Wildflower Watch

Wildflower Guide Illustrator and Writer

By Derek Norman with Guest Author Doreen Bolnick

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 17, Issue 3


Here, Doreen Bolnick reflects on how she created, co-wrote, produced and published a wildflower guide book, while in a new country with strange plants working in a language that is not her native tongue. Her experience is a blueprint for anyone who wants to produce a wildflower guide of their community, nature preserve, nature trail or conservation area. Wildflower guides are in demand for identification and conservation - the message is universal and demonstrates once again that the relevance of botanical art to the needs of the day has never been greater.

When I first moved to Maputo, capital city of Mozambique, I planned to write and illustrate a book on expatriate life, based on a trunk-full of diaries and sketches from my previous home in the Republic of Malawi. Instead, I accepted an invitation to coauthor the first native wildflower guide for southern Mozambique, with Dr. Salomao Bandeira, chair of the biology department at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo and co-editor of  Flora de Mocambique. From the start it promised to be a wonderful collaboration.  

I need to sketch plants in situ, so it was logical that I would search for the actual species. Exploring new habitats in unfamiliar territory was a joy, especially the anticipation of finding yet another special flower for the book. Happily, my husband Bruce, an avid birder, also loves to wander around in any wild place we could reach, in all seasons.  

Sometimes I had to be wary of wildlife. In southern Mozambique, where much of the wildlife was poached during the civil war, I also had to worry about landmines! I remained on trails in rural areas. 

I first collected herbarium specimens for scientific reference and authenticity. This allowed me to sketch 10 to 20 species per outing, completing drawings at home. Specimens were carefully removed, carried in a plastic bag and creating their own moist environment, and then refrigerated.  

Drawings were refined in studio. Detail sketches, notes, color and shading samples were added, making it possible to paint without a live specimen, even a year later. Under 2” tape, I placed ‘exploded’ flower parts and a leaf. No photos were taken. These herbarium specimens were dried in a plant press, then stored with my original sketches in specially built cupboards in the herbarium. 

To illustrate accurately I began by making a provisional identification. This was like a game with ten Levels of Difficulty. “Level I” species were easy, clearly illustrated in the literature. “Levels 2-8” required more detective work. We could not confirm IDs with local resources for “Level 10 Species.” In the end, we consulted with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew for final determinations.  

Generally, once I had at least a ballpark name, I checked herbarium sheets and every reference available, especially Floras, although these were only partially complete. This helped confirm identifications and assure that a specimen was typical. Plant family guides, such as Wendy Zomlefer’s Guide to Flowering Plant Families, were often used. 

I averaged six species at life-size per 11x17” sheet of Arches 90# hot pressed watercolor paper. Printed at 50

 reduction, it’s an easy ratio for wildflower guide users. Typically a small portion of a plant was shown; enough for identification while economizing on space.  

Order did not matter since all would be scanned and rearranged in Adobe Photoshop® . Had I been more familiar with Photoshop® , I would have given all pale-colored flowers slightly heavier outlines or shading at the margins, with no gaps. This shortcoming caused problems when I cleaned the images in Photoshop, and had to be corrected, tediously, drawing with a mouse.  

Since I had to research physical details about each species, I wrote the species’ basic descriptions, including scientific name, distinguishing field characteristics, flowering time, habitat, and range. Collectors’ field notes on herbarium sheets were an especially valuable source of information. One sheet I used at Kew was collected by David Livingstone’s botanist, John Kirk, on an expedition up the Zambezi in the mid-19 th century. 

To my physical descriptions, Dr. Bandeira added vernacular names, ecology, suitability for cultivation, toxicity, and traditional uses for food, construction, medicine and magic. He wrote the introduction, described and took photos of the vegetation communities, wrote an essay on conservation, a description of the ecology of fire, and compiled the herbarium list. He dealt with officials, the printer and the search for funding. 

With a relatively small market for field guides in Africa, printing is usually self-funded or subscribed. I had made a mock-up of the book and left four original plates for fundraising interviews. Eventually the World Conservation Union (IUCN) funded the printing, pleased to have a project with something physical to show for money spent. Finally the book, Flores Nativas - do Sul de Mocambique (Wildflowers of Southern Mozambique) was published!