Hong Kong Herbarium

Botanical Nomenclature:

Aquilaria sinensis and origin of the name of Hong Kong


Flowers and leaves of Aquilaria sinensis

Aquilaria sinensis (Lour.) Gilg, with a common name Heung tree or Incense tree, is an evergreen tree native to south China. Its trunk is smooth and light grey, leaves are oval-shaped and with fine vine, and flowers are small and yellowish green. In summer, plenty of oval-shaped green fruits can be seen hanging on it. It is a useful plant as the resin extracted from wood can be used for making incense and Chinese medicine, its wood for joss sticks, and its bark for paper. It has been listed as a Wild Plant under State Protection (Category II) in China owing to the decline in its distribution. However, Aquilaria sinensis is common in Hong Kong and currently not under any threat.

What is the relationship between this handsome tree and the name of the place we are living in? Despite various explanations for the origin of the name of Hong Kong, the most popular belief is that Hong Kong derives its name from “Fragrant Harbour” or “Incense Harbour”.


Fruits of Aquilaria sinensis

According to Hong Kong and its External Communication before 1842, a book written by Professor Lo Hsiang-lin and other reference materials, Heung tree was planted in large numbers in Tung Koon (Dongguan) District and the New Territories of Hong Kong, particularly at Lik Yuen (Shatin) and Sha Lo Wan (the west of Lantau Island) during the Sung Dynasty (619-970 A.D.). The products of Heung tree, pieces of incense each shaped like an amber, were transported through land routes from the production areas to Tsim Sha Tau (now Tsim Sha Tsui) and then by sampan to Shek Pai Wan (now Aberdeen), where incense products were finally exported to destinations in the Chinese mainland, Southeast Asia and places as far as Arabia. Shek Pai Wan, the harbour exporting incense, was therefore named ‘Fragrant Harbour’ (‘Heung Harbour’), to the extent that the whole island was later known as Hong Kong.

However, during the early Ching (Qing) Dynasty (1662 –1720 A.D.), in order to counter the coastal attacks by pirates, all coastal habitants were evacuated to inlands. Therefore, the planting industries of Heung tree were seriously affected.

Now, the harvesting of Heung tree for economical uses has disappeared in Hong Kong. As the climate and soil condition in Hong Kong are suitable for the growth of Heung tree, it becomes a common tree species found in our countryside.

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