Posts Tagged ‘Botanical illustration’

New life for my botanical illustration- Squash flower, Cucurbito pepo.


A new design for my old botanical illustration- squash flower, Cucurbito pepo


Blogging is a great way to share my work with people and tell the stories behind the botanical illustrations I create. It can be a mixed blessing however because in order to reach people I have to write regularly so that search engines can find me. It takes time to write blogs and lately I’ve been too busy to write anything. For this reason I was very surprised when the famous Californian company Williams-Sonoma found my pen and ink illustration of the squash flower, Cucurbito pepo, in one of my old blogs. Williams-Sonoma has a well-earned reputation for high quality products for the home. When they contacted me I was very excited to think that one of my botanical illustrations would end up in their catalogue and on their store shelves.

How it happened!

Last February while searching for a suitable illustration to use on the packaging for a new product- the Pumpkin Spice Seasonal Collection candle-  a member of the Williams-Sonoma design team found my squash flower illustration on-line. (See blog  After the initial contact the whole process was very straight forward, a licensing agreement was signed and a jpeg of the black and white illustration sent to the designers. It took approximately seven months for the Pumpkin Spice candle to go from the design stage to the store. A quick turn-around really.

Curcurbito pepo

Where the illustration started!

This illustration was originally created for the Washington Post’s gardening column “Digging In”. Once a week, on a Thursday, one of my pen and ink drawings would illustrate the gardening column. Each week I created a new illustration which meant that my squash illustration only appeared once. However, thanks to Williams-Sonoma, it is getting a new showing, and for a longer period of time. I am particularly pleased with how it looks on the high quality, three dimensional packaging and, in an attractive burnt sienna tone suggesting pumpkin and spice.

Aislinn Adams


Friends of Silver Falls Native Plant Illustration Project- Getting started!

This is the second blog in a series I’m writing about a large native plant illustration commission I received from the Friends of Silver Falls State Park (FOSF). To read the first blog click here.
Scouler's Corydalis, Corydalis scouleri, flower with drawing detail

Detail of Scouler’s corydalis, Corydalis scouleri, from my older sketchbook.

Tús maith, leath na hoibre, A good start is half the work!

Irish Proverb

When I first received this commission I was very excited: so many wonderful species and so much potential for good work, but my head began to spin when I thought about the scale of the job ahead of me (thirty native plant species). I realized immediately that the project would involve many comprehensive studies of the different growing stages of each plant. I knew too that if I wanted to do a good job I needed a good plan. But by the time the project finally started it was June and Oregon was beginning to experience its worst drought on record. I could feel the panic rising as I watched many of the native species on the list wither before my eyes. To calm my nerves I focused on the art materials I’d need, starting with the right sketchbook. I had already begun to make my own for other projects and knew I would do the same for this one but I wasn’t sure what page dimensions to use.

Finding the right sketchbook!

Scouler's corydalis, Corydalis scouleri sketchbook pageStudy of Scouler’s corydalis, Corydalis scouleri, from my older homemade sketchbook.

Feeling the panic nipping at my heels I began drawing Scouler’s corydalis, Corydalis scouleri, (in bloom in my own garden at the time). I used a homemade sketchbook I already had – made from Fabriano Artistico Extra White Watercolor Paper. I realized very quickly, however, that the pages were too small. I love the brightness and versatility of this paper, which I use for graphite as well as watercolor studies, but I needed bigger pages.

Making my own sketchbooks for the project.

Luckily my local art store had a sale in Fabriano Artistico Extra White (140 lb, 300 gsm) at the time. I bought 22×30 inch (559 x 762 mm) sheets and divided each one into four x 11×15 inch (279 x 381 mm) pages. I then had them spiral bound into sketchbooks of 12 pages at my local printer. I thought, rather than having one large sketchbook, dividing the pages up like this would make it easier to manage- and safer. Damage or loss of my sketchbook would be a real setback- especially if all my plant studies were in one. By splitting up the pages this way the sketchbook is lighter too and more manageable. I can study about 10 plants per sketchbook and when full move onto the next.

