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Plant Portraits

Sandra Knapp

THE ART OF PLANT EVOLUTION. W. John Kress and Shirley Sherwood. 320 pp. Kew Publishing, 2009. $41 paper.

FLORA MIRABILIS: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty. Catherine Herbert Howell. Foreword by Peter H. Raven. 255 pp. National Geographic, 2009. $35 cloth.

Among the many lovely books now available featuring botanical art are two recent volumes that take novel approaches: The Art of Plant Evolution, by W. John Kress and Shirley Sherwood, and Flora Mirabilis, by Catherine Herbert Howell. The former, as its title suggests, examines botanical paintings through the lens of evolution, and the latter explores the fascination that plants hold for our own species.

2010-11BREVKnappFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe Art of Plant Evolution showcases the extensive collection of plant paintings amassed by Sherwood and now displayed in rotation in the magnificent new Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The quality and quantity of the paintings take one’s breath away, and anyone looking through this book, or wandering through the gallery at Kew, will come away with several favorites. The book, however, isn’t just a selection of pretty paintings; it also traces the evolution of plants, primarily flowering ones. Sherwood’s coauthor, W. John Kress, who is curator and research scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a plant systematist and evolutionary biologist. The 136 paintings by 84 artists featured in the book are arranged in a modern-day “scala naturae”—an evolutionary sequence.

In medieval times, relationships between the organisms that constitute life on Earth were depicted as a ladderlike sequence in the midsection of the Great Chain of Being, sandwiched between minerals below and God and the angels at the top. In this ladder of life, minute unicellular creatures were at the bottom and human beings at the top, the pinnacle of all life. Today, we depict these relationships as a tree—the tree of life, a metaphor that took hold with the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin’s emphasis on the continuity and ultimate relatedness of all organisms was controversial at the time, but today we know his ideas to be true. All terrestrial life forms have a common ancestor. The Art of Plant Evolution celebrates this interconnectedness.

The book also shows how we now understand the evolutionary relationships among plants. The advent of DNA sequencing has greatly improved our understanding of those relationships. The collaborative efforts of many different researchers have resulted in a stable classification of the flowering plants; known as the APG III system of plant taxonomy, it was published by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group in October 2009. DNA analysis has also revealed that the algae are not all closely related either to vascular plants or to one another. Brown algae are more closely related to the parasites that cause malaria, and red algae to other nonphotosynthetic organisms. Fungi, long thought to be closely related to plants, turn out to be more closely related to animals! The Art of Plant Evolution includes a few exquisite paintings of these organisms that used to be thought of as plants, along with an explanation of their new status.

In a series of introductory chapters, the authors clearly and simply lay out the evidence on which our understanding of plant evolution is based. They also talk about phylogenetics (the building of trees of relationships), the role of fossils in understanding patterns of evolution, and the coevolution of plants and animals. The relationships among flowering plants follow APG III and are thus bang up-to-date. A “tree of plant evolution” diagram that appears both in the text and on an end flap orients the reader to other groups. It’s a great idea; however, as a taxonomist, I was annoyed by its relegation of fungi, algae, mosses and monilophytes (ferns) to little bubbles at the base of the tree. This treatment might be mistakenly interpreted as an indication that these groups are small or insignificant, or less important than the groups in larger bubbles higher on the tree. But that is a trivial complaint. Readers who take the time to read the introduction will know that flowering plants are not more numerous or more evolutionarily “advanced” than other types of plants.

2010-11BREVKnappFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe paintings themselves are stunning, a testament to the renaissance of botanical art. Most are contemporary and well illustrate that the art of beautifully depicting plants in a scientifically accurate way is far from dead. Each painting is accompanied by a short piece of text describing the artist and in some cases the work’s acquisition. A separate, shaded paragraph conveys information about the botany of the plant, its evolution, or the group to which it belongs. For example, the botanical text accompanying an exquisite array of goat willow (Salix caprea) stems painted by the British artist Brenda Watts tells us about the changing evolutionary position of the Salicaceae (their “simple” flowers were once thought to be primitive but are now known to have evolved from plants with larger, showy flowers) and about their pollination.

I could wax lyrical about any one of the plates. My personal favorites include the peculiar Mourera fluviatilis of the Podostemaceae (Malpighiales), looking for all the world like a group of pipefish arising from the seabed, and the persimmon, Diospyros kaki of the Ebenaceae (Ericales), whose fruits glow from within and have on them a waxy bloom that looks as though it will just rub off the page. Both of these paintings are by Japanese artists who have remarkably different styles, which just goes to show that botanical art, like evolution itself, is not static and unchanging.

Catherine Herbert Howell’s Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty takes a different “evolutionary” view of plants, one that emphasizes the relationships between humans and plants and how plants have contributed to societal development. The book is constructed in broad terms around the history of plant exploration and exploitation, beginning in prehistory and running to the present day. Each chapter includes a few plant “portraits”—little vignettes about the history and use of familiar plants such as rice, peppers and orchids. The rationale for including particular portraits in a given section is not always clear, but they are interesting and link the book together.

As might be expected from a book published by National Geographic, exploration and human uses of plants are particular focuses. Each of the chapters includes a two-page spread showing time lines, stacked vertically, for each of four regions of the world. This is a tiny bit confusing, as the times in each region don’t match exactly, but it is interesting to see how plants were being used, and what was known about them, in different parts of the world at different times. The history is biased toward the United States and Europe, which is not surprising, since plant exploration and plant use in those parts of the world have been more thoroughly researched. Even for areas such as Africa and the Middle East, much of the activity recorded in the time lines and in the text is that of European explorers.

The text is illustrated with plates taken from the collection of botanical literature held at the Missouri Botanical Garden, one the oldest and most interesting in the United States. The Garden (as it is known in Missouri and to botanists worldwide) has an intimate connection with the exploration of the western United States and has been associated with many discoveries in plant science over its long history. Snippets of that history appear in the text, as does much history of North American botany in general. I was a bit disappointed that, given the connection with a major botanical garden, the plants depicted in the illustrations throughout the book are not better identified or described. A picture of an anemone (Adonis in the buttercup family) is inexcusably misidentified as Gibraltar candytuft (Iberis gibraltarica in the Brassicaceae). It is often difficult to identify plants in old illustrations accurately, but doing so would have added much to an otherwise very enjoyable read. The credits to the illustrations are also lacking in detail; sometimes facts such as the year of publication are provided, but often they are not.

Flora Mirabilis is an entertaining romp though plant history and exploration, illustrated beautifully with images most people would otherwise never get the chance to see, given that they are from old books of limited distribution. The text touches on many different plants useful to humankind, and on many different episodes in the discovery and use of plants. The vignettes of particular plants provide brief and fascinating glimpses into the world of botany.

These two books are proof positive that the world of botanical illustration is not just alive and well but positively thriving. I am not sure why human beings are so fascinated by depictions of plants, but it is wonderful that these illustrations can be used to convey knowledge about the importance of plants, especially in this time of biodiversity crisis. All life depends on plants in a most fundamental way—it is an added bonus that they are beautiful as well.

Sandra Knapp is a research botanist at the Natural History Museum in London. She is an expert on the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is the author of Plant Discoveries: A Botanist’s Voyage Through Plant Exploration (Firefly Books, 2003).

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