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Using the Japanese Cherry Blossom Frenzy as a Model
Conceptualising a Local Tree Appreciation Culture

Green Country Vol. 115 (Aug 2015)

The autumn red leaves of Tai Tong's Sweet Gum; the peach coloured Cherry Blossoms in full bloom on Cheung Chau. These are just some of the highlights of local tree appreciation in recent years. Every year during the best viewing seasons, crowds gather at scenic locations. It seems that the people of Hong Kong like to flock to admire trees and their flowers. Even though the tropical climate of Hong Kong is not ideal for cherry blossoms, the authorities still decided to go ahead with test planting cherry blossoms at two designated districts. There is demand from the community to plant flowering trees, hoping to learn from the Japanese Cherry Blossom appreciation culture to boost the tourism industry. Cherry Blossoms are beautiful, but are not the only ones. There are many attractive flowering trees in Hong Kong. To favour foreign species will only have drastic consequences. Recently, some people have suggested cutting down Tree Cotton, fearing the dispersing of their cotton to the streets may affect the respiratory system and environmental health. This leads to the question of how Hong Kong can establish its very own tree appreciation culture.

The Sweet Gums (Liquidambar formosana) of Tai Tong are among the popular tree appreciation attractions in recent years, in the Tai Lam Country Park at Tai Tong, Yuen Long. Along Tai Tong Shan Road, the Sweet Gums are dozens of metres high. Their leaves turn yellow or red during autumn and winter, transforming the entire landscape to a bright red colour, similar to Canadian Red Maple leaf scenery. The Sweet Gum is a common tree in Hong Kong and is regularly seen in urban parks and along the road. The Sweet Gums in Tai Tong have been planted for many years and have become mature. Also, because they have been planted rather densely, they have formed a "Sweet Gum forest", making them become quite a spectacle with the red leaves. In addition to the red leaves of the Sweet Gum, the Cherry Blossoms in Hong Kong are a great favourite, with four major viewing locations: Cheung Chau, Kadoorie Farm, Chinese University and Tai Mo Shan Country Park. Cherry Blossoms have been planted in each of these locations for many years, but only attracted major attention in the last year or two.

The Government planted flowering trees in large scale many years ago, hoping to use themed flowering trees to create unique scenery for Hong Kong. It was also at this time that the Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia x blakeana) was chosen as the theme tree. Its many large and bright pink flowers with a long flowering period make it the best candidate to represent Hong Kong as the city flower. From 2000 onwards, government and non-profit organisations were committed to transforming Hong Kong into the “City of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree”. In just a matter of years, more than 10,000 Hong Kong Orchid Trees were planted. The results are surely evident to everyone after more than decade.

The Hong Kong Orchid Tree is infertile and cannot be cultivated from seeds. Seedlings can only be bred through grafting or cutting the branches, which costs a lot of time and money. With the increase of time needed for cultivation, the price of the seedling will rise and their quality varies. Even more troubling are the inherently fragile branches of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree. In the effort to plant more Hong Kong Orchid Trees, there was not a lot of thought put in to the planting locations and many of them were planted in areas with strong winds and heavy human activity, causing them to be easily damaged by strong wind or human activity. Not only does this destroy the appearance, the trees cannot grow healthily. An example of this is the large numbers of Hong Kong Orchid Trees along the Tuen Mun Expressway, which is a windy location affected by the airflow from vehicles. The trees are either wilted or aesthetically poor. This is an example of an unsuccessful planting project that lacked detail planning, despite having invested large sums of money and time. Though a local tree species suited for local climate, use of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree was unable to achieve the expected beautifying effect. This sets an example for future large scale planting of "themed" trees.

Cherry Blossoms are pretty but local trees are prettier still

The culture of tree appreciation flourishes in a number of countries and has become a trend among people of all ages. It has also attracted foreign tourists, bringing revenue. The Japanese Cherry Blossom culture is one of the most successful examples. Maple leaf culture has also received good results in recent years. Since Cherry Blossoms can be grown in areas of Hong Kong such as Cheung Chau, if they could be planted on a large scale with flowers everywhere, then there would be no need to travel to Japan. There is a lot of anticipation regarding developing cherry blossom appreciation tours. In recent months, the government responded in favour of people’s needs. The Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) announced they would test planting cherry blossoms in Sha Tin and Tuen Mun. The plan is to test planting different species of cherry blossoms such as Bell-flower Cherry (Prunus campanulata) in areas that are relatively less crowded and the air is fresh. However, will this be another similar case to “City of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree” and ultimately fail?

