Field Investigation of a New Taiwan Rhododendron
John Patrick, El Sobrante, California
Accompanied by Dr. Chien-Chang Hsu, professor of botany, National Taiwan University and his assistant, Mr. Kuoh (who was one of the scholarship students of Rhododendron Venture having received his MS degree in Botany of Taiwan University under professor Hsu this past summer) we arrived at Nanshan in the north central interior mountains on 20 December 1973. Arriving after dark, we checked into the only hostelry available, a roadside inn. The hospitality was great, but accommodations were rudimentary. Cost of rooms was seventy-five cents and we did have adequate bedding as well as electricity and running water. The inn also doubles as a bus station along this dirt road which serves the Aborigine mountain tribes. There is plenty of refreshment and a general store for staples, simple hardware and supplies.
After depositing our climbing gear and packs we paid a call on the local police station to present our credentials. No one is allowed into the wild mountainous interior without police permission, not even Chinese residents; this, for national security reasons. After recording our permits, the police officer in charge kindly arranged for two porters for the following day. The porters are young men of the Tiyal (Tie-yal) tribe of Aborigines. It is difficult to imagine that these fine, friendly, honest, simple people were at one time head hunters! Most of the Aborigine tribes are Christians of one sort or another now. We agreed on a price of seven dollars and fifty cents a day per man. One of the reasons for this unusually high wage is the fact that the porters don't work often enough to make a living in the mountains unless they do receive high wages. Most of the game in this area has been hunted out long ago, thus depriving them of their former subsistence.
On the way back from the police station we passed a church from which issued Christmas carols sung in Japanese. Japanese is the lingua franca of the Aborigines. They had been previously educated under the Japanese system and continue to speak Japanese today as there are some thirteen major Aborigine dialects throughout Taiwan.
The following morning we met with our two porters, Ah-Yen Lin, 31 years of age and Chang Moo Lin, 32 years of age, not related. I never did find out if they had native names as well as Chinese names. We were packed and ready to leave at 7:10 a.m. Both porters were carrying about 45 pounds each. We three were carrying small back packs with rain gear, cameras, water and emergency rations.
We passed through the native village along a high bank to the north of Ta-Tso-Sue-Chi (chi-river) past a rather interesting native graveyard utilizing river stones arranged in curious, low circular walls about four feet in diameter surrounding a central dome. We reached the river bed which is composed of sand, pebbles, boulders and slabs of phyllite rock, showing different stages of erosion. Although the flow of water running down this river is not too great now, the width of one-half mile at this point attests to the tremendous amounts of water it carries during high water periods of the typhoon season. Further along the river we saw a large portion of mountainside which had slid into the river from the last typhoon of the season just a short time ago. Five fords and two hours later we reached a spot along the river where our climb up Nan-fu-to-shan was to begin.
Our altitude at this spot is about 1100 meters. Our objective was Chi-li-ting about 2400 meters, where we could establish our base camp. We started to climb up through semi-tropical forest, the floor of which is composed of deep humus and tangled roots. There are many types of ferns, some deciduous, at this altitude. Large tropical hardwood trees abound and the underbrush is rather dense, but passable without cutting a trail. As we gained altitude we found rather beautiful pines in abundance.
After nine and one-half hours of hard climbing we reached Chi-li-ting. The last two hundred meters of elevation I needed assistance in moving upward. At about 2000 meters fog closed in and the temperature dropped. As we moved higher through the cloud belt we were climbing in a drizzle. The two porters and Mr. Kuoh had gone ahead to set up base camp. One porter came back down to give me assistance in climbing. The trail had been very steep all day and I was exhausted. With the porter leading and me grasping his hand from behind up the steepest spots, we finally arrived at the minor peak, Chi-li-ting. I was now totally exhausted. The combination of lack of oxygen and no previous training had taken its toll.
The two tents had been set up and a most welcome fire was :burning. It was now 4:30 p.m., a drizzle had begun and there remained only one more hour of daylight. Dinner was started as we sat around a smoky fire for a bit of warmth, comfort and conversation.
