My Earliest Recollection of a “Botanical Illustration” Comes From an Unlikely Source

Apple Blossom

My earliest recollection of a “Botanical illustration” comes from an unlikely source.

While browsing through my library of botanical illustrations, created for the Washington Post’s “Digging In” gardening column, I came across my illustration of an apple blossom (above). As I stopped to study it, unexpected memories surfaced. We all know the old saying- a picture paints a thousand words- but it can also paint a thousand memories. There is something about this particular botanical illustration: the way I drew the leaves, the composition and stippling treatment, that brings me back to my childhood. For a moment I experience the power of memory to transport me back to another time and place.

Another time and place.

That place is Tullamore, my hometown and county seat for Offaly in the Irish midlands. My father was a pharmacist, (or Chemist as they were called back then). He had his own pharmacy where loyal customers came regularly to get their prescriptions filled. As a small child I often visited him there and, if I was lucky, he gave me old-fashioned barley sugar, the only candies on sale in the shop at the time. I remember it as a calm, friendly place with kind shop assistants.

Christmas gift sets and nostalgic fragrances.

I particularly liked visiting the pharmacy at Christmas time. I was drawn to the gift sets, carefully arranged on green and red crepe paper, festooned with silver and gold tinsel. To my unsophisticated child’s eye they represented the height of luxury. I loved looking at those sets, their smooth bars of soap and cylindrical, cardboard containers of talcum powder, lying snugly on a bed of pastel shaded satin. I smelled their sweet fragrances – apple blossom, lily of the valley, wild rose: the lily of the valley the most exotic and intense perfume to my child-nose, the apple blossom sweet, pleasant and comforting. Fragrances full of nostalgia for me now, conjuring up the sights, sounds and smells of a warm spring day in an Irish childhood.

Earliest introduction to “botanical illustration”.

I was also drawn to those gift sets for their pretty, floral watercolor illustrations, quite probably my earliest introduction to “botanical illustration”. This memory teaches me to never underestimate the influence of any experience, no matter how small, on the open and impressionable mind of a child. I have heard it said that a person usually ends up doing in adulthood what they enjoyed doing most as a child. I look at my nine-year-old daughter, a ‘nature kid’ if ever there was one: barefoot, swinging wildly from a rope slung around the big leaf maple in our front yard, and I wonder what she’ll be doing when she’s my age.

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