Illustration Botanical and Plant

American Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, and Irish Fall Color?

Sweetgum

© Aislinn Adams 1998

My first American Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua.

The first time I saw an American sweetgum was in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, Ireland. It was autumn and I was a first year horticulture student attending college there. Ireland is not known for its fall color but that sweetgum, growing on a small island in the “pond”, stopped me in my tracks; its glowing orange-red-purple leaves took my breath away. Such a marvelous display would have done New England proud.

I know there’s a whole series of chemical reactions, triggered by temperature and day length, which make leaves turn the colors they do but seeing that sweetgum made me wonder – if Ireland had more N. American native trees like sweetgum would we have better fall color too?

An American native plant.

Sweetgum is native to the eastern U.S.A. but can be found growing in many parts of the country, including on my own street here in Salem, Oregon. It is not popular with many of my neighbors because its shallow roots push up through the concrete pavement causing large cracks. Even though several neighbors have replaced the sweetgums with smaller, more sidewalk-friendly species, there are still enough on the street to give a striking autumnal show- one I look forward to every year.

Ireland can have good Fall color too.

The botanical watercolor illustration above is part of a series I created for Birr Castle Visitor’s Center in Ireland (and part of my botanical watercolor greeting card series.) I worked on these botanical illustrations while staying in Washington D.C. and was happy to use sweetgum plant specimens from my D.C. neighborhood. I have visited Birr Castle demesne many times (I grew up about 20 miles from Birr) but I don’t recall seeing sweetgum growing there. I have no idea how good the Birr sweetgum looks in an Irish Fall but decided to paint it with good fall color anyway as I like to believe that it too can give as good a show as any of the trees here in the U.S.A. After all, the National Botanic Gardens’ sweetgum looked great.

Aislinn Adams

The Common Fig, Ficus carica, Fruit, Flower or Carnivore?

The Common Fig, Ficus carica, unwelcome bounty!

I originally started writing about the common fig, Ficus carica, because of my annual battle with it. Our neighbor’s fig tree leans over the fence onto our yard and rains its bounty of figs onto our vegetable garden every year.  Unfortunately, neither I nor my husband or daughter eat figs. I find them too sweet, preferring fruit with a more tangy taste. Every year I spend hours cleaning up semi-rotten figs after they have smashed their way through our tomato plants before embedding themselves, like small, sticky bombs, into the mulched paths. Then the clouds of fruit flies follow. It is not one of my favorite gardening moments in the year.

Coming to terms with the common fig.

Even though I don’t like to eat figs I do feel guilty that I am allowing this food source to go to waste. I ask friends and neighbors to come and pick but to date no one has taken me up on the offer. In an effort to come to terms with this dilemma I started researching the common fig. Maybe knowing more about the plant would help me change my attitude and even motivate me to eat some of them or make more of an effort to pass them on to others at least.

I have illustrated the common fig several times for the Digging In gardening column of the Washington Post. Both times I used my neighbor’s tree for reference. I love drawing botanical illustrations, regardless of the subject, especially when I can use a live specimen, and there is no shortage of live specimens of fig in my garden!! I feel I owe this tree something seeing as it has helped me out in the past.

The common fig, a fascinating story.

Once again I start researching a plant and find myself drawn into a long and intriguing story that brings me all the way back to Neolithic times and the first farmers. By coincidence I am reading a book at the moment that has spurred on my research- The Fruit Hunters, A Story of  Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession. This book by Adam Leith Gollner is a great read and even if you have only the slimmest interest in plants you will find it full of great stories to edify and entertain.

Too good a story for just one blog entry.

The story of the common fig, Ficus carica, is a complex and multi-faceted one that merits a book or indeed a series of books. There are two aspects of the fig’s story that have delighted me and sent my imagination into over-drive.

1. The reproductive cycle of the fig and its pollination strategies.

2. The first farmers (Neolithic) who domesticated the fig.

For this reason I’m writing two blogs on the subject starting with the reproductive cycle of the fig and its pollination story.

A fruit that is not a fruit!

