An island bursting with skyscrapers, a world centre of commerce: would horticulture have a place in such an environment? Phil McCann visited Hong Kong to find out.

As a first time visitor to Hong Kong, I was full of expectation and wonderment. The hustle, bustle, skyscrapers, Star ferries and trip up the Peak were all on my tourist agenda, but what about plants? Not known for being a centre of horticultural excellence, concentrating on banking and big cars instead, I wanted to find out whether Hong Kong had sold its soul to capitalism and commerce.

Botanical gardens are a great starting point to check out the health of a city, and Hong Kong is desperately hanging on to a small piece of green space, albeit lumped together with a zoo, but it is alive and thriving all the same. Dwarfed and very much in the shadow of massive tower blocks, the 19th-century wrought iron bandstand is a testament to the determination of the Hong Kong Chinese to keep tradition and history alive. Over the road from the Governor’s former residence, the gardens, founded in 1881 are sheltered from the worst of the weather, and semi-tropical plants thrive.

When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana) was chosen as the emblem of the territory, and this small tree flowers in the gardens and around the city. The blooms can range from pale pink to deep cerise depending on local conditions. Ideally it requires a sunny position in warm, semi-tropical conditions in well-drained soil. Worth a go in conservatories in cooler locations. Not only do they look terrific, the trees filter pollution and reduce noise levels that, if left unchecked, will one day choke Hong Kong.

The innovative central water feature of giant stainless steel alliums spouting water into a surrounding pool is impressive, but the sight of a pergola dripping with blooms of a Rangoon Creeper beats it into a bamboo basket. It has woody vines that are vigorous, smothering supports within weeks in semi-tropical conditions. Healthy plants, growing in full sun and in moist, well-drained soil, flower continuously throughout the year. The hanging clusters of flowers are white in bud, opening to pink, red or maroon.

Palms are always exciting, tropical bedding can be reproduced in most summers of a lot of countries, but a display of Turk’s Cap, wax mallow, Firecracker Hibiscus takes some beating. The rolled petals are bright red with hairy-toothed leaves forming shrubs up to 4m high. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies with the hairy, toothed leaves often being nibbled by violently coloured caterpillars. Another specimen for full sun and well-drained but moist soil.

Hong Kong is no doubt a super hub of trading supremacy, but thankfully the importance and value of a botanical garden is not being overlooked, and long may that continue.


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