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The Botanical Hub and the search for Pith Paper Plant

After opium and tea, British merchants kept looking for new, profitable crops. In 1847, Hooker opened the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew, which showed that commercial trade and the studies of natural history were complementary.
This was when the Pith Paper Plant caught Hooker’s attention. In this search that lasted for centuries, Hong Kong naturalists were mobilised and played a key role in the process. The Pith Paper Plant is a shrub native to China. In the early 18th century, Europeans were introduced to the pith paper flowers. Later in the mid-19th century, trade paintings on pith paper gained popularity in the ports of Canton. Westerners called it the "rice paper" and were often curious about this special paper, unique in its tactility, absorbency, and structure when examined under the microscope.
 
Hooker had already obtained a piece of the plant’s pith in 1830 but knew nothing about the Pith Paper Plant. When the Qing court opened five ports for trade, including Amoy (now Xiamen) where pith paper was produced, Hooker then asked Temple Layton, the British Consul to Amoy, to help look for the plant. He also sought help from botanical enthusiasts active in southern China, as trade paintings were sold through commercial ports like Canton and Hong Kong at that time.
 
In 1850, Hooker received a set of drawings on pith paper from Braine depicting the process of making pith paper; however, the plant in the painting was not in proportion. Meanwhile, after Layton’s death, his widow Sarah Layton continued to help Hooker by shipping live Pith Paper Plants found in Taiwan to England over several attempts, but all failed due to the plants wilting or pirate attacks during the voyages.
 
With the remnants of the plant from Sarah, along with the Chinese paintings owned by amateur naturalist John Reeves, Hooker nevertheless managed to tentatively identify Pith Paper Plant as Aralia ? papyrifera (the question mark indicates his uncertainty). In the same year, Bowring obtained live Pith Paper Plants with the help of his political and business connections, and spared no expense to send two live plants from Hong Kong to Kew successfully. One of the plants was planted in Kew and bloomed three years later. Pith Paper Plant is now an independent genus with the scientific name Tetrapanax papyrifer.

 

Highlights of Hong Kong’s Botanical Network, 1840-1860

Highlights of Hong Kong’s Botanical Network, 1840-1860

This map is drawn based on research by Dr. Alicia Weisberg-Roberts
 
By referencing Kew's literature and collection records, the naturalists active in Hong Kong mentioned above were mobilised to unveil the secrets of "rice paper". While it has been documented that Eyre sent the Pith Paper Plant paintings to Kew, these records are not found in Kew’s current specimen library.

Letter from Captain Champion to Director Hooker of Kew (1849)

© The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 


Written before Champion left Hong Kong, the letter not only lists the specimens he sent, but also mentions the remarkable naturalists in Hong Kong at the time: Braine was the best florist in Hong Kong, Eyre was always collecting seeds in the wild, Bowring was beginning to take an interest in botany, and his father was the only one who could get into the country around Canton “without much danger of being murdered”.

Letter from Bowring to Director Hooker of Kew (1852)

© The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


Bowring writes that while he had no further information about the Pith Paper Plant for the time being, his father had been appointed the British Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade. His father had ordered the new British Consul to Amoy to procure and investigate large samples of stages of pith paper production. He mentions that in China, pith paper is mainly used for paper flowers.

 

Exibition