Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Flora

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By S. T. Dunn, B.A., F.L.S., J. P., Superintendent of the Botanical and Forestry Department, Hongkong.


IN order to understand the rise and progress of the Botanical and Forestry Department of Hongkong it is necessary to go back to a time when the island was hardly less barren than the mainland on the opposite side of the harbour is now.

There were, it is true, one or two small patches of virgin forest, such as that now existing on the north side of Little Hongkong village, and there were, doubtless, small groves of pine trees round the fishing villages which dotted the coast, but the sides of the mountains in general were bare of trees, and, in many places, bare even of grass. Mr. Charles Ford, I.S.O., the first Superintendent of the Botanical and Afforestation Department (as it was then called) had joined the Government service originally as Superintendent of the new Government Gardens under the Department of Public Works, or Surveyor General's Department. A few months later his work was organized as a separate department and began at once to attract notice as a centre from which the well-known, but as yet little seen, garden and economic plants of China could be distributed to the outer world.

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Somewhere about the year 1876 the idea was conceived of planting the bare hills with the local pine tree (Pinus massoniana). I do not suppose that any one at that time thought that the covering of the slopes in the vicinity of the town of Victoria with this tree would develop into the extensive and important Government undertaking that it has now become, nor that the system of planting, then introduced for ornament, would some day be a source of revenue to the community. The pine tree was selected as being one known to thrive well in the climate, and to be available for all sorts of soil, even the very poorest that is to be found on bare granite gravel. This has proved to be a sound choice. It is a very quick-growing, hardy tree, and valuable as a binder of loose slopes. Although a continuous series of experiments have been made with other trees of all kinds which might have been supposed to be suitable to this climate, no good substitutes have ever been found for it up to the present time. Meanwhile, by a regular annual grant for the purpose, the Government plantations have been spreading year by year over the whole island, which is now fairly covered with trees in the lower portions. The pine area exceeds 5,000 acres. Not only has the appearance of Hongkong been revolutionised by this planting, but the bare sandy tracts which formerly disfigured the scenery have been converted into green and fertile slopes.

During recent years a fresh scheme has been initiated whereby the planting has been extended to the opposite mainland. The amphitheatre of mountains which surround the harbour on that side are now being planted year by year with pine trees from a height of 200 to one of 400 or 600 feet above the sea-level, the plantations depending upon the degree of shelter available. The seed is scattered broadcast at first, and after three or four years trees are planted in pits to fill any gaps that may be left. In this way about 400 acres are covered each year, about 1,000 trees being planted to the acre. In time the reproach of the arid sand hills which form so conspicuous a feature of that landscape at the present time will be removed by the growth of the trees which have already been planted over a large portion of the ground.

The streets of the city are particularly well provided with shade, trees and roadside plots of flowering shrubs and evergreens which have been planted by, and are under the care of, this department. The tree which has been most frequently employed for street planting in the past is the Chinese Banyan (Ficus retusa). Its popularity arises from its excellent shade-giving qualities and from its extreme hardiness under all kinds of treatment. The usual way of making an avenue of banyans illustrates this point. Large branches of 6 to 11 inches in diameter are sawn off convenient trees, the leafy twigs pruned off, the whole swathed in straw-rope and placed upright in a hole in the road metal along the sides of the road to be planted. In a few weeks leaves begin to appear, and within a year the new avenue is in full foliage. The vitality of the Banyan is its chief glory, but it is also the cause of its recent exclusion from street planting. Its roots are too pushing: they find their way into drain pipes through the smallest faults, and cause obstructions thereby that have incurred much expense to the sanitary authorities. In the extensive street-planting now proceeding in Kowloon, therefore, the Banyan is vetoed, and Candlenut, Heteropanax, and Poinciana take its place.

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The Public Gardens consist of some 16 acres of sloping ground between Albany Nullah and Glenealy Ravine, and are cut into two nearly equal parts by the Albany Road. The spur of the mountains on which they lie is occupied above by European residences, and below by Government House and the Government Offices. Horticulture in Hongkong has one great advantage over that in most other places, and one great disadvantage—the former is secured by the peculiar climate, which allows of the cultivation, almost to perfection, of some of the finest flowering shrubs in the world; while the latter is the regular occurrence of typhoons, which always damage the gardens more or less every season. On the whole, however, this may be said to be an easy place in which to produce a good garden. There are camellias, allamandas, azaleas, hydrangeas, poincettias, &c., which luxuriate in a way seldom seen elsewhere, and which produce a mass of colour in the gardens in their proper season; then there are the peculiar indigenous shrubs and trees, some of which have never been raised in other gardens—among them is the lovely rhodolcia, which is indigenous in the island and in Yunnan only, and has, so far as I know, resisted all attempts to cultivate it elsewhere. Tree-ferns, too, grow in the more sheltered parts of the gardens with great ease and luxuriance. They form, together with the palms in the Glenealy Ravine, one of the most charming pieces of scenery to be found anywhere. Long before coming to Hongkong I remember hearing of the gardens as some of the most beautiful in the world, although small, and probably there are many visitors who would endorse that opinion. The almost precipitous mountains which rise to the south enhance the luxuriant effect of the vegetation.

The Botanic Gardens are not the only ones maintained by the Government. A small garden was made in 1904 on the waste ground left vacant by the resumption of an insanitary and crowded portion of the Chinese quarter of Victoria under Sir Henry Blake, and called Blake Garden. This, with the gardening in the Colonial Cemetery, West End Park, Government House Garden, and in the grounds at Mountain Lodge, require the maintenance of a considerable staff outside the central gardens.

Just as in early days the curious cultivated plants of Chinese gardens, long known from the descriptions of travellers, were introduced into English gardens from the collections of this department, so also, it has played an important part in investigating and making known to the botanical world the rich and interesting flora of the Chinese Empire.

Numerous expeditions have from time to time been organised for the botanical exploration of neighbouring parts of the continent, and the large number of plants thus discovered and published in botanical journals during the last quarter of a century bear witness to the value of these researches to the botanical world. The Colonial Herbarium, which is arranged in a room adjoining the offices of the department is, no doubt, as it ought to be, the most extensive collection of specimens of Chinese plants in existence. A good library of works necessary to the study of general systematic botany, as well as special ones dealing with the Chinese flora, gives ample facilities to any visitors who wish to work in this branch of study.

The economic side of the work over and above that dealing with forestry, has been shown in the introduction of improved varieties of crops into the agriculture of the new territories; but those who know the Chinese best will not be surprised to be told that they have not profited much from European enterprise in this respect. The export of economic products has probably been more valuable than the imports. Large collections of samples of Chinese vegetable economic products have been made from time to time, and sent to the Imperial Institute, where they may be seen in the Hongkong Court.

The superintendent's quarters, the herbarium, and offices of the department are accommodated in a charming house at the top of the new gardens, commanding a good view of the harbour.

The permanent staff numbers between ninety and one hundred, and there is an auxiliary staff of about the same size. The total expenditure of the department for 1908 is estimated at $48,700. The revenue in 1907 amounted to $6,654.

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