The legendary high-altitude plants in Taiwan bring to mind the famous quote from the movie Jurassic Park: “Life will find a way.” A group of high-altitude plants grows in the mountains at an altitude of over 3,000m where there is a large difference in the temperature between day and night. They also have to cope with barren lands, scarcity of water, strong winds and radiation in the harsh environment. To ensure their survival in this difficult environment, high-altitude plants have transformed their shapes, sizes and features. The Yushan Juniper has evolved into a flexible shape to endure the strong winds; the Taiwan White Fir survives in the snow with it sharp tree shape; Yushan Cane can come to life again soon after a big forest fire with the help of its long roots; the Yushan Rhododendron and Red-hairy Rhododendron have transformed their leaves to curl inward at the edges, and the thick, fuzzy leaf surface avoids evaporation to keep them hydrated. These survival mechanisms have transformed the plants’ original appearance, so that they can overcome adversity through their life force. This shows the intricate relationship between organisms and their environment. With careful observation, interesting answers to the mysteries of nature can be found in the unique and impressive legendary high-altitude plants of Taiwan.
In the glacial period a million years ago, the Yushan Juniper from the Himalayan mountains lived on in Yushan, at a higher altitude than the highest habitat of the Taiwan White Fir; it is the tree species that survives at the highest altitude in Taiwan.
How did it survive at the top of Taiwan’s high mountains?
Because of the Yushan Juniper’s strong adaptability to the environment in the high mountains, it has been able to endure the strong winds and snow by transforming itself from a large tall arbor tree into a short shrub that hugs the ground. Such endurance has shown its extremely strong life force and has safeguarded the land of Taiwan. Among all of the high-altitude plants in Taiwan, the Yushan Juniper is legendary for having the strongest power to stay alive.
The Yushan Juniper grows at an altitude of about 3,200 to 3,990m, and its distribution is mainly on the high mountains, including Yushan, Syueshan, Nanhudashan, and Central Jianshan. However, you can also see the Yushan Juniper growing along the beginner’s trail of the Hehuan East Peak or North Peak. According to one study, for the Yushan Juniper to grow 1cm in diameter, it takes 22.8 years, a very slow growth rate. When you see a small Yushan Juniper with a diameter of only 6 cm, you should believe without a doubt that it’s a one-hundred-year-old tree.
Taiwan White Fir
The survival altitude of the Taiwan White Fir is only lower than that of the Yushan Juniper, making it the pine tree that grows at the second highest altitude in Taiwan. It was not affected and transformed into a short shrub by the environment, but forms the largest coverage of forest on the mountains at 3,000m above sea level. Because the sunlight is blocked by its dense branch clusters and leaves, it has been given the nickname of “Taiwan’s Black Forest.” It is also the marker of the “timberline.”
The Taiwan White Fir is legendary due to its ability to survive in the snow, making it a unique species. The Taiwan White Fir grows in snowy areas and sometimes, after a night of snow, the branches are heavily weighed down by the snow. Over a long time, the branches have evolved to have smooth bark, and the tree has become sharp in shape to easily shed the layers of snow. On the other hand, the shape of the Taiwan Hemlock is like a wide-open umbrella and once it can no longer bear the heavy snow, the branches break off. The result of less endurance of the heavy weight of snow causes the evolution of trees to stay alive in a suitable environment. Therefore, snow affects the growth of the Taiwan White Fir and Taiwan Hemlock.
The Taiwan White Fir grows on the mountains at an altitude of 2,800 to 3,500m. It has the largest coverage of an evergreen forest in Taiwan. A large area of the tall Taiwan White Fir Forest can be seen on Syueshan Main Peak, Qilaishan and Dabajianshan. The Hehuan National Forest Recreation Area is the best spot to appreciate its beauty. Besides, the blue and purple seed strobile, growing straight up, is its unique feature; the white resin resembling snow makes it look even more attractive.
