Amazing Nature

Plants - The Naming of a Place

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 127 (Aug 2017)
Author: Green Power
Incense made from Incense Trees Aquilaria sinensis
Incense made from Incense Trees is regarded as the “King of Incense”.
© Peggy Chung

Lai Chi Chong, Yung Shue O, Tsung Tsai Yuen, Tsung Pak Long… these are places in Hong Kong, but also include the names of plants. Naming after plants is not only a random choice. The naming of a place often embraces the local history and culture.

A felled incense tree Aquilaria sinensis
An Incense Tree releases resin when injured as a protection mechanism. This becomes the target of illegal cutting to obtaining the resin.

Sheep in Wolf's Clothing - Defensive Mimicry

Talking about the naming of place after a plant in Hong Kong, the name of Hong Kong itself is the first and foremost example. Hong Kong literally means “Fragrant Harbour” in Chinese, and it is indeed named after the Incense Tree (Aquilaria sinensis), an evergreen tree of the Family Thymelaeaceae with fragrant resin that can be made into incense. Before the British arrived over a 150 years ago, before Hong Kong became a city and port, Hong Kong was renowned for the cultivation and worldwide export of Incense Trees. The local incense industry was so prosperous that it earned Hong Kong the name “Fragrant Harbour”. Unfortunately, the local wild population of the species has been severely threatened by illegal cutting in recent years.

Flowers of Cotton Tree Bombax ceiba
Flowers of Cotton Tree

Chek Chu - Stanley, literally means “Scarlet Post” in Chinese, which may not sound relevant to any plant. In fact, the place is named after Cotton Tree (Bombax ceiba), a deciduous tree of the Family Bombaceae with a trunk as straight as a post. In winter, the tree sheds all its leaves. And when spring comes, large, scarlet flowers bloom on the bare branches that are particularly eye-catching. It is said that there used to be many Cotton Trees in Stanley. In the blossoming season, many bright red flowers on the trees with straight tree trunk made them resemble “scarlet posts” standing all over the place and hence giving it the name.

A Cotton Tree Bombax ceiba with only bright red flowers, while all its leaves are shed
With all the leaves shed in winter, the bright red spring flowers are particularly eye-catching.

Twigs of Dwarf Mountain Pine Baeckea frutescens
Close-up of Dwarf Mountain Pine Baeckea frutescens twigs
Dwarf Mountain Pine has fine, hardy twigs that can be dried and made into brooms.

From Uses to Names

Sometimes, a place is named after the uses of a specific plant that thrives in that location. For example, So Kwun Wat in Tuen Mun actually signifies Dwarf Mountain Pine (Baeckea frutescens). The plant has small leaves and hardy twigs that villagers used to dry for making brooms and broomsticks. There are many Dwarf Mountain Pines on the slopes in the area. Hakka villagers pronounced the characters for “broomstick” as “So Kwun”, so the place was named So Kwun Wat. Despite the name, Dwarf Mountain Pine is not a pine, but has fine twigs and leaves resembling those of a pine. Dwarf Mountain Pine is an angiosperm, while a pine is gymnosperm.

Elephant's Ear Macaranga tanarius leaves and flowers
Elephant's Ear leaves and flowers

Cha Kwo Ling in Kwan Tong originated from the plant Elephant's Ear (Macaranga tanarius). “Cha Kwo” is a popular Canton snack that uses glutinous or sticky rice flour as the dough skin which, together with the fillings, is further wrapped up in a leaf of Elephant's Ear. The steamed food is infused with the leaf's aroma. Later, the tree was even named “Cha Kwo Tree”. The history of Cha Kwo Ling can be traced back to a century ago, when the hill was occupied by Elephant's Ear. The species is an evergreen tree of the Family Euphorbiaceae with large, peltate leaves. When its stem is wounded, the tree sap released is turned blood red by oxidation. Its Chinese name reflects this bleeding-like behaviour.

The stem of Elephant's Ear Macaranga tanarius is wounded and blood-red tree sap is released
Blood-red tree sap is released when the stem of Elephant's Ear is wounded.