Archives for category: botanical beauty
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A big bunch of djulis, ready for harvest.

Thousands of years ago during the Neolithic period, the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese tribes tinkered with a common weed to create a protein-rich super food. It’s related to quinoa, but much more beautiful.

The Paiwan call it djulis (‘JOOlis’), the Amis call it kowal (goWALL). It’s scientific handle is Chenopodium formosanum (as in, Formosa, the old name for Taiwan).  Together with millet and dry-cultivated rice, this mysterious scarlet crop was a key food for most of Taiwan’s tribes, and even their domestic animals, for many generations.

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Just outside Taitung, a field of scarlet djulis in front of a Taoist temple.

Under Japanese and Chinese governance, this crop has slowly declined and now very few people know how to cultivate it. I’ve been lucky to learn more from Paiwan and Amis elders. Due to its beauty and alleged high nutritional value, djulis has recently gotten some serious attention from scientists and agronomists. A key characteristic: it likes to be dry. This could be a benefit in Taiwan’s increasingly frequent droughts…

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A Paiwan couple create a lovely wreath out of djulis from their field.

The recommended cooking method is sprinkling in a handful with rice for flavor and color. But djulis is pretty good in cookies too! If you are in Taipei, come visit the nice djulis garden on the National Taiwan University campus, just to the left of the Anthropology Museum.

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I am crowned with the wreath!

 

 

 

 

 

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Ancient Paiwan village of Cacevakan. We were lucky to arrive after caretakers removed some vegetation.

Two days ago, after a very sweaty steep hike my two colleagues and I reached an amazing stone village sitting quietly in the deep forest of Taiwan’s southernmost mountains. Two eagles soared above us, monkeys clucked their warning calls, and a tiny fanged deer barked in the shadows.

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A female Formosan macaque is keeping me in sight while her youngster escapes into the canopy.

This village was last lived in maybe 500 years ago by the ancestors of the Paiwan people, a mountain tribe with great expertise in ancient traditional cultivation of seed crops. Unlike my Amis friends in the east, the stone villages of Paiwan ancestors were so high in the mountains they rarely saw the sea. Paiwan society is made up of commoners and noble families, who ruled by the favor of the gods and were responsible for caring for the least fortunate in their villages. Americans could learn from them.

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To orient you: this map shows Amis territory, light green in the lower right, and Paiwan territory, pinkish purple in the south. The map is in the National Taiwan University Anthropology Museum in Taipei.

My anthropology colleagues are amazing scholars who have generously shared their time and expertise about Taiwanese cultures ancient and modern. I am so lucky to know them! In the next installment: tribal super food.

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My two colleagues from National Taiwan University: Dr. Sumei Lo, left, is a cultural anthropologist who works with the Amis people and is learning more about the Paiwan people. Dr. Maaling Chen, right, is an archaeologist who studies ancient stone house settlements. Maaling is carrying a stick for the ‘hundred pacer’ snakes in the area, allegedly so poisonous you die after taking 100 steps! They are sacred to the Paiwan people, luckily we didn’t encounter any.

 

Have you ever eaten a fern? The young uncurling leaves, called fiddleheads in the US, can be amazingly tender and delicious. The Amis people love ferns, called ‘lokutl’ in their language, and gather them wild or cultivate them in gardens and forest plots.

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Mr. and Mrs. Wang’s fern garden. Can you see where the leaves have been harvested?

Our Amis friend Mr. Wang showed us a beautiful mountain spot, in his family for many generations, where he and his wife carefully grow the ferns for the local market.

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The stuff in the middle is damp, partly rotten, and smells like the soul of the forest.

The mulch that collects in each fern is collected as clean organic mulch for their gardens in town. Sadly, all of their children are working in modern jobs in remote cities with little interest in this Amis style of cultivating wild vegetables.

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A muntjac, or barking deer, spotted in the central mountains. They adore ferns, as Mr. Wang complains…

You might remember that Mr. Wang sold us fern leaves last month and the local restaurant covered them in a light batter, flash fried them, and provided a dipping mixture of salt and Taiwan white pepper (a more fragrant and complex cousin to the familiar black pepper in your shaker. To die for!! The tiny barking deer agree, and raid his garden regularly…

 

 

Anthropological fieldwork in the sub-tropics can be hot and sweaty business. I took this shot yesterday while surveying a field where my father, an Amis lady, and I went to gather wild greens for dinner.

