Hong Kong Hero: The Legendary Story of the Cotton Tree

Bombax ceiba illustrations from Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong and Southern China by Earnshaw Books (978-988-8552-03-0). Image credits Sally Grace Bunker, Richard M.K. Saunders and Chun-Chiu Pang.

It almost never snows in Hong Kong, and yet every late spring, flakes of silky white clouds turn Hong Kong Park into a little Narnia. ‘Tis the season to be jolly for large groups of dedicated photographers who, year after year, carry their heavy tools and station themselves for hours also outside the Aberdeen Tunnel, Shek Kong Barracks, Lai Chi Kok Park, Hong Kong Central Library and Hong Kong Park to capture the scene of the springtime “snowflakes.”

The magic that conjures up these wonderlands is credited to Hong Kong’s so-called hero trees, which are scientifically known as Bombax ceiba, in Cantonese as muk6 min4 (木棉), and most commonly in English as cotton trees. They flower every February and March before the fruiting period in April and May.

Cotton tree flowers in Hong Kong Park. Photo credit Herman Wong.

The Bombacaceae family, allied to the mallow family Malvaceae to which the cotton tree belongs, has 27 genera and 180 species around the world, of which one genus and three species are endemic in China. They are widespread in tropical Southeast Asia. According to the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department, three genera and three species are planted and bred in Hong Kong: Bombax ceiba, Ceiba pentandra as well as Chorisia speciosa.

Cotton trees can grow to an average of 20 metres, like the two “heroes” in Hong Kong Park registered in 2004, but their 50-year-old relatives in wet tropical regions top them easily by reaching to as tall as 60 metres. Being heat, drought, pest and disease tolerant, they are well-adapted to the subtropical climate and ecology of Hong Kong.

The tree is deciduous, which means it sheds its leaves every winter, and it is known for its cup-shaped scarlet flowers with five petals, each around 12 centimetres in length, that blossom in spring before the new foliage. Each year, the pink ovaries and light red stigmas of the clustered flamingo-coloured flowers paint a stunning sea of red against the ice-cold palette of Central office towers, before they turn into ripe brown dehiscent fruits that split open for the wind to carry away their long, ovoid and black seeds packed in white cotton.

The stunning annual flamboyance and vernal snowflakes of cotton trees have been widely captured and adored in Chinese literature. Quan Tangshi (the largest collection of Tang poetry published in 1705, containing some 49,000 lyric poems) associates its blushing flowers and branches with an elegant feminine figure. The Tang prose “pun1 jyu4 zaap6 gei3” (番禺雜記) highlights the snow white flakes of cotton. In a Qing Dynasty notebook (廣東新語), poet Qu Dajun (屈大均) compared the sight of cotton trees’ falling leaves to patches of corals. The trees have also been chosen as the official flower of Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Panzhihua in southern Sichuan as well as Kaohsiung in Taiwan.

But to be dubbed a hero tree takes more than just a handsome face; it requires a deed of courage – and a myth. The hero tree earned its name from a legendary figure of the Kra–Dai-speaking Lizu people, one of the 56 ethnic groups indigenous to Hainan Island in southern China. It is said that Wuzhi Shan or Five Finger Mountain, where the majority of the Lizu people lived, was often invaded by other ethnic groups for the region’s rich resources.

Jibei (吉貝) was a wise and courageous general of the clan who warded off the enemies and secured the lands for his people. Yet after his victories, he was betrayed by one of his followers who tricked him to the top of Wuzhi Shan, where his vengeful enemies awaited. Thousands of arrows came flying at Jibei, but the fearless general refused to succumb, and died standing on the mountain notwithstanding the countless arrows that punctured his body. He turned into a cotton tree with a stout trunk and his blood transformed into bright scarlet flowers. To commemorate him, the Lizu people gave the tree the suggestive nickname hero tree or Jibei tree.

Yet the name of our heroes is also derived from a misconception. Jibei trees are Ceiba pentandra, which originated from the tropics of Asia, whereas the cotton trees common to Hong Kong (Bombax ceiba) were originally from Northern Australia and Asia, writes local botanist Professor Hu Shiu-ying in her book In Hong Kong Gardens. Due to their similar appearances and scientific names, the two have been frequently mixed up, and the glorious sobriquet has since then been applied to our familiar local variety.

