The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Historic Trees: A Survivor’s Story

by Christopher Shay

Before Nathan Road was a busy shopping street, it was home to majestic trees, not high-rises. Three rows of banyan trees, planted in the 1860s, formed a bucolic landscape of dark wispy roots and leaves that lined the entire street. But as real-estate developments started to block the sunlight and new asphalt prevented growth, the trees began a slow decline.

As high-rises have sprung up, the number of trees — and their grandeur — have dwindled. Here are a few of the larger and older ones that have held on.

Today, a cluster of about 20 trees is all that remains. The trees’ trunks are now enclosed in planter’s boxes and their roots struggle to find space to grow. With the last section of the Nathan Road’s original street frontage, in front of St. Andrew’s Church, set for demolition, the banyans will be the area’s “last vestige of our original heritage,” says Chi Yung Jim, a professor of geography at Hong Kong University.

The exact number of banyans in Hong Kong is unknown, but Prof. Jim, known as Prof. Tree to many of his students, has documented more than 1,100 growing out of the city’s stone walls. He says there could be well over 7,100 in Hong Kong. But as malls and real-estate developments have sprung up, urban trees have been cut down or strangled by the expanding cityscape.

Banyans are native to India, Sri Lanka, parts of Southeast Asia and southern China. In nature, they settle on the crown of a large tree and grow downward from the canopy, slowly strangling the host tree. In nature, birds eat banyan figs and then spread the seeds to the crown of large trees, in which the seeds germinate and grow downwards from the canopy, slowly strangling the host tree. Once the banyan’s roots hit soil, they lignify, or harden into wood, forming a lattice structure that gives the trees their unique shape. Banyans are hardy trees that can live for centuries; one in the Philippines is said to be more than 1,300 years old.

Their strangler ability makes them perfectly adapted to grow on walls and artificial cliffs. Hong Kong has more banyans that grow from walls than any other city in the world. Some call them beautiful, others, a nuisance as they uproot sidewalks and structures.

Prof. Jim can rattle off a long list of trees that he says have been damaged by poor conservation efforts by the government, including some of Hong Kong’s grandest banyans. One in Kowloon Park that was once dubbed the King Banyan is now so frail that visitors have been blocked from approaching it for fear it could fall and injure someone. There was a near miss in 2007 when a strong storm blew through the city and a large portion of the tree collapsed; giant branches fell to either side of a passerby. Prof. Jim says concrete surrounding the King Banyan prevented normal root growth and weakened the tree, causing the collapse. The government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department attributed the tree’s decline to root disease.

In March the Hong Kong government established the Tree Management Office to champion tree preservation. The department has promised “a new holistic policy on greening, landscaping and tree management with a view to achieving the sustainable development of a greener environment for Hong Kong.”

Prof. Jim says the trees left in Hong Kong’s urban areas are a central to the city’s heritage and need to be protected. “They’re a miracle, a treasure,” he says.

Published on on Tuesday, Dec. 7

Also check out my slideshow of some of Hong Kong’s most beautiful and historic trees.

Category: Article, Environment

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