I should write ‘false fruit’ or ‘multiple fruit’ when referring to the fig because what we eat is in fact the flower or inflorescence (an arrangement of multiple flowers.) The fig ‘fruit’ is a flower turned inside out: its juicy, red interior made up of lots of individual flowers and seeds growing together. The pollinator, a small female fig wasp that depends totally on the fig for its life cycle, must enter through a small opening in the fig, loosing her antennae and wings en route, to lay her eggs on the female fig flowers.

Fig tree pollination-well, sometimes?

Before all you fig lovers start spitting out your figs let me reassure you. Figs have several ways of producing fruits and most of the varieties in our gardens (Adriatic, Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, and Celeste) are self-fertilized i.e. parthenocarpically. This means that they do not need pollination to produce their fruit.

Carnivorous figs?

The fig varieties that are pollinated by female wasps (e.g. Calimyrna, Marabout, and Zidi) consume the wasp after she has done her job laying her eggs and pollinating the flowers (Does this make the fig a carnivore?) When these eggs mature into female and male wasps the males (who are wingless) mate with the females and chew a tunnel through the fruit creating an opening through which the female wasps can escape. This suggests to me that the wasps may have left the fruit to find new fruits to pollinate before the fig is eaten but one account I read said that we eat the wasp’s eggs with the fruit- extra protein for us all?

Great nutrition- keep eating your figs.

I hope my account of the coevolution of the fig and fig wasp and their symbiotic relationship doesn’t put all you fig lovers off your figs, but rather fills you with the wonder and awe that nature continues to inspire in me? Who needs science fiction when we have nature all around us. I do eat dried figs and now that I’ve learned what a nutritious food it is, I plan to eat more. According to Wikipedia, figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and fiber and USDA research on the Mission variety found that dried figs are richest in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium and vitamin K, relative to human needs. They also contain many antioxidants.  So keep eating your figs and maybe I’ll figure out a way to dry some of my neighbor’s next year.

Aislinn Adams

Hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium, teaches a hard lesson in humility and patience.

Hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium © Aislinn Adams 2009

A new greeting card.

This week I post another botanical illustration from my Washington Post ‘Digging In’ gardening column days and the subject of my latest greeting card design- part of my Botanical Illustration Series #1. In this series I combine my illustrations with favorite quotations. For this card I’ve chosen the quote:

“Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.” Thomas Fuller (1654-1734)

When I read this quote I think optimistically of all the serendipitous plants that turn up in the garden. Often I have bought a plant from my local nursery only to find another species has hitched a ride in the pot. I have acquired some interesting specimens this way: a happy and welcome accident.

Hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium, not a ‘happy accident’.

This week’s blog subject is definitely not one of those ‘happy accidents’, rather the opposite. Hedge bindweed, Calystegia sepium- formerly known as Convolvulus sepium- is a troublesome weed by anyone’s standards.  This vine twines counterclockwise around plants, often overwhelming them. It is also a well-traveled weed as it can be found throughout the temperate regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres. Calystegia means “covered calyx” while the older name, Convolvulus, means “to entwine” -a name that says it all.

Why do I celebrate this plant in a blog and as a greeting card?

When Thomas Fuller wrote this quote in the 18th century I doubt he was thinking of this troublesome plant. So why do I choose to celebrate this plant not only in a blog but also as a new greeting card? The answer is not that easy to explain.

© 2010  Aislinn Adams

I like my botanical illustration of hedge bindweed in spite of the actual plant’s bad behavior. But this is not the main reason I’ve created this card. The truth is that while working on this design I also battle with the plant in the wildlife garden or ‘naturescape’ (natural landscape) at my daughter’s elementary school. For three years I’ve worked hard to create this naturescape and I don’t want to loose it to this fast-growing plant.

Hedge bindweed- a difficult weed.

In my experience this weed, while not an ‘invasive exotic’, is one of the most difficult to remove from a garden, almost impossible in fact. At the moment it is succeeding quite easily in taking over a large area of the naturescape. Last spring I organized a group of energetic volunteers to pull the weed but within a few weeks it was back again: fresh spring-green shoots pushing through thick hogfuel bark mulch.

