My botanic expedition

I am working on a commission (my first!) from a dear friend and colleague who fell in love with some of the sketches from our journey to Rye (East Sussex, UK) in October 2013.  I noticed that she choose the drawings of some natural flora of the place, the drawings that I hurriedly coloured. She also told me that she liked the “medieval botanical illustration” akin to these drawings, and I thought: “Ha!, botanical drawings are precisely my speciality!” so I felt I could actually please her in that wish. As many artists, sketchbooks are the “bread and butter” of any artistic enterprise: they are like the gym for the artist’s eyes, and much of my work is based on those sketchbooks, that are my major treasure. So I started to re-draw them in a better quality paper and paint, and I tried to see exactly what were those plants she chose: sea cabbage, yellow horned poppy and an unknown plant.  I decided to be thorough in the botanical aspects of this work by finding out the scientific names and also whether there has been any previous illustration of those plants.

This situation took me to my first encounter with drawing many many years ago. In the 1990s while doing my degree at Universidad de los Andes, I took a gap year to embrace a sort of hippy life and travel around the country. I went to the caribbean coast and met my friends Nestor Pinilla and Tamar Prado, who at the time were documenting the uses of certain plants amongst indigenous people of the kogui community, in la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The community of the koguis had lived in this remote mountains for many years, long before the Spanish conquest, and there is evidence of a high developed civilization. In the 1970s a “lost city” was discovered by anthropologists who marvelled at the architectonical complexity of the place. The inhabitants of la Sierra, different communities such as the kogui, arhuacos, arsarios, etc., have retained some of their culture and customs, due to the remoteness of the place and the strong cosmology that unites them. Myths and legends as well as an amazing way of life in harmony with The Mother are just the tip of a complex civilization, at the brink of extinction. My friends: one biologist and one anthropologist are committed with the task of preserving the knowledge associated to plants, in what is known as ethnobotany.  They needed to draw a lot of plants and were short of time, so my visit was greeted happily and I got involved with the drawings. I, who had been told I could not draw by my art teacher at school, was hesitant to do that, but soon I found myself in such a happy place: it was love at first sight, and thanks to my friends who later would play a key role in my life, I decided to give it a go… and here I am almost 25 years later engaged with the botanical magic.

However, most of my work with botanic illustrations have been copying from old engravings. At school I was fascinated with the classification of plants, and I had my herb-folio carefully arranged. Also I was always intrigued with the fact that the Botanic Expedition of the New Kingdom of Granada: a joint venture between spanish scholars like Jose Celestino Mutis, and home-grown “criollos” like Francisco Jose de Caldas, became the trigger for the independence movement.  Which resonates with an ongoing idea of empowering through art. Here are my two illustrations inspired Colombian Botanical Expedition:

Digital StillCameraDigital StillCamera

Last year I also found the work of Maria Sybilla Merian, a Dutch female botanist who travelled to Surinam for two years (1699-1701) and painted a huge amount of native plants and insects. Her work was so precise and elaborate that Linneus used it for his own development. The careful and faithful depiction of plants, and the story surrounding this adventurous woman really captivated my imagination.  In homage to this female pioneer, I painted 12 of those illustrations during the winter of 2011-2012. At the moment I have three of these paintings exhibited in the hall of the Business school, in Anglia Ruskin University. My intention is to sell them as prints, using the services of Digitalarte, and offering a less expensive, yet high-quality product to my prospective collectors.

If you find one you really like, please let me know, bear in mind that the quality of this photos is low, the originals are much brighter and clean!

So, what I want to say is that despite my interest in botany, I had not really gone deep in this endeavour, and when I found myself trying to work on the drawings chosen by my friend, I met a huge challenge. Indeed, I wanted to identify the species and the scientific name of the plants.  Due to the fact that I copied them in situ I think I can contribute (albeit a little tiny bit) to a better understanding of the flora in the area.  I identified the following plants:

Sea Cabbage, also known as Sea Kale. Scientific name: Camber Marina.

sea cabbage and its amazing greygreeen colour

sea cabbage and its amazing greygreeen colour

Yellow horned poppy, Glacioum Flavioum,

yellow horned poppy

yellow horned poppy

This yellow belongs to the family of the poppies but less ‘celebrated’ than her red sister, still with mild narcotic properties as reported in Erowid.

The third plant is a conundrum.

Rye Sketchbook mystery plant

First I thought it was sea pea, as reported in the Rye Harbour Natural Reserve website as one of the species found there.  However,  the flower does not look the the normal pea flower family, instead of lobular shapes the flowers are in the form of a compound  umbel, with tiny flowers of four petals. I also thought it could be the vignus marina, a plant originally from Hawai, but it has yellow flowers. At this point I thought, “wow! where will this take me?”. I had the excellent Collins Flower Guide (recommended to my by my dear friend Rev. NIgel Cooper, an enthusiastic botanic and our chaplain at ARU-Cambridge), so, I tried to remember (badly) how to identify plants. Luckily the Guide is so well organised that soon I was referred to three possibilities:

Geraniaceae, Brassicaceae, Gentianaceae and Caryphyllaceae.

The first possibility is that it is Sea Stock as the description of a Brassicaceae (cruciferae because of the way the branches are distributed):  habitat of sea cliffs and sea dunes, flowered in June-August (which may be possible in this very strange summer) but mostly observed in N. Devon.

I’m not fully convinced, as the flowers are distinctively in clusters, more like an umbrella. May be it a “seaside centaury” (from the family of Gentinaceae), habitat sand dunes, short grazed maritime grass land? but it says in the guide that its local to the other side of the island: in Wales!

Well the search continues, and I am imagining I am going to learn a lot with this. It is a timely interest as I am starting (timidly) to enjoy the delights of gardening. After 11 years in this nation of gardeners, the bug has finally bit me!  Just now I am beginning to feel the itch of having better observations and keep the Collins  guide with me at all times. Our next journey will be to the Cotswolds, and I will be fully prepared!

In the meanwhile, if any of my readers know what plant is this, I will appreciate your help!


6 thoughts on “My botanic expedition

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