In a digital age, discover why budding botanists still find traditional illustrations indispensable when it comes to identifying Britain’s wildflowers.
Why the detailed work of skilled artists remains indispensable in an age of high-quality digital photography
While clinging to a cliff edge, halfway up one of Britain's top wildflower wonderlands, an accomplished botanist by my side offered me some bewildering advice: “Steer clear of anything with drawings – if you find pictures, you’re in trouble.”
This bruised my ears like a mower razing an orchid meadow. Was she genuinely telling me to avoid plant illustrations? Confused, I gazed at the hefty new plant book that my guide had just wedged into my hand. At last, I caught her sympathetic grin. She had spent half a century examining plants and their illustrations and was well aware that, once you reach a certain level, images are only used when it becomes particularly difficult to identify species. If you're having to consult the drawings, it means you've got a tricky case on your hands. Art remains vital to naturalists wishing to understand and identify the wildlife surrounding us.
At the time, like many an aspiring botanist, I was nervously wanting to venture beyond the basic picture keys and learn new beauties via a beefy book – Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles – more often affectionately referred to as ‘Scary Stace’. All the wildflowers and ferns found around the British Isles are contained within this intimidating 5cm-deep text key. For serious botanists, it is gospel. However, many plant
lovers often only arrive at the tome after stumbling for years through a labyrinth of photography books, websites and social media, vainly searching for an approximate match, to help them identify which of about 2,000 wild flowers they’re looking at.
Relatively few illustrators achieve the high standards that naturalists crave. Many of us sketch in our own field journals but we all depend upon greater artists to help us learn. To portray wildlife for illustrative keys requires an elusive crossover of art and science: painstakingly accurate artistic skill in drawing, shading and rendering, partnered with a rigorous scientific discipline and a solid understanding of which distinguishing features of a species should be magnified.
People have relied on plant drawings for centuries – from ancient Greek vases and 15th-century herbals (carved wooden board books, still held at Kew Gardens in London) to Albrecht Durer’s exquisite studies and Leonardo da Vinci’s chalk sketches. But is this traditional scientific art form as relevant as it once was? With the decline of botany degrees and repeated laments that we are becoming detached from nature, good natural illustration can provide a stepping stone to rekindling interest in our natural legacy.
Margaret Stevens, former president of the Society of Botanical Artists (SBA) and co-author of the Handbook of Plant Forms for Botanical Artists, forewarned that students would have to hunt high and low for botany as even a part of a degree course today. Unless something radical happens, illustrators holding a BSc in botany would become “as extinct as the dodo.”
Some native plant identification and illustration courses and workshops are still offered by the Field Studies Council, as well as Kew, and there are also a handful of postgraduate opportunities. In summer 2018, the Association of British Botanical Artists hosted its first annual exhibition of native plant art, sparking renewed interest.
“Illustrations and photos are both useful for identification,” says Kew’s botanical artist and author Christabel King. “Botanical art and illustration continue to be fairly popular, whether or not they are in fashion.”
Botany specialist at conservation charity Plantlife, Trevor Dines, agrees there may have been a demise in botanical knowledge over recent decades, with the status of wild plants being reduced to a “soft, slightly outof-focus background to more charismatic animal species. Things have improved a bit in the last few years,” he adds, “but bringing plants to wider audiences is difficult.”
“I still love the paintings of mints – you can almost smell them on the page.”
Encouragingly, though, a YouGov poll on behalf of Plantlife found that 70 per cent wanted to know more about wild plants, so it appears there is still an appetite to learn.
Trevor credits the botanical illustrators of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe for inspiring his early forays into plant identification. “The paintings capture the essence of each species perfectly, but manage to be exuberant and celebratory at the same time. I still love the paintings of mints – you can almost smell them on the page. The incredibly subtle differences between each species are there, laid bare to see but almost imperceptible – it’s botanical art of the highest skill.”
When shining a spotlight on finer details, illustration frequently trumps photography. “While cameras can capture these features, there’s often too much background noise to the images,” Trevor concludes. “Only with the skill of an artist can they be isolated, highlighted and contrasted to bring out the essential character of each species.”