We turned in early. Sleep consisted of tossing and turning throughout the night. Next morning I awoke early to find that a couple of tent pegs had pulled loose in the wind of the previous night and the bottom end of my sleeping bag was exposed and covered with ice. Reaching for my socks worn the previous day, I found that they were frozen. Our Aborigine porters had spent the night sleeping on dried grass in the open with only a small overhanging cliff as protection from the elements and Taiwan brandy to fortify them for this ordeal.
We left the base camp at 8:00 a.m. for the climb up to Cyn-Bajin, another 600 meters higher, At about 2700 meters we encountered Rhododendron noriakianum and collected what few seed capsules were available, but were too late in the season to expect much seed.
The foliage of R. noriakianum is quite impressive, consisting of whorls of 5 to 6 leaves capped by a rosette of leaves containing flower buds. Never having seen this species in flower, I can only recommend it for its foliage, which is quite striking; flowers will be a bonus. No small seedlings were observed for collecting but there was enough seed to distribute in the hopes that with successful germination we can anticipate establishing this delightful semi-dwarf. Most of the plants seemed to be quite old and one meter seemed to be its maximum height here.
The forest was changing at this altitude as we climb up through the temperate zone. Although the Usania lichen hanging from all trees and bushes indicates the high humidity, even at this altitude, the forest was thinning out and the ground was frozen solid. We were now passing through the lower limits of the high altitude forests of Abies kawakamii and Tsuga chinensis. Looking up, we saw huge trees as far as the eye could reach. Along the trail we now encountered our first Rhododendron morii. We noted that there were occasional flower buds opening. Upon questioning, our porters told us that there had been no unusual warm spell and that the season is normal. We therefore concluded that at this lower limit, R. morii naturally opens a few flower buds before winter dormancy. The lower limits of R. morii are higher here than in other parts of Taiwan owing to the fact that this particular section of the northern end of the Central Mountain Range is the coldest part of Taiwan. The ground cover at this altitude is Sasa yushiana and is endemic from the lower temperate zone starting at about 2000 meters all the way up to the high mountain peaks above 3400 meters.
The going was much slower as the altitude increased and again I needed assistance in climbing. The stops for rest were becoming more frequent now and almost equal to the amount of climbing time. We were now passing through the upper temperate zone and R. morii was everywhere in evidence. We passed through mature stands of Tsuga chinensis whose very hearts were dying and decayed with age, soon to join their kind as huge dead-falls, ripped out from the roots by the cruel, unrelenting forces of nature. That these giant trees, up to one and one-half meters in diameter, should succumb to such an awesome fate is sad to contemplate. What stories they could tell if we could but communicate.
After an exhausting five hours of climbing to gain 600 meters of altitude we reached another minor peak known to the Aborigine mountain people as Cyn-Bajin. We were now at an altitude of 3000 meters. From our vantage point on this wind-swept ridge incredible beauty surrounded us from every point. In the distance, to the south east, we could see the stony summit of Nanhutashan, 3700 meters, coated with the seasons first snow. To the south we saw Chung-Yan-Shan 3400 meters; and to the west, across the Ta-tso-sue-chi Valley, Mt. Silvia; both in their new winter mantles of snow. An incredible sight and quite exhilarating in this pure, crisp air. Although it was past noon in the bright sunshine the ground remained frozen in the shade and we shared the changing season with our fickle friends the elements.
With this climb I could now fully appreciate the tremendous accomplishments of Hsu and Kuoh in behalf of Rhododendron Venture. Their explorations and subsequent discoveries have been important to the further understanding of the genus and have contributed materially to our knowledge not only through field studies but in introducing hitherto unavailable live plants and seed.
Our porters told us that the weather was turning bad as evidenced by the valley below now being entirely enveloped in mist and clouds as far as the eye could see, continuing out to the Pacific Ocean to the northeast almost 45 miles distant. We would work on the Rhododendron populations in the immediate area as this was our primary goal.
