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Wednesday, 26th November 2008

Spring in autumn (2)

Three weeks have elapsed since I last talked about trees sprouting new leaves in autumn. I have encountered even more unseasonable plant phenomena. Two examples are discussed below.

In the Kowloon Tong segment of Waterloo Road, I noticed flowers in the clusters of azalea growing on the slopes of Maryknoll Convent School. Bright red flowers were also observed amid fresh green leaves on a nearby Flame of the Forest tree. Students attending my evening lecture yesterday told me that they were seeing similar phenomena elsewhere in Hong Kong.

When I studied at the University of Hong Kong some 40 years ago, azalea was nicknamed "tun gai fa" in Cantonese. "Tun gai" means "trembling in fear" and "fa" means flower. It was because azalea typically blossomed in March and April, shortly ahead of the examinations in May. Seeing azalea flowers meant that examinations were just round the corner and that it was time to study hard. In the last decade or so, I noticed that azalea in the Observatory grounds started flowering earlier year after year. In the last couple of years, flowers were seen in November. This year a friend told me that azalea flowers were seen in Kowloon Tong as early as late October. This is shocking news.

In the case of the Flame of the Forest tree, I have consulted Leon Lau, the webmaster of He tells me that the tree also carries "tun gai fa" as its nickname and that it usually flowers in May and June. I guess that it serves to prompt secondary school students to study for examinations. It so happened that I mentioned about the beautiful sight of the blossoming Flame of the Forest tree in the Observatory in my blog article dated 22nd May. Now fresh leaves and new flowers are seen on such trees at the end of November. The reversal of seasons could not be worse than this. One of the students yesterday told me that she had seen this phenomenon for three years already.

In the context of global warming, the early flowering of plants has been reported in many parts of the world. However, I have yet to see reports of early flowering date migrating past winter and transiting into autumn. (If any reader is aware of such reports, please kindly let me know.) In the present situation, we could no longer tell whether it is flowering too early or too late by half a year!

As one of my colleagues has said, plants are honest and don't tell lies. They grow as circumstances dictate, reacting to temperature, rain and sunshine which incessantly work on them. They sprout leaves, blossom or bear fruits when the time comes. That plants have flowers out of the proper season in Hong Kong reflects that climate change has seriously disrupted the delicate balance in nature which has taken millions of years to establish. Birds, insects and microorganisms the lives of which are intricately entwined with those of plants will all suffer from this disruption. We should realize that rice, wheat and barley are also plants, and are part of nature. Food production could be affected by climate change and city folks like us could not avoid the issue of food shortage in the future. The sharp rise in the price of rice earlier this year may perhaps be taken as the harbinger of things to come.

Forgetting about the date, spring in autumn could be a romantic experience. However, the calendar clearly states that the two Chinese solar terms viz. Winter Commences and Light Snow have passed. Seeing the flowers of azalea and the Flame of the Forest tree at this time of the year sends shivers down my back. Has nature lost its sense of the seasons?

C.Y. Lam

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>