Yushan Cane dominates the line above the ridge on the mountains in Taiwan by growing close to the ground, forming the “timberline” with the Taiwan White Fir (also known as Taiwan’s Black Forest). In contrast to the tall and straight Taiwanese White Fir, Yushan Cane grows at low temperatures on barren land in shallow soil, where it is battered by strong winds. Although it is a species that can grow as tall as 4 meters in height, it has transformed itself into a shrub. Especially when overlooking the mountains from Hehuanshan, the timberline divides the two different types of vegetation, forest and grassland.
Fire is a natural phenomenon, and its effect is either good or bad; sometimes, it is beneficial to the ecological cycle. For example, the long roots of Yushan Cane can always help it to be quickly reborn after a big forest fire, so that the growth of new buds will take over the land. From one perspective, it’s like a predator; from another, the roots and stems of Yushan Cane are like an extremely powerful net helping the recovery of the damaged land and offering the best protection for the water and soil.
One Taiwanese ecologist even said, “Yushan Cane is the guardian of the land at an intermediate altitude in Taiwan.”
Yushan Cane belongs to the grass family, the genus of Yushania, which is a rare spelling that contains a place name in Taiwan. Its distribution is on the mountains at an altitude of from 2,000 to 3,800m where it has large-scale coverage. In the Hehuanshan Forest Recreation Area, visitors can see the mountains covered in Yushan Cane and Taiwan White Fir that jointly form an obvious timber line between two areas of yellow-green and dark green. It is the most impressive landscape of the high mountains in Taiwan.
Do you know the Rhododendron? Its distribution is mainly in the tropical zone, sub-tropical zone, frigid zone and high-altitude mountains in the northern hemisphere. There are 15 endemic species of Rhododendrons in Taiwan, including the Yushan Rhododendron and Red-hairy Rhododendron, which are the most common Rhododendron in the high-altitude areas.
When it comes to May and June, after layers of snow have completely melted, the white, carmine rose and pink Rhododendrons bloom everywhere, announcing that spring has arrived.
After careful observation, can you find the differences between high-altitude Rhododendrons and those growing at sea level? The survival mechanism has made the high-altitude Rhododendrons grow thick and fuzzy leaves, the edge of the leaf curls inward, the leaves are waxy, and the short tree is like a shrub, all for the purpose of surviving the cold winter and reducing water evaporation.
Besides, when spring comes late or winter comes early, they have to grow, bloom and fruit in only half a year. So, when it blooms, the tops of the mountain are covered in a sea of flowers. However, the strong ultraviolet rays in the high-altitude areas induce genetic changes in the corona cells that are harmful to the length of time a flower remains open. High-altitude plants usually generate more carotenoid and anthocyanidin, which is why the colors of high-altitude Rhododendrons are brighter and more glamorous.
【Encyclopedia of Rhododendrons】
Among all the species of Rhododendrons, the distribution of the Yushan Rhododendron in Taiwan is at the highest altitude of up to 3,000m. It can endure the cold weather, even the snowy weather, as its branches and leaves can resist the cold. When it grows among the shrubs of the Yushan Juniper or on a bare rock cliff, it will transform the branch into a twisted shape to last for the entire beautiful blooming period. In May, visitors to Hehuanshan National Forest Recreation Area can see Yushan Rhododendrons everywhere on Shimenshan, Hehuanshan Main Peak, Hehuan East Peak and from the foothills of the East Peak to Xiaoqilao Trail.
【Encyclopedia of Red-hairy Rhododendron】
The Red-hairy Rhododendron is a shrub with dense and slender branches, which is extremely adaptable. Besides, after a forest fire in the high mountains, it is the pioneer plant that takes root and starts to grow on the damaged land. Within several years, it will cover the tops of all the mountains. You’d never believe that there was a damaged land under those beautiful flowers. Do you feel the amazing vitality of the Red-hairy Rhododendron? Come visit Hehuanshan National Forest Recreation Area where you can see the beautiful Red-hairy Rhododendron and Yushan Rhododendron blooming everywhere.
One Taiwanese ecologist even said, “The vegetation of a place reflects the growth factor of the locale; the difficult environment drives the evolution of plants.” From a forest, a tree or even a small leaf, people can find vivid or veiled stories that deeply impress them.