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Forest Walk, Healing Talk
Artist: Human Ip
Artwork: Plant Appreciation Map
"How long is a piece of string? The Gardens was the first public park which opened in 1871, where flowers have bloomed, leaves have fallen and century-old trees with buttress roots have stood for longer than the life of you and me. Would you like to take a break, and read their stories?"
Artist Human Ip brings a sketchbook to explore the Gardens to capture as drawings the unique forms of its flora from different angles as well as to document in words the growth of these plants from their cultural and scientific perspectives. Pieced together into a plant map, these illustrations and anecdotes guide visitors on a custom-designed tour of this forest in the city. In the short walk, visitors can perceive through their different senses the existence of each old tree, each flower, each leaf and even each dew drop at close range. Nestled in the embrace of nature, one may be inspired by the plants' tenacious vitality.
Ip is a painter and writer who won the novel champion for "Youth Literary Awards" in the open category. Using illustrations and text, her interest in exploring natural ecosystem is embedded in her works which are of elegancy and delicacy. Her works have been published in various newspapers and magazines, picture books and poetry collections, and displayed at exhibitions. Her publications include In Search of Flora in 2014, In Search of Flora 2 in 2016, In Search of Fauna in 2017 and Hermit in situ in 2019. Latest exhibitions include Flora and Fauna in the Urban Jungle in the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong in 2018, In the hills- Notes on Hong Kong Plants and Animals in the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong in 2019 and The Practice of Everyday Life at Oi! in 2020.
Plant Map Tour:
(Text provided by Human Ip)
1. Scarlet Dombeya (Dombeya wallichii)
You are now in the Visitor Centre. Right in front of you is the Fountain, and you can see the spray that moistens the air around it. This is probably the spot where you can command the most panoramic view of the Gardens.
Exit the Visitor Centre and take a few more steps forward. On your left are tall Y-shaped Traveller's Trees, thus named for its cup-shaped leaf sheaths which can hold ample water to quench the thirst of travellers in the desert. Under the Traveller's Trees, you will see a cluster of shrubs – this is the first of the beauties on the list I am going to introduce to you.
Do they blossom?
They are called Scarlet Dombeya, also known as Pinkball. Every year they bloom gloriously without fail from December to March. The fluffs of hanging flowers in lovely pastel pink remind one of hydrangea in a bridal bouquet. The dense verdant branches are a favourite hiding place for birds. The Scarlet Dombeya is a kind of nectar plants with a sweet scent. That is why when it is in full bloom, it can attract lots of bees and butterflies to come for its nectar.
Set among heart-shaped leaves, its demure pink tugs at my heartstring.
2. Formosa Sweet Gum (Liquidambar formosana)
Turn around, follow the map and walk towards a rather winding and upslope stretch of the path.
Now in front of you are two rows of tall trees standing erect. Their dark brown tree trunks feature pretty and intricate patterns and their leaves are palmately trilobed. Some of the trees bear a tag that gives their name – Formosa Sweet Gum.
Would they appear red or green in this season? The leaves of Formosa Sweet Gum generally begin to turn red, dry up and fall off towards the end of December; come humid misty March, verdant shoots will sprout anew.
The wind blows off withered leaves which in turn nourish the soil. Towards the latter part of the viewing season for this species, leaves are more numerous on the ground than on the trees. Why is this tree "sweet"? Try pick up a Sweet Gum leaf that is reddish brown and crispy dry, crush it lightly, hold it in your palm and smell it. A waft of sweet scent will greet your nostril, and you will know why it has got this name.
Now take a leisurely stroll through the Sweet Gum trail.
Those with a sharp eye would notice the Bronze Statue of King George VI at the top of the steps. The original statue in this location was that of Sir Arthur Kennedy, the seventh Governor of Hong Kong, but it was transported to Japan and smelted during the Japanese Occupation.
Turn right at the end of the Sweet Gum trail, and you will reach the Green House which houses mainly rare herbaceous species such as bromeliads and carnivorous plants. Yet the most glamorous of all are the orchids.
The Dendrobiums are probably blooming at this time of the year. In Chinese culture, the orchid is one of the Four Noble Ones, the other three being plum, chrysanthemum and bamboo. In as early as the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE), Confucius once remarked that "The orchids grow in the woods and they let out their fragrance even if there is no one around to appreciate. Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will to only abide by high principles and morals." Orchids grow in the mountains where they are not noticed, but they still let out a sweet fragrance, thus truly worthy of the name of the virtuous "Noble One".
In Hong Kong, native dendrobiums in the wild have become very rare due to illegal uprooting, so much so that they approach being "extinct in the wild". In a similar vein, in contemporary society, those with "noble" character are also becoming few and far between.
4. Burmese Rosewood (Pterocarpus indicus)
As you leave the Green House, you can almost see immediately this stately Burmese Rosewood. It is easily identifiable as it has a tag on it.