Moving along the ridge of Cyn-Bajin to the southeast we noted that the endemic R. morii seemed to be changing to a smaller leafed form whose leaf whorls were almost entirely perpendicular to the stems and not drooping as was usually the case at somewhat lower elevations; also the leaf margins were not ruffled. In fact, they were starting to look a bit like what could be described as narrow, large leaved R. pseudochrysanthum with a bit of light brown indumentum at the base of the mid-vein. As we moved along the ridge examining this strange phenomenon, we encountered our first specimen of what will be called "R. venturi". The under surfaces of the leaves are thickly clad with a beautiful, light reddish-brown indumentum making for a most handsome and striking shrub; globose in habit and up to one meter twenty centimeters in height. These plants are in full exposure as opposed to R. morii which is always in full or partial shade.
Wonder of all wonders. We encountered one plant which exhibited some glabrous leaves and some indumented leaves! This phenomenon was closely observed and photographed. The different leaves are not indiscriminate, but are constant, branch by branch. Unfortunately, there were no seed capsules in evidence on this particular plant and further searching did not reveal any other plants exhibiting this unusual feature. It would be interesting to raise a batch of seedlings from this plant to see what leaf forms the siblings would exhibit. We also noted that in some other plants outer exposed leaves had their indumentum rubbed by wind action. We established that this was not the case with our variable leaved plant as those leaves on other plants that had their indumentum rubbed off showed quite definite evidence of rubbing. Wild speculation could lead one to postulate some genetic change in this one plant; and its being responsible for the stable form, "R. venturi". Could this be actual, visible evidence of the evolution of a new species?
Moving farther along the ridge, we encountered more pure forms of "R. venturi" as well as the intermediate form of R. morii. Rather than confuse the literature further with another extraneous name, we shall call the intermediate form: R. morii aff. Cyn-Bajin.
In a previous article (1) I offered the mistaken observation of "R. venturi" as being in the Ponticum Series. This was a too hasty judgment based on too much enthusiasm and too little evidence. We consider "R. venturi" a legitimate species. Dr. Hsu will publish the formal Latin description at some later date when flowering herbarium specimens have been collected, properly prepared and recorded. Agreement as to name has been accepted and formal publication will then allow the use of the name without quotes.
A small live plant of both "R. venturi" R. morii aff. Cyn-Bajin were collected, as well as cuttings and seed of "R. venturi". Both flower bud cuttings and vegetative cuttings of "R. venturi" were collected. The flower bud cuttings for grafting in the hope that flowers and pollen will be obtained for hybridizing. All grafts failed owing to the cuttings being too long in transit. Both live plants are thriving at this writing.
It is hoped that "R. venturi" will prove as successful as R. yakushimanum, as it certainly competes in every way as a delightful dwarf shrub. Being personally addicted to foliage, I don't really care what the flower looks like as the plant itself is so outstanding.
Let us digress for a moment. We now turn to the relationship between four species endemic to Taiwan: R. hyperythrum, morii, "venturi", and pseudochrysanthum. With the recently discovered "R. venturi", we can now determine the altitude relationships as follows: R. hyperythrum in the tropical to sub-tropical lower elevations; R. morii in the temperate to lower alpine zones -, "R. venturi" in the lower to middle alpine; (only one population has been found to date and may be an ecotype); R. pseudochrysanthum in the lower to the very upper reaches of the alpine zone. Thus, we can reasonably postulate that the foregoing species all belong in the Series Barbatum, subseries Maculiferum, including of course R. morii aff. Cyn-Bajin.
Further to the Southeast at somewhat higher elevations "R. venturi" is the only rhododendron in evidence along with the recently introduced azalea: R. taiwan-alpinum. Both seed and small seedlings of R. taiwan-alpinum were collected. The largest mature specimens of R. taiwan-alpinum were all under one meter high and all exhibited fairly heavy indumentum. As R. taiwan-alpinum is relatively late flowering, there was no lack of seed capsules.
It now being past 2:00 p.m. on this the shortest day of the year, we decided to get down to our base camp, have a quick lunch and be on our way back down the mountain. Although it was bright and beautiful at this altitude the dense mist, entirely shrouding the valley far below us, had ominous portents of difficulties later in the day.