First Sketchbook with tools and paper

My first FOSF sketchbook of 12, spiral bound pages. The cover (printed on my Epson printer) shows a pen and ink illustration of Western tiger lily, Lilium columbium, created previously. It is one of the native plants on my project list (shown below).
FOSF Native Plant Illustration List with no crop marks

Friends of Silver Falls Native Plant list included it in the sketchbook.


The finished botanical illustrations.

The finished botanical illustrations will be reproduced on 11×16 inch (279 x 406 mm) sheets (similar to an herbarium specimen sheet) so my sketchbook page dimensions, at 11×15 inches  (279 x 381 mm), help me visualize how much plant information can fit onto that size sheet. I’ve already begun using my first sketchbook and it’s working well so far. The only change I will make to the second and third will be to insert lighter tracing paper sheets between the watercolor pages so that I can protect them better. I’ve made a tús maith (good start) I think. I will let you know how the “other half” of the project goes in due course.

Aislinn Adams
Blog #2 Friends of Silver Falls State Park Native Plant Illustration Project.



Native plant Illustrations for Silver Falls State Park- a timely enquiry leads to a dream commission.

Western ground ginger, Asarum caudatumPen and ink illustration. Western ground ginger, Asarum caudatum, one of the native plants growing at Silver Falls State Park.

The Friends of Silver Falls State Park

scan0002-103x150Earlier this year I visited the Nature Store at the South Falls area of Silver Falls State Park. I was hoping the attractive gift store might be interested in carrying some of my botanical art greeting cards and was finally making enquiries. The aptly named Nature Store is housed in the restored historic log cabin to the north of the South Falls Lodge and is run by the Friends of Silver Falls (FOSF) non-profit. Since their founding in 1986 the FOSF’s mission has been to fund educational and interpretive programs at the park and the Nature Store is the main source of that funding. As a very active voluntary organization they have a long tradition of collaboration with the park staff.  Being Oregon’s largest, Silver Falls State Park attracts over a million visitors annually so the FOSF provide valuable help on a weekly basis as well as at busy times of the year like the annual Mother’s Day Wildflower Festival.

Perfect Timing!

As soon as I made enquiries at the store a friendly shop assistant (a FOSF volunteer) handed me their administrator’s business card advising me to email her. This I did as soon as I got home and was promptly rewarded with a reply. My timing couldn’t have been better as it turned out, not only was the FOSF interested in selling my native plant greeting cards, they also had a project they were deliberating upon and wondered if I might be interested- illustrating a series of thirty native plant identification sheets to be displayed at the lodge. I could hardly contain my excitement and of course I said yes immediately.

Red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum

Red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. One of my native plant greeting cards that can be found at the Friends of Silver Falls State Park Nature Store.

Old herbarium specimens to be replaced by new botanical illustrations made possible by the Maroe Brown Trust.

Regular visitors may remember browsing through a set of herbarium specimens, housed in a wooden box, that sat on a counter in the lodge dining room. For many years these specimens (provided by the FOSF) helped visitors identify native plants growing in the park. Over time the popular specimens succumbed to the wear and tear of visitor use and had to be removed. At the time of my enquiry the FOSF had just received a generous bequest allowing them to consider replacing the old with new botanical specimens, however, in the end they decided to use botanical illustrations instead. It was my good fortune to walk into the Nature Store at just the right time and thanks to the generous bequest of Maroe Brown – long time FOSF volunteer and native plant lover- I have this great opportunity to work on the new FOSF  series of native plant identification sheets.

Illustrating thirty native species-a long term project.

