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Dasha Fomicheva, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Lawrence Greenwood, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Vicki Thomas, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Beverly Allen, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Kate Nessler, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Regine Hagedorn, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Jakob Demus, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Christina Hart-Davies, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Jenny Phillips, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Vicki Thomas, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

Marilena Pistoia, from The Art of Plant Evolution, Kew Publishing, 2010 | Image Permalink

The Paintbrush and the Plant

By Veronique Greenwood / March 11, 2010

Before botanists had photographs, they had paintings. The delicate watercolors of leaves, seeds, flowers, and fruit were objects of beauty as well as scientific tools, and the tradition of botanical painting is alive and well today. The Shirley Sherwood Collection at Kew Gardens is one of the most significant gatherings of botanical art, and in a lush new book, The Art of Plant Evolution, Sherwood and biologist John Kress explore modern examples of the genre. Thanks to their collaboration, the book is not only a stunning tour of jewels from Sherwood’s collection, but also an atlas organized according to the latest DNA analyses of the evolutionary relationships between plants.

Flowering Reed: Butomus umbellatus

Aquatic monocots such as this flowering reed originated about 125-140 million years ago. While Butomus is an invasive species in North America, it is native to the Middle East, where the painter Dasha Fomicheva does much of her work.

Trillium decumbens

DNA analysis has drastically changed what scientists can call a “lily”—many so-called lilies turn out to be only very distant relatives of the order now known as Liliales. This woodland trillium, painted by Lawrence Greenwood, made the cut.

Haemanthus nortieri

This South African relative of the amaryllis has a single sticky leaf that becomes coated with sand as it grows, perhaps discouraging predators. This particular specimen has bloomed only twice in more than 20 years, writes artist Vicki Thomas in her notes.

Yellow Lotus: Nelumbo lutea

Botanists believed the lotus to be a relative of the water lily, but DNA analysis has linked the lotus much more closely to the sycamore tree. In this painting by Beverly Allen, all stages of the plants from bud to fruit are shown together—an impossible grouping in nature but common in botanic art.

Wild grapes: Vitis vinifera

Grapes are somewhat isolated in the rosid group, requiring their own order with just a single family, Vitaceae. These wild grapes, hanging like gems from a necklace, were found growing near painter Kate Nessler’s farm in Arkansas.

Roses 1: Rosa cultivar

The evolutionary history of the more-than-100 species of roses has been difficult to sort out and the classification of individuals a trial, at least in part because of their long history of breeding and cultivation. Here, painter and jewelry-maker Regine Hagedorn has captured the delicacy of several kinds of roses.

Walnuts: Juglans nigra

These etchings trace the thick convolutions of walnut meats, their details scratched into the copperplate with a diamond point. Artist Jakob Demus has studied the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and other 16th century Dutch masters, and his studies of these artists have informed the fullness of form present in these portraits.

Australian pitcher plant: Cephalotus follicularis

These carnivorous little pitchers, painted by Christina Hart-Davies, grow only in swamps in a small corner of western Australia, and, as they live in peaty, nutrient-poor soils, they must eat flies to make up the difference. Interestingly, they are unrelated to the other two families of pitcher plants—all three groups evolved their unusual dining habits independently.

Euphorbia obesa

This fat, round succulent is native to South Africa, but has grown scarce in the wild because of over-collecting (artist Jenny Phillips painted it from a botanical specimen in Australia). Each of the small flowers sprouting from its top bears only two or three seeds.

Adenia hastate

Artist Vicki Thomas painted the yellow globes and unusual roots of this African species at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Situated at the base of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch is one of the leading botanical gardens in the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale

The familiar petals of this dandelion are in fact modified leaves called bracts, with sprightly anthers rising from the flower’s center. Artist Marilena Pistoia no longer paints flowers, so this elegantly composed image is something of a relic.

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