The Sea of Flowers in Xinshe Festival
Wading through an Inland Sea – of Flowers
Text: Rick Charette
Photos: Jen Guo-Chen
On a fine crisp and clear late-autumn day not long ago Travel in Taiwan spent a colorful day visiting the rural Xinshe District in Taichung City – specifically, the Sea of Flowers in Xinshe Festival.
This was the first time in Xinshe and the festival for us and we were lucky enough to be escorted around the sprawling grounds by a number of the very kind and hospitable folk involved in management of the event. Xinshe District is a rural district in Taichung, located on a wide plain between foothills and rising mountains along the Dajia River east of the Taichung urban core. The district is known for farm production and the main products grown are mushrooms, citrus fruits, grapes, carambolas, pears, loquats, sugar apples, pineapples, persimmons, bonsai – and flowers.
According to Liu Man-Wai, the Deputy Director of the Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station (Council of Agriculture), Xinshe is today commonly referred to as “Taichung’s back garden.” A decade ago tourism was just a minor money-maker. However, since the great 9-21 Earthquake of 1999, which was centered in central Taiwan, government authorities have expended significant resources to stimulate the local economy, with tourism a primary focus, and today the area has become one of the more popular destinations in the greater Taichung region, especially for day-trips. The main attractions are the local farms, the farm-and-mountain scenery, open-air cafés, and the many quaint rustic cottage- and chalet-style getaway accommodations.
The festival is held on the grounds of the Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, established under a different name during Taiwan’s 1895~1945 period of Japanese occupation. Deputy Director Liu informed us that the first edition of the Sea of Flowers was held in 2005 in an effort to create greater “brand” visibility for Xinshe produce and boost its leisure-agriculture industry. Large swaths of colorful flowers were planted over 30 hectares of showcase fields – including sunflowers, lavender, cosmos, spider flowers, sage, and begonias – and a series of related events staged. “We grow in size and sophistication each year,” he said, “and in recent years have attracted more than 1.8 million visitors. Our goal is 2 million.”
The festival is always held in the late autumn. This, said Liu, is primarily because the weather in the Taichung area is close to “perfect” at this time of year, for both plants and visitors – not too hot, and minimal rain. There are many new-theme exhibitions each year; these were the theme-project areas for the 2013 festival, which ran from November 9 to December 8: Happy Farming Exhibition, Cinderella Exhibition, Amu Forest Exhibition, Happy Farming Villages Exhibition, Incredible Fern Exhibition, Healthy and Beautiful Farming, and LOHAS Promoting Group.
Heading out on a walkabout, our guide Chung I-Ping, the station’s Technical Service Section Assistant Researcher, informed us that each year the festival’s various specially-themed exhibition areas are designed to highlight their unique attributes. There is an annual rotation of exhibition curators, with different agriculture-related sections within the Council of Agriculture chosen as well as organizations from outside, meaning brand-new faces and perspectives are shown each round.
Among the various 2013 exhibit pavilions, I found one of the most intriguing highlighted paddy-rice production, with neat, tiny plots laid out showing rice from transplanted-seedling stage to maturity. There was also a display presenting the different kinds of rice grown around the world, including the short-grain glutinous rice preferred in Taiwan and the long-grain, non-sticky fragrant rice eaten throughout Southeast Asia. This was also the local birds’ favorite pavilion; you had to raise your voice to be heard above the chatter of the sparrows and other avian gourmands trying to get at the rice seed.
Another pavilion was dedicated to the seemingly countless herbs eaten by Taiwan folk in tonic foods and used in medicines. Over 1,000 herbs were on display, many accompanied by information on what they are used for. An especially fragrant and visually alluring pavilion showcased the orchid in all its glory, with numerous rare specimens on dramatically colorful display.
Back in the open air, while wandering through a panoramic swath of cosmos flowers – other “seas” at the most recent festival were made up of sunflowers, sorghum blossoms, and wheat blossoms – we learned that since the natural bloom times for each flower is different, and the length of the bloom period for each is about two weeks, conditions are staggered in the station’s greenhouses to provide a constant stream of flowers that are then methodically transplanted in the fields to ensure maximum flower density and color.
Long before we entered the grounds of the Taichung International Flower Carpet Festival, our eyes were transfixed on its central attraction, a large “magic castle.” This annual festival was incorporated into the larger Xinshe festival in 2011. It has a 3D theme, with the various flower-sculpture areas telling stories that seem to rise up out of the ground and take life-like form. The 2013 themes were decidedly whimsical, focused on Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and other fairy tales, as well as film director Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning movie Life of Pi.
For the fairy tales, a pop-up storybook approach was taken. Among the most arresting visual settings were the five-story-high magic castle, a giant tree cultivated from magic beans, and a six-meter-tall rabbit wearing an outfit made solely of flowers. Other highlights were the lifeboat used in the filming of Life of Pi (Ang Lee is a native Taiwan son, did all ocean-based scenes at a Taichung film facility that has the world’s largest wave-generating pool, and donated many props to the city of Taichung for tourism use), and an antique horse-drawn carriage popular for wedding shoots and sweetheart poses that was formerly used by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang on formal occasions.
Walking the expansive grounds is bound to get you both thirsty and hungry. Your antidote is in view at all times – a huge food bazaar where vendors are set up under tent-roof cover. Half of the food bazaar is taken up with stands manned by local farming folk selling fresh-from-the-field fruits and vegetables, notably the main local produce mentioned in this article’s opening. Be sure to visit the juice stands – the drinks served are delicious! There is also a budding coffee-plantation sector in the area, and you can buy both fresh-packaged beans and sample fresh-brewed cups made with the local bean at growers’ stands.
The other half of the food bazaar features vendors selling night-market-style snack treats, with savory fried delicacies the main attraction. Something uniquely local is the deep-fried Xinshe mushrooms, prepared on order and served with a salt-and-pepper sprinkling – steamy-hot, chewy, and delectable. Everything is of high quality, and is appealingly inexpensive.
A personal invitation from Deputy Director Liu: You may not have visited yet, but Xinshe beckons next year and the years after, for as explained there is high turnover in exhibition highlights each year, making each visit a novel foray. In addition, live performances are staged on weekends throughout the festival, with an emphasis on music concerts. There are also in-depth local tours offered in which your guide takes you to visit recreational farms in the area, and special packages are designed each year that encourage you to stay at local cottage-style guesthouses, visit the recreation/resort farms, and take in other local tourist attractions.
For more information, visit the official website of the Sea of Flowers in Xinshe Festival at: flowersea.asia.edu.tw.
English and Chinese
|Sea of Flowers in Xinshe||新社花海|
|Taichung International Flower Carpet Festival||台中國際花毯節|
|Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station||種苗改良繁殖場|