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HK hikes a botanical field trip

10 August 2017

By Vir B. Lumicao

Hiking on Hong Kong trails can be an educational field trip for a botany student, and a rewarding outing for a nature tripper, whatever time of the year.

Ripe pod of Asian Oak on Mount
Parker Road in Quarry Bay.
So wide is the biodiversity in a city as small as this former British territory, that there are plants or animals a hiker may encounter in the rugged hills of Tai Po but cannot be seen on the mountains of Lantau.

But then there is a species of African violets that grows on the mossy slopes of Pak Tai To Yan in Fanling that has close relatives on a moist rocky hillside on Victoria Peak as well as on the higher reaches of Mount Parker.

A steady stream of local and visiting hikers are almost always greeted by the mountain’s flora and a few of its less shy fauna like the rhesus macaques (a monkey species) which become aggressive when they sense food or threat to their young; as well as bees, birds or butterflies.

Once, during an early morning hike on a hill in Po Lam, I almost stepped on a two-feet-long green viper waving its pink tail like a rattler as I was going up a secondary trail. I was nimble enough to hop aside and avoid a likely bite.

White Queen's Wreath on Mt Butler. 
Up the rocky trail on the eastern flank of Lion Rock from Old Shatin Pass, white magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) bloom from February to around April, attracting thousands of honeybees that gather nectar for their breeding season in summer.

I did not notice the bees one Saturday in early April when I and a handful of OFW friends climbed Lion Rock from the Tsz Wan Shan side of the mountain.

Then the buzzing became audible at an elevation of about 350 meters, where the forest cover thinned and was replaced by a carpet of white magnolias and budding rhododendrons growing in crevices of granite boulders.

So attractive were the firm white petals forming a whorl around the yellow pistils that the bees pervaded that part of Lion Rock. But the scene could be entirely different when the pollinated blossoms wither and fall off the stems after mid-April.

Hong Kong trails can come up with surprises to both the ordinary hiker and the avid botanist.

The Birdwood's Mucuna 
On the Bride’s Pool Nature Trail in Tai Po on May 1, for instance, I came across a vine strung above a rocky, sleepy stream that displayed a bunting of green, furry giant pods just meters away from a concrete bridge across the waterway.

It was my first encounter with a Birdwood’s Mucuna, a rare angiosperm which we inhabitants of the forest region of Luzon called “lipay”.

In my primary school days, we used to play lipay shooting games where we lined up the dried mucuna seeds on the ground and flicked them with a “pamato” from a mother seed. A player won all the seeds that he felled in one shot.

Chinese Rhododendron. 
The lipay seeds have now been replaced by electronic gadgets that children play with during recess, depriving the seed gatherer from the jungle of his seasonal income.

Another mountain surprise was the white trumpet lily, which I found swaying in the wind around the peak of Pak Tai To Yan in November last year, when I went hiking with a friend on the Fanling section of the MacLehose Trail. The lily grew up about 10 feet, towering above the vegetation around it ostensibly to reach up for sunlight, an awesome feat as the plant normally has soft stalks when found in the lowlands.

Aside from the endemic Rhododendrons and Melastoma, tiny jewels abound on Hong Kong trails: a wide variety of chrysanthemums, daisies, dandelions and ground orchids, as well as a tapestry of inflorescent reeds, shrubs and trees that drape the hillsides season after season.

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