Inspiration for gardeners can be hard to find in Hong Kong. Browsing through books and magazines is a great way to spark ideas for the sort of “look” that suits your lifestyle and the way you would like to use your space. Some of our public parks and even roundabouts and roadside dividers include a few beautiful installations that might be worth emulating.
I had high hopes of the private rooftop garden at the new LegCo headquarters, but, alas, dull would be the kindest adjective that I could find to describe the concept and the content. The Tai Po Waterfront Park is perhaps our best public park and its lavish landscaping includes many species of plants rarely seen elsewhere in Hong Kong. Identification is often a challenge, but if you take a quick photograph you can show this to staff at a good nursery in the hopes that they will be able to source it for you. The Kadoorie Farm is another place to get a feel for what will grow in local conditions and plants are generally well-labelled. Some plants are sold at the farm shop.
The annual Hong Kong Flower Show always includes a number of exhibition gardens contributed by various districts around Hong Kong. The more futuristic versions leave me cold as it is hard to imagine anyone enjoying looking at them let alone relaxing in them. My favourites this year were also popular with local photographers. One included a pretty combination of flowering annuals in a make-believe European-style garden. The other was a “typical” traditional Thai garden where lush tropical plants had been allowed to take over and turn the place into something from a fairytale. These were installed overnight on solid concrete, proving that it should be possible to create something comparable almost anywhere. But both would require a high level of maintenance to keep them looking good.
When it comes to selecting plants that you would like to grow, and plants that will enjoy your growing conditions, consider your space and also your light. Start by thinking of shrubs to form the backbone before you fill in with low growing perennials, bulbs and temporary annuals that can be replaced as required.
In all-day sun, Bougainvillea, Hibiscus and Allamanda are classic choices in the ground or in containers on a terrace or rooftop. A Bougainvillea can be kept at almost any height and pruning stimulates new flowering shoots. Hibiscus will become lanky unless it is cut back at least once or twice a year. With patience it can be trained as a standard on a single trunk (as is done at Ocean Park ). But at less than one-metre high, it should produce masses of glorious blooms at a level where they can best be enjoyed.
Unless you have a great deal of space, Allamanda is probably best trained on a trellis or some sort of support as the long sprays can soon sprawl out of control. The cheerful, open-faced yellow flowers of Allamanda cathartica are familiar all over Hong Kong. A friend has a double-flowered version that I have never seen for sale in a nursery, but it struck very readily from a cutting that he kindly gave me.
For small spaces, the more bushy Allamanda schottii is ideal as it will not grow much over a metre in height. Yellow Allamanda looks great in mixed plantings with plenty of dark-leaved foliage to set it off. The various purple variations of Allamanda (cherries jubilee and blanchetii) have become increasingly common in Hong Kong. They can look stunning in the right setting like the Aberdeen Praya where they flourish at the back of the borders, despite received wisdom that they do not like salty air. They should be selected with care as colours can sometimes tend towards the muddy side. There is a shrubby version of the purple Allamanda, although I have never seen it for sale in Hong Kong. Unlike its full height “parent”, it takes readily from a cutting. Like Hibiscus, Allamandas require regular fertiliser and occasional pruning to keep them looking at their best.
If you enjoy at least three or four hours of sun with good light for the remainder of the day, you have a good choice of shrubs. And some Heliconias will also do well in such conditions. For sweet scent and pretty flowers, try Brunfelsia, but be sure to get the appropriate variety for the height that you want to fill. Clerodendron ugandense has dainty blue flowers that look like small butterflies.
Duranta is a tough grower that can survive in difficult conditions and it does reasonably well in poor light. It has small, neat leaves and bears pretty panicles of flowers for much of the year. It comes in three colours of which the most commonly seen is mauve, although white and a highly desirable vanilla-scented purple variety with picotee edging are stocked in some good nurseries. They can all be clipped short, used for fancy topiary, or allowed to reach their full height of five metres or so. They offer double value as butterflies and moths love the nectar in the flowers, and birds enjoy the decorative yellow berries.
The Melastoma family includes a number of species that grow well in Hong Kong. Most have deep purple flowers and handsome dark green leaves, while some have velvety leaves that look almost silver in colour. Some are sufficiently low growing as to provide good ground cover, but Tibouchina urvilleana forms a striking specimen tree that can reach a height of eight metres or more.
Schefflera octinophylla can be an attractive addition to any group of plants. Often called the “umbrella” or “octopus” tree on account of its striking downward-pointing leaves, it will grow in places where little else can survive, eventually soaring to 12 metres or more if left unchecked. In Florida and Hawaii it grows almost too well and is classified as an invasive pest. In Hong Kong it is increasingly finding favour as a street tree and it is widely used in Shenzhen’s lavish roadside landscaping.
A similar, shorter relative, arboricola, is native to Taiwan and southern China, but it rarely grows taller than three metres. Other Schefflera species include the more restrained cream and green leaved arboricola. My favourite is elegantissima, sometimes called “false aralia” which is notable for dark coloured but prettily shaped leaves that justify its name. It does well in containers, but if you plant it in the ground, bear in mind that it can reach a height of seven or eight metres within a few years.
Jane Ram is a long-time Hong Kong resident, the immediate past chair and long-time committee member of the Hong Kong Gardening Society and a well-known broadcaster and writer on garden-oriented topics.