When I see San Francisco in my mind, much of what defines the look of the city are the plants. Miner’s lettuce, nasturtium, French broom, Himalayan blackberry, eucalyptus, hollyhock, rosemary, Algerian ivy, jasmine, fennel, pines, ginkgo, olive, yellow oxalis, and so forth; these are all plants which are really common in San Francisco, and are plants which I powerfully associate with both the city and my childhood. For example, as a child, I would eat (or at least try to eat) most of the plants on the list with my school friends. Interestingly, out of all of those plants, only the miner’s lettuce and maybe the pines are native to California.
Taiwan has very different flora, having a totally different climate at all. In the less populated areas, lots of ferns, subtropical broad-leaf trees, ferns, bamboo, ferns and so forth. In the more populated areas, lots of rice, bananas, and vegetables. Outside of Taipei city itself, quite a bit of food gardening/farming happens within town/city limits – for example, just a 15-minute walk away from where I live there’s a rice field, and I live in downtown. And there are even still some farms within the city limits of Taipei itself – they tend to be in places like Neihu and Maokong. The lines between the urban and the rural seem blurrier in Taiwan than in California.
But sometimes I go to a place in Taiwan, and the flora makes me think of California.
Keelung makes me think of San Francisco and Oakland simply because it’s a hilly port city. Most of the flora in Keelung is of the low-elevation subtropical type, … but on Heping Island, the flora consists of coastal scrub. San Francisco also has plenty of coastal scrub, and while I’m sure the species are different, coastal scrub looks like coastal scrub. It made me think of California all the more as I looked out at the Pacific Ocean.
The first time I went through a patch of pine trees in Taiwan (I think it was in Pingxi) it also made me think of California, but pine trees are actually common in Taiwan at the higher elevations, and I’ve seen enough pine trees in Taiwan that they do make me think of California as much.
But last week, I went through an oak forest. In Taiwan. Specifically, I hiked the Wenshan trail in Hualien county, which runs from Wenshan to Lushui and is part of the path the Japanese made to help ‘pacify’ the Taroko people. I associate oak trees with the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), and I had never really seen oak trees in Taiwan before. So there were moments on that trail when I asked myself if I were really in California, not Taiwan. I even looked out for poison oak once or twice, even though I knew there is no poison oak in Taiwan.
Plants which I encounter frequently sprout and grow in my subconscious.