What happens when a new plant species is discovered?
How is it recorded?
And why does botanic illustration still matter?
Since the hey-day of plant exploration and classification each new species is awarded the same treatment a published paper describing the species including an herbarium specimen, photographs (a more recent addition) and botanic illustrations.
Herbarium specimens, pressed and dried samples of plants, are kept in special climate controlled rooms by schools, libraries and museums. They are mounted on special thick white paper and labeled with pertinent information including date, place found, species name and description. Well-pressed herbarium specimens are works of art in themselves.
Now we often turn to photographs for imagery from the natural world because it is so easy and photos are so abundant. Microscopic photos allow us to capture tiny details that weren’t available in years past. Nonetheless, photos won’t out-rule the necessity for botanic illustration. Simply put, botanic illustrations can sometimes offer more than a photograph.
One goal of botanic illustration is to make the drawing of a plant as accurate as possible so it can be used to distinguish that species from others. This kind of detail might not be possible from a herbarium specimen or photograph. Take for example, coco leaves collected by Sir Hans Sloane around the turn of the 18th century. The pressed leaves, seed and miscellaneous other plant bits are remarkable for specimens that have been saved for three hundred years. They show quite a bit of detail about the plant, but the drawing conveys a much richer message, especially after so many years. The drawing is not an exact replica of the herbarium specimen; rather it is a more ideal representation of the species.
Couldn’t you just do this with a well-focused, high quality photo?
Kind of. Another objective of botanic illustration is to highlight specific parts of a plant to show a specific function or mechanism. An illustration for a plant can contain lots of satellite images to show petal structure of flowers, seed shape, root formation or anything unique or interesting about the plant. A favorite botanist and illustrator of mine, Arthur Harry Church, studied the floral arrangement of flowers and drew them in stunning detail. Now, this kind of cross-section can be done with photography, but I find the paintings far clearer.
For a more recent example, think about the newly discovered pitcher plant, Nepenthes attenboroughii, which Alena described. The paper formally announcing it’s discovery has three sections to describe the plant: a detailed description heavy with botanic language, glossy photos and hand drawn diagrams highlighting specific parts of the plant. I wouldn’t say these drawings are particularly compelling, but they offer information on specific parts of the plant to help identify what makes this species of pitcher plant different than other species (although you might have to know more about pitcher plants than the average person to recognize it).
So, botanic illustration is still used today in the scientific field to document, identify and classify new plant species. It’s also gaining popularity as a method of home decoration; Something to help us all live out our botanic explorer fantasies.
The Great Naturalists ed. Robert Huxley
Arthur Harry Church The Anatomy of Flowers by David Mabberley
Alastair S. Robinson, Andreas S. Fleischmann, Stewart R. Mcpherson, Volker B. Heinrich, Elizabeth P. Gironella, Clemencio Q. Pena. 2009. A spectacular new species of Nepenthes L. (Nepenthaceae) pitcher plant from central Palawan, Philippines. Botanical Journal of the Linnaean Society. 159: 195-202.