A word here concerning early plant explorers: When one considers the months and years they spent in their explorations totally out of touch with civilization and often at extreme peril of their very lives, left entirely to their own devices pertaining to survival in the remotest regions of the planet, one cannot help but wonder at the incredible abilities displayed by these intrepid, persistent, superior men. They are truly in a class by themselves. The inner sense of accomplishment that they must have felt, we can now share through their surviving plant introductions, which have contributed so greatly to horticulture.
Lest there by any confusion, through comparison, of present-day plant collecting we can look to Peter Cox (2). In his most erudite accomplishment to date, and excellent work, "Dwarf Rhododendrons", he has succinctly and correctly placed these early explorers above all others by delineating them as MAJOR. This settles once and for all the very small part that we minor enthusiasts play in adding bits and pieces here and there.
Our porters had gone ahead down the mountain accompanied by Mr. Kuoh to break camp and prepare lunch. Dr. Hsu was to accompany me down the mountain to give what assistance he could. We started down the mountain at an incredible pace as we wanted to be off the mountain by dark if possible. Although we came down much faster than we came up, it was almost immediately apparent that the trip down was not going to be any easier. Breathing was extremely difficult still and each heel-pounding step was accompanied by a corresponding hammering in my temples.
Upon reaching base camp I was completely worn out (a chronic complaint by this time) I was somewhat revived by the rest that lunch provided but the porters were anxious to get moving lest darkness find us still on the mountain. We still had two-thirds of the mountain to get down and another two hours of traveling in the dark along the dangerous river bed before arriving back at Nanshan.
As we moved down the mountain, the porters with their heavy packs soon passed us up; and we had started down before them. How they can move at such a rapid pace with such heavy loads is beyond belief. My legs had long since turned to rubber with no feeling of anything but empty space where I thought my knee caps should be. Later my legs were to give out completely. The going was much too tortuous now to observe any flora and we were nearing the upper reaches of the cloud-shrouded valley. All around was damp and the trees dripped on us while we slid about trying to find our footing in the treacherous undergrowth. Now that we were in the mist-filled lower elevations a continual drizzle surrounded us. Although breathing was easier as we lost altitude it was getting more and more difficult to place one foot in front of another. Once again I seemed to be spending as much time resting as I spent moving down. Finally that which we dreaded had occurred; it was now dark and we were still on the mountain! We took out flashlights to identify the faint trail; always downward, at a steep angle. Several times we took wrong turns wasting precious time finding the trail again which was ever more difficult to discern as the drizzle had now turned to a fine rain. Everything looks the same. The porters who seemed to know every tree and bush were far below and their occasional shouts kept us heading in the right direction. I was now stumbling downward rather than stepping and on several occasions my legs completely collapsed forcing me to rest. Finally, we heard below us the faint roar of the river. What a welcome sound! Eventually we gained the foot of the mountain at the river bed. I couldn't continue another step and we all rested in the rain. The porters were sure that they could find their way along the river bed, which at this altitude is about a quarter of a mile wide. The heavy mist and light rain cut our visibility down to about fifteen feet beyond which our flashlights only made a dull glare.
We started down the ever-widening river bed as our porters picked out familiar rocks and water courses. Twice we lost our way while the porters crossed and re-crossed rock piles and miniature ravines trying to get their bearings. At one point we walked along under a cliff with the water roaring past just below us. One slip and we might not have been able to cope in our exhausted condition. We forded the river at five different places across slippery stones; again, a slip might have proved fatal. After what seemed forever, we were finally out of the stream bed and starting a short climb away from the river. In the flashlight beam I could see the familiar, curious piles of grave stones we had passed on our way out. Never had I been so delighted to find myself walking along-side a graveyard! Another half hour found us pounding on the locked wooden shutters of the inn. After arousing the innkeeper's wife, we made our beds, cooked dinner, paid off our porters and added a small bonus for a job well clone and a safe return.
(1) Quarterly Bulletin American Rhododendron Society, Vol.26 No. 2.
(2) Dwarf Rhododendrons, Peter A. Cox.