By Kelvin Wong
When I was young, bauhinia was never really my favourite. Unlike banyan and camphor trees, bauhinias are thin and twisted—because, I thought, of the limited space of the city, just as those baby watermelons grown in boxes are misshapen.
And then six years ago, in late winter, this guy first had his heart broken. I was walking back home on my everyday path where this ordinary-looking bauhinia was planted all along. Breezes touched my face and brought a rain of petals. Have you ever seen them falling? They are flakes of pink velvet, utterly fragile, spiralling down like little paper helicopters. They landed on the smithereens of my heartbreak and have stayed there ever since. Bauhinia leaves no longer look dull to me, nor do its trunks and branches look weak. They are like a group of young and timid ladies, dancing with butterflies in the wind.
The bauhinia one most frequently finds in the city has the scientific name Bauhinia Blakeana. It was first discovered around 1880 by a French missionary in Pokfulam (probably somewhere near the medical school or Cyberport) and was named after the 17th-century botanists Gaspard and Jean Bauhin, and then-governor Sir Henry Blake (see also the Blake Garden in Shueng Wan). The plant is a hybrid between Bauhinia Variegata (commonly referred as camel’s foot or mountain ebony) and Bauhinia Purpurea (purple bauhinia). With similar shapes of petals and leaves, the three can sometimes be confused. The flowers of camel’s foot are pink or white and they bloom from late winter to spring, while the winter-blossoming purple bauhinia has magenta flowers. Both are deciduous trees, so their leaves fall in dry seasons. They bear pod-like fruits which are usually six inches to a foot long. The flowers of their hybrid offspring, Bauhinia Blakeana, look almost identical to the purple bauhinia’s, only with petals slightly thicker, yet Blakeana has a longer blossom time, from autumn to spring.
Bauhinia Blakeana, unlike its parents, is sterile—it cannot produce seeds and fruits. Propagation can only be done by grafting and cutting. With more than twenty-five thousand in the city and tens of thousands around the world, all bauhinia trees are genetically identical. They are exact clones from the one cutting taken from Pokfulam and propagated in the Botanical Garden in Central. This lack of biodiversity renders them susceptible to decimation by bacterial infections. As the city’s floral insignia since 1965, the flower was perhaps chosen because of its interesting background. But has anyone ever thought that some hybrid kinds might not be able to reproduce and protect themselves?
It is the end of May as I write this article. The leaves have all grown back, and pods hang from branches of camel’s foot trees. The colours of spring have gone and here we welcome the flame of the phoenix. Soon it will be July, with a new leader, and no one really knows what will happen to the city of bauhinia.
(While some of the best-looking bauhinias are in Ma On Shan where I live, there are some lovely ones near Graduate House—you might want to have a look!)