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I could use another hand or two.

Zhong Mama, as she is called, is a youthful 72 years old. Her wild veggie gathering kit consists of a beautiful handmade basket of grasses and a small knife. A whole basketload to feed five adults took only about 15 minutes from start to finish.

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Zhong Mama in farmwoman fashion attire: sensible headgear and a touch of makeup!

The veggies are called sama, dadugum, and gachipilay in Amis language. T

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Gear: handmade basket, twine, and a tiny knife.

They were lightly stirfried with garlic and salt, then some water added for a light broth, and finished with Taiwanese white pepper. Delicious peppery flavor, a tang of bitterness like young spinach or dandelion leaves.

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Eat up! It’s organic!!

The trees of Taiwan each have their own unique personalities. So I’ve been trying to capture them in tree portraits!

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Crazy Banyan tree in a Taipei park nearby. You can get dizzy trying to trace the branches and roots…

Here is another one. I definitely do a better job with a can of lichee beer for additional inspiration.

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Tree ferns are fuzzy and cute, they look like you could stroke them like cats. I haven’t tried it yet.

This magnificent camphor tree graces the Buddhist temple near my Auntie’s Taichung apartment.

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I am dwarfed by this amazing camphor tree!

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The temple has ensured that the tree has all the support it needs using metal struts, and white paint over old wounds.

It is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. So, when this tree sprouted from a seed, Taiwan was home only to indigenous peoples. Its forests were untouched by axe and saw, its rivers ran clean and pure and a-swim with Formosan salmon, and clouded leopards and pangolins prowled the island’s mountain heart.

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This tree rivals General Sherman in its awesome age, size, and beauty. Note Dad looking distorted from the panoramic camera function.

Today this giant is lovingly tended by the temple staff. It has grown and intertwined into this complex human ecosystem, admired and appreciated by its human neighbors, wreathed in incense smoke, and reaching outward and upward to the light as it has for more than a millennium.

The ancestors of the Amis people, who are teaching me a lot about the foraging/gardening/farming interface, have occupied Taiwan’s beautiful east-lands for centuries. I took this picture a few days ago travelling with my father, cousin Sengbo, and Clint.

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High above the Pacific, looking east.

Here, two continental plates meet and the result is stunning: mountains come right down to the coast and in some cases, the cliffs plunge straight into the sea.

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Overlooking the coast near the tiny indigenous town of Su-ao.

Notice the lack of giant beach hotels, pollution, noise, and other build-up. Taiwan’s eastern beaches are nearly pristine, some of the last in the world!

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Clint and I near Yilan, largest town on the NE coast.

In the small Amis tribal gardens and fields, between the rows of familiar crops is a riot of mysterious edible wild plants and native domesticates lovely to behold. This is a uniquely tribal approach to farming.

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Mr. Gao’s field. Wild greens grow between the crops, and when added to soups or lightly fried with garlic and salt are a delicious part of a typical Amis dinner.

The wild plants offer shade, keep soil moist, and some fix nitrogen. The pinkish red Taiwanese quinoa, above, was domesticated by tribes thousands of years ago and exists only on the island.

Common wild veggie dishes this time of year are dadugum and bird’s nest fern. The leaves of the former, and the baby fiddleheads of the latter, are coated in a light egg batter and deep fried, then dipped in a powdered mixture of salt and hot pepper (do NOT breathe this)!

Dadugum leaves taste like young dandelions: tangy with a light peppery after-taste. The fern fiddleheads are wonderfully succulent, like baby zucchini but a little sweeter. Our ancestors enjoyed lots of wild veggies too.  Let’s re-discover wild vegetables in our own gardens and farms! 

For those of you locked in winter’s icy grip and craving a little color: I offer images of Taipei’s famous Jianguo Flower Market. Tucked under an overpass, hundreds of sellers convene here every Saturday to sell flowers of almost every description. I was staggered by the variety and beauty of plants on offer: certainly, Taiwan’s lush sub-tropical climate is a flower’s best dream! The crowds eagerly buying plants for house and yard included many families, several Buddhist nuns, and a smattering of wai-guo ren (foreigners like me).

In this montage, see if you can spot: bromeliads, orchids; succulents; azaleas; hibiscus; peonies; and bonsai trees. Enjoy!

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Shoppers enjoying the huge selection of beautiful flowers and plants.

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Buddhist nuns in backpacks.