Header image courtesy of @tree-species (via Flickr)
Because of Hong Kong’s climate, we have plenty of interesting flowering trees and shrubs within the territories, partly tropical, partly subtropical, and partly temperate. These beautiful florae inject Hong Kong with shots of colour against the vibrant greenery. Next time you’re out hiking, make a point of looking out for the plants and flowers nearby—you’re sure to come across some that you haven’t ever seen before. Here are ten of our native flora and plants you should know about.
Scientific name: Rhododendron hongkongense
Bearing white to pinkish flowers, this species of evergreen shrub was first collected between 1847 and 1850 but was initially misidentified as another species. It wasn’t until 1930 that it was classed as a species all its own, and had Hong Kong added to its scientific name. The blossoms have white or pinkish petals, and the upper lobes are usually tinged with purplish blotches. The Hong Kong Azalea can be spotted on Mount Nicholson, in Ma On Shan, and Lantau Island, and has been listed under vulnerable protection status.
Scientific name: Impatiens hongkongensis Grey-Wilson
The softwood Hong Kong Balsam was first discovered in 1925 in Tai Po and was confirmed to be a new species in 1978, one that is only found in Hong Kong as far as botanists know. Its blossoms are a pale yellow, with reddish blotches along the throat, and flowers from October. The Hong Kong Balsam grows in Tai Mo Shan, Tai Po Kau, Ng Tung Chai, Yuen Tun Ha, and Ma On Shan, usually by streams or in ravines.
Scientific name: Camellia hongkongensis
It was back in 1849 when these pretty flowers were found by a Colonel Eyre in a ravine in Victoria Peak, and later also in Pok Fu Lam, Mount Nicholson, and Mount Parker. The flowers bloom from late autumn through to springtime and are Hong Kong’s only native camellia with red blossoms. Specimens of this flower have been planted in the Shing Mun Arboretum public gardens, and have also been introduced to Japan in the late 1950s from the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
Scientific name: Cornus hongkongensis
This is a species of dogwood tree that was found on our shores in the 1850s and subsequently named after the territories in 1888. Blooming from late spring to early summer, its fragrant flowers are interestingly four-petaled, rather resembling white four-leaf clovers. While quite rare in Hong Kong, this species can also be found in China, Laos, and Vietnam, with some morphological differences. Some types bear sweet fruit that can be eaten, but please err on the side of safety if you do come across the Hong Kong Dogwood and don’t just chow down!
Scientific name: Rhodoleia championii
This specimen was collected in 1849 by J. G. Champion, in the area that is modern-day Aberdeen. The evergreen tree bears downward-hanging flowers that are a fetching shade of fuschia or rose, which appear in late winter to early spring. Its natural population is rooted in Aberdeen, but the plant has since been propagated in various country parks.
Scientific name: Acer tutcheri Duthie
This species was discovered on Lantau Island in 1904, fittingly by Tutcher, who was then the superintendent of the Botanical and Afforestation Department. Its small red blossoms are not the most eye-catching, but interestingly, Tutcher’s maple belongs to the same genus as the maple trees that Canada is so famous for, and its leaves also turn that gorgeous shade of red and orange in autumn. Unfortunately, this is a pretty rare plant to spot as it usually only grows in high altitudes.
Scientific name: Iris speculatrix
Originally found on the slopes of Victoria Peak and Mount Davis in 1874, this is a species of beardless iris which grows in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. The little blossoms come in shades of blue, ranging from violet and lilac to lavender and pale blue, blooming in April and May. Areas where the Hong Kong Iris has been seen growing include along the Wilson Trail and Dragon’s Back, and in Cape D’Aguilar, Tai Tam, Sunset Peak, Po Toi island, Shek O, Stanley, and Lantau Island.
Scientific name: Pavetta hongkongensis
This flowering shrub with paper-thin leaves was first discovered in Happy Valley between 1847 and 1850. Its little four-petaled flowers come in clusters with stamen poking out the middle of each, giving the clusters an overall fuzzy look. The best time to see the pavetta is during its flowering period from March to October. They can be found in Deep Water Bay and near the Lion’s Nature Education Centre in Sai Kung.
Scientific name: Arundinaria shiuyingiana
This is a small species of bamboo named after Dr Shiu-ying Hu for her contributions to the study of Hong Kong flora in 1983. First discovered in Eagle’s Nest in 1981, this bamboo is endemic to Hong Kong and found nowhere else in the world thus far. Even within the territories, it only grows in very limited areas—mainly the hillslopes of Eagle’s Nest and near the campus of Chinese University Hong Kong.
Scientific name: Bauhinia x blakeana
Of course, our list concludes with the very symbol of Hong Kong itself: the bauhinia flower. Interestingly, this is a hybrid plant whose parents have no ties to Hong Kong at all—namely the rather hilariously named Purple Camel’s Foot (Bauhinia purpurea) and Camel’s Foot Tree (Bauhinia variegata). Because of the cross-breeding involved, the Hong Kong orchid is sterile and can only be reproduced through grafting and root cuttings. In other words, the bauhinia flowers you see around the city are essentially clones of the same blooms seen a whole century ago.
In the 1880s, a French Catholic missionary called Jean-Marie Delavay came across the flower near Pok Fu Lam and took a cutting to propagate. The original plant might have been a happy accident of nature, but without Delavay’s efforts, it would have simply died out. Several years later, one such cutting from Delavay’s cultures was offered to the Botanical Gardens, where it got properly documented and named. These large crimson-purple flowers bloom from September to June, and even if you can’t see it in nature, this blossom is proudly emblazoned across our banknotes, coins, and of course, our flag.