Trees are part of Hong Kong’s unique natural heritage and contribute to our own well-being

Mango tree
Cassia javanica (Apple blossom tree) in full bloom
Bauhinia blakeana (Hong Kong orchid)
Mango trees
Camphor tree
Stone wall trees
Stone Wall Trees
Overview of the trees in Hong Kong Park
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Hong Kong Protected Trees

Every January, the Hong Kong SAR government emails a reminder to thousands of people, including property owners, facilities managers and conservationists. It carries an important message: protect our trees.

Whether exotic or native, rare or common, Hong Kong’s trees are an investment in the region’s well-being. They are an important aspect of local culture, but also provide concrete benefits to the population.

Lord Palmerston

Hong Kong boasts considerable biodiversity, but older native trees are rare. Although the region began as a tropical jungle, over hundreds of years, the forests were cleared for agriculture, timber and lime kiln fuel. By 1841, Hong Kong was accurately described as a barren rock by British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston. A century later, the Second World War struck a devastating blow to Hong Kong’s trees.

Following the war, the government planted the hillsides with fast-growing species from Australia, such as Acacia confusa, eucalyptus and Brisbane box. Australian paperbark trees once lined most of the roads in the New Territories; today, they can be seen in front of the Central Library and near Sheung Shui on Fan Kam Road.

Governor Murray MacLehose

The vision of a greener Hong Kong gained new life under the influence of Governor Murray MacLehose. Following the population boom of the 1960s, he was instrumental in establishing Hong Kong’s country parks and planting trees in the New Towns. Gavin Coates, Senior Lecturer at the Division of Landscape Architecture at Hong Kong University, was one of the landscape architects who worked on Hong Kong’s first major Greening Master Plan. Under this plan, Hong Kong planted 20,000 trees in older urban areas in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Despite wartime depredations, a few concentrations of old and valuable trees escaped destruction. Hong Kong Park, Tai Kwun and Kowloon Park were under military control during the Japanese occupation, while the Fan Ling Clubhouse at the Hong Kong Golf Club was used as a regional military command during the Second World War, meaning that some trees, such as mangoes, banyans and camphor were spared.

Register of Old and Valuable Trees

“In 2004, the government promulgated a technical circular for the creation of a register of Old and Valuable Trees; it has almost 450 trees on it. The OVT Register is still in existence,” says Alexander (Sandy) Duggie, Managing Director of Urbis, a landscape planning company. Members of the public can easily identify the locations of old and valuable trees around Hong Kong with the help of an interactive map on the government’s Tree Registry website.

We can’t just ignore the trees around us. We have to appreciate, observe and care for them.

Chinese Swamp Cypress

Hong Kong is also the home of several rare and endangered trees. Thirty-eight specimens of Chinese Swamp Cypress trees, critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, live at the old course of the Hong Kong Golf Club out of fewer than 250 total on the planet.

Once designated as an Old and Valuable Tree, nobody may interfere with or fell it. The penalty depends on the severity of the damage, maliciousness and degree of neglect; fines run into the millions of dollars.

Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree

Hong Kong’s most common and best-known trees are its banyans, belonging to the Ficus genus. Half of the trees in the OVT Register are banyans. Many of these trees grow in an unusual way on Hong Kong’s stone walls. Ian Robinson, Board Member of the International Society of Arboriculture (Hong Kong Chapter), says, “The way the walls were constructed in Hong Kong in the 1800s, roots can grow into the cracks, making them much more stable. Visiting arborists come to Hong Kong to see them.” The most striking examples are on Forbes Street in Kennedy Town. Meanwhile, at almost any banyan tree in a New Territories village, a shrine can be found at the base; some eventually evolve into wishing trees like the famous Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree.

Cotton Tree Drive

According to Ken So, Chief Executive of the Conservancy Association in Hong Kong, tree lovers in Hong Kong should take particular note of the common candlenut tree, with its straight trunk, large leaves and large, nutlike fruit. Planted in Hong Kong for more than a hundred years, it was counted as the most common tree in Hong Kong’s urban areas during a survey done in the 1980s. The Bombax ceiba, or cotton tree, is identifiable by its single trunk, layering branches and waxy red flowers, which are in bloom this month. “Chinese people know the tree well, and there are Cantonese songs about it,” continues So. “You can make Chinese medicine out of the flower or use the cotton to make pillows; Cotton Tree Drive is named for this tree.”

Bauhinia blakeana

Hong Kong’s symbolic bauhinia flower, found on the city’s flag and coins, blooms in brilliant fuchsia from December to March. The Bauhinia blakeana, or Hong Kong orchid, is a grafted flower that cannot grow independently; the trunk is from another species. On any blakeana tree, a bulge from the graft can be seen around one metre above ground.

Hong Kong Digital Arboretum

During the pandemic, Coates established the Hong Kong Digital Arboretum, containing over a thousand videos of trees, shrubs and introductions to Hong Kong plants. In areas such as Hong Kong Park, the Botanical Gardens and Kowloon Park, all trees on the OVT Register are labelled with a name, number and QR code. The wetland park in Tin Shui Wai, which opened in 2005, now has many mature trees and is increasingly popular.

Hong Kong Golf Club

At the Hong Kong Golf Club, members of the public can book an ecological and cultural tour to learn more about trees as well as more than 175 species of birds and 125 species of butterflies that live among them. They can also see some of Hong Kong’s tallest trees, including eucalyptus trees and two Queensland peppermint trees that stand over thirty metres tall.

Coates reminds Hong Kong residents and visitors to take the time to understand the trees of Hong Kong. “You have a story, and so does the environment. If you know how to read the landscape, it will tell you its story.”

Text Genevieve Hilton / Photo by Genevieve Hilton & Martin Wray