Yun-Wah Lam

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Yun-wah Lam

The flower on the coin

Hong Kong
Associate Professor of Department of Chemistry, City University Hong Kong

The image of a Bauhinia blakeana flower on a $5 coin of Hong Kong. The same image is featured on all coins in Hong Kong. Credit: Yun-wah Lam

Coins of other nations show their heroes’ faces. Ours have flowers, from a plant called Bauhinia blakeana.
About 130 years ago, missionary Père Jean Marie Delavay visited Hong Kong from Haute-Savoie, via Guangdong, Sichuan and Yunnan. One day he saw a strange plant outside a desolated house. He bought a cutting home. No one knew what it was.

“Blakeana” was named after Henry Arthur Blake, governor of Bahamas (1884-1887), Newfoundland (1887-1888), Jamaica (1889-1897), Hong Kong (1898-1903) and Ceylon (1903-1907).

Bauhinia blakeana cannot produce seeds. Every blakeana in the world came from the original plant, through an unbroken chain of cutting and grating. No one knows who decided to do that first.

Genetic studies show that blakeana came from a chance fertilisation between two related species, Bauhinia purpurea, widely grown in the Americas and Pacific, and Bauhinia variegate, widely grown in India. No one knows how that happened.

Our hero has no reason to exist. It came from illicit sex between cousins, discovered by a French, named after an Irish, proliferated by the Chinese. The original plant should have died unnoticed. Yet, through a series of global accidents, it stays on, and flowers everywhere in this little strange city.