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Hong Kong is a city of contrasts: of new technology and old traditions, of high-rise buildings and stunning countryside, a hybrid between the East and the West. The territory's flag bears a flower whose past, and future, are just as complicated. The flag of Hong Kong features a distinctive five-petalled white flower on a red background. This flower became Hong Kong's emblem when the territory was handed over to China in 1997.
But the true origin of this mysterious plant has only been revealed in recent years. It is now the subject of community conservation projects hoping to save it from extinction. The flower in question is a peculiar plant known as the Hong Kong orchid tree. It is a native of the island of Hong Kong.Despite its name it is not an orchid, but rather a tree in the legume family, the group that includes peas and beans. However, its distinctive 15cm flowers are reminiscent of orchid flowers, and the common name stuck.
The first Hong Kong orchid tree was found around 1880 by Jean-Marie Delavay, a French Catholic missionary out hiking in the countryside. Near a ruined building, he found a single tree with incredible magenta flowers, and took a cutting."He thought it was quite stunning, quite beautiful, and quite different to ones he had seen before, and so he took a cutting of it and brought it back to his sanatorium," says data scientist Rob Davidson. Sanatoriums were popular in colonial times as a place of respite and recovery for missionaries that had contracted tropical diseases on their travels.
It is believed that all the Hong Kong orchid trees alive today are descendants of this single plant."All the trees since then have been cultivated by hand, by someone who's taken a bit of an old tree, and stuck it on to another root stock and let it grow from there," says Davidson.This process is called "grafting". It has been familiar to gardeners and farmers for thousands of years, so much so that it is easy to forget that it is remarkable.
Only with modern genetics have scientists begun to unravel the mysterious origins of the Hong Kong orchid tree. A study published in 2005 revealed that the strange flower is actually a hybrid of two known species; the pink-flowered butterfly tree (B. variegata), and the purple-flowered B. purpurea. This explains why the trees can only reproduce with human help, by taking cuttings. Just like a mule, B. blakeana is a sterile hybrid. Hybridisation is when a new species is produced by combining half of the DNA of one species with half of the DNA of another. It is a hit-and-miss exercise. Most of the time, it fails because the two halves of DNA are simply too different to work together. The majority of hybrid embryos never develop.
Even when a hybrid does develop into an adult, they are often sterile. We may never know how the original hybrid tree came to be there. But scientists are now using modern genomic techniques to understand the orchid tree better. Lawrence Ramsden of the University of Hong Kong was a member of the team that discovered B. blakeana's hybrid origin in 2005. He is now leading a search for mutant trees that are fertile. Such trees might exist: with a few mutations in the right places, a sterile B. blakeana could theoretically start producing viable seeds. If they do find a fertile B. blakeanatree, it might not be quite as beautiful as the sterile ones. That is because the flowers of sterile B. blakeana trees "stay in bloom longer because the plant doesn't put any energy into producing seeds," says Davidson.However, a fertile tree might just save the species. But until one is found, or one of the other approaches comes to fruition, the Hong Kong orchid tree will have to survive the way it has for the last century.
The orchid tree was chosen as Hong Kong's emblem because it represents the merging of old and new. So it seems apt that the plant is itself a hybrid, and that it might be saved by melding new technology with old-fashioned amateur naturalism.
What does the flower on the flag symbolize?
1) Welcome of new technologies
2) Respect for traditions
3) Cooperation between traditional and modern
4) Green philosophy