Recently I was privileged to enjoy a cruise through a part of the world about which I knew very little - the Far East.
Setting sail from Singapore, the fair ship Seven Seas Voyager carried us to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam as far as Hong Kong, where we disembarked to return to Scotland by way of two-eight hour flights, with a 2-hour transfer in Dubai. But enough of the traveller’s tale, for I want to describe the one disappointment of the entire journey; I reached Hong Kong too late to see the King Banyan.
I don’t really like Hong Kong. It’s all about money, money, money, money, money and I don’t enjoy the kind of resources which allow me to shop in Gucci, Armani, Dolce e Gabana, Tagheuer, Rolex, Dior and all the other luxury shops for the super-rich, shops which are to be found in each and every one of the innumerable malls in Kowloon, that part of Hong Kong which is directly attached to China. So, instead of prowling the malls spend, spend, spending, I went off to Kowloon Park, which I knew to be the site of the Hong Kong botanical gardens where, in past centuries, botanicals were grown for the benefit of ships’ crews, botanicals being medicinal herbs which every ship carried in the past. One of the reasons for my going there was to walk in the only part of old Hong Kong which still survives in recognisable form; and the other was to see the King Banyan, the oldest banyan tree in China, reckoned to have been a Hong Kong resident for more than 400 years.
Banyan trees are interesting characters. A member of the fig family, the banyan starts life as an epiphyte, a parasitic plant which grows from a seed, dispersed by seed-eating birds, which lands on the branches or foliage of another tree or, in some cases, on a building. When the seeds germinate, the banyan sends roots down in search of the ground, wrapping themselves around the host tree or building. Once established, the banyan grows bigger and stronger, still using its unwilling host as its principal support. It is not uncommon for the banyan’s roots to strangle a host tree, giving rise to the common name ‘the strangler tree.’ When this happens, the host tree dies of course, the dead trunk gradually rotting inside its cage of banyan roots; and, since tree trunks tend to rot from the inside out, these hollow trunks are much sought after refuges for the small animals of the forests where banyan trees are usually found. So it’s not all bad news.
It is probably this characteristic which gave rise to the belief that the Hindu god Krishna made a banyan leaf his resting place, this particular tree growing with its roots upward and its branches down because the spiritual world is a reflection of the material world and everything is viewed as one might see reflections in water. But, sadly, even holy trees are not immune from the problems of the material world. I was aware that a typhoon had caused about one-third of Hong Kong’s so-called King Banyan to collapse in 2007, the trunk of the host tree having rotted away entirely leaving the banyan’s admittedly-tough roots as its only support. I did not know that, in the autumn of last year, the Hong Kong authorities identified the tree as suffering from a viral infection called brown root rot disease after a nearby development in the park deprived the roots of an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients. Brown root rot disease is fatal to trees. And so, just a few months before my visit to Kowloon Park, this 22-metre high giant, whose crown spread extended to 27 metres, got the chop.
Farewell, King Banyan. I regret not having met you, but am happy to have seen some of your now-elderly siblings which may well have been familiar to the Qing Dynasty.