29 May 2019 by Roy Preece
I was very interested in Su Yen’s reply that our pretty and well-loved Kerria bush from Japan does grow in Taiwan too. It set me wondering whether any of the historical ‘Plant Hunters’ from England ever went to Taiwan.
Plants, like people, have two names. These names can tell us things, such as who discovered the plant, what country it comes from, or what it looks like. Many favourite plants in English gardens have names such as ‘japonica’ – from Japan, or ‘Chinensis’ – from China. But are there any from Taiwan?
In my search, I discovered a plant hunter, William Robert Price, who went to Taiwan in 1912. Plant hunters often risked their lives in dangerous places and Price was warned that the mountains of Taiwan were hazardous because of floods, gorges, malaria and the hostility of the Aboriginal inhabitants who were at war with the Japanese rulers of Taiwan. Nevertheless Price decided to explore the mountains, including an ascent of the Jade Mountain, or Yu-Shan. Yu Shan is three times as high as the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis.
One of the rewards of plant hunting was to be able to give your name to a newly discovered plant (‘new’ that is to Western science) and so become remembered forever. Kerr, you recall, gave his name to Kerria japonica. The first name of a plant is the most important because it is the name of the whole ‘family’ of similar plants, and it’s the name everyone uses. Kerr was lucky because Kerria was unique.
Price sent back over one thousand plants from Taiwan to England. One of these was a little pink-purple orchid which he found in those high mountain forests of Taiwan. In England, it is called the ‘Windowsill Orchid’ because it grows very happily in English windows. We can imagine perhaps how Hans Andersen might have written about the little orchid which has come down in the world so far from the remote mountains of Taiwan to live in an English kitchen and be given a very ordinary name.
But, unfortunately for Price, the windowsill orchid belonged to a group of plants which already had a name – ‘Pleione’, who in Greek mythology was the mother of the Seven Sisters which are the stars in the attractive little constellation of the Pleiades. Pleione was the protector of sailors, rather like the Taiwanese goddess Mazu. The father was Atlas, a mythological strong man on whose shoulders the whole world was said to rest, and whose name is now used for a book of maps.
So, Price gave his name to the second part and named the little orchid Pleione pricei. But then a committee decided the name should be changed to Pleione formosana, which tells us the orchid comes from Taiwan, whose former name was Formosa but does not commemorate Price.
The windowsill orchid is quite small. Each year it produces one leaf and one large flower which is pinkish-purple and has a frilly white centre with gold tassels. I wish I could show you a photo, but I don’t have one and copyright prevents me from using others’. It would be lovely if readers could send their photos if they have one, whether from the mountains of Taiwan or an English windowsill.