Q&A – António de Paula Saraiva | Landscape architect, agronomist: Macau ‘still taking its first steps’ in green roofs

Author and co-author of several books on plants and landscape architecture, António de Paula Saraiva, launched a book with a new perspective about the taller brothers and sisters of the living kingdom on Saturday.

“Trees and Large Shrubs in Macau” is a book about tree species (published in Portuguese, English and Chinese) aimed at a broad spectrum of the population. In the author’s opinion, the book is intended to be a useful source of knowledge about the plants that surround us and their importance.

The book features 236 different trees and scrubs species, illustrated by photographs and drawings by artist Catarina França e Mafalda Paiva. Saraiva worked since 1985 in Leal Senado as head of Garden Department and Green Zones Department, and also in the Forest Department of the Islands Municipality.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – This is an uncommon topic. Why did you decide to make a book on it?

António de Paula Saraiva (APS) – Well, the fact that it isn’t so common means, in my perspective, that we need to have more books on this topic. Unfortunately, nowadays, the study of botany and plants do not have the prominence that they had in the 1700’s, 1800’s and until the early 1900’s, when having a good knowledge about this field was a characteristic of highly educated people.

MDT – What are the special characteristics of Macau in this field?

APS – For people coming mainly from Europe, like myself, there are two characteristics that I can consider special features of not just Macau but of this part of the world. The first has to do with the aerial roots of the trees which allow plants to live in conditions that at first would seem to be impossible.
In Macau, we have, for example, large plants living on their own on rooftops. As an example I recall the tree that is living on the overhead canopy of the old Hotel Estoril, which is made exclusively of cement. The fact is that tree has made it to survive there and is already around 2 meters tall. The other [special characteristic] is related to the plants that manage to live over the trees trunks, like the ones we have at [the patio of] Albergue [SCM]. There, we can find two huge Camphor trees with their trunks “dressed” by other plants “like a sweater.” These are plants that can live on only a little bit of water and some decaying bark. These “special” features are mentioned in my book to a good extent, although they are not deeply studied as I have no means for that. But I think they do deserve to be studied.

MDT – Who do you think can benefit directly from the knowledge you are sharing in your book? Do you think schools can use it to teach the basics of botany in the region?

APS – I tried to write the book in a very simple way. Contrary to other literary genres where ambiguity is somehow cultivated, in scientific works these kind things should be clear and simple. Yes, I do think that students can benefit from it as I think there is a deficiency in our education system that means we know too little about nature. This seems to be an incongruity with the approaches taken to topics like ecology, global warming, and when we say we favor organic foods but in reality we know nothing and we cannot take any concrete measure [as we lack in knowledge about it].

MDT – In the past we have seen plants re-entering the cities as part of major buildings. How do you interpret this trend?

APS – Fortunately, this has been happening. Macau is still taking its first steps but it is a process that is ongoing and will continue to grow. I approve of this trend. France, for example, recently ruled [two years ago] that roof tops on new buildings [built in commercial zones] must have a garden or be partially covered by plants.

These “green roofs” have an insulating effect, helping reduce the amount of energy needed to heat a building in winter and cool it in summer. They also become eventually a leisure area for the building users and a place where fauna and flora can coexist. Birds can get food, making the city more “alive” and showing less cement.

MDT – Should this “green trend” be a rule here?

APS – We know that in Macau the government is not very daring about controlling construction. This is a reality.  But yes, I think it would be a wise and commendable measure.

MDT – Is there any special thing that you really wanted to include? Why?

APS – Yes, there is. I included in Chapter 6 some concerns about the maintenance of trees. In this chapter I added a short but important paragraph titled “Away from Logic”. In this paragraph, I try to approach something that deserves not only attention but also deep study. It is related to the trees living in very small tree pits, or even no tree pits. These trees challenge the accepted theory that roots need water (that’s an indisputable fact) and it’s unknown how trees manage to survive and apparently live in reasonable health in those conditions. It is still a mystery.

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