Illustrating thirty native species will take time, several seasons in fact, but I look forward to the challenge. It’s not often that one has the opportunity and funding to really get to know a plant subject: to study and record its different growing stages and most importantly, to observe it in its natural habitat. At 9,200 acres, the park (often called the “Crown jewel” of the Oregon State Park system) is vast. I look forward to exploring its diverse regions as I search for the native plants on the list – and I hope you can join me on this botanical adventure as I write about it here.

Aislinn Adams
Blog #1 Friends of Silver Falls State Park Native Plant Illustration Project.





The Oregon Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum and its many names.

Oregon Fawn lily- Erythronium oregonum
© 2011 Aislinn Adams
Oregon Fawn Lily, Erythronium oregonum.

The Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum, and its many common names.

Erythronium oregonum has many common names- giant white fawn lily, Oregon fawn lily, dog’s tooth violet, trout lily, adder’s tongue, lamb’s tongue. Maybe this is why the Historic Deepwood Estate here in Salem, Oregon- where I live- has chosen the scientific name for their annual spring native plant festival. Not wishing to confuse people with a common name that is not “common” to all, they use the scientific name Erythronium (pronounced, err- ih-throne- ee-um.) Personally I find it much more useful to use the scientific name for the same reason. Never underestimate the creativity of humans to come up with interesting and numerous common names for one plant, and though they are lovely, ultimately they are rather confusing, especially when trying to communicate which plant you mean to someone.

My first fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.

Erythronium oregonum was one of the first bulbs I planted in my own garden when I moved to Oregon many years ago. It has since seeded itself throughout my front yard, totally ignoring all my efforts to corral this charming spring bloomer into an attractive sweep of creamy yellow. It was one of these flowers that I used for my botanical illustration above, and inspired me to create my Pacific Northwest Native Plant Greeting Card Series.

The fawn lily and early plant explorers.

When I first saw this beautiful fawn lily here in the Willamette Valley I assumed it must have been collected by Lewis and Clark or David Douglas in the early 19th century. This is not the case. The first fawn lily to be described from this part of the world, pink fawn lily, Erythronium revolutum, was collected by Archibald Menzies in 1793 and described by James Edward Smith in 1809. Then in 1806 the fawn lily’s mountain “cousin” the glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, was brought back by Lewis and Clark (Lewis called it a dog’s tooth violet in his journal) and described by Frederick Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis in 1814. (for more on the collection see my blog  The saga of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and the Irish nurseryman Bernard McMahon’s unwitting role in its fate!.) The glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, also has other common names including yellow fawn lily and yellow avalanche lily.

The common fawn lily, Erythronium oregonoum, erroneously mis-identified.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the more common fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum, was finally described by the Oregon botanist, Elmer Applegate. As is often the case with plant exploration and identification, the story is not that straightforward. According to Applegate “for nearly a century this familiar plant has been known erroneously as Erythronium giganteum Lindl. or as Erythronium grandiflorum var. albiflorum.” ( Kalmiopsis Vol. 10 2003. Native Plant Society of Oregon.) So maybe my assumption wasn’t so far off the mark. Is it possible that some of the Erythronium grandiflorum bulbs collected by Douglas (April, 1826 and 1827) may have been Erythronium oregonum after all?

Elmer Applegate and David Douglas.

There is a tenuous link of a different kind between Applegate and Douglas. Applegate’s wife Esther Emily Ogden was a niece of Peter Skene Ogden (the well-known fur trader and chief trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company.) Douglas met Ogden August 30, 1826 at Fort Vancouver, Washington, directly after Douglas’ exciting 12-day descent of the Columbia River from Fort Colville in eastern Washington. During that descent he had a lucky escape when his canoe was wrecked at the Dalles; causing him to loose the insects he had collected in the interior and some seeds, but he managed to save bulbs of the glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, collected in the Fort Colville area. In April the following year, while on his journey overland to Hudson Bay to meet his ship bound for England, he collected more of the glacier lily in the same area and transplanted them in the hope of keeping them growing all the way to England. Maybe it was these particular transplants that were the first fawn lilies that he is credited with introducing into England. Now I wonder if they were all glacier lilies: if some of the Oregon fawn lilies had not been introduced into the mix also?

