in the region’s economy. The wood was turned into furniture, matches, and toothpicks. Tung seed oil was used to coat paper umbrellas, and to make paints, varnishes, and caulking.
When alternative oils became cheaper, the plantation workers were let go and the tung groves were abandoned. Because most of them had been planted on marginal slope land, the trees – few of which are more than 10m in height – were left to grow wild rather than replaced with other cash crops. In the decades since, their resilience and grace has touched a chord with the Hakka people who have lived in the region for generations, to the point where this ethnic minority has embraced the tung tree as emblematic of their own history and struggles.
Who are the Hakka? Like around 96 percent of Taiwan’s population, they trace their ancestry back to China, emerging as a distinct subgroup within the Han people during a series of southward migrations between 1,600 and 400 years ago. Their unique language is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or Hoklo, the local language also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua.
During the era of Kangxi (reigned 1661–1722), the Qing emperor of China who oversaw the incorporation of Taiwan into his empire in 1684, Hakka families began migrating to the island. Because most of the lowlands were already occupied by Hoklo-speaking settlers, Hakka pioneers headed into the rugged foothills. Famously hardworking and frugal, there they were able to establish themselves, despite far-from-ideal farming conditions and sporadic hostility from indigenous tribes.
Islandwide, around one in seven Taiwanese identifies as Hakka. But the northwestern counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli – the best places to appreciate tung blossoms – are both majority Hakka.
Tung trees normally flower three times each year. Trees that bloom in August or September often lose their blossoms because of that season’s thunderstorms and typhoon winds, while flowers that appear in December seldom last long due to the cold. The flowers of spring tend to be the most abundant and long-lasting, creating scenes that many liken to a magical woodland just after it has snowed.
If you come to Taiwan this spring, finding a tung grove in bloom should not be difficult. Driving through Miaoli or Hsinchu, there is a good chance you will glimpse a cluster of white-flecked tung trees on a distant hillside.
Miaoli County Government’s Culture and Tourism Bureau (https://miaolitravel.net) lists no fewer than 15 recommended places for tung blossom appreciation.
Among them are the 2.6 km-long Zhaoqiao-Jiantan Historic Trail, the family-friendly Sanwan-Yonghe Tongjing Mountain Trail, and the Tongxiao-Tiaoyen Historic Trail. The last of these, like many paths in Taiwan’s foothills, was blazed long before the Japanese colonial era to facilitate trading and migration. In addition to an abundance of tung trees, it is lined with acacia and camphor trees.
These trails make it possible to enjoy tung blossoms up close, where you will notice that the dazzling white of the petals is offset by vividly red filaments and yellow anthers. You may well see tung aficionados gathering up fallen blossoms and arranging them in the shape of a heart, or to spell out the Chinese character ai (愛), “love.”
The Council of Agriculture’s EZGO website (https://ezgo.coa.gov.tw) recommends the Flying Cow Ranch (https://www.flyingcow.com.tw), which is not far from the Taiwan Hakka Museum in the center of Miaoli County.
If family or business commitments make it difficult for you to stray far from Taipei, consider hiking the Tucheng Tung Blossom Trail, which takes around three hours. The beginning of the path is within walking distance of Yongning Station on Taipei Metro’s Blue Line.
Sightseers basing themselves in Taichung can day-trip out to Dongshi District, another place long associated with the Hakka minority. Dongshi Forest Garden is a magnet for cherry blossom fans and firefly fanciers, as well as one of the best places to see tung flowers during summertime.
Exploring the Hakka heartland is easier than ever, thanks to the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus network.
The Nanzhuang route connects Zhunan TRA Station (which is well-served by local and express trains) with the multiethnic interior town of Nanzhuang up to nine times per day. En route, it makes a stop at the entrance to Lion’s Head Mountain, where a cluster of historic temples is linked by short yet scenic hiking trails.
If Lion’s Head Mountain is your primary destination, or you are arriving in the region by high-speed (HSR) train, the Shishan (Lion’s Head Mountain) shuttle may work perfectly for you. It connects Zhubei TRA Station, Hsinchu HSR Station, the delightfully characterful Hakka town of Beipu, and Emei (previously a center of the tea industry) with Lion’s Head Mountain Visitor Center.
On these routes, as on other Taiwan Tourist Shuttle services, both single journey tickets and jump-on/jump-off day passes are available. For timetables and fare information, see www.taiwantrip.com.tw. Like the other websites mentioned in this introduction to the Tung Blossom Festival, all pertinent details are presented in English as well as Chinese.
If you hope blossom-viewing will be a highlight of your vacation, build some flexibility in your plans. Because the weather has a big influence on precisely when a particular grove bursts into flower, it pays to check a day or two before setting out.
Visitor information centers are usually able to tell you what is happening in their area. Another option is to call the tourism hotline at 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan). If hotline staff are unable to give an immediate answer, they will call you back as soon as they have confirmed information. The hotline can help with all sorts of inquiries, including road conditions and opening hours.
As in previous years, the official Hakka Tour website (https://romantichakka.com) will list popular viewing spots for Tung Blossom Festival, complete with directions and status reports, so visitors can know whether the trees in each location have flower buds, are beginning to blossom, or are in full bloom.
The Tourism Bureau’s regularly updated and multilingual website (www.taiwan.net.tw) is packed with information, which all visitors will find useful as Taiwan reappears as an international tourist destination.