The Soul of the Begonia

There's an exhibition currently at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan called Fragrance fills the Courtyard, a celebration of Chinese Flower paintings through the ages. I drooled over the preview images on the site, not just in regard to the artistry but the mediums. I'm fascinated with the variables of color, material and time, the prospect of seeing a how ink, paper, silk and water based color were utilized, how they have aged over a few centuries and focussed on the subject of floral portraiture - heaven.

The colors of Yun Shouping's paintings stood out, they seemed different, more vibrant in their choice and more unusual in their combination. His Bio reveals a reputation for using 'gaudy and offensive' colors, a rebel attitude that probably set him apart and established his status as one of the major artists of the Qing Dynasty. I looked for more of his work online and found the one pictured left, mistakenly, I'm sure titled Crab Apple from his Album of Flowers and Landscapes. Yun Shouping was from the Jiangsu province but he travelled all over China so it's not unlikely that he came across this muse further south. It's a Begonia, for sure, which may be why I was particularly drawn to it.

This last week of Chinese new year festivities has been a visual assault of lurid red and gold. Every  botanic motif used has been a sledgehammer reference to 'wealth', 'prosperity' 'gold' or in plain speak - 'money'. This Begonia painting, a delicate, complex colored, soulful contemplation of nature devoid of heavy handed metaphor is the perfect antidote.

Begonias have pleasant and familiar childhood associations for me. There was always a Begonia pot or two gracing our front porch or the porches of friends and family, just as there is now at my father's house. They are blooming furiously which was noted by my visiting brother in law, who I am thrilled to discover is a plant geek with a large collection of wild and native orchids which I look forward to seeing.

I was quizzing him about his passion, Orchids, asking him about what their preferred habitat might look like and he espoused on the their epiphytic nature and how they are usually in trees etc but then added - and they share the same habitat preferences as Begonias, look up to see orchids and look down to find Begonias, often near a stream. In that moment the porch living Begonia leapt out of it's pot in my mind's eye and into a more illumined view of it's true nature. I always feel I 'know' a plant a little more when I have a better idea or have seen where they naturally thrive.

The other associated revelation is that they are native or that there are native varieties here which I must of course now investigate further . The other thing I must do is to learn a little Mandarin. Chinese paintings are full of text and colophons. Capturing the soul of a flower it seems is better achieved  by adding a textual narrative to the image. It's frustrating not knowing what the painting fully 'says' or understanding the artists full intent, especially when this marriage of text and image,  like an ancient albeit more artful precursor to blogging, seems hugely relevant in an era where this combination is an important component of modern culture. 


What on earth are those strange alien squid like things? I thought the first time I saw them at the night market. Weeks later I see a photo of it in a cafe garnishing a drink called Roselle. It's Hibiscus Sabdariffa, the strange  squid shape is the calyx of the flower. The drink which I of course had to try, was just 'ok', nothing to write home about, the garnish was perhaps a pickled calyx- weird.

The last time I was in Singapore however, I bought a bottled drink in Chinatown from a 'tonic drink' vendor - labeled Roselle and Hawthorn and it was a much different experience - a 'wow' that's  thirst quenching, tasty goodness. When I saw alien squids available at the night market last week, I bought a half kilo to try. Researching this a little further, I discover that it is also known as Jamaican Sorrel so I proceed with the processing- boiling lightly but adding a little fresh ginger, per the Jamaican method. The result: 'wow'. On tasting it I thought, mint in this would be nice, which I discover, along with vanilla is how the Senegalese prepare it, called Bissap.

The homemade version without any sugar is more fruit juice like than a tea - somewhat cranberry like in flavor which jives with another of it's monikers Florida Cranberry. The color of the liquid is also gorgeous, a red somewhere between beet and blackcurrant juice.  It tastes and looks like something that's awfully good for you and it apparently is, being rich in antioxidants and high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin and iron. I wonder if using the dried version is as good, it's a main component of Red Zinger tea which is not a favorite of mine.

Although I haven't seen it before in these parts, according to Edible & Medicinal Flowers By Margaret Joan Roberts, recorded use of the edibility of the plant was documented in Java around 1862, so it's indigenous to the region. It has a local name Assam Susur and it's name implies that it is  considered a sour fruit which usually means its used in cooking for that property but I don't see it's inclusion in, or recipes for it. I did find however that Ulicha Keerai or Gongura  leaves are used in Tamil and Andra Pradesh cuisine, althouth its not quite the same plant but a close relative Hibiscus Cannabinus. The leaves are also used in Myammar cuisine where it's called Chin Baung Ywet.

The plant itself is quite pretty, it reminds me of that Red Okra I planted a couple of years ago which is not surprising as they are both in the Mallow family.  The obvious next step is to try planting the seeds, there's an empty corner in the flowerd bed where a few might look really good and of course there's all these culinary things to do with it -check out this Roselle Granita.

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