The Burmese Rosewood is one of the most treasured wood materials in the world. There's a saying that "one inch of Burmese Rosewood is worth one inch of gold". Due to non-stop logging, the Burmese Rosewood has been included in a list for protection by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This wood is purplish black and lets out a faint sweet scent. It features beautiful grain patterns with a sheen, and has a quaint, deep aura about it. In China, this wood was used in as early as the last decades of the Eastern Han Dynasty (189-220). In Gu Jin Zhu (Notes to Things Old and New) by Cui Bao of the Jin period, the Burmese Rosewood was described like this, "Zitan is grown in Funan; it has a purplish colour, hence its name." Zitan literally means ‘purple rosewood', and Funan is Phnom, which is Cambodia today.
The Burmese Rosewood has a well-developed root system with buttress roots at its base, anchoring it firmly to the ground. But not all Burmese Rosewood trees are as fortunate as the one in this "urban forest", as it is still strong and healthy at 100 years old - due to a huge commercial demand, the average Burmese rosewood usually cannot make it past adulthood before it is cut down.
5. Thitmin (Podocarpus neriifolius)
Turn right at the "Aviary" sign, and you will see the hornbills which have been designated an endangered species. In another aviary, eye-catching American flamingos on slender long legs and making low cackle-like calls.
Then stroll down to the dark green octagonal Pavilion constructed out of cast-iron pillars with a wooden roof.
Take a seat on the stone bench and let the cool sensation give you a zesty lift. On the railings are old photographs which depict Hong Kong in the past 100 years. If you look carefully enough, you will notice in front a Thitman tree which is quite rare in Hong Kong. The tree has a beautiful form, with flaky, taupe-coloured bark scales. One special feature of the tree trunk is the wave-like pattern, with the curved lines resembling at times surging waves and at times ripples at the rim of a lake.
6. Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)
Continue a few steps downwards, and you will see the massive Camphor tree just a little distance from the Pavilion.
Chinese Herbal Materia Medica gives the origin of the Camphor tree thus, "The wood grain shows a lot of patterns, and hence the name zhang". The grains are clear and the wood is heavy and hard. It lets out a strong camphor scent which has a cooling effect. Its pungent smell wards off insects and prevents rotting; it can also clear away mildew and dampness. It has been deemed a valuable wood species since ancient times.
Every tree, like humans, is a separate entity. This tree is trilobed, with other vegetation thriving on it－the verdant and delicate stems and leaves suggest they may be flowers of the dendrobium. The lower part of the tree trunk shows signs of a cracked tree hole, so it must have suffered a wound and later healed. Time has healed the wound, leaving a unique grain as the scar. The sturdiness of a tree helps other species to thrive.
7. Kassod Tree (Senna siamea)
Now go through the Time Tunnel and look at the photos taken in the garden over the past hundred odd years. Then follow the map to find the Kassod Tree some distance away. It has four forks and its leaves are small and delicate. Fern are growing on it.
The literal meaning of the Kassod Tree in Chinese tie dao mu, is "iron chopper tree". There are two versions for the origin of its name. The first is that the name should be a homophone which means "rail-track bed wood", as it was often used for laying the rail track because of its sturdiness and weight.
The other explanation highlights its impenetrable density: even an iron chopper cannot cut it open. If we are to give it a personified character, we can say this species is "defiant to the very end". Even when it is being sawn, it puts up a last struggle with its physical property by letting out an allergen that can cause irritation to the eye and skin. That is why when arborists are cutting the Kassod Tree, they need to put on goggles to prevent the splinters from entering their eyes.
8. White Jade Orchid Tree (Magnolia × alba)
Our walk is about to end. Go straight ahead along the level path for another five minutes and you will be leaving the grounds of the Gardens. But don't leave yet! Slow down and take in the lush vegetation around you and their interesting details. Even though you think you are looking at just greenery around you, there are subtle shades of green to it.
At the exit is a White Jade Orchid Tree. Over a hundred years old, it has a sizable crown with dense verdant leaves, and an impressive height. This tree has stood proudly for over a century, thriving in this narrow gap of a breathing space between a complex configuration of city and forest.
White Jade Orchid blossoms emit a sweet fragrance. This makes them a favourite natural perfume worn by Chinese women of South China, a habit that still stands to this day. Yet, flowers do not bloom for human purposes; they have their own cycles of growth. Herbaceous plants live for one year, subshrubs two or three years, arbors several decades, Camphor Trees several hundred years, and the Buddhist Pine up to 3,000 years. Three quarters of Hong Kong land are green zones while one quarter is developed areas where the concrete jungle spreads. The "urban forest" where we are now can be likened to moss and lichen that thrive along the footprints of "civilisation" – its light rusty green hue tells the story of our city in a gracious and subtle way.