Qilan Mountain’s Divine Trees

Sometime during the last year, I read about Qilan (Cilan) Mountain in Taiwan and have been wanting to go there ever since. I’d read that there were large, old-growth trees of both Taiwan red cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) and Taiwan yellow cypress (C. taiwanensis) there, and had wanted to go there ever since. Somehow word of this got to my mother-in-law, who promptly booked a family trip for us; the family had been there before. The post on Luodong describes what we did on the first day of this trip. Many thanks to her for arranging all of this.

The area is called “Divine Trees.” It’s not wholly virgin old-growth forest; it has been logged, but many trees here were saved. Though it’s not far from Yilan or Luodong (maybe about 25 miles as the crow flies), getting there gives you plenty to think about. You start out in the valley (400m/1312ft). Here is the view from the forest recreation area there, next to the hotel where we stayed:

Then you head up highway 7. If you’re familiar with mountain roads, you probably have an idea of what this is like; if not, refer to C. W. McCall’s lyrics on Black Bear Road–”it looked like a bunch of Zs and Ws all strung together.” Unlike the Black Bear Road, highway 7 is actually paved, and you go up from the valley for about a half-hour or so. Then, around 1000m (3280 feet) or so, you turn off, go through a staffed controlled-access gate, and ride for another half-hour or so on an unpaved road that isn’t really any different in shape than the paved one. If you want to go there, it’s best to go on a tour. For one thing, a guide can tell you a lot about the place, and furthermore, I don’t know if they’ll even let you in without a guide.

During the trip, if you’re not battling motion sickness, you see the forest changing around you. In the valley, the forest is far more of a jungle, with broadleaved trees, fern-like plants, and vines all around (monkeys in the warmer months, too). But as you ascend, you start to see Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomerioides, an important timber species, but not the subject here). If it’s not a clear day, you reach the cloud cover and it becomes foggy. You start to see trees with the scaled foliage sprays that you see in so many genera/species in the Cupressaceae family. It’s a sign that you’re getting closer. Then you see hulks of grey, dead trees towering out of the forest on the mountainside:

At some point, you’re at your destination at around 1550m (5085ft). It’s time to get out and see some real trees. There’s a trail here with two variations; the longer one is about 2km long, with more than 50 trees, the other has a little less than half.

The first trees on the trail are among the largest and oldest in the area. Everything at the beginning of the trail is a red cypress. It’s hard to get an idea for the scale of these trees, especially when you look across to them from higher up on the hill:

A few notes about the Taiwan red cypress are in order:

  • It’s got a branching form, usually high up on the trunk somewhere. The branch forms seem to vary quite a bit; the example above has the vase-like form that you might see on an elm tree. Others don’t split quite like this.
  • It grows really slowly. Think “coast redwood or old-growth douglas-fir” really slowly.
  • In time, its bark and shape do not expel the elements as many other trees do. You can see all sorts of moss and fungus on this one, but did you notice the pepper tree growing high up in the crotch?
  • After about 500 years, the tree starts to become hollow; bugs eat from the pith out. They don’t eat anything younger than this. I didn’t catch what the relationship was to the sapwood, but in any case, the ideal tree for harvesting is about 500 years old because of this. Anything older was often spared because it was not high-quality wood. There are a few examples of 500-year-old trees in the area, and they definitely have a different look.

But I did mention that these things are big. When we got around to the trunks of the larger trees, you start to understand what the “Giant Cypress” part of Wilbur Pan’s blog name is all about. The preceding photo was a first impression of a particular tree. Then we got around to the other side of it and got a better idea at what was here:

It’s not only big, but it’s quite pretty, too. As with all of the big trees, it has a marker with its name and some information:

Most of the stuff on here should be pretty self-explanatory (DBH being diameter; breast height). It’s a little difficult to compare this to trees such as the giant sequoia and coast redwood, which are a little thicker and a lot taller, but the dimensions do generally match the historical record of a tree that we may be lucky enough to resurrect in time: the American chestnut. Botanically, of course, the chestnut is far different (being a fast-growing angiosperm and all), but now I finally have an idea for what the presence of those things was like.

(All of the large trees have names such as this; Szuma Chien was a famous historical figure in China that lived around the same time this tree sprouted.)

And so on we went through lots of red cypress (some even comical); here’s one that’s “only” about 1000 years old. You can see how its form at this age is far different than the older ones, and in particular, how much larger its crown is:

According to the sign for this tree (No. 31), it is 34 meters tall, 1.5 meters wide, and is named Shin-ma Kuang.

We saw a few other types of trees, but then, somewhere near the end of the walk, we stopped at a big tree and I knew immediately that there was something different here. First, the bark was different; it was shaggy, not unlike a shagbark hickory. It also didn’t hurt that the trunk had a fence around it:

The guide explained that this was a Taiwan yellow cypress (“hinoki”, sometimes classified as the C. obtusa hinoki cypress, but otherwise known as C. taiwanensis). It is principally famous for its aroma, the fact that bugs hate it (unlike the red cypress, they do not hollow with age), and that they have a remarkable resistance to rot. The wood has a tremendous number of uses. It’s also extremely rare because the lumber is so valuable that most of it was logged. There are only five old-growth examples in the entire area! Think of our own C. lawsoniana (Lawson’s cypress, or “Port Orford-cedar”).

And of course, the fence is necessary to keep people from picking at the bark when they learn what this tree is.

Looking up at a yellow cypress, you can see that its form is more excurrent than the red cypress. It’s hard to relate the sort of effect this imparts in words or a photograph.

(If I were into sayin’ profound stuff, I’d say that the tree is saying “The cypress tree on the mountain” to us. But I’m not, so I’ll just say that the tree is telling us that trees don’t talk.)

This tree, named Chu Hsi, is about 900 years old and 1.8m in diameter. I don’t know why I found this one particularly nice-looking, but I did.

Coming up: Back to woodworking and tools! Of course I went shopping for tools when I was in Taiwan.

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