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Kapok trees cause headaches in Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Spring has arrived in Taiwan and with it the dilemma over what to do with the island’s many kapok trees, whose beautiful flowers are inspiring some local governments to plant them to promote tourism, while irritating motorists and others to no end.

The problem involving the trees — known for their large, beautiful, lily-like flowers — is turning out to be a battle between nature and modernization. It also reveals the changes in Taiwanese society over the decades.

In April, the large trees, which grow to about 60 meters tall, enter their blooming season. Palm size blossoms in colors of red, pink or orange make picture perfect backdrops for photos, but they are a headache as the pedals fall to the ground, causing scooter drivers as well as pedestrians to slip and fall.

Fallen flowers also get stuck on windshields and the flying cotton like fillings of the large seed pods that form on the trees a month after the flowers bloom irritate people with respiratory problems. Ripe pods, the size of big mangoes, open up to release cotton-like fillings with little seeds, which are carried by the wind and fly around in the air. Some people also complain that the flowers stink after being crushed by cars on the roads.

City, county and township governments in many parts of Taiwan are torn over what to do about the problem after getting frequent complaints by local residents about problems innocently caused by the trees.

Many local governments of where the kapok trees are found are faced with having to decide whether to spend lots of time and effort maintaining the trees where they are or removing them and risk harming the roots and killing them in the process.

Those who despise the trees and those who love them are in a tug of war.

A dispute over whether or not to remove the trees in Tungshih township in central Taiwan’s Taichung County still has not been resolved after festering for three years. Six village heads complained about the trees on behalf of local residents and appealed to the township office to cut down about 900 kapok trees in 2005.

Thanks to increasing awareness of the importance of ecological protection, tourism promotion, as well as consideration of public’s affection for the trees, the government chose transplantation, said Chen Ching-tung, the township office’s construction section chief.

The Taichung County-based Ecological Conservation and Environmental Protection Association of Ta-Chia Stream urged the local government to leave the trees where they are, arguing that not that many people are bothered by them and that transplantation might still jeopardize the life of these trees as they had stood where they were for three decades.

“The roots of the trees could be impaired during the transplantation process, which will lead to them dying,” said an executive of the association.

Kapoks, also known as Ceiba or Silk Cotton trees, were once a star on Taiwan’s floral list, voted as the official flower of Taiwan’s second largest city, Kaohsiung, as well as Taichung County by local residents in the 1980s.

The local governments of Kaohsiung and Taichung began planting the trees in wide areas following the vote, aiming to formulate people’s identity with the places where they live.

The tree rose in people’s heart in 1978, when Taiwan was riding the wave of a folk song era. A song titled “Kapok Tree Road” that relates the red kapok blossoms with nostalgic love impressed the old and young.

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 Kapok trees cause headaches in Taiwan 
Kapok trees are blossoming in the city of Fengyuan, Taichung County. While the flowers are beautiful, they can create problems as their petals fall to the ground, causing both scooter drivers and pedestrians to slip and fall. (CNA)

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