Archive for the 'botany' Category

Eating or reading the wrong thing

Ive posted on ABBA today about the Flower Fairy books, and how if my niece had read them she probably would have been spared a nasty experience after eating some poisonous arum or lords-and-ladies berries (they were green, and she thought they were peas. At least she knew that peas do actually grow somewhere, and are not born frozen in a supermarket; it’s just a pity she didn’t know that they grow in pods).

It’s got me thinking about some of the classics of children’s fiction I grew up on, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down or The Sword in the Stone by TH White, where absolutely accurate, close observation of the natural world informs and indeed forms an imaginative narrative.

I can’t think of any contemporary children’s fiction that is based so comprehensively and accurately around observation of nature – which seems odd, considering our preoccupation with threats to the environment, Can you?

The lords-and-ladies fairy, from Flower Fairies of the Autumn by Cicely Mary Barker

Cuckoo’s nest

‘Your pictures are a world away from here,’ writes my mum, about the photos I’ve sent her of Western Sichuan. ‘The rhododendrons look quite familiar though – if not their setting – as a result of their mass adoption as garden plants here. I presume cow parsley and may trees haven’t been taken back in return.’

Spring in England: frothing cow parsley and creamy, too-sweet-smelling may. Tall foxgloves and ragged robin and watery sheets of bluebells. Why haven’t these been imported to China?

Those intrepid European plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, carrying back home lilies and rhododendrons and tales of long-haired bandits and red-robed monks and levitating lamas; green tea and calligraphy and bones vulture-picked clean; outlandish customs in unbearably exotic landscapes.

I’m imagining intrepid Chinese and Tibetan plant hunters, carrying back home foxgloves and may trees and tales of – of – what? Satanic mills, stuffed Victorian parlours with piano legs prudishly covered, endless suburban streets of twitching curtains and privet hedges and bungalows named Shangri-La. Fish and Chips, Blackpool rock and salty rock pools, eleven o’clock TIME and beery fights on Saturday nights.

The rhododendrons in my parents’ garden, brought back perhaps by Ernest Henry Wilson (whose travels around here are the subject of various tours), are perfectly at home and, as mum says, hardly look exotic anymore.

I’m imagining bonsai may trees in pots in Chinese courtyards, cow parsley gone native along mountain rivers, grazed by hairy yaks.

And then I hear a cuckoo calling, and I’m transported  straight back to cool leafy English Spring, green and white, the dim lacy lanes. All down this mountain valley in Sichuan the call follows me, to the hot springs, into the snow and out again, up to the sacred lake beneath the glacier where devout Tibetans circle clockwise, balancing stones  in an expanding city of cairns and stupas.

It’s a world away from England. But the cuckoo seems utterly at at home.

God’s gardens part II

I keep bumping into botanists and ethno-botanists and botanical artists in Yunnan, following in the footsteps of Joseph Rock, George Forrest and Jean Marie Delavay.

it seems such an innocently adventurous  life, tramping the world in search of lovely things that grow in wild places. And oh, there are some lovely things growing wild in Yunnan.

Some of them are edible…

some medicinal…

some are used to protect houses from ghosts…

unfortunately as a non-botanist I don’t know much about which ones…

(so if anyone else does, feel free to comment)

I only know that some of them smell as amazing as they look.

The artful gardens of Suzhou

are so cunningly constructed to lead you on and turn you round and open up before you new vistas, new worlds (‘The Other Land of Distinction; fairy land in Daoist conception’).

They seem huge, endless; always another corner to explore, another fancifully-shaped entrance to go through to reach walls beyond walls, corridors leading to pavilions, screens hiding the entrance to new courtyards. There’s never a dead end until you realise you are actually back where you started, only from this angle the view is completely different, another reality lies before you…

And there are mirrors offering yet more unreal worlds, or openings that appear to include the world outside the garden (canal side, distant pagoda) into the garden itself. They are utterly, manipulatively enchanting.

Nothing in these gardens simply is. Everything is a representation of something else – a mountain, a lake, a line of poetry. Alongside the constant illusions of space and vistas are the allusions opening up, layer on layer.

Walking through the bamboo grove is meant to imitate a stroll in the wild forest, but at the same time a religious tenet should spring instantly to mind. It’s all a sort of play-acting. The wealthy owners were indulging their pretensions to modest seclusion and learning (witness the names: the Humble Administrator’s Garden), putting themselves into culturally-hallowed roles and scenarios. This pavilion is for watching moonlight on chrysanthemums. This one for subdued bamboo-shaded study. This one is for a fleeting sunrise meeting like in that famous poem.

Then there are the gardens of bonsai, the ultimate in illusion and allusion, trees trained to be tiny representations of themselves.

They’re wonderful and intrinsically delightful, the way anything miniature – kittens, dollshouses – is intrinsically delightful.

But for me the allusion is to the tiny bound feet of Chinese ladies a hundred years ago.

Uncultivated gardens

growing indefatigably on Tuvan plains and mountain passes, in tiny green velvet gardens at the foot of glaciers. The only flowers I can name are poppies and pansies and gentians (?) – anyone know any of the others?

(first and last photo by Mr Krupar – as you can probably tell by the improved quality…)


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