Last Saturday afternoon, a group of nature lovers took a hike — not up a mountain but through the lanes and alleys of Taipei City.
Best-selling nature writer Liu Ka-shiang (劉克襄) was their guide. The tour, organized by arts and culture center South Village (南村落), wended through the residential neighborhood behind the northwest corner of Xinyi (信義) and Xinsheng South (新生南) roads.
Liu selected the neighborhood because many of its apartments and houses were built in the 1960s and 1970s when people ate fruit and vegetables they grew at home instead of buying them at markets.
The group started with 29 people and slowly grew larger over two hours as curious pedestrians and neighborhood residents decided to tag along. They listened intently to Liu and took notes, snapped close-up photos of mulberry tree leaves and picked up wax apples that had fallen on the ground.
“It’s like a mini-vacation when you walk around this neighborhood. You can see a lot of Taiwan’s plants,” Liu said.
One of the first plants Liu introduced was a noni plant. Light green with tiny bumps and round white eyes, noni fruit is popular in Southeast Asia and its juice tastes delicious when mixed with passion fruit juice or milk, Liu said. (Most of the plants featured on the tour were on private property, so there was no sampling.)
The group turned a corner and Liu pointed out a Yulan magnolia before stopping in front of a tree with long, pointy deep green leaves. It was a longan tree.
“You can dry the fruit and save it to make tea with. It’s also used in Chinese medicine,” Liu said. “The wood makes for very good fuel, it’s the best in wood-burning ovens for pizza.”
He paused and made a point about pesticides he would repeat several times during the tour: “When I was a kid, every time I ate a piece of fruit there would be two or three bugs on it, but now I no longer see the bugs. I miss them!”
A natural alternative to pesticides are the leaves of the chinaberry tree, Liu added, which can be placed on top of fruit or crushed and rubbed onto skin to repel insects.
A wax apple tree growing in the yard of an old, dilapidated house illustrated the impact of pesticides and other changes in commercial farming methods on produce. The bright red fruit were barely longer than a thumb, a far cry from the big, plump examples now available in grocery stores.
“People don’t eat these now because they are considered too small and sour,” said Liu. “Wax apples were once available only in July and August, but now you can buy them all year round.”
A banana plant gave Liu an opportunity to talk about the best way to store the fruit.
“You should hang them up vertically, because that is how they grow,” said Liu, demonstrating with a sweep of his hands. “If I see bananas hung up in a store, then I know that the owner understands and respects bananas.”
Liu now lives in Taipei City, but grew up in Taichung. A former journalist, his interest in Taiwan’s ecology began after he became an avid birdwatcher.
In addition to his non-fiction writing, Liu is also a prolific novelist and poet. His latest books include 15 Asteroids (十 五顆小行星), with profiles of people Liu met on his travels, and Train Journeys for 11 Yuan (11元的鐵道旅行), about traveling by rail around Taiwan.
Liu’s strength as a nature writer lies in his ability to convey his passion to other people, said Lulu Han (韓良露), the head of South Village.