When I drive by the Deepwood Estate along Mission Road here in Salem and see the expanse of pale yellow that is the fawn lily, it’s hard to imagine that Douglas didn’t see them while traveling though the Willamette Valley. At any rate, it is a wonderful sight to see and, no doubt, it will be enjoyed by the many visitors to the festival next weekend- Friday and Saturday April 5 and 6. For more information about the festival click here-  I am delighted to say that my cards will be on sale at the festival also.

Aislinn Adams


Pacific Northwest native- red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum- a favorite on both sides of the Atlantic!

Red flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum.

My botanical illustration this week is part of an on-going series I am creating – Pacific Northwest Native Plants. Sadly, the actual shrub from which I sketched this illustration is no longer alive, having succumbed to a bad ice storm several winters ago. I have since planted more red flowering currants, Ribes sanguineum, in my yard but I am glad to have this botanical illustration as a souvenir of that plant. It was a very fine specimen.

A favorite with the humming birds!
This lovely shrub is native to the Willamette Valley, Oregon, where I now live, but it is also fairly common in Ireland – where I come from originally. I remember it as a child growing in the hedge between my garden and my neighbor’s. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I didn’t like its “perfume”. I have since discovered that humming birds have no such scruples –or a very different sense of smell to humans- because the red flowering currant is a sure favorite with them here every spring.

Thanks to Archibald Menzies and David Douglas.
Thinking of those childhood memories got me wondering about how long the red flowering currant has been in Ireland- a pretty long time as it turns out, thanks to two Scotsmen – Archibald Menzies and David Douglas. Menzies was the first to bring the shrub to the attention of botanists in Britain in the late 1700’s. But it was David Douglas who brought back the viable seeds that became the first red flowering currant shrubs grown on that side of the Atlantic.

In 1825 the London Horticultural Society sent Douglas to the Pacific Northwest; his task was to collect plants that were already known to British botanists but had not been introduced into cultivation. He more than fulfilled this task, not only introducing many already described plants but also “discovering” new ones.

David Douglas – seed collector extraordinaire!
So successful was Douglas in his collecting that he overwhelmed his clients with vast amounts of seed obliging them to redistribute the surplus to other nurseries. According to the Horticultural Society of London the proceeds from selling this shrub alone more than paid for Douglas’ trip to the Pacific Northwest and to this day the red-flowering currant remains one of the most popular flowering shrubs in Britain.

Aislinn Adams

The saga of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and the Irish nurseryman Bernard McMahon’s unwitting role in its fate!

This week I’m posting a different botanical illustration of the Pacific Northwest native plant named for Bernard McMahon- and not one of my own. This actual botanical illustration was very possibly created in McMahon’s home. To find out how read on.

Tall Oregon grape. Mahonia aquifolium syn. Berberis aquifolium. Illustrated by Frederick Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis, 1814.
 According to Joseph Ewan (Frederick Pursh 1774-1820 and his Botanical Associates)
 you can see where Pursh traced the plant from the dried specimen in the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection.

The Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and Bernard McMahon’s role in its fate.

While researching my last blog – Nurseryman Bernard McMahon and the Oregon native plant with an Irish connection– I promised to return to the story of Bernard McMahon’s, sometimes unwitting, role in the fortunes of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection.

“The convoluted history of the seeds and plants collected by Lewis and Clark, their passage from Washington and Oregon into the botanical record was nearly as arduous as the journey itself… Working largely behind the scenes, one obscure figure, Bernard McMahon, assumed a primary role in nurturing the seeds from field to page.”

Robert S. Cox

From the Pacific Northwest to McMahon’s nursery.

