Friday, 17 March 2017

a blaze of glory

I like trees, and Hong Kong does boast some pretty spectacular species, from ancient banyans, with their incredible aerial roots that thicken and become woody once they’ve reached the ground:

…to the huge spread of cinnamomums, known colloquially as camphor trees:

A characteristic of both species is that it is almost impossible to get far enough away to be able to photograph the entire tree—in both the above photos, what you see is a single tree. And both species have been extensively planted in and around villages in the New Territories, where the purpose has been to enhance the fung shui.

However, while I do like banyans and camphor trees, they are blown out of the water at this time of year by the cotton trees, which have been flowering violently for the past few weeks. And, as I hope the following photos demonstrate, ‘violently’ is an appropriate adverb to use in this context.

Cotton trees have two unusual characteristics, especially for broadleaf species. First, like many conifers, they have several branches sprouting from the trunk at the same height. Second, having shed their leaves during the winter, they produce flowers before they produce any new leaves. This second feature is what makes cotton trees so impressive, because there is nothing to obscure the flowers, which are the colour of arterial blood.

Unfortunately, this feature also makes the flowers difficult to photograph, because most have just the sky for background, and the sky is usually far too bright to allow the correct exposure for the flowers. This first photo was taken with a mountain in the background, although this tree is nowhere near as impressive as many others:

I took the next two photos last Sunday during my weekly bike ride around ‘the final frontier’. The first shows a group of cotton trees on Sha Tau Kok Road—it’s common for cotton trees to be planted along the sides of major roads. The second was taken along a quiet lane near Ping Che. The image doesn’t do justice to the reality, which was right in front of me as I was cycling along.

The next photo is of a group of misshapen, mutilated cotton trees that I pass every time I walk into Fanling for shopping or go with Paula for early morning tea (yam char) at our local restaurant. They are misshapen because the local power company has run a power line over the top and has therefore cut off the tops of the trees, which have grown sideways in response.

The next three photographs were taken yesterday while out cycling west of Fanling. The first photo is of a cotton tree alongside the cycle track that I need to follow to get out of the urban area (via a U-turn into the subway on the right). Notice that the flowers here have a slightly orangey hue. The red flowers in the darker area on the left of the picture are bougainvillea.

The next photo was taken in an industrial area just off Ho Sheung Heung Road. While I can understand the planting of ornamental trees alongside major roads, it seems rather odd to find a specimen next to a rough track. But notice that there are two cotton trees, and the one on the left is actually inside the industrial premises. Somebody else must also like these trees.

The third photo is of a small cotton tree next to the Drainage Services access road that runs alongside the Sheung Yiu River. I was particularly pleased to be able to position myself for this shot so that there was a dark background to accentuate the colour of the flowers. The main railway line into China is in the background.

Several years ago, Paula commented how beautiful the cotton trees were at the time to a fellow minibus passenger. When she told me the story, I couldn’t believe the reply:

“Yes! But they leave a mess on the ground.”

The phrase ‘mess on the ground’ has since become a running joke between us, so when we saw this fantastic ‘mess’ last weekend near the beginning of ‘the long and winding road’, I just had to take a photo:

There are two other observations that I should make about cotton trees. I believe that the flowers have some medicinal properties—I’ve seen old ladies collecting them, then spreading them out to dry—and when they fall, the flowers hit the ground with a thud, especially if they land on tarmac or concrete.

Finally, in keeping with the spirit of ‘a mess on the ground’, I’ve included the following picture, which in my opinion illustrates how beautiful cotton tree flowers are, even when they’re no longer on the tree.


  1. INDEED, they made a mess on the ground because of the 'bulky' petals. Moreover, they are one of the ingredients in some Chinese soups too ;-)

  2. Those trees may make a mess, but it's beautiful mess!

    1. We think so too Pat, which is why we use the phrase.


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