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Hidden Hong Kong: History of the Hong Kong orchid, Bauhinia × blakeana

By Min Ji Park 6 June 2022 | Last Updated 7 October 2022

Header image courtesy of Fajar Tri Amboro (via Shutterstock)

Bauhinia × blakeana—or the Hong Kong orchid tree—is a timeless symbol of Hong Kong. We see its likeness on the back of our coins every day, the five-petalled flower that replaced Queen Elizabeth II to symbolise a new Hong Kong. But what do you know of the unusual circumstances of its existence, and how did it become the emblem of Hong Kong?

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An unlikely existence

Bauhinia × blakeana is very much the mule of the Bauhinia genus, in that it is a sterile hybrid. A horticultural cultivar, the Hong Kong orchid tree can only be propagated with human hands by practices such as air-layering, grafting, or cutting, and it will not bear fruit nor set seed as the flowers bloom. Blooming from early November to late March, the Bauhinia × blakeana is believed to have an average lifespan of around 50 years.

Considerably fragrant, the Hong Kong orchid tree consists of five vibrant purple-pink leaves and five stamens. Adorned with flowers and large green leaves with a cleft in the middle, the tree can grow to around three to six metres tall and typically has a grafting ring on the trunk from propagation practices. Although it is orchid-like in appearance, the Bauhinia × blakeana is, in fact, a tree that’s closer to the bean family than it is to an orchid.

Its butterfly-like leaves have an interesting story in and of themselves, as they are locally known as the “clever leaf” and are considered a symbol of wisdom. Hence, these leaves are sometimes used as bookmarks to bring individuals good luck in their studies.

Mysterious parents

So how exactly did the Bauhinia × blakeana come into existence in nature? Although it is rare and almost certainly accidental, there is a plausible explanation for how this hybrid came to be. Part of the Caesalpiniaceae subfamily, from the family Fabaceae or Leguminosae—otherwise known as the legume or bean family—the Hong Kong orchid tree’s mother is the Bauhinia purpurea, while its father is the Bauhinia variegata.

In 2005, the mysterious heritage of the Hong Kong orchid tree was uncovered by researchers. Although there is no way to pinpoint exactly how the Bauhinia × blakeana we know today came to be, we can continue to speculate. Both the Bauhinia purpurea and the Bauhinia variegata are capable of self-fertilisation and can be fertilised by a genetically different plant. As both flowers have overlapping blooming periods, can be found in the same areas, and share similar sets of pollinators, it is possible for them to interbreed naturally. It is speculated that the initial hybridisation occurred 120 to 170 years ago, but with the mystery surrounding the Bauhinia × blakeana’s origins, this is yet to be confirmed.

Bauhinia × blakeana. Photo: Victor Jiang (via Shutterstock)

First cutting: What’s in a name?

Bauhinia × blakeana’s journey in Hong Kong started in the 1880s when Jean-Marie Delavay, a French Catholic missionary of the Paris Foreign Missions, stumbled upon the plant while hiking Mount Davis in Pok Fu Lam. It was there, in the vicinity of a ruined house near the shoreline, that Delavay took a cutting of a branch and then propagated it near the Béthanie, a Paris Foreign Missions Society sanitorium. Not much is known about how the Hong Kong orchid tree initially got to Mount Davis, but it would soon have an illustrious future.

A few years later, a cutting was offered to the Botanical Gardens—now the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens—where it would soon be mentioned for the first time in the Report on the Botanical and Afforestation Department for the Year 1903. Bauhinia × blakeana’s discovery and beautiful flowers would be described before concluding that efforts to identify the species of the plant had been unsuccessful.

Soon after its introduction to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, it would get its official name in 1908. Certified as a hybrid of Bauhinia plants, Bauhinia × blakeana was given its Latin name and published as a new species by Stephen Troyte Dunn, the superintendent of the Botanical and Forestry Department. According to Kit Lee, the education officer of the Flora Conservation Department at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, the name came as a tribute to Sir Henry Arthur Blake, the twelfth Hong Kong governor, and his wife for their contributions to botanical research.

Starting in 1914, the Botanical Gardens began distributing cuttings of the Bauhinia × blakeana, and the tree was thus introduced to the world and spread across Hong Kong.

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Urban Council flag. Photo: Mcyjerry (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong’s official flower

After quietly existing for many decades, the Bauhinia × blakeana was soon thrust into the spotlight. Already frequently found in Hong Kong parks and across urban areas, the Hong Kong orchid was deemed the city’s official flower in 1965. Subsequently, it was used as the emblem on the flag for the Urban Council, a municipal council for Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, until its eventual dissolution in 1999.

Its flower power continued to rise, culminating in its selection as the motif for the new flag after the 1997 handover, where the Bauhinia × blakeana would take centre stage.

Journey up the flagpole

Before the official handover of Hong Kong from colonial British rule to mainland China, there was a competition held by the Basic Law Drafting Committee from 1987 to 1988 for the design of the new Hong Kong flag and emblem. With over 7,000 proposed designs, six were eventually shortlisted as finalists for review. In the end, all of the proposals were rejected, and the design contest had to start anew. Three of the judges—architect Tao Ho, sculptor Van Lau, and designer Hon Bing-wah—were tasked to come up with a new design.

It was then, when Ho was looking for inspiration, that he stumbled upon the Bauhinia × blakeana. Looking at its winding petals, he felt that it evoked a dynamic and spirited feeling. From this, the Hong Kong orchid found its way onto the Hong Kong flag’s design.

Unlike the flag of the Urban Council, which had a static, symmetrical flower, the new flag set the petals in a clockwise motion, implying movement to symbolise Hong Kong’s progression. On each petal sits a red star, replicating the five stars of the People’s Republic of China’s flag and encapsulating the harmony between Hong Kong and the PRC.

Hong Kong’s new flag design was met with praise for its successful interpretation of the “one country, two systems” concept, and on 4 April 1990, at the third assembly of the National People’s Congress, the design was accepted. Just a few years later, just after midnight on 1 July 1997, the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region flag was hoisted at the handover ceremony in the Golden Bauhinia Square.

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A piece of history, today

Since 1914, particularly after it made its way onto the flag in 1997, the Hong Kong orchid has been planted extensively all over the city. In fact, within five years, the government had already planted over 110,000 trees in the hopes to popularise it further. Due to its relatively small size compared to other trees, the Bauhinia × blakeana is well suited to the urbanised landscape of Hong Kong and can be found in parks, government estates, private compounds, and even as ornamental trees lining the roads.

You can find perhaps the biggest Bauhinia × blakeana “flower” in the form of the six-metre tall Golden Bauhinia Statue located in Golden Bauhinia Square. Although many locals cheekily refer to the gilded statue as the “golden bok choy,” rest assured that it is actually the Bauhinia × blakeana. In that same square, you can also witness the daily flag-raising ceremony and see the famous flower on the flag in action as it flaps in the wind.

Part of what makes the Bauhinia × blakeana not just horticulturally but also historically significant is the fact that when you see any of its trees today, you are most likely looking at a direct descendant of the original tree found in Pok Fu Lam, or of the ones first cultivated in the Botanical Gardens. For Lee, this is the most remarkable aspect of this uniquely Hong Kong flower. Indeed, this “family tree” relationship will no doubt increase your appreciation of the Bauhinia × blakeana flower more when you come across one in the wild.

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Min Ji Park

Writer

Born in Korea and raised in Hong Kong, Min Ji spends most of her time wishing it were a little bit colder. A fan of low-key yet meaningful experiences, she can be found watching movies with her dog, taking photographs, and listening to any and all kinds of music.

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