The areca palm (Areca catechu) is found from India and Indo-china, south to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. It has a tall trunk to 15 m and rather floppy pinnate leaves to 2 m long. There is a smooth green area (of leaf bases) below the crown of leaves, and the twiggy and much-branched inflorescence emerges at the base of this area.
The main use of betel nut is for chewing: in India slices of the nut, with slaked lime paste wrapped in a betel leaf (from Piper betel L.) a relative of common pepper, make up the paan, which is chewed. This stimulates the saliva, and the resulting spit is crimson-red, staining the lips and teeth of regular users. The taste is said to be bitter, spicy, sweet and salty and to aid digestion, kill worms and kindle passion, as well as being a mild stimulant. Tobacco, cardamom or cinnamon may also be added to the paan.
Chewing betel has, however, been found to the carcinogenic, causing mouth, throat and oesophageal cancer.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the East India Company controlled much of the Indian subcontinent. Keen to exploit and export valuable natural commodities, the Company set out to record the flora of India and commissioned Indian artists to create detailed botanical illustrations. Many of the plants were known through their use in Ayurvedic medicine. One of the world’s oldest medicinal systems, it has been practised in India for 3,000 years.
Company School style paintings became popular with wealthy Europeans. It was not uncommon for East India Company officials (who were not employed as medics or botanists) to build their own personal collections of paintings depicting Indian flora and fauna. We cannot be sure how local amateur botanist Richard Cresswell came by this collection of 86 Company School works. It is possible Henry Creighton commissioned them during his time as a judge in Calcutta and that on his death the works came back to the UK with his daughter Frances who later married Richard Cresswell.