Whilst living in Paris, I was granted special permission to paint in the private glasshouses of the French Senat. These plant collections are housed behind high walls in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris. The plants were magnificently cared for and the gardening staff kind and great fun, making it a joy to spend many months painting there. A glass or two of quality French wine was, naturellement, sampled – assez souvent !
This orchid, known to the Vietnamese as Lan hài vàng, is endemic to Cao Bang Province and the two butterflies Hebomoia glaucippe and Teinopalpus imperialis, whilst not thought to be pollinators, are also from that region so were suitable for inclusion in this painting. T. imperialis, the green butterfly, is a rare Asian swallowtail whose common name is Emperor of India. Both butterflies were painted from specimens in the entomology collection at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. The composition was prompted by a desire to experiment further with borders. [ It has sometimes felt uncomfortable to paint so much life inside rigid frames – in an obviously much milder form, it can be reminiscent of my pain on seeing any life form imprisoned.]
Cao Bang, which means High Plateau, is a limestone karst area of north-eastern Vietnam. Rivers and streamlets crisscross the terrain, creating towers, underground tunnels and plunging cliff faces. The moist atmosphere thus generated remains though temperatures can range from 5 – 37 degrees during a year. The conifer Keetelaria davidiana, found throughout the region, clings to sometimes vertical rock formations at nearly 1000m and provides an epiphytic home for Paphiopedilum helenae on north-facing branches. Rocky cracks in the karst also provide the orchid with root-holds on shaded cliff faces, where it is pollinated by hover-flies. P.helenae was named after the wife of the Russian botanist Averynov. He was invited to accompany N.T. Hiep and D.D.Huyen on an expedition in 1995 to explore remote areas of Cao Bang. The almost inaccessible karst was to prove as much of a sanctuary for rare orchids as it had been for pro-independence Vietnamese trying to oust the French in 1941.
As if the massive natural destruction of Agent Orange unleashed on Vietnam wasn’t enough theft of the Vietnamese people’s right to their own natural beauty, up to 20,000 wild-collected P. helenae were later sent to international markets. Since so many wild collected plants die, a few businesses made a brief yet devastating killing – both metaphorically and literally. © Frances Livingstone 2018