In any case, the mighty image of the thick, towering and rigid hero tree has long been taken as the symbol of a person’s or nation’s invincible spirit in Chinese culture. In 1928, modern Chinese poet Guo Moruo — who briefly lived in Hong Kong in 1947 — wrote an article entitled “Hero Trees” (英雄樹) to stir up a new wave of revolutionary writing that attacked the bourgeoisie’s influence on literature, and encouraged people to voice their criticism against literary luminaries of the time such as Lu Xun. Another example is the more recent poem “To the Oak Tree” (1977) by Fujian poet Shu Ting, in which she compares herself to a sturdy cotton tree that guards a nearby oak tree, highlighting how she finds strength, loyalty and independence being the key elements of love in the modern era, as opposed to traditional notions of love such as softness.

A cotton tree flower taken in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Photo credit Danny Hsu.

Cotton trees have also lent their name to more quotidian features. Three streets in Hong Kong are named after the tree: Cotton Tree Drive in Central, Cotton Path in Causeway Bay and Hung Min (“Red Cotton”) Court in Yuen Long. And yet cotton trees aren’t even endemic to Hong Kong. According to botanist Richard Saunders, author of Portraits of Trees in Hong Kong and Southern China, it is possible the trees were introduced to Hong Kong from India, but it remains a mystery as to who first brought them here, or when and where in the city were the seeds first sowed. “It was probably introduced in part because of its attractiveness,” he says. “It may also have been planted because of the mass of cotton-like fibres that form in the fruit, which are used for furniture stuffing.”

Bombax fibres should not be mistaken for true cotton used for textile making, however, or kapok fibres used for filling in mattresses or upholstery. Unlike the Malvaceae family to which Ceiba pentandra and Bombax ceiba belong, “true cotton comes from several species of Gossypium – a completely unrelated genus,” Saunders explains. Hong Kong’s large postwar textile industry never really made use of the Bombax ceiba cotton. “True cotton has fibres that are flattened and twist easily, allowing the fibres to be woven. Bombax fibres are not flattened and cannot be woven, and so are only used for stuffing cushions.”

A blooming cotton tree in Hing Fat Street, Causeway Bay. Photo credit @silvialmc.

Although they have limited industrial value, cotton trees are highly prized in the field of Chinese medicine. Cotton tree flowers are one of the fundamental ingredients of the famous Five Flower Herbal Tea (ng5 faa1 caa4 五花茶), a summertime herbal tea drink that people in Lingnan (south of the Nanling Mountains, including provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan as well as modern northern Vietnam) consume to replenish the body or prevent flu. It is produced by simmering dried or fresh cotton tree flowers along with Japanese honeysuckles, sophora flowers, plumeria and chrysanthemums in water. In the region around Guangzhou, families diversify cotton tree flower recipes by adding pig bones, dates, ginger and Chinese yam to make soup, making cotton tree flowers a popular ingredient in Cantonese home dishes.

The Chinese Herbal Database (中華本草), a comprehensive guide to Chinese medicinal herbs published by National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, further adds that the flowers are antipyretic, diuretic, are a good remedy to treat dysentery and are effective in removing excessive dampness from the body. Due to their cool nature, they help relieve summer heat. In fact, every part of the plant carries nourishing properties: the barks are anti-rheumatic and help promote circulation and dispel swelling whereas the roots are fibrinolytic and analgesic.

It seems that Hong Kong has a rather divergent interpretation of the hero tree’s glorious moniker. Despite their symbolic importance in Chinese literature, not to mention their value in Chinese medicine, Saunders says they don’t have any particular cultural or historical significance for Hong Kong. And yet the city’s love for cotton trees cannot be doubted. Adding verve to the urban landscape with their large waxy red flowers, cotton trees find themselves among the 500 specimens in Hong Kong’s Register of Old and Valuable Trees. Hong Kong may have very different reasons to see the giant Narnians in Hong Kong Park and other neighbourhoods as heroes, but they are heroes to the city just the same.

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