Friday 21 August

The botanical gardens here at Kunming have a really easy sense of scale. There are structured plantings, but also semi-natural areas, interesting winding paths, and a change in topography. From the West Entrance, the hub of the Institute and where the students are based, the road curves upwards through well established conifers to “the main drag”: the Medicinal Herb Gardens on the left, the edge of the Arboretum on the right, the Greenhouses – where the elders can be found, day after day, playing their cards of mah jong. Then sloping down again through the stands of Eucalypts, the Gymnosperm section, the avenue of Sabina chinensis to the North Gate. And just outside, the busy street, three enormous factories and a great deal of noise.

Apart from the blocks of student accommodation, there are also apartments for researchers working on KIB projects. Staff used to live on site, but the apartments were sold off a few years ago and many of them moved out into the city, travelling in on the free buses that start arriving from their pick-ups around the city at 7.30am. There is now talk about buying back the apartments, but the uncertainty means that improvements are being put on hold as the owner may not be able to recoup their investment.

I was surprised how many people wandered around the gardens in the evenings, enjoying the surroundings – and guess that most of them live here either short-term or permanently. Men and women, some with their children, young people enjoying privacy in an enfolding, growing darkness.

And tucked in and around the gardens are a number of homes where caretakers or maintenance workers live with their families. The children have a wonderful, natural playground to explore, using their endless imagination to make their own entertainment – I don’t remember laughing quite as much as they do, as a child, nor having so many play-mates, but I do recall the wonder of discovery, and the joy of being outdoors.

It’s ironic to see these children, in their hand-me-downs, playing so freely and carelessly, knowing that they will never get anything more than a basic education, if that; their fathers and mothers working long hours, day after day, simply keeping the fabric of the gardens woven in place, perhaps never understanding the significance of their work beyond the doing. And the students attending the Institute, who use the plants in the gardens for their studies, learning the Latin names, their evolution, going on to their Degrees, and their Professorships – their careers.

I have seen a number of Europeans around the campus (for that’s what it feels like), but haven’t known quite how to approach them – I’ve felt there must be more to life here than eating, sleeping, studying – or painting – and they would surely know. My hesitant approach to a young fair-haired man resulted in having dinner with Franz, his wife, their two small children and another Swiss research student at a small restaurant just outside the gates – yards from my room, but which I didn’t know was there.

I discovered there’s an Ethno Botany department here, that Caroline is writing up research on the ritual use of native plants by ethnic groups in Sichuan, bordering Tibet, that Peter is researching food plants collected from the wild, and sourcing material from local markets along with a Chinese interpreter from the Institute. And that the medicinal plants expert of Plantlife International, Alan Hamilton, is currently in Kunming.

I recounted my contact with Plantlife’s Press Officer and Editor, Sue Nottingham, back in April when I learned of their work at Ludian, in NW Yunnan – one of five international pilot projects working with local communities to find sustainable ways of harvesting medicinal plants, protecting a valuable resource, whilst addressing immediate economic concerns. Reading back over Sue Nottingham’s e-mail, she expressed considerable interest in my recording “some of the medicinal plant species being conserved in the forest reserves, and the gardens where farmers and individual householders are growing their own medicinal plants.” There are a number of Professors at KIB who gave been involved with this project – and if anyone can facilitate an introduction, then my chance encounter with the Swiss family might just nail it.

A back-up e-mail to Sue Nottingham wouldn’t be a bad idea either – remembering not to rely on others to ask for assistance on my behalf, but to be more pro-active: “if you don’t ask, no-one knows you want.”

A number of people have asked me now what I will do with my paintings, and as yet I don’t have an easy answer as the focus of my project, to paint plants associated with Augustine Henry, is by necessity shifting; there’s no plan for a book (and certainly not enough material) and at the moment they’d make but a small contribution to any exhibition. But the conservation of plants remains a key theme and no doubt a direction will eventually emerge.

Until then, my studies must stand on their own – an example of what I can do, of my deeper interests in botany. Studies of plants that have a cultural or economic significance – not always the most attractive, not the blousy cultivars of so much amenity planting, but sometimes the overlooked or seemingly insignificant such the dark green serrated leaves and thin, sap-green ovoid seed pods of Eucommia ulmoides.

Medicinal plants, rare or endangered plants, plants that have been used by people for hundreds or thousands of years – plants that are still important for life, and for our future.