In order to understand how this happened let us go back a little and look at the history of this famed collection once it arrived back in the eastern U.S. The collection was shipped back east in two stages. The first shipment was sent back in 1805 and the second brought back by Lewis & Clark in 1806. There were two parts to the collection- the dried specimens and the live seeds. The dried specimens were sent to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where, it was understood, Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton would assist Lewis in preparing their description for publication. The seeds were divided between McMahon and William Hamilton who were to propagate and grow them in secret until such time as Lewis would bring the account of his travels and the plant collection to print. Apparently, McMahon proceeded immediately to germinate the seeds whereas Hamilton was slower to set to the task.

From under his nose!

While Jefferson and Lewis were counseling McMahon to keep the precious live plant collection secret fearing some unscrupulous botanist might, on discovering its existence at McMahon’s nursery, rob Lewis of his right to describing them first, in the end it was the dried specimens that were more at risk of being spirited away. Ironically, this was not done by some outside interloper but by the very person McMahon recommended to assist Lewis bring his work to publication; and it was this assistant who ultimately published the collection first, not in the United States but in England – adding insult to injury.

MacMahon helps speed up the plant collection’s journey to print.

For a variety of reasons both Barton and Lewis delayed in preparing the material for publication. McMahon, wishing to be helpful and possibly anxious to shorten the “quarantine” period of the secret plants he had in his care, recommended the young German botanist Frederick Pursh for the job.  Pursh was probably already familiar with some of the dried specimens, having been employed by Barton at the time that the first shipment of plants had arrived back east.

Difficult working conditions bring Pursh to MacMahon’s home.

By all accounts Barton was a difficult person to work for and things did not go well between him and Pursh- so much so that by early 1807 Pursh had moved into MacMahon’s home and begun working on Lewis’ plants there. At this time Lewis was Governor of the Louisiana Territory and living in St. Louis. MacMahon wrote several times to St. Louis seeking instruction on Pursh’s behalf but with no success. He also took it upon himself, while waiting for the arrival of Lewis, to pay Pursh to describe the dried specimens (which had been brought from Barton’s Herbarium.) Pursh had the work more or less completed by early 1809 and grew restless waiting for further instruction. However, in 1809 Lewis died in tragic circumstances. Clark, as executor of Lewis’ will, took over responsibility for the collection material but, while MacMahon kept the live and dried specimens in safe keeping for Clark, Pursh left (or should I say absconded?) with the drawings and descriptions- and as it turns out some of the dried specimens as well.

Somehow, amazingly, during all this time (over a year) while Pursh was living at MacMahon’s and working on the collection, he never discovered the live specimens growing at the nursery (Joseph Ewan- Frederick Pursh 1774-1820 and his Botanical Associates.)

Finally published in London, England.

A description of the well-travelled collection was finally published in England by Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814.) It is not clear to me if Pursh was ever properly reimbursed  for the work he did for Lewis. Nonetheless does that excuse his behavior? Does a combination of frustrated ambition and impecuniosity justify his conduct? His mysterious disappearance from the U. S. and reappearance in London a couple of years later caused much speculation and criticism amongst American botanists at the time and maybe it is for this reason that his Flora never sold well.

What of the live plant specimens at McMahon’s Nursery?

According to Ewan the first evidence of McMahon advertising plants for sale from the collection was 1815. Sadly he didn’t live long enough to benefit from such sales, dying the following year. But as I mentioned in my last blog, his life and work was memorialized by the botanist Thomas Nuttall who, in 1818, named the genus of shrubs Mahonia for him in his flora, The Genera of North American Plants. According to the record this flora was much more successful than Pursh’s.

Aislinn Adams

Nurseryman Bernard MacMahon and the Oregon native plant with an Irish connection.

Mahonia aquifolium syn. Berberis aquifolium.
© Aislinn Adams 2008

Tall Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium- Oregon’s state flower and its Irish name!

