On the lower stretches of the Rio Negro, the huge brown river that joins the Amazon at Manaus, on the banks of its tree-lined creeks and tributaries—and nowhere else—grows a rare night-flowering cactus, known to science as Selenicereus wittii, and to the lay world as flor da lua, or the Amazon moonflower. The moonflower is a scarlet and green epiphyte that roots itself on the trunks of trees in the flooded forest, the várzea. Each bud blooms only once, at dusk, sometime between April and June, a fist-sized, sweet-scented whorl of slender white petals. By dawn the next day it has closed again, never to reopen. Infrequently recorded by botanists, never painted or photographed in nature, the moonflower was born to blush unseen. Until Margaret Mee tracked it down.
Margaret Mee is botanical artist, a species as uncommon these days as the moonflower itself. Her rendezvous with Selenicereus wittii on the Rio Negro, which produced the first image of the moonflower in full flower, was the climax of three decades spent recording the flora of the Brazilian rain forest, the world’s most extensive unchronicled botanical reservoir. The moonflower portrait is the centre piece of an exhibition of her paintings currently on display at Kew Gardens.
I went to meet her last month in Rio de Janeiro, in the house where she lives with her husband in the suburb of Santa Teresa, on the heights of the city, overlooking the Guanabara Bay. The house has been a staging-post for many plant scientists on their research trips to the rainforest. When botanists who specialise in the Amazon hear Margaret Mee’s name a wistful air comes over them. Ghillean Prance, the recently-appointed director of Kew Gardens, describes her as “intrepid …gifted…sensitive…modest…passionate…unique”. When it comes to Margaret Mee, there’s no scrimping on eulogizing adjectives.
Her extensive oeuvre of paintings, made in gouache, are the outcome of fifteen plant-hunting expeditions over thirty years. They are a uniquely rich sampling of a flora much of which is yet to be discovered, let alone recorded. Several of them record the only certain sighting of an otherwise unknown plant: altogether she has discovered at least eight new species, four of which are named after her: margaretae or meeana.
Flooded forests, botanical dodos
In her paintings they come alive, wild with colour, pictured at their peak moment of blooming. She does not paint in the herbarium, only in the field—travelling in small boats, hiring a local boatman to assist her, for months on end, deep in flooded forests. These epic journeys in search of the glittering prizes of the plant world combine the tradition of pioneering 19th-century botanical illustrators such as Marianne North with that of writer-travellers like Mary Kingsley or Isabella Bird. The acceleration of environmental destruction in the Amazon today gives Margaret Mee’s work an additional, tragic significance. Many extraordinary plants there are threatened with extinction, doomed to become botanical dodos. For some of them her paintings will be the only record of their ever having existed.
To achieve the desired level of realism in her painting she has to work fast: a vine brought down from the rain forest canopy can wilt in half an hour. During our conversation in Santa Teresa she describes a working day that starts before dawn and ends after dark. It might include, for instance, working underwater with a bignonia in order to keep the flowers open longer, or keeping plants in a portable fridge. Even living plants in botanical gardens don’t satisfy her desire for naturalism.
“You can’t paint from the flowers in a botanical garden, even living specimens,” she says. “Cultivated flowers grow differently and look different.”
A Fitcarraldo of flowers
This Fitzcarraldo of flowers is a small, slight, spry woman of 79, with winning blue eyes and long, wispy hair, which she keeps pinned up under a huge straw hat. (In the rainforest people envy her hat, which guards the wearer against both sun and rain. It has been tried on, she notes, by villagers and river-dwellers all up and down the Rio Negro.)
To see Margaret Mee in her element we should imagine ourselves on the river, or one of its tributaries, floating slowly through dark, petal-strewn creeks in the flooded forest in a narrow skiff that is overflowing with woven baskets full of orchids and bromeliads. It is early in the morning. The boat is a floating botanical garden, an ark for plants, with the artist poised in the prow, her paintbrush hovering over a flower, hair trailing in the water like Spanish Moss, while dawn turns the swirling river to quicksilver and the uirapuru bird sings in the trees.
Such idyllic moments recur in Margaret Mee’s account of her life as a plant hunter. She has seen dangers too. She lists them for me: malaria, hepatitis, near-death by drowning, murderous gold prospectors, blood-sucking buffalo gnats, toxic frogs, snakes and scorpions. Plus vampire bats and jaguars. Still, she says, it seems to her that life is safer in the jungle than in the city these days.