Section 2

 
 

Journeys of a Plant

 
 

This section tells the hazardous sea adventures of a mysterious shrub native of south China long commodified for the making of “rice-paper”.

Scroll to read the stories ↓

Story 4: 1851 Sarah & Temple Layton

 

The Consuls

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Temple Layton served as the British consul in Amoy (now Xiamen) from 1846-1850. During this time, pith-paper paintings were introduced to Western countries through ports such as Amoy (also a place of major pith-paper production) Canton and Hong Kong. This ‘new’ plant aroused both scientific curiosity as well as economic interest in Western botanists. The director of the Kew Gardens at the time (Hooker) reached out to Temple to procure details of how these ‘rice-paper’ products (as the British termed them) were made, as well as specimens of the plant they were made from. Temple died in 1850, but his widow Sarah continued this mission. She succeeded in finding live specimens of the plant in Taiwan and attempted to send them to Hooker on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, none of the plants she sent survived the sea voyage back to England. Despite this, Hooker was able to make a preliminary identification of the Pith Paper Plant as Aralia papyrifera. He made use of a portion of the stem and leaves from Sarah’s packages together with a drawing owned by John Reeves (a naturalist active in China then) for this identification - the question mark in the name indicating his uncertainty over this classification. 

 

Pith Paper

Paper made from the Rice-Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer. This paper is also known as ‘Rice Paper’ in Western terminology. 

 

Tetrapanax papyrifer is a shrub native to China. Apart from being used medicinally, records from the Jin Dynasty show it was used to make artificial flowers. Pith paper is made by turning and shaving a long, thin sheet from the central, spongy part (pith) of the stem of a Tetrapanax papyrifer plant. This material was uniquely different from other paper at the time due to its textured surface, water absorbency and its microscopic characteristics.

 

Pith paper flowers began to circulate in European circles in the early 18th century. By the mid-19th century, export paintings using pith paper became popular items of trade in Canton (Guangzhou) ports. These pith paper products attracted the interest of Western botanists, who spent decades before finally cracking the mystery and identifying the plant it was made from. Up until the 20th century, pith paper production remained a major export industry of Taiwan. Although the Rice-Paper Plant became a common garden plant in Europe and North America, the techniques of pith paper production were not transferred. The art of making pith paper is now almost extinct in Asia, with the exception of a few places in Taiwan preserving this craft as a form of cultural heritage. 

A Bouquet of Flowers (1830s)

Hong Kong Museum of Art collection

 
 

Guangdong painter Sunqua’s export paintings have an artistic style that integrates features of both Chinese and Western paintings. The textured structure of the pith paper gives a particular vividity to the colour of the painted flowers. The size of the pith paper was limited by the size of the Rice-Paper Plant’s stem and the craftsman’s skill in producing sheets of pith paper. Larger paintings tended to be more rare. This 18x29.5 cm painting is considered a relatively large piece.

a bouquet of flowers

©️ Economic Botany Collection of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, UK

Chinese Pith Paintings Illustrating Pith Paper Production 

Royal Botanic Gardens,

Economic Botany Collection

 

Businessman CJ Braine sent Hooker these paintings from Hong Kong in 1850. Possibly produced by the Guangdong painter Sunqua’s studio, the process of making the pith paper is depicted in detail. Of great interest in these paintings, is that the actual Tetrapanax papyrifer is shown with a significantly thicker stem than its real-world counterpart. 

©️ Economic Botany Collection of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, UK

 

Story 5: 1852 John Charles Bowring

The Merchant

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The son of the fourth governor of Hong Kong, Bowring worked for Jardine, Matheson & Company in Hong Kong. He was an enthusiastic plant and beetle naturalist who contributed to solving the ‘mystery’ of the Rice-Paper Plant. In 1852, Bowring’s connections to political and business circles in Hong Kong gave him the access needed to acquire live Rice-Paper Plant specimen and build Wardian cases for their transport, finally completing  Sarah Leighton’s mission to deliver live plant specimen to Hooker. Consequently, in 1852 two live specimen of Tetrapanax papyrifer were delivered successfully to the Royal Botanic Gardens, helping solve a mystery that had puzzled Western botanists for decades.

​Rice-Paper Plant / Tetrapanax papyrifer

Rice-Paper Plant

Tetrapanax papyrifer

Hooker received two living Rice-Paper Plants sent by land from Bowring in 1852. He  planted one of them in Kew Gardens and in Dec 1855 it bloomed in the Gardens for the first time. The following year, Hooker provisionally classifying Pith Paper Plant into the Genus Aralia. Three years later, German botanist Karl Koch re-classified the Rice-Paper Plant as an independent genus and renamed it Tetrapanax papyriferus. This plant is one of the first native plant species from Taiwan named by Western binomial nomenclature.

Wardian Case

Royal Botanic Gardens,

Economic Botany Collection

 
 

A Wardian case is a small portable greenhouse that preserves the local soil, air and moisture conditions of a plant during transportation. The invention of this case in 1833 dramatically increased the survival rate of transported plants, especially on sea voyages. However, by the mid-1920s scientists had realized the dangers of Wardian cases – invasive species were also often transferred with the target plant and damaged ecosystems at the plant’s destination. Its use was largely discontinued by the 1940s, although it continues to live on as a decorative motif in household planter designs.

Wardian Case

©️ Economic Botany Collection of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, UK