I’ve always marveled at how something as fragile as a plant can end up thousands of miles from its original home: collected and pressed into herbarium specimens or more amazingly, kept alive on long transcontinental journeys and treacherous sea voyages.  Somehow they avoid destruction and are finally transplanted into a foreign soil and there, not only survive but thrive.

I must confess I feel a certain affinity with these well-travelled plants. I am also a transplant from a far off land having emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. However, my journey was pretty uneventful and mundane when compared to the fortunes of these early pioneering plants and their adventurous collectors who often risked everything to bring them back.

As a horticulturist and botanic artist I feel not a small debt to these enduring plants and their collectors. So, when I post my botanical illustrations, instead of writing about their cultivation I prefer to write the human stories behind the plants. The story behind this week’s botanical illustration, tall Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, contains all the elements of a good plant story but it also has another important attraction for me: it connects the place of my birth with my new home in Oregon.

Two scientific names for one plant!

The connection to Ireland lies in the second scientific name for this genus of shrubs. For some reason Oregon grape has two scientific names- Berberis and Mahonia. Generally speaking, botanists use the first name while horticulturists use the second. As a horticulturist I learned to name the genus Mahonia and even though I have been aware of both names for many years it has never bothered me which one was used. Now that I’ve discovered the Irish connection I’m more inclined to favor the latter.

Years ago in Ireland I chose Mahonia aquifolium for my first garden. Back then I didn’t give the plant’s scientific name much thought. It wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest and discovered Mahonia aquifolium growing in the wild that I began to wonder about its Irish-sounding name.

Irish Nurseryman Bernard MacMahon

That is how I discovered the Irish nurseryman Bernard MacMahon (1775-1816) . Maybe it was because MacMahon had to leave Ireland in a hurry that so little is known about his early life other than he emigrated (probably from Ulster) around 1796. (Some historians suggest that he fled government persecution due to his political leanings towards the United Irishmen.) Fortunately we know a lot more about his life in the U.S.

MacMahon Nursery and Seedhouse.

By the early 1800’s MacMahon had established  a successful nursery and seed business in Philadelphia where many of the up and coming young botanists of the day would gather (including William Darlington and Thomas Nuttall.) However, MacMahon’s main “claim to fame” was his popular gardening book The American Gardener’s Calendar– the first book of its kind to be published in the U.S. It ran to 11 editions and had many admirers, one of whom was President Thomas Jefferson. So impressed was Jefferson with The Calendar that he became a regular correspondent with MacMahon, often trading plants and seeds.

Lewis and Clarke’s Plant and seed collection.

1806, the year The Calendar was published was also the year that Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery returned from the Pacific Northwest. As directed by Jefferson the expedition returned with a trove of plants and seeds collected along the way. Jefferson expected Lewis to publish their description as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, due to his untimely death, publication was delayed. The story of this famous plant and seed collection is an interesting but complicated one with many twists and turns and MacMahon’s, sometimes unwitting, role in its fortunes will be the subject of my next blog. In the meantime, for the purpose of this story, all you need to know is that the collection passed through the grasp of several individuals before finally arriving in the capable hands of MacMahon.

“Classified” seeds!

This was no ordinary collection.  Jefferson passed on the larger portion of the collection’s seed to MacMahon with strict instructions: as federal property he was forbidden to propagate any of the seeds for commercial use and the collection had to be kept secret while its description awaited publication. In spite of these restrictions MacMahon set to propagating and growing the seeds with great diligence and skill and  the plants flourished. He never really benefited from the plants commercially, nor from being able to advertise their existence at his nursery but in the end he was honored posthumously for his efforts. In 1818 Thomas Nuttall named this genus of shrubs for him in his publication The Genera of North American Plants. I suppose one could say the reward for his hard work, loyalty and discretion was immortality in a plant’s name- for which I am very glad – because every time I see this plant I feel the connection between Ireland and Oregon and the distance recedes.

Aislinn Adams

American Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, and Irish Fall Color?


© 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