How art shapes our understanding of plants – and reveals wonders that photographs may miss

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She explains how botanical paintings also better represent the subtle color range of a given plant. “Take an orchid,” she said. “At first glance it may appear white, but when you start looking closely it may have a subtle pale pink tint or slight sheen.”

A ‘species in a picture’

Smith points out how, in the field, it is not always practical for botanists to use photography for plant identification, or taxonomy, as it is called. They could end up deep in a rainforest, collecting hundreds of specimens. To preserve them during the long journey home, you have to squeeze, which inevitably dries out and flattens many living details of the plant.

Once back at Kew Gardens, Smith breathes new life into dead, squeezed plants by soaking or boiling flowers or fruit in water. She will see some parts under the microscope.

“With our knowledge of botany, we can clarify things in an informed way,” she says. “We know what’s important and what’s not to highlight [in an illustration]. We can draw elements in a smaller size or at an enlarged size. We can dissect plants to show how the parts are put together. We can encapsulate an entire plant species in a single image.

(See the ecologically invaluable trees that Italy preserves forever.)

Currently, Smith is working on a long-term project to illustrate a compendium of all New Guinea palms. In one of the 250 illustrations she has produced to date, there are multiple elements drawn in detail: the main leaves, the smaller leaflets, the crown, the flowering stems, the male flowers, the female flowers, the fruits, buds, even dissected buds – features that might not be visible in a photo. “Different stages of the life cycle, all in one image,” she adds. “As much information as possible. You show exactly what is needed to identify a plant.

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