Why Botanical Illustration Is Obscenely Cool

My mind is a miniature gallery of weirdly specific interests, and one of my biggest affections is for natural science illustration (particularly botanical). If I see a dingy framed print of a plant sketch, I will scurry to it immediately, and ooh and aah and whisper the genus-name to myself. Let me try to explain why this is.

One reason I’m interested in natural science illustration is because things like this exist in the world:

Hodgsonia heteroclita, which grows in India, China, and some other parts of Asia. (By Cathcart, John Fergusson (1802 – 1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Yes, that is the wild wobbly-petaled confetti flower. It seems fantastical, like something out of Dr. Seuss, but it’s real.

If you tried to document the same bizarro plant through photography, you might capture a torn flower, or get a good shot of the shape of the leaves, or opt for a close-up of the bud—but likely not all of these. They might be exquisitely-composed photographs, but they can rarely be quite as effective at showing the whole plant, with all its botanical aspects, in all their life stages. It’s the difference between glimpsing a pretty autumnal forest through the window of a speeding bus, and living in that forest in a tiny cabin for fifteen years (to get over-exuberantly metaphorical).

Don’t get me wrong — I love plant photography, and engage in it often. It has its own unique merits for a detail-oriented botanist. It’s just a whole different kettle of fish.

For instance, here’s a photo of a cute little Cerastium arvense (“cuernecita” to its friends) whom I met in Chile. This elegant little bugger was making its living on the side of a mountain in Patagonia, which is one of the less forgiving places for a plant to grow. The flower probably bloomed for a few days at most; perhaps the plant itself didn’t even survive the following winter. This is a Portrait of the Cuernecita as a Young Caryophylle, a moment in its fleeting life.

Cuernecita, or Cerastio (Cerastium arvense). Photo by Tehhen (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Cerastium arvense. Photo by Tehhen (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Compare, if you will … this botanical illustration of Cerastrium arvense. Whether it’s an average of many specimens or whether it was drawn based on the artist’s experience of a single cuernecita, it’s an archetype which transcends the cuernecita’s life cycle. It’s springing from the seed at the same moment as it’s blooming at the same moment as it’s falling into fruit and seed.*
(*Can you tell that I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who?)

Cerastium arvense, by Johann Georg Sturm, Painted by Jacob Sturm, published by Kurt Stüber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cerastium arvense, by Johann Georg Sturm, Painted by Jacob Sturm, published by Kurt Stüber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The other primary reason for my love of botanical illustration is because it can bridge the gap between science and art so very effectively. The scientific illustrator must figure out a way to show a plant’s entire life cycle — while including such generally unphotogenic elements as seeds and stamens — in a way that is accurate and instructive, and possibly also beguiling and artistic.

Some botanical illustrators seem to take more of an approach of “screw it, I’ll just lay out all the flower parts in an orderly way, and call it a day” (which leads to some magnificent, restrained art, in and of itself):

Fritillaria meleagris, which is a lily whose petals are checkered. Checkered, you guys. (By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Fritillaria meleagris, which is a lily whose petals are checkered. Checkered, you guys. (By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
 Meanwhile, some scientific illustrators just go mad with it, combining perfect scientific representations with wild, joyful plants and a disdain for tidy white space. (Ernst Haeckel, whose work is displayed below, is one especially good example of this.)

Various types of Nepenthes (pitcher plants), by Ernst Haeckel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Various types of Nepenthes (pitcher plants), by Ernst Haeckel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Botanical illustration is a celebration of the unabashed weirdness contained within the world’s biodiversity. It’s a mode of learning, a mode of appreciating, and a way to give due attention to tiny, gorgeous details. Although it tends to be an art form with rigid parameters, its subject matter is so varied and flexible that the parameters become supports rather than fetters. Do you see?

Now go forth and admire plant art.

7 thoughts on “Why Botanical Illustration Is Obscenely Cool

    1. You flatter me! I can do decent plant sketches, but have yet to learn how to do proper color and shading. Someday soon, perhaps…

  1. That’s actually some interesting analysis, and I love the illustrations. When are you going to start studying scientific illustration? BTW, do you like your new books on the topic?

    1. I don’t know when I might start studying it; I wonder whether UC Berkeley might add a class in it eventually, as that would be perfect. My new books are the bestest, thank you.

  2. I think I need to study this post and memorize it for my Dickens character, Prof Wigbs, who is a botanist.

    1. Definitely! Have you considered finding some 19th-century botanist and stealing further aspects of their biography as Wigsby’s own? I’ve been reading a book about flowers which details the exploits of various old-time botanists; it was an astoundingly adventuresome and dangerous career back then.

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