Friday 10 May 2019

Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong

Newly-published Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong and Southern China features 109 exquisite watercolor paintings of 104 resident species, created by one of the world’s top botanical artists, Hong Kong-based Sally Grace Bunker. 

To create the works in Portraits of Trees of Hong Kong, Sally was painting or researching six hours a day for nearly eight years. She said: “I spent many long hours visiting these trees, sitting with them, sketching details, observing all their characteristics, taking samples home to construct a composition in stages, and finally bringing all the details together to produce a painting depicting all the stages of seasonal changes, and further details of parts of the tree including the bark. Each tree that I studied and illustrated has its own uniqueness in structure and adaptations to the many challenges they have to cope with in order to survive.”

Professor Saunders, who has been studying Asian flora for 27 years, said Hong Kong’s trees need more protection for their diversity to be preserved: “Many of Hong Kong’s tree species require conservation, and the incense tree, Aquilaria sinensis, is an excellent example,” he said. “The resin-containing wood (‘agarwood’) is highly prized and commands an exceptionally high price in the black market, even exceeding the value of elephant ivory. There are frequent reports in the media of large incense trees in Hong Kong being felled illegally in the hope of retrieving agarwood. This is having a devastating impact on the genetic diversity of local populations, since most remaining individuals are too small to reproduce.”

Sally, Richard and Chiu here answer a few questions:

Q for Sally: Why did you put so much effort into depicting these trees?

A: “Trees are survivors, a majestic plant that has given the human race sustained life throughout the centuries,” she says. “Knowing trees and their materials was humans’ first survival tool that lead to boat building, enabling the exploration of the world. Throughout history trees have become an essential part of our lives. Our trees are earth’s lungs; they are climate regulators; habitat protectors, food, and now considered as an alternative for building material instead of concrete.

Q for Sally: Which are your favourite trees?

A: My favourites are not the prettiest, or the most flamboyant, they are the ones that that have been a challenge to paint. Syzygium jambos with its fine creamy filaments against a background of purple/green leaves, and Bombax cebia, which has an intricate bark with (if you look closely) a kaleidoscope of colours. Also, Castanopsis fissa, whose flowers in bloom look like fireworks exploding. Many trees on close inspection have tiny flowers of such complexity. And then there is, of course, Bauhinia blakeana (the Hong Kong Orchid Tree, the territory’s official flower) with its centre petal requiring eight watercolour layers to achieve the richness of its colour.

Q for Sally: How does botanical art beat photography?

A: Botanical art represents a single species by creating a highly accurate composition in an idealized form from several specimens. Additional magnified details are added to the piece of work, alongside seasonal changes from flowering to fruits, details of the leaves and other relevant structures within the plant. And who does not admire the hand of a professional artist that can depict in such detail, with care and love, all that has been put into a painting?

Q for Richard and Chiu: What suggestions would you have for the Hong Kong government to better protect local trees?

A: The best way to protect trees in Hong Kong is simply to allow space for them. Given that trees provide many benefits to people—including aesthetic value, watershed protection and surface soil erosion control, etc.—the establishment of Country Parks was undoubtedly key factor shaping our current landscape. We hope that the integrity of the Country Parks can be maintained, thereby providing ecological services, while replacing the earlier-planted exotic plantation trees with indigenous species would allow the latter to thrive.

Details: Portraits of Trees in Hong Kong is published in paperback by Earnshaw Books, priced in local currencies.