Hong Kong’s tree walks teach you about nature as you hike or stroll – and you don’t even have to leave the concrete jungle
Do you know your gordonias from your sterculias? And what’s the tree that gave Hong Kong its name? You don’t have to go far to find out – venture to on one of the city’s 16 tree walks and learn about the natural world
It’s no secret there is more jungle in Hong Kong than concrete and glass in the city’s dense and overpopulated commercial and residential areas. But just beyond the reach of the city’s urban sprawl, sometimes as close as a stone’s throw away, is an expansive network of country parks and trails, offering idyllic escapes from the hustle and bustle.
Many of these trails bear familiar names – the Hong Kong, Wilson and MacLehose trails – and are well known to hiking enthusiasts. Others, such as Aberdeen Reservoir Road and Tai Tam Reservoir Road, offer a more relaxed, leisurely outing.
There is another type of trail in Hong Kong, however, that not only offers an outdoor adventure but also adds an educational element and encourages a greater affinity with nature.
Nestled among the city’s country parks are designated tree walks. Although they form part of Hong Kong’s network of walking trails, these specially marked-out segments are equipped with information boards detailing the arboreal features of the surrounding landscape.
There are 16 tree walks on Hong Kong Island, the New Territories, and Lantau Island. They range from as short as 70 metres (the Tai Tam Tree Walk) to more than 2km.
Avid hikers in Hong Kong have probably come across many of these tree walks on their excursions into the countryside. For example, the Wong Nai Chung Tree Walk is part of Sir Cecil’s Ride, while the Pok Fu Lam Tree Walk is on Lugard Road, which circles Victoria Peak.
While some of these trails offer plenty for hikers in their own right, such as the panoramic views over the city from Lugard Road, their designation as tree walks adds an extra dimension to the journey.
All have been planned to provide a wealth of information on trees in Hong Kong, both native and foreign. Along each pathway are plaques that help identify individual species, such as the lanced-leaved sterculia (Sterculia lanceolata) with their florescent orange, star-shaped pods, complete with jet-black seeds that hang like jewels mounted for display.
The plaques dotted along the paths display details on a specific specie of tree, including its scientific name, common names – both English and Chinese – a description of its leaves, flowers and fruit, and useful or interesting facts about its genus or history.
Take the incense tree (Aquilaria sinensis), for example. Its wood is sweetly scented, or heung, in Cantonese. Combined with the fact that this little harbour, pronounced gong, was the primary port for the fragrant wood’s export, the tree gave the city its name, Heung Gong, which became Hong Kong.
Although each tree walk is lined with dozens of different species, the selection varies from one path to another. There are some trees that will be commonly found on many of the paths, though. There’s the Chinese hackberry (Celtis sinensis), sweet viburnum (Viburnum odoratissimum), and the city’s wild fig varieties such as the Chinese banyan (Ficus microcarpa), common red-stem fig (Ficus variegata) and opposite-leaved fig (Ficus hispida).
Out in the wilderness, it can be difficult to identify specific tree species by comparing the shapes and sizes of leaves. There are times of the year, however, when the descriptions on the plaques come to life in full glory on the hillsides.
As winter approaches, the glamorous flowers of the Hong Kong gordonia (Gordonia axilaris), with their delicate white petals and bright yellow stamens, emerge by the thousands along the trails. At this time of year, these otherwise nondescript trees are transformed into jewelled ornaments.
A close look at the blooms can sometimes be difficult, since the trees can reach high into the forest canopy, but juveniles can easily be found on many slopes. The short-lived blossoms can also be pretty spectacular as they blanket the forest floor.
But the Hong Kong gordonia isn’t just a pretty sight. According to a description on a plaque on the Aberdeen Tree Walk, the species is renowned for its ability to withstand poor soil conditions, and served as one of the perfect candidates for Hong Kong’s post-second world war reforestation efforts dating back to the 1950s, which explains their abundance in the countryside.
Although they are certainly the most striking feature of the hills during the winter months, the flowers of the Hong Kong gordonia are far from the only blooms adding a dash of colour.
The ivy tree (Schefflera heptaphylla), also common in the local countryside, is another notable bloomer, with their clusters of tiny, intricate white flowers arranged like starbursts, each grouping attaching itself to stems with dozens of fellow clusters to resemble fireworks amid the greenery.
Another useful feature of the tree walk plaques is their descriptions of a tree’s fruit, which can also help identify individual species. In the winter months, a number of species are displaying their progeny, such as turn-in-the-wind (Mallotus paniculatus), which gets its name from the shimmering effect of its foliage as the wind flips its green leaves to unveil a pale, matt underside. Its tiny, spiky fruit can be found crowding along stems that extend out from the plant’s thick canopy.
Other wild fruits to be found along the tree walks include the red, berry-like beads clinging to the branches of the grey holly (Ilex cinerea), the acorns of the relatively rare bamboo-leaved oak (Cyclobalanopsis neglecta) and, for those fortunate to spot them, the impossibly elaborate, ribbon-like strands of the ear-leaved acacia (Acacia auriculiformis).
Obviously, not all of these trees will be seen on any given visit, and some can be found only on certain trails and locations, but without effort, there is no reward.
For those who don’t want to venture outside the city limits but are still curious about trees, there are other options. In the heart of the main business district, and just a few minutes’ stroll from Queen’s Road Central, is the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which has established three distinct tree experiences with maps and directions.
There is the basic Tree Walk, which introduces visitors to 15 different species, ranging from the massive white jade orchid tree (Michelia alba) to the silk floss tree (Chorisia speciosa), which unfortunately has recently finished shedding its flamboyant pink and white flowers.
As the temperature dips, seek out the corridor of American sweetgum trees (Liquidambar formosana), whose leaves should turn yellow, much like autumn foliage in colder parts of the world.
Then there is the “Old and Valuable Trees Trail” featuring 24 protected trees, deemed old and valuable because of their size, rarity or shape. Some of these trees are massive, such as the mock bodh tree (Ficus rumphii) by the overpass that crosses Garden Road. Others, such as the pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) growing in an alcove next to the main fountain, look young and tender compared to the robust cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum burmannii) growing a few metres away.
Some of the species are extremely rare in Hong Kong, including the pincushion tree (Nauclea orientalis), a native of New Guinea and Australia, next to the mammal enclosure; it was probably imported by the British and planted in the garden in order to determine its adaptability to the local climate.
Another option is the Fruit Tree Walk, which highlights 10 species of fruit-bearing trees, growing by the border of the main fountain. The fruits range from the relatively common pummelo, otherwise known as the pomelo (Citrus grandis), mango (Mangifera) and carambola, or starfruit (Averrhoa carambola), to the more exotic sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) and jujube (Ziziphus jujuba).
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These urban tree adventures won’t offer the exhilaration of a hike over the peaks, but they do give visitors a perfect reason to seek out some of the nicer parts of Hong Kong, and explore its rich arboreal heritage at the same time.
For a full list of tree walks visit www.treewalks.gov.hk
To find out more about the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, visit: https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/en/parks/hkzbg/index.html