I have wasted a lot of time worrying about this plant, wondering how I can get rid of it, imagining it taking over the whole naturescape- kudzu-style.  Maybe by creating this card I hope to weaken the spell this plant has cast over the naturescape- and my mind. Maybe by combining this botanical illustration with a thought provoking quotation I can view it from a different perspective and maybe by thinking more philosophically about this plant I can lessen its power.

My ‘Coyote plant’?

This is my ‘coyote plant’. You know Coyote the Trickster of Native American fame. It teaches me that all my efforts to create the perfect naturescape with lots of well-behaved native plants -not always the case of course- is foolishness on my part. I can’t control nature, even this small area on the south side of my daughter’s school.

Grudgingly I learn that I have to respect this plant: its tenacity to keep growing in spite of all my efforts to eradicate it, and to admit that it too has certain qualities that could be called beautiful. But I will keep pulling it and as soon as school starts again next month I will organize another volunteer day of weeding. In the meantime I will reflect on this quotation and learn to live and let live- for the moment anyway!

Aislinn Adams

A Botanical Illustration That Helps me get my Turnips Straight!

© Aislinn Adams  Turnip, Brassica rapa.

A Botanical illustration of a vegetable with a very old pedigree, turnip, Brassica rapa.

I chose the theme of fruit and vegetables for my June blogs but I have so many botanical illustrations to choose from my ten years illustrating the “Digging In” gardening column for the Washington Post that I’ve decided to continue this theme into July. So far too I’ve written only about fruits though several have been regarded as vegetables- see my blogs on plum tomatoes and sweet peppers. This week’s botanical illustration is of a true vegetable with a very old pedigree, turnip, Brassica rapa.

Turnips, Swedish turnips, or rutabaga?

There are several different vegetables originating from this species including Oil-seed turnip rape and many varieties of Chinese cabbage. Brassica rapa originates from the wild turnip, Brassica campestris. This turnip should not be confused with the Swedish turnip, Brassica napus, also known as swedes or rutabaga. The Swedish turnip is a winter vegetable and the one I think of when I hear the word turnip. It’s the one I associate with my childhood. I remember my mother buying it in the local ‘green grocers’: as vegetable shops were called then in Ireland. That Swedish turnip variety was about six inches in height: a solid, purple-skinned taproot, usually round in shape. I also remember it being difficult to chop. We ate it boiled and mashed with some butter and maybe a bit of parsley for garnish. The turnip, Brassica rapa, though similar in shape, is a ‘softer’ tuberous vegetable and easier to prepare in my opinion.

The Irish origin of the Halloween ‘Jack-o-lantern’

I also remember struggling to ‘carve’ out the inside of the swede turnip one Halloween for a lamp and ultimately giving up due to its tough, solid interior, not at all as easy to carve as a pumpkin: the vegetable of choice for Halloween ‘Jack-o-lanterns’ in the U.S.A. In Ireland turnips were hollowed out and small embers placed inside to ward off evil spirits. It is believed that this is the origin of the ubiquitous Halloween ‘Jack-o-lantern’ today. I’m guessing that when the Halloween tradition came to the U.S.A. someone must have hit on pumpkins as a much easier option- maybe after a similar experience to myself!

A European vegetable from pre-Christian times.

Turnip cultivation goes back to pre-Christian times. Its native range is uncertain but it has been suggested that central Europe is its likely place of origin. Theophrastus, the Greek Philosopher, knew of it in the 4th century BCE and many early varieties were given Greek place names. Later the Roman philosopher Pliny the elder listed 12 distinct varieties- categorizing them into the two groups- rapa and napus.

Origin of the name.

The turnip is related to cabbage: the scientific name Brassica is the Latin for cabbage and rapa means turnip. According to the illustrated encyclopedia “Vegetables, Herbs and Fruits” the common name ‘turnip’ comes from a combination of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘naep’ (from napus, in Brassica napus, the botanical name for rutabaga or swedes) and turn meaning round.

