Fri, Jun 21, 2019 - Page 13 News List

A corner of Taitung where herbs thrive

Our intrepid travel writer visits Taitung’s Hundred Herbs Garden, which is inside Jhihben National Forest Park, covers about 1,000 square meters and contains more than 50 herb species

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The Hundred Herbs Garden is in the lower part of Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area, five minutes’ walk from the entrance.

Photo: Steven Crook

For thousands of years, in Taiwan as in many parts of the world, herbs have been used to flavor food and to treat various ailments.

Locally, the overlap between cuisine and medicine is considerable. As Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan, recently told me by e-mail: “Plenty of everyday foods and drinks are known to have medicinal qualities, like grass jelly (仙草, Platostoma palustre, Chinese mesona or xiancao). It’s made from a herb that has cooling and refreshing qualities, but not much taste. Then there are much more assertive flavors consumed for their health benefits, like bitter melon juice (苦瓜汁). Both are so common it’s hard to tell if people eat or drink them for the medicinal effects, or purely because they like them. But there’s definitely an ingrained sense of food as medicine among eaters in Taiwan, more so than in the West.”

Over the past half century, Taiwan’s lowlanders have lost much of the traditional ecological knowledge that helped their ancestors survive. Among indigenous elders, however, there’s still a wealth of know-how which researchers are endeavoring to preserve.

A survey, conducted a decade ago among eight extended families in a Bunun (布農族) community in Nantou County, identified 264 useful plant species. Over half had more than one function: 142 were food plants, while 65 could be used to make tools. Some 37 had medicinal applications, while 10 were suitable for making clothes or footwear.

A good place to see versatile plants is the Hundred Herbs Garden (百草園) inside Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area (知本森林遊樂區), about 18km southwest of Taitung City. The garden covers around 1,000 square meters and displays more than 50 herb species.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Buses #8129 from Taitung goes to Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area via Jhihben Railway Station. There are 15 services per day and the journey time is 50 minutes.


Some interesting information about the garden’s plants — among them the grass jelly mentioned by Erway — is presented on-site in English, but for the majority of species, there’s nothing beyond the scientific name. In this article, I aim to fill a few of the gaps, so international travelers can get a bit more out of their visit.

National Taiwan University’s “Plants of Taiwan” Web pages lists Eupatorium formosanum (台灣澤蘭) as endemic to Taiwan, and according to other sources, this perennial herb also grows in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. It’s been used to treat cholera, hemorrhoids, inflammation, neuralgia, prenatal edema, rheumatism and other conditions.

Eupatorium formosanum was first described in 1908 by Bunzo Hayata (1874-1934), a Japanese botanist who made a huge contribution to the study of Taiwan’s flora. Between 1900 and 1921, he named around 1,600 new taxa of vascular plants from the island. Among them is Taiwania cryptomerioides (台灣杉), one of the largest tree species in Asia.

Curiously, according to a 2009 paper outlining Hayata’s life and work, the Japanese scientist, “did not accept Darwin’s concept of evolution, the survival of the fittest, but instead believed in the eternal life of species based on the diversity of plants in the tropics that he observed during his work in Taiwan and Indochina.”

Aspidistra elatior var. Attenuata (台灣蜘蛛抱蛋) is an endemic variation of a plant also found in Japan and China. The latter is known to gardening enthusiasts in the English-speaking world as the “Cast Iron Plant,” because it thrives even when neglected.

For a long time, it was believed that this plant was pollinated by slugs — rather than by flying insects, like the vast majority of plants. However, a few years ago scientists in Japan discovered that its flowers are pollinated by fungus gnats. It’s thought the flowers’ appearance and odor fool the gnats into thinking they’re mushrooms.

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