Story behind the art of Margaret Best 

Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial


Pandanus utilis
Bermuda Arboretum, Devonshire, Bermuda

In answer to the question of how I selected this subject for this themed exhibition, it is probably more accurate to say that the tree selected me.


The first connection started back in 2010. I first spotted a well-kept screw palm tree (Pandanus utilis) in the front garden of a magnificent home on a private road in Bermuda while talking a walk. I had never seen one before and was attracted to the unusual fruit in particular. My husband, who is used to my antics of specimen collecting, warned me that plucking one of the many fruit for the purposes of drawing and painting was not a good idea. I rang the doorbell to do the honorable thing of explaining myself and making a formal request. Nobody was home and, heeding the advice received, I reluctantly walked away. A young woman passed by walking a large dog and I asked her if she knew the residents. She did, said they were away and there would be no problem at all securing one of the many fruit. I wasted no time doing just that. It was large and heavy. Back at our home base, I set about the drawing (plenty of Fibonacci spirals) and color matching. And that was that. No painting was developed from the drawings at that stage.


When I saw the call for entry for Out of the Woods I had all kinds of grand ideas of what I could do for the exhibition. These thoughts wandered from famous botanical gardens in South Africa to those in the United Kingdom, where I have encountered some memorable trees that I knew I could revisit on planned trips well before the deadline date. My thoughts did not include the Pandanus in Bermuda at all.


In April 2015, I was staying in the beautiful home of my gracious hosts, which I have done for a number of years when I teach in Bermuda. My hosts were away and I was in a kitchen alcove working on another painting late one evening. A sudden loud explosion had me drop to my knees under the table in shock. It was followed by another explosion shortly thereafter. I had no idea of the cause of the incredibly loud noises, and debated whether to call 911 – was it also 911 in Bermuda?? or should I plunge the part of the house where I was working into darkness and wait for further sounds before deciding what to do? I chose the latter. In fact, I was frozen and could do absolutely nothing. An eternity seemed to pass before I pulled myself together, found a flashlight and decided to brave a cautious walk to find the cause. When I switched on all the lights in the living room, all I could do was laugh out loud. It was also laughter of relief. The explosions were caused by Pandanus fruits placed atop vases on the mantelpiece. My host has a flair for attractive décor and uses various forms of greenery found in Bermuda to great advantage. She clearly had no idea that the fruit exploded when fully ripe, to propagate their seeds in a dramatic fashion. But…there was no Pandanus tree in her garden. So the source was a mystery.


I gathered up the bits of sticky mess and noticed the tantalizing tropical fruit aroma they emitted. One of the fruit (I suspect the second explosion) had not lost as many of the seeds and was still mostly intact. I set that fruit on the kitchen counter and realized what an amazing sight it was. The deep green of the fruit’s outer covering, the bright orange core, the geometrically shaped and brightly-colored seed cases, were remarkable.  I remembered the first fruit I had drawn years before.  It was then that it dawned on me that THIS was what I needed to paint for the Out of the Woods exhibition. This tree was literally demanding my attention and was ‘telling’ me to finish the subject I had started. I immediately created a second drawing, this time of the fruit with the hole exposing the pulpy inner and of the fallen seeds.


Pandanus utilis is nicknamed the ‘tropical Christmas tree’ because the overall shape of the spiky foliage resembles the stereotypical pyramid-shape of a conifer decorated for the festive holiday. The round shaped fruit hanging from the branches all over the tree appear to be the round Christmas tree ornaments attached for seasonal decoration. 


The common name is screw pine or screw palm, but the tree has no link to either genus. The term refers to the spiraling pattern of scars on the branches left by previous leaf clusters. I have shown these scars on my painting. The branches can be smooth or knobbly and warty. The ones I visited were the latter and my fingers itched to include this feature.  The long spine-edged leaves form in clusters on textured branches with some accessible to adult reach. As they grow in moist tropical settings (native of Madagascar) the branches are always hosts to lichens. One of the distinguishable features is the above-ground root structure known as aerial prop roots; as most of these trees live in sandy coastal region the roots help stabilize the trees.


By my next visit to Bermuda in 2016, a kind friend and fellow artist had already scoped specimens of both male and female trees in the Bermuda Arboretum and the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Sadly in the latter case, most of the trees had suffered serious hurricane damage and were struggling. As I had originally considered integrating a graphite scale rendering, I noted a stately Pandanus utilis tree atop a steep hill in the Arboretum.  I measured and sketched the interesting branches and above ground roots that makes the tree’s silhouette so distinctive. With permission, I was able to scoop up freshly fallen seed cases, observe a partially exposed fruit attached to a branch of the female tree, as well as observe and acquire a dried out fruit of the previous season. The dried up core after the seeds have departed will remain hanging on the tree for up to a year until a strong wind dislodges it or it is manually removed. I was still mulling over the eventual composition so felt a need to explore all that I could find. I visited another small public garden to observe a truly wonderful specimen of a male tree impressively in full bloom. However, the female tree in the Bermuda Arboretum became my primary source of information. I was also able to acquire some of the thorn-edged leaves from it.


The composition was a tough one. I have always maintained that anything worth doing never comes easily, so I kept on reworking the component drawings, like pieces of a puzzle that had to fit well at some point. But I had so many drawings and too much information to jam into a single work. I spent time (spanning a few months) on the planning stage, between teaching and designing coins for the Canadian Mint. The reason why I wanted to paint the subject was linked to the exploding fruit – the plant propagation mechanism that seemed ingenious - the fact that when you looked at the fruit you have no idea how those prism-like, textured structures on the surface, somewhat similar to a hand grenade, would literally behave like one. That demanded to be the focus of the painting. I was also fascinated by the fact that after the explosion, the remnant of the fruit could still be in the tree a whole year later. This would show a time warp. I wanted that too. I spent most of my time with the tree looking upwards with the leaves forming a strong graphic pattern against the sky – I felt that should be included too. I also knew my time did not allow me to do justice to the highly complex inflorescences that shower in long tails (Marianne North did a great job of it in the late 19th century; her paintings are in Kew Gardens) and somehow, I just could not make a scale rendering of the tree silhouette fit well either.


A further challenge lay in the fact that the subject called for a large painting, large for me anyway; I do not often paint large pieces because my style, influenced by studying for a number of years with Pandora Sellars, is somewhat slow.  Yet another challenge was that I was unable to bring specimens back to Canada with me. That meant I had to plan my painting in stages and ensure that my teaching trips to Bermuda would line up with the seasons of this tree. And once on the island, you cannot rent a car so I had to rely on the kindness of friends to get me together with my chosen tree. Fortunately, Bermudians are wonderfully generous.


I derived enormous pleasure in the painting aspect of this tree. Only the composition was an uphill journey. It is also the first painting in what seems a long time that the subject was entirely my choice. My recent years have been filled with commissions of subjects dictated by others. Loving your subject and reveling in the pleasure experienced as the color and dimension builds makes a considerable difference. A close artist friend who knows me well concluded that this painting exudes the pleasure it provided. I hope other see that too.


Tree subjects have crept their way into my work many times, although not by any master plan – most have been serendipitous choices in terms of place and circumstance - but I do rank them to be amongst my best pieces, so as I was writing this I realized I should probably concede to some sort of message from that!


Read more about this artist’s work: 19th Annual International
  • © 2017 Margaret Best
    Pandanus utilis
    Watercolor on paper
    18-1/2" x 14-1/4"