Ros Bennett has taught hundreds of botany students with the Field Studies Council and elsewhere. “I value good botanical illustrations as a teaching tool,” Ros says. “I always encourage beginners to use picture guides in combination with the scientific keys, whenever possible, focusing on the diagnostic features. One of the best ways to understand the structure
of a plant, especially its flowers, is not only to observe them closely but to have a go at drawing what you see. Unfortunately, not all illustrators are equally as observant or draw precisely what they see,” she continues. “If they are unaware of the significance of a feature, they can easily overlook it, and many indulge in a degree of artistic licence. Illustrative errors associated with inflorescences are commonly found in some of our most popular field guides!”
In skilled hands
Ros particularly commends the late Stella Ross-Craig for unbeatable accuracy. RossCraig’s work, however – which runs to many volumes – is sadly now out of print.
Dr Tim Rich, author of Crucifers of Britain and Ireland, a field study guide for the series published by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland reveals he ended up using many of his own sketches both for this and for his subsequent volume on gentians: “When I started writing Crucifers, no-one was going to pay for an illustrator for a book by an unknown 21-year-old. Fortunately, I did also get some help from real artists.”
The former Head of Vascular Plants at the National Museum of Wales, Tim specialises in Britain’s most challenging plant groups, including hawkweeds and whitebeams. He pushes the boundaries of taxonomy, often in remote locations or extreme environments, sometimes needing to describe new species to science. “I think I am a rubbish artist!” he insists. “But drawing has been a necessity. When I was learning, I tried picture books initially, then began to use a key, which I found more efficient. But I often still needed to see an illustration,” he acknowledges. He is dismissive of digital identification apps. “None that I have seen are good enough.”
Tim’s favourite illustrator is Bo Mossberg, who illustrated the comprehensive Scandinavian Den Nya Nordiska Floran (which includes about 90 per cent of British plants, too). “Bo drew them all in the field. Nothing else today touches them. And the pictures are so good, you don’t need to read the Scandinavian text.”
Botanist and writer Phil Gates suggests that he has seen a decline in traditional botanical knowledge and skills, with the classical aspects rarely taught in the way they once were. “But I think there has been a big resurgence in interest in botany over the last few years,” he adds. “I think a significant part of this is due to digital photography and social media. You
only need to visit the highly successful #wildflowerhour hashtag on Twitter to see how effective this is. In a way, social media and digital photography have developed into 21st-century natural history societies.”
Many naturalists start out casually flicking through a nature guide until we think we recognise a plant. But the more efficient and reliable way to navigate a field key is to find the family first, by identifying a very simple set of diagnostic features – the flower shape; the number of petals or sepals; the number of male and female plant parts, and the position of the ovary.
To then determine the genus and species, we must often check more challenging characteristics and confront more obscure jargon. Here, good illustrations explain fine differences in the shape or arrangement of leaves, stems, veins; the detail and position of bracts, thorns and wings, and the inflorescence structure – for example, a cyme, spike, panicle, umbel or corymb.
For the hardest species and plants not in bloom, simple illustrations of critical features are unbeatable, identifying hair direction, cross sections or ribs on seeds. In the more advanced books, however, like Stace, the mere presence of drawings can signal metaphorical deep water. Images lurk among the confounding microspecies, atypical apomictics, sub species, hybrids, curious fruits and obscure rarities. The images haunt (but also help) the pages of challenging docks, roses, brambles fescues, fumitories, elms and oraches along with an array of doppelgängers in the carrot family.
In a digital age, words and photos can fail us, while botanical art reliably soothes a naturalist’s woes. It is easy to overlook the quiet value of this centuries-old resource. When you’re clinging to a cliff with heavy books in your bag, having fewer pages or a lightweight phone app may well appeal but, at some point, you will need to consult those all-important sketches.
Words and photos can fail us – botanical art reliably soothes a naturalist's woes.
Artwork depicting ash dieback by contemporary artist Lizzie Harper, who creates botanical and scientific illustrations.
Left: Tuft ofCowslips, painted by Albrecht Dürer in 1526. Below: the work of botanical illustrator Stella Ross-Craig is renowned.
Christabel King's detailed drawings can be found in The Kew book of Botanical Illustration. Bottom: plants even grace ancient Greek vases.
Botanical illustrations, such as this hazel artwork by Lizzie Harper, can highlight minute details in a way photography would struggle to emulate.
Clockwise from left: artwork by Bo Mossberg – he drew all the illustrations for his book whilst out in the field; Lizzie Harper details a rough hawkbit, Leontodon hispidus; intricate, close-up drawings of Rumex fruiting tepals from Clive Stace's The New Flora of the British Isles; Dr Tim Rich's sketches of gentian flowers.