Fri, Feb 14, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: Barking up the right tree in Gaofeng Botanical Gardens

The 16-hectare garden located a stone’s throw away from Hsinchu’s National Tsing Hua University was established in 1932 by the Japanese colonial authorities and boasts 150-plus tree species

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The gum tree, by contrast, had unnaturally pale yet beautifully smooth bark that I could happily touch all day long. It would feel wonderful underfoot, but perhaps wouldn’t be the easiest flooring surface to keep clean.

I also look closely at a Cerbera manghas tree. I realized it is a species worth knowing about after I got home and found a medical research paper titled “Sea Mango Cardiac Intoxication.”

In coastal Taiwan, the paper states, Cerbera manghas “is a very common plant and readily accessible. The fruit… turns bright red at maturity and appears very much like the edible mango... It is quite possible to inadvertently ingest the fruit and become intoxicated.”

In Hawaii, one nickname for the fruit is “suicide apple.” When ingested, the leaves are also highly poisonous. Hunter-gatherers have been known to tip their arrows and darts with Cerbera manghas sap, to incapacitate animals.

The bark had several vertical fissures. Looking at images online, I’ve not been able to determine if this is normal or not — but I did learn that this part of the tree has been used as a laxative and antipyretic (a fever-reducing substance), to treat ringworm and to induce abortions.

Leaving the botanical garden by the way I came in, I headed down the hill toward the city center. After covering less than 100m, I stumbled across a sign for Eighteen Peaks Mountain Air-raid Shelter Trail (十八尖山防空洞步道).

This probably deserves a look, I thought. I turned off the road and immediately saw a row of eight tunnel mouths facing westish at slightly different angles. There were subtle differences in the dimensions, designs, and materials — concrete and brick, mostly — so I’m guessing they weren’t all built at the same time. Because I lacked a flashlight, I couldn’t tell how big they are, or if they connect to one another.

Standing close to one of the shelters, I heard a sudden crash. I looked up, half expecting to see a Formosan macaque retreating through the treetops. But no: The woodland spirits were having yet another go at me.

A tree limb longer and thicker than my leg tumbled down the slope in my direction until it became entangled in the undergrowth. If enjoying the outdoors means there’s a danger of getting brained by a branch, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture, and business in Taiwan since 1996. He is the co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, and author of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, the third edition of which has just been published.

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