Cherry Blossom is a type of tree that is resistant to cold and drought and grows favourably in environments that have good irrigation. Hong Kong has a subtropical climate and is not the ideal location for cherry blossoms, with summers that are too hot and humid for cherry blossoms. There are several hundred species or varieties of Cherry Blossoms in Japan. Popular species include Japanese Flowering Cherry (Prunus serrulata), Cherry Blossom (Cerasus lannesiana), Yoshino Cherry (Prunus ✖ yedoensis) all are found in the frigid zone. Some species of Cherry Blossoms such as Bell-flower Cherryare comparatively more adaptable to tropical climate. Currently, Bell-flower Cherry can be found in regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guangzhou, where the temperatures are relatively high. Due to the limitation of the species and the difference with the region and climate that it is grown, cherry blossoms grown in Hong Kong differ in density, and attractiveness of colour with those found in Japan or Korea.

Cherry Blossoms are beautiful, but aren’t alone in this. There are also many flowering trees found in Hong Kong; some have their own local characteristics, such as the Chinese New Year Flower (Enkianthus quinqueflorus). With light pink flowers shaped like a bell, it was commonly used during Chinese New Year in the past. Another tree familiar to Hong Kong people is the Tree Cotton Bombax ceiba, which is one of the ingredients used in five-herb tea. The tree is very tall with large orange-coloured flowers that are very eye-catching. The Camel’s Foot Tree (Bauhinia variegate) is closely related to the Hong Kong Orchid Tree. Both have a lot of flowers and a long flowering period, though Camel's Foot Tree can self-pollinate. Its flowers are an elegant pink. The Flame Tree (Delonix regia) has very dense and colourful flowers. The Golden-shower (Cassia fistula) has strings of bright yellow flowers hanging densely on the tree. Rhodoleia (Rhodoleia championii) has pink flowers growing from its thick green leaves; the mix of red and green is truly beautiful!

If people like to appreciate flowers, love nature, rather than waste a lot of resources to plant foreign species of plants, why not explore species with local characteristics? Many of these trees are native tree species or have been planted in Hong Kong many years ago and are adapted to the local climate, coexisting with native wild animals for many years. They much better suited to providing food and shelter for native wild animals, as they have higher ecological value and contribute positively to the local ecosystem.

Same species at same location

A lot of people often forget about the native flowering trees in Hong Kong and tend to favour foreign species such as cherry blossoms, not only because there are successful examples in other countries, but also because there hasn’t been any similar planting of a single species of trees that would give a great beautifying effect, which has led many people to overlook their beauty. For example, the Sweet Gum forest of Tai Tong and the row of Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) in Nam Sang Wai, planting a single tree species has a good effect, attracting tourists during the holidays to see the trees and take pictures. However, these examples are only evident in the countryside, unlike the Japanese cherry blossom craze, which requires large urban parks and streets that are well planned for planting a single species of tree that can become a spectacle during the flowering season.

In addition to the planting location and species, the health of the trees is also important for a tree to have a good appearance and lush flowers and leaves. All of these are dependent on good management of the trees. There are a number of departments in charge of maintaining trees, depending on where the trees are grown. For instance, if the trees are grown near the road, they will be managed by the Lands Department or Highways Department. If grown in public housing estates, they are managed by the Housing Authority. If grown on a slope, then they are managed by the Civil Engineering and Development Department. Such management methods can be difficult to coordinate. Furthermore, tree management is not the primary focus of their work. The departments will not give priority to the management of trees. The Development Bureau created the Task Force on Tree Green Management in 2010, which might be commended as a step forward, though the focus of the Task Force is not on the planting and beautifying aspects, Furthermore, many frontline staff responsible for tree care in various departments lack knowledge of tree protection. Often to facilitate the job at hand, they conduct inappropriate or unnecessary trimmings of trees. Project staff working on the streets neglect the trees during their work. Not only will this affect the aesthetics of the trees, but also affect their health in the long run. Therefore, to develop a culture of tree appreciation like other foreign countries, drastic changes must be made to the way that trees are currently managed. There must also be training of professional tree maintenance personnel.

Knowledge of the people is the key to success

How people treat trees is also a key factor in successfully building a tree appreciation culture. People should not merely treat them as public property or tools, not only enjoying the beautiful flowers, leaves and fruits, but also appreciate some natural processes that occur from flowering and bearing fruit, such as flowering season, which may trigger allergies and discomfort from the pollen, and large numbers of petals drifting with the wind which create some inconvenience for drivers on the road. Recently, a district councillor actually suggested cutting down Tree Cotton due to complaints of cotton from the seeds drifting on the streets, and large flowers falling onto the ground. At the same time, there was an objection to planting more Tree Cotton. Apart from the fruit and seeds, the trees also attract insects and birds to perch, which may lead to other complaints regarding noise and hygiene issues that might contribute to tree removal requests. With such ways of thinking, how can Hong Kong establish its own tree appreciation culture?

A successful tree appreciation culture must incorporate local characteristics in order to become special and meaningful. Tree planting also requires comprehensive planning, with trees in the appropriate places and tree maintenance professionals. The most important point is that society in general recognises and understands how to protect trees, allowing trees to not only beautify our environment, but also become part of our lives and city development.

Text | Henry Lui & Dr. Cheng Luk-ki