|Sketchbook studies in South Africa|
Before I get into the story, here's a little information about the plant and its habitat. The Cape Floristic kingdom is home to Lessertia frutescens, Sutherlandia (Family: Fabaceae) it is one of the richest areas for flora in the world. Still commonly known as Sutherlandia, the plant was recently reclassified as Lessertia frutescens from Sutherlandia frutescens based on its adaptation to bird pollination, which is by sunbirds. It grows in dry regions throughout the country and is associated with the Fynbos, but grows as far north as Namibia and Botswana and in the Karoo Desert. It's a short shrub, with greyish pinnately compound leaves, which vary considerably in size from 4-10mm. The flowers are orange-red in colour, up to 35mm, in short racemes at the leaf axils. The fruit is a large inflated 'bladder-like' pod, which is paper thin. Flowering time is September - December.
|Large balloon like seed-pods, the plant has long been used for medicinal purposes (Photographed in March 2019 at Kirstenbosch)|
Sutherlandia has many common names, several relate to its medicinal properties, particularly with cancer treatment, such names include, the Cancer Bush or Kankerbos, the Zulu people used the name Unwele, because it was said that the plant 'stops people from pulling out their own hair' - thus takes away stress. It has long been respected in medicine by the original inhabitants of the Cape being used for washing wounds, controlling fever, for stomach and eye problems and cancer. Evidence is largely anecdotal, however, there is some research into its action as an immune stimulant for cancer and AIDs patients. This doesn't mean that it's a cure but Sutherlandia can help to stimulate appetite in patients with wasting diseases. Take a look at the SANBI entry for further information.
If you are unsure about what a Florilegium is:
Modern florilegia seek to record visual collections of plants held by a botanic garden or specific place, either in living or historic collections. Artists are invited to illustrate plants from the collection and usually supplied with a plant list to choose from. The illustrations are usually required to show the important features of the plant. Resulting illustrations are often exhibited and published in books and the botanic gardens hold the illustrations for reference and education purposes.
The aim of the RBGE Florilegium Society is to create a permanent, visual record of RBGE’s botanical and horticultural work through the acquisition of artistic works featuring the plants that are grown, collected, studied and named by RBGE staff. The Society will also raise RBGE’s profile as an important centre of botanical art in relation to both our educational work and our art collection
Being involved in a florilegium can be a bit of a labour of love but it is a great opportunity for botanical artists. For me being a Botanical illustrator is all about recording and learning about plants as well as sharing with others...it's what I always wanted to do.
The story of my interest in this plant began with a trip to South Africa with my daughter Polly in March 2019. This is where we first encountered Sutherlandia frutescens, at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden. Sadly it was at the end of its flowering period, with only a few flowers remaining. This plant caught our attention for a few reasons, firstly, it's my type of subject, I'm always drawn to plants in the Pea family (Fabaceae), their nitrogen fixing symbiotic relationship with bacteria that makes them so important, plus some plants just fill me with enthusiasm and demand to be painted. Secondly, the name 'Sutherlandia', made us want to find out more. Thirdly, it's medicinal properties. Lastly, it matched my nail varnish!
|Tiny little flowers still hanging on in March, despite the flowering period ending in December|
|Display describing Sutherlandia medicinal properties, at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden|
The Opportunity: How Things Mysteriously Come Together
I knew I'd come back to this plant at some point, when out of the blue, my good friend and fellow artist, Shevaun Doherty, told me that a plant called Sutherlandia was on the plant list for the RBGE Florilegium and that I had to paint it? I immediately contacted them and claimed it. Both myself and Polly plan to illustrate different aspects of the plant, which is a slightly unusual approach but was approved.
A Trip to RBGE
In November 2019, we were invited by Jacqui Pestell to visit the Herbarium at RBGE to complete some research. RBGE staff were so helpful and supportive and we spent a couple of days investigating and sketching. Even the current Regis Keeper, Simon Milne, invited us into his office to talk about Sutherlandia and his research. Outside his office is the banner dedicated to James Sutherland (c. 1639 - 1719) the first Regis Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, and of course the reason for the plants inclusion in the Florilegium became apparent, as Sutherlandia frutecens was named after him.
|Viewing the large collection of Sutherland frutescens at RBGE herbarium, showing the various locations and name reclassification over the years.|
|Polly makes notes and sketches|
We really enjoyed our time at RBGE, we made notes, measurements and sketches as obviously watercolour isn't allowed in herbariums. Polly, who illustrates pollen and dissections, intends to return to see if they can capture pollen grains using the Scanning Electron Microscope, this is her specialist area of interest. I'll be making a more traditional illustration of the plant and some of the specimens had already given me some inspiration for a composition.
|In the RBGE Library|
Return to Cape Town
Less than 2 weeks after our visit to RBGE, we were back in Cape Town. This time we knew that Sutherlandia would be in full bloom. The botanical community are always incredibly helpful and it took just a few emails to friends to organise a specimens of the plant for the RBGE project, which was sorted in advance of our arrival.
|Day 2 Arrival at Kirstenbosh Botanic Garden, late November 2019|
Kirstenbosch provided a permit to take a sample of Sutherlandia away, which was extremely accommodating. Garden officer Alice Notten took us to view several examples in the garden, it was a scorching hot day but we came away with a beautiful cutting of the plant. Over the next few days I worked quickly to record as much as possible, making detailed drawings and colour studies. As well as drafting a few compositional ideas.
|Specimen from Kirstenbosch, I had to work quickly before leaving South Africa|
|Sketchbook Study ready for the next step of creating the composition|
Investigation of the reproductive parts
|Taking measurements and collecting as many drawings ans photographs as possible. Here a dissection of the seed-pods|
We also visited Karoo Botanic Garden, which I love! they also have several Sutherlandia plants but it's much hotter and drier there, flowering had mostly finished but there were piles of the hugely inflated ghostly looking seedpods on the ground. We took a road trip many miles into the Karoo desert where we observed the plant in the wild in many locations, we made further studies also took lots of photographic reference. Suffice to say its a very common plant, so was an easy task....apart from the heat!
|In the wild, its easy to spot in the bright light with its small scarlet flowers and ghostly looking seed-pods|
|Road trip: growing at the roadside near Worcester|
If you want to find out more about the RBGE Florilegium or wish to get involved see their Call for Entries