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Botanical Artists Still Document the Word of Plants with Pictures

A botanical illustration showing a tulip and woodruff from 1931 (Credit: U.S. Library of Congress).
A botanical illustration showing a tulip and woodruff from 1931 (Credit: U.S. Library of Congress).
Botanical Artists Still Document the World of Plants
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Artists who make pictures of plants are known as botanical illustrators. Today, some may see such a job as something people only did hundreds of years ago.

But people who make detailed drawings and watercolor paintings of garden plants are still at work today. And, art experts say there is nothing old-fashioned about botanical illustrations.

“There’s a great admiration now for realistic drawings and observing nature,” says Femke Speelberg. She is with the department of drawings and prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Helen Bynum and her husband put together the book “Botanical Sketchbooks.” It was published in 2017. She said that as the Earth loses biodiversity, botanical drawing is an important way to examine and document plants that might disappear.

Botanical drawing dates back to at least ancient Egypt. It was especially developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, when plants were often used for medicinal purposes and people needed to be able to tell safe plants from poisonous ones. A lot of plant families contain both. For example, the nightshade family of plants includes Belladonna, a poisonous plant, but also plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Explorers often brought a botanical artist with them to record the plants they found. Such artists were also popular during “Tulip Mania” in 17th-century Holland. That was a time when rare bulbs of tulip plants sold for huge amounts of money. Collectors and breeders needed the artists to record each flower’s appearance.

Bynum said there are many interesting stories behind botanical drawings.

“What I learned doing this book is that you don’t have to be a great artist to get things down on paper in a way that can communicate to other people,” she said.

Robin Jess leads the Botanical Art and Illustration program at the New York Botanical Garden. It is the oldest program of its kind in the country. She said students must take classes in plant structure “so they understand what it is exactly that they are drawing. It requires a strong basis in botany,” she said.

The New York Botanical Garden is also the headquarters of the American Society of Botanical Artists. The society has about 1,800 members.

Jess said botanical artists share a desire to bring attention to plants as well as environmental concerns.

Before photography was invented, botanical illustrations were extremely important to the study of plants. Even today, drawings can show things about plants that photographs cannot. Jess said, a drawing “can show extra details of the fruit, for example, and what it looks like bisected.”

Making botanical illustrations for a patron is alive and well, Jess noted. A work called a florilegium is a documentation of all the plants growing in one garden. Jess said such works are becoming more and more popular.

“From a florilegium of a small herb garden in Minneapolis [Minnesota] to a complete florilegium of Alcatraz, they’re really drawing a lot of attention,” Jess said. Alcatraz is a small but famous island off the coast of California that held a federal prison.

Prince Charles of Britain recently asked for a florilegium of one of his properties, she said. He invited top botanical artists from around the world to come to his property and paint. Jess praised the results as “just fabulous.”

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Mario Ritter Jr. adapted this Associated Press story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

old-fashioned –adj. relating to the past or something no longer used

admiration –n. a feeling of respect or approval

biodiversity –n. the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment

engage –v. to get and keep someone’s interest

bisect –v. to cut in half

patron –n. a person who gives money and support to an artist or organization

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