It almost never snows in Hong Kong, and yet every late spring, flakes of silky white clouds turn Hong Kong Park into a little Narnia. ‘Tis the season to be jolly for large groups of dedicated photographers who, year after year, carry their heavy tools and station themselves for hours also outside the Aberdeen Tunnel, Shek Kong Barracks, Lai Chi Kok Park, Hong Kong Central Library and Hong Kong Park to capture the scene of the springtime “snowflakes.”
The magic that conjures up these wonderlands is credited to Hong Kong’s so-called hero trees, which are scientifically known as Bombax ceiba, in Cantonese as muk6 min4 (木棉), and most commonly in English as cotton trees. They flower every February and March before the fruiting period in April and May.
Cotton tree flowers in Hong Kong Park. Photo credit Herman Wong.
The Bombacaceae family, allied to the mallow family Malvaceae to which the cotton tree belongs, has 27 genera and 180 species around the world, of which one genus and three species are endemic in China. They are widespread in tropical Southeast Asia. According to the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department, three genera and three species are planted and bred in Hong Kong: Bombax ceiba, Ceiba pentandra as well as Chorisia speciosa.
Cotton trees can grow to an average of 20 metres, like the two “heroes” in Hong Kong Park registered in 2004, but their 50-year-old relatives in wet tropical regions top them easily by reaching to as tall as 60 metres. Being heat, drought, pest and disease tolerant, they are well-adapted to the subtropical climate and ecology of Hong Kong.
The tree is deciduous, which means it sheds its leaves every winter, and it is known for its cup-shaped scarlet flowers with five petals, each around 12 centimetres in length, that blossom in spring before the new foliage. Each year, the pink ovaries and light red stigmas of the clustered flamingo-coloured flowers paint a stunning sea of red against the ice-cold palette of Central office towers, before they turn into ripe brown dehiscent fruits that split open for the wind to carry away their long, ovoid and black seeds packed in white cotton.
Cotton trees have also lent their name to more quotidian features. Three streets in Hong Kong are named after the tree: Cotton Tree Drive in Central, Cotton Path in Causeway Bay and Hung Min (“Red Cotton”) Court in Yuen Long. And yet cotton trees aren’t even endemic to Hong Kong. According to botanist Richard Saunders, author of Portraits of Trees in Hong Kong and Southern China, it is possible the trees were introduced to Hong Kong from India, but it remains a mystery as to who first brought them here, or when and where in the city were the seeds first sowed.
A blooming cotton tree in Hing Fat Street, Causeway Bay. Photo credit @silvialmc.
The scientific name of cotton trees is Bombax ceiba. It can be found all over the city, and there is a cotton tree lovers map marking out more than 40 places to admire the bloom. Many are in Tuen Mun and Mei Foo.
Photographers from the Hong Kong Personal Computer User Group used to upload photos at each attraction but the map address is no longer valid.
The most famous place to see cotton trees blossom is along the Shek Kong Barracks, while in urban areas, places such as Hong Kong Park, Lai Chi Kok Park and Central Library have cotton trees for viewing and photographing.
Overpass in front of the Central Library is a viewing point.
An exhibition held by The Mills opens from March 6 to May 30 is also welcoming visitors to know more about cotton trees and how they are integrated into daily clothing, food, housing and transportation.
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