Environmental plantings and other green initiatives have become increasingly popular in Hong Kong in recent years. As architects and landscape designers scramble to become more eco-friendly, wider public interest in plants that are suitable for local conditions continues to grow. From the 19th century, various native and exotic plant species from the mainland were grown in Hong Kong gardens because they adapted well to local conditions. As well as being decorative, well thought out garden plantings helped cool the house in the summer and retain warmth in winter; they gave shade when in full leaf in hot weather and let the sun come through in the cold. Some species had the effect – either directly or by association – of reducing or eliminating insect pests. As old as agriculture itself, companion planting is as commonplace in decorative gardens as in commercial settings. Other introduced species, however, eventually became local environmental nightmares. Probably the most egregious introduction was that of the South American climbing vine Mikania scandens. Known to generations of Hong Kong gardeners as “mile-a-minute” due to its rapid spread, this pest will smother everything in its path. In former times, the fah-wong (“flower king”) was a valued staff member in any sizeable household. The practical botanical knowledge these men, many of whom were barely literate, possessed and their hands-on experience of what grew (and what didn’t) in Hong Kong’s soil and climate was unsurpassed. While the master or mistress of the house may have expressed a preference for their garden beds or verandah parapets, sensible folk always deferred to the fahwong; more than his employers, he knew what plants were a waste of time, effort and money to attempt to grow. At larger properties, the fahwong had junior under-gardeners working for him. Known in pidgin English as “makee-learn”, these apprentices eventually – with skill, application and luck – became a fah-wong themselves. Female horticultural assistants were known – again, in pidgin English – as “weedie-women”, and, as their title suggests, they did only weeding. A skilled weediewoman was worth her wage; she could deal with grubs and other insect pests swiftly and knew which plants should be gently nurtured and which nuisances immediately uprooted. With the passage of time, substantial middle-class homes, in places such as Mid-Levels, Repulse Bay, Stanley, Kowloon Tong (originally laid out as a garden suburb) and parts of the New Territories, have given way to high-rise housing developments, and with them has gone the old-school fahwong. Much knowledge of what works in Hong Kong’s soil and climate and what doesn’t has vanished with him. Contemporary residential “landscaping” (more so-called than actual, in many instances) is simply another reason to ask people to pay their monthly management fees. As long as everything looks well-groomed, little else matters. For tower-block dwellers, whose idea of horticulture means replacing their haggard-looking pot plants when the air-conditioning finally kills them, such “gardens” must be perfectly manicured all year round. But as any real gardener knows and appreciates, Mother Nature follows her own rules.