Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tung Blossom

It’s spring time in Taiwan, and if the fluctuating weather weren’t evidence enough, it’s hard to miss the flamboyant display of the tung oil trees in bloom. One of the most famous springtime sights to see in our northern corner of the island, the tung blossom is emblematic of the Hakka tribe and the economic expansion brought by the Japanese during their occupation.

The trees begin showing their stuff in March and continue into May. This being the end of April, in most places they are now in all their glory and splendor. They grow up to 60-70 feet tall, with a massively wide spread of branches and large white clusters of flowers. To stand at the foot of a mature tree is quite breathtaking.

Over a century ago, at the behest of the Japanese occupiers, tung trees were cultivated in Taiwan for their wood and for the tung oil derived of the fruits. The oil was used as a cleaner and as an ingredient in paint, varnish, caulking, and wood finish. The oil has since been replaced in all these applications by cheaper synthetic alternatives, but the trees remain as a symbol of Hakka culture. Thousands of people retreat to the mountains every spring to see the blossoms (sometimes called the “May snow” when they begin to fall) and to enjoy cultural activities at The Hakka Tung Blossom Festival.

Tung trees are two very similar species of tree, formerly of the genus Aleurites but now called Vernicia. V. fordii is the less common, currently accounting for about 10% of the tung oil trees in Taiwan. It was known as the ‘three-year tree’ because it was quickly ready for harvest, but had a relatively shorter lifespan. V. montana is vastly more prevalent, called the ‘millennium tung tree’ because of its long lifespan. Together these two are known as the tung oil tree: you tong shu, 油桐木.

Some sources also list Paulownia taiwaniana, whose close Paulownia relatives have long been cultivated as ornamental trees and for desirable timber characteristics (tone wood!) around the world including in the United States. In Chinese the name is quite similar: 泡桐, pao tong, although I haven’t been able to establish a real link in Taiwan between the Paulownia and the tung, which differ in genus but are within the tribe Aleuritideae. (When I asked students about this particular tree, they hadn’t a clue what I meant. This may or may not be directly related to my Chinese pronunciation.)

Whether we’re traveling by road, by train, or even by foot, we see these trees everywhere dotting the mountainside around Hsinchu county. One can even be found in our own little neighborhood, lining a schoolyard we frequently pass on morning walks to the park. The blossoms don’t have a distinct smell, but they are a wonder to behold in their delicate beauty and sheer numbers. What better way to pass a spring day than by drinking tea under the ‘May snow’ of a tung tree?

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