These days I enjoy eating a variety of turnips, including this white one illustrated above. I like to chop them up and bake them with a variety of other vegetables. I haven’t seen the purple turnip from my childhood here in the U.S.A.- where I now live- but one of these days I’ll find it I’m sure and then I’ll try it again, boiled and mashed with a little butter. However, I’m sticking with pumpkins for our Halloween lamps.

Celebrating Fresh Fruit and Vegetables in Botanical Illustration

© Aislinn Adams  Plum Tomatoes

Botanical illustrations to celebrate fresh fruit and vegetables.

June has arrived -though you wouldn’t know it here in the Pacific North West with the record rainfall we are having- and with it our first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable box. This weekly vegetable box comes from an organic farm 30 miles south of Salem, Oregon. I look forward to its arrival every June. It’s hard to beat fresh, locally grown produce for flavor.

Our first vegetable box of the summer.

There are only a handful of vegetable and fruit illustrations amongst the hundreds of botanical illustrations I created for the “Digging In” gardening column of the Washington Post but the arrival of the first summer vegetable box in our home inspires me to blog about them.

Plum tomatoes.

I start with an illustration of plum tomatoes, though there are no tomatoes in our vegetable box yet. I particularly like plum tomatoes because of their rich flavor and, even though they are grown primarily for sauces and paste, I love to eat them raw.

The first tomatoes in Europe.

It’s hard to believe that when tomatoes first arrived in Europe around 1523, from Central and South America,  they were viewed with suspicion. Their strong odor and brightly colored fruit appeared poisonous to Europeans, especially as the only other solanum species then known in Europe had poisonous fruit.

Tomatoes and the Italians.

The earliest record of the fruit is by the Italian botanist Matthiolus who described the yellow-fruited variety, in 1544. That is why tomatoes are called pomodoro in Italian today. The Italians were also the first Europeans brave enough to eat them. Maybe that is why tomatoes feature so prominently in their cuisine.

Remembering Scilla, a small coastal town in southern Italy.

As I write about tomatoes I think of my first trip to Italy over 30 years ago. Winding my way by train down Italy’s boot was my first real travel adventure. I was with some friends, fellow art students traveling on a shoestring. I felt the season drawing to a close and time running out. I needed to turn north soon, back to Ireland and college. One late summer’s evening we arrived in the small coastal town of Scilla: 22 kilometers north of Reggio. We only had a couple of nights to spend there but I remember them well.

Scilla’s student hostel was a 13th century castle perched high on the rocky promontory that overlooks the old town and small, shingled beach below. To this day it remains the most dramatic and picturesque hostel-or hotel for that matter- I’ve ever stayed in.

Barrels of tomato sauce.

That first evening we wandered through the narrow, paved alleyways of the old town. Outside every house stood large oil barrels perched on short, homemade legs, fires lit underneath. The barrels were full to the brim with simmering tomatoes, bubbling and spitting. The winter supply of tomato sauce was being made. On windowsills glass bottles of every shape and size stood waiting to be filled with the thick, red sauce.

Recycling glass bottles!

Whenever I make tomato sauce I remember Scilla and those glass bottles. Somehow the plastic bags I use to freeze my own sauce don’t have quite the same aesthetic appeal. I look forward to my own crop of tomatoes this August. Maybe this year I’ll reuse some of my own glass bottles.

Aislinn Adams

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.

Peony “Anne Rosse”- the human story behind the plant.

Peony “Anne Rosse”, Paeonia “Anne Rosse”.

Peony “Anne Rosse” – behind every cultivated plant there lies a human story.

This week I promised to write more about Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, Ireland, and it’s place in plant collecting history. For this purpose I post my botanical watercolor illustration Peony “Anne Rosse” from the series I painted for an exhibit in Birr Castle’s Visitor Center. I choose this peony not only because it is a beautiful Irish ‘cultivar’ (cultivated variety) but also because it’s story is central to Birr Castle’s horticultural legacy.

Countess Anne Rosse.

