Tuesday 18 – Thursday 20 August

The light has deteriorated rapidly from an overcast 125 / f5.6 400ASA, to a heavy, flat grey. Sporadic rain threatens – and surprises – and in frustration I have set up on the table in my room where the large wall-to-wall window offers as light as I will find today.

I was surprised to find the gates to the Medicinal Herb gardens locked this morning, until I remembered that they are moving a lot of plants this week and demolishing the outer, austere concrete wall. The replacement hedge will be a great improvement, proving a natural barrier and softening the appearance. I sought out Yuan, who introduced me to Yu Jian Yan, Head of Medicinal Gardens, and escorted me inside – whereupon I attempted to continue painting Platydodon grandiflora.

The plant is low growing making it difficult to study, but this time I sat on a chair – I badly strained my back the other day sitting hunched over on the path in an awkward position. I could feel the discomfort but was more intent on making some painting progress than listening to my needs, which was a foolish mistake – and one I have made many times before. I wonder why we think that discomfort somehow makes the experience more ‘real’. The old myth of suffering for one’s art…

Later – from the frustration of working inside – “what on earth am I doing, in the middle of China, sitting in a hostel room painting?” to the excitement of being handed a pot of six, small Begonia henryi collected from the wild at the weekend. Prof Sun, Feng Shi, Prof Yuan and a few others went off into the mountains on a collecting expedition –and how I wish I had been invited to join them!

The plants are still a bit in shock and the larger leaves are badly crushed, but there’s one half-decent flower bud and I think I can prop the leaves up so it looks like they’ve got a bit more life in them.

Begonia henryi isn’t rare, but is also not extremely common. It’s very low growing, on moist slopes where the water drips down through the soil. The plant has a small corm and produces just one leaf. The flower stalk is vibrant red and large patches on the forest floor make a striking contrast with the dark green ground-cover. Mature leaves have an interesting geometric pattern of markings – these appear red on the underside, but are brownish/ purple on the top where the green overlays the red. They are horribly hairy, and begonias wouldn’t be anywhere near one of my first choices to paint, but I feel it’s quite a privilege to have been handed the pot to take back to my room.

There’s another treat in store for me, if I choose. I’ve been offered the opportunity to paint a new species of Impatiens which has been in constant flower since it was discovered last February. I recall with some distaste the garish Busy Lizzies of English borders and hanging baskets – again not one of my favourite species – but these flowers are softer, and what a privilege to be one of the first to paint it.


Lost most of Wednesday trying to get into town to wire money through to Shanghai to get my zoom lens fixed – something that challenged even Feng Shi as she battled over the Bank forms. I wouldn’t have had a clue.

The Bank was in a small shopping area of North East Kunming, and I took the opportunity to replace the reading glasses that fell out of my top pocket the other day, and buy some fresh fruit and real coffee. There’s a huge amount of construction taking place in the city (surprise!) resulting in horrendous traffic jams. After sitting on a bus for half an hour we legged it down deserted streets until we were in an area where we could flag down a taxi. Getting back to the gardens was equally frustrating as the taxi-driver found most of his usual routes blocked – resulting in a rather frightening, and unusual, tirade from the front which left us both rather shaken.

I finished the study of Begonia henryi this morning and was pleased when Yuan remarked excitedly that he could easily identify it from the painting. I’d have been rather horrified if he couldn’t…

I’d produced a second list of plants I wanted to paint after poring over KIBs “An Enumeration of Plants Growing in Kunming Botanical Garden” and looking back through files on my computer. I’d forgotten that I’d done a certain amount of research into medicinal plants before I’d left England, and was really excited to come across the document BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) Plants for Life medicinal plant conservation and botanic gardens. This report was published only last year, and draws on a questionnaire survey of botanical gardens, experts and conservation organizations worldwide. The response to the survey was extremely encouraging and has resulted in a commitment by BGCI to develop and implement an international medicinal plant programme.

Various species are mentioned within the report of being of great importance for ex situ and in situ conservation – including a number held at KIB. In fact, Eucommia ulmoides is referred to: “possibly not known in wild, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) tonic for arthritis and tooth fillings”. This is the same plant I mentioned earlier, and which is attributed to Augustine Henry, that has a web-like structure when pulled apart – and which suffers considerable damage when people strip the bark for their home-cures.

Yuan allowed me to take a small twig from the tree which has a few seeds, and I can see that becoming my painting priority for tomorrow!

From the creative dearth of Hubei, the delays and frustrations of waiting for assistance to find and paint Emmenopterys henryi in flower – which never materialized – to the cornucopia of Yunnan…

How wonderful it would be to be commissioned to paint medicinal plants in the collection. Now there’s a pipe-dream!


Clerodendrum bungei seedsEucommia_ulmoides_-_web_in_bark

Eucommia ulmoides web in bark