Anne Rosse, for whom the peony is named, was Countess Anne Rosse, wife of Michael Parsons, the 6th Earl of Rosse. The Parsons family has lived at Birr Castle in the Irish midlands for almost 400 years and it was Michael’s father, the 5th Earl of Rosse, who laid the foundation for the extensive plant collection for which Birr demesne is now known. However, it was under the careful guidance of Michael and Anne that this foundation was built upon and developed.

A shared passion for plant collecting and gardening.

The couple were very well matched. Anne Rosse, neé Messels, came from a strong gardening background and as the daughter of Leonard Messels of Nymans, a well-known garden in the south of England, she had “a profound devotion to gardening” (Birr Castle website). Michael, the 6th Earl of Rosse, was an experienced plant collector and undoubtedly their choice of China as a honeymoon destination in 1935 was the result of this shared passion. While there the Earl arranged for the first major plant collecting expedition to be undertaken by a Chinese.

6th Earl and Countess Anne became very well known for their horticultural introductions.

Many other expeditions to the Americas and eastern Asia were sponsored and subscribed to by the Earl. As a result of all this exploration and subsequent plant propagation the 6th Earl and Countess Anne became very well known for their horticultural introductions, including Peony “Anne Rosse”. This tree peony, a cross between Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii and Paeonia delavayi, is the result of two different plant collecting trips to eastern Asia by the Rosses: one by the Earl to Tsang-Po Gorge, Tibet before his marriage and the other by the couple to Yu, China in 1937(Birr Castle website).

A giant facsimile of Countess Anne’s plant journal.

The botanical watercolors I painted for this exhibit are used in a giant facsimile of Countess Anne’s plant journal. There are 24 botanical illustrations in the series: two for every month of the year. As I painted this beautiful peony named for her it was not difficult to imagine Countess Anne walking around Birr demesne delighting in the latest bloom, busily sorting through new plant specimens just arrived from China or designing a new planting scheme.

The human story behind the plant.

Behind every cultivated plant there is a human story. Many of these stories start with a solitary plant collector, usually male, braving the elements in foreign lands to find new and rare plants. The story of Peony “Anne Rosse” is different. Here is the story of a husband and wife sharing a life long passion for plant collecting and gardening. I picture them working as a team, side by side, complementing each other’s skills and I can only imagine the delight and pleasure they must have experienced seeing the first Peony “Anne Rosse” bloom.

Aislinn Adams

Botanical Illustration, Adding Color This Week.

Korean dogwood

© Aislinn Adams  Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa

Watercolor illustration for a change!

All my blogs so far have featured black and white drawings for the “Digging in” gardening column of the Washington Post. This week I thought it was time to introduce some color by posting a watercolor illustration of Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa. The Kousa dogwood, also known as the Japanese flowering dogwood, is native to eastern Asia and Japan but has been gracing the gardens of Europe and North America since the late 1800′s.

My neighbor’s Kousa dogwood

I can see my neighbor’s Kousa dogwood outside my side window as I write this blog. Living in an historic home in downtown Salem, Oregon, where the houses stand close together like old friends, I can enjoy looking at my neighbor’s Kousa dogwood without getting out of my chair. The tree is not yet in bloom, unlike its North American cousins, the flowering and Pacific dogwoods. The Kousa dogwood flowers about a month later.

The dogwood flower- not a flower?

I have illustrated the Kousa dogwood three times for the “Digging In” gardening column: once in flower, and twice in fruit. The strawberry-like fruit is very attractive in the fall but the flowers in early summer really steal the show. What we so often admire as the dogwood “flower” is in fact not the flower but the flower bracts. The true flowers are tiny and dark green in the center. When the Kousa dogwood is in flower it has a flamboyant air about it, probably because its “flowers” often point upwards in horizontal rows. It’s as if the tree is holding out its arms to embrace passersby and proclaim how good it is to be alive.

Birr Castle, Ireland.

The watercolor illustration I’ve posted above is from a set of botanical illustrations I painted for an exhibit at Birr Castle’s Visitor Center, County Offaly, Ireland. The story of Birr Castle is a fascinating chapter in the history of plant collecting and I will tell you more about it next week.

Botanical Illustration and the Joys of Weeding!

Bermuda grass, Cynodon dactylon

Gardening with native plants and the joys of weeding!

I have drawn my fair share of weeds over the past decade for the Washington Post’s “Digging In” gardening column. Some of the weeds I’ve drawn are true to their name without much to recommend them while others can be quite beautiful while still very “weedy”.  I have created botanical illustrations of Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) twice for the “Digging In” gardening column and although I hate to speak ill of any plant, even a weed, I have to admit I’m not a great fan of this grass. It is a real nuisance plant for gardeners across the United States of America, including here in Oregon where I live. Fortunately for me I garden with native plants, mostly in the shade, so I don’t have much trouble with Bermuda grass as it prefers a sunnier spot.

A damned good weeder!

I met a gardener once who was a great native plant enthusiast. I was an intern at Mt Cuba Center in Delaware at the time, very new to the United States and just learning my way. We were both on a native plant trip to the Smokey Mountains. I innocently asked her what she did for a living and, with a twinkle in her eye she quietly replied, “I’m a damned good weeder”. Later I understood what she meant as I learned that she was independently wealthy and not in need of a “living” at all. Gardening with native plants was her passion, her avocation, and as any gardener knows, if you love gardening you do a lot of weeding.

I love weeding.

I like to think of myself as a “damned good weeder” though not independently wealthy. I love weeding. Not the back-breaking Himalayan blackberry pulling variety, though that can have it’s moments, but rather the careful, knowledge-building kind where you learn to distinguish the seedling of a troublesome weed from a welcome native plant. If you garden with native plants you really need to be able to tell the seedlings apart: to separate the team players from the troublemakers so to speak.

Weeding monotonous? Never!

Some people find weeding very boring. I know some weeding can be horribly monotonous, especially the kind where all you do is pull up everything green except your rows of ornamental annuals or showy perennials. This is not the kind of weeding I mean. I’m referring to the kind where you are constantly observing and frequently delighted by some new native seedling found half hidden under the foliage of the mother plant.

I love this kind of weeding also because it allows me the time to enjoy the dank, rotting leaf smell of the soil and the more subtle perfume of less showy native wildflowers, not to mention the “green” scent of lightly crushed leaves, one of my favorite smells.

If you really want to know a plant.

In my last blog I wrote that if you want to remember a plant draw it. Well, if you really want to  know a plant grow it. I have found no better way to get to know the American native plants of my new homeland than by getting down on my knees, up close and personal, weeding.

Aislinn Adams.

If You Want to Remember a Plant.

Star magnolia, Magnolia stellata

If you really want to remember a plant, draw it!

I always say that if you really want to remember a plant, draw it. There’s nothing more effective to really make you look deeply at a plant than spending hours drawing it. I don’t know of anything better to imprint it on your brain.

Drawing makes you take your time to look.

When Georgia O’Keeffe was asked why she painted flowers she replied, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” I don’t know how much time people spend looking at flowers these days but I do know that if you draw a flower you really have to take your time to look at it.

Drawing has improved my memory.

I spent 10 years drawing botanical illustrations for the weekly “Digging In” gardening column of the Washington Post. As a result of that work I now have a collection of 500+ botanical illustrations. When someone asks me if I have illustrated some plant, like the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) above for example, I can always remember if I have or not. I may not remember in which month or year I did it, though I usually have a fairly good idea, but I can definitely remember.  This is due to the hours and hours I spend looking at a plant while illustrating it. Each pen and ink drawing I produced for the “Digging In” gardening column took anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to create, depending on its complexity.  That is a long time to spend looking at a plant.

You don’t have to be an artist to draw.

I don’t believe that you have to be a great artist or illustrator to enjoy drawing plants or to benefit from the hours you spend with them in this way. If you are a plant enthusiast who loves to garden or an amateur botanist who loves to study native plants and you want to remember what you see here’s my advice; the next time you are out in your yard or walking in the woods, bring along a sketchpad and pencil, find a plant that interests you, and start drawing. Don’t judge your results harshly but rather check later how well you can remember the plant you drew.

Aislinn Adams