The Science of Botanical Art

A Science Library for Botanical Artists 

By Dick Rauh  

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist, Number 24


Editor's Note: A complete listing of the books presented in this article and a note about how to get them is at the end of the article. 


If you are in any way like me, you have a collection of beautiful books of flower paintings, and perhaps a number of texts on the finer points of watercolor rendering, or of floral painting techniques. What I propose in this column are a series of books that may serve as references to the more scientific side of botanical knowledge. A number of them aren't even illustrated, but are full of the needed facts that will help you find the correctly spelled Latin binomial of a flower known only by its common name, for example. 

Number one on my list is a book by David Mabberley, an English Botanist. The Plant Book is billed as a dictionary of the flowering plants, but it would be more accurate to call it a dictionary of the vascular plants since it includes conifers and ferns. At The New York Botanical Garden, where I work and volunteer, I have heard it referred to by some of the scientists as more explicit, up-to-date and dependable source than the Index Kewensis. 

In the book, plants are listed by their genera, and within each genus are listed the most common of the species, as well as information as to their economic uses, growing habits, special characteristics and geographic origins. Families are also listed, again listing numbers of genera and species, as well as descriptions of the habits of plants within the family, and breakdowns into subfamilies when they exist. What I feel will be of most value is a listing of common names (you can tell by the fact that the bold type entries are not capitalized) which gives their Latin binomials. The next step is to check the listed genus and find further details such as family, so that you are able to place the plant with its nearest of kin, and have the opportunity to stress in your drawing those features which tie it in with other similar plants. Except for the cover there are no illustrations here, just an incredible amount of useful, well-documented information. 

Currently out of print but nonetheless a worthy addition to your library if you can find it, is L.H. Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants. The text is arranged by family, including ferns and conifers, with the genera following keys that head each section. The information contained is similar in many ways to the Mabberley, but focuses on cultivated plants, which it lists extensively. Sadly the latest edition is dated 1938, and a new revision is sorely needed, but for the novice it is invaluable in naming and identifying the majority of species that are growing in our gardens, and are so inviting to paint. This is strictly text. 

Another ”must” book as far as I'm concerned is one that is indeed beautifully (and accurately) illustrated by one of our members, who has made the shift from scientific illustrator to worldrespected scientist. I refer to Dr. Wendy Zomlefer, whose Master's thesis was an illustrated guide to some of the plant families of Florida, and who has expanded this to create an inclusive Guide to the Flowering Plant Families. On many levels this book is highly technical, and the text and commentary may be somewhat over our heads. The strong suit, for our benefit, is the clear plates illustrating some 115 of the most important flowering plant families, and the breakdown in the text of characteristic details of the habit, flower, perianth, androecium, gynoecium and fruit. (These are Wendy's categories, and are terms that I believe I mentioned in the first article- but they bear repetition. Habit refers to the general form of the plant itself - is it a tree, shrub, herb, etc. Perianth is the inclusive term for the two outer series of the flower, the sepals that make up the calyx, and the petals which make up the corolla. Androecium is the collective term for the stamens, and gynoecium the term for the pistil, and/or carpels). The chance of finding the exact plant you are working on illustrated in the text is remote, since there are usually only one or two species to represent each family. However, the important and typical characters are generally present, and there is always the text. I have a feeling that a good number of the flowers illustrated in the book are Florida natives, but as I say, most are typical enough to give us a good feeling for the family. Wendy includes an illustrated glossary of flower terms, using details from the family plates, and this you will find is a useful tool. As a bonus for botanical artists, there is included a chapter on “Observing, Dissecting, and Drawing Flowering Plants” which ranks right up there with the best in botanical instruction. 

Another book that covers a good deal of the same territory is one I have been using as a text for my morphology classes for a good number of years. Also written and illustrated by one of our members, Janice Glimn-Lacy (along with Peter Kaufman), Botany Illustrated purports to be a sophisticated coloring book. Facing pages have text and illustrations of 53 flowering plant families in simple but accurate line drawings with a minimum of shading (all set to be colored but perfectly explicit on their own). The level of scientific information is much more directed to the botanical amateur (us) than the Zomlefer. The plates in Botany Illustrated arrange families into their classes and sub-classes, a means of grouping plants with similar characters, but on a higher hierarchical level (this is a subject to which I will be devoting a future column). What is a big plus for me with the Glimn-Lacy book are the pages devoted to a general introduction to botany, including some evolutionary theory, and physiology, as well as illustrations of the many divisions of non-flowering plants. My main problem with this paperback book is its current (almost obscene) price, created by the obscure (to me) practice of one publisher buying the book plates from another and consequently refiguring the price structure, but it is certainly worth your scouting around to see if you can find a bargain on the Internet. Plant Identification Terminology by James and Melinda Woolf Harris is a very reasonably priced illustrated glossary of plant terms. The illustrations are adequate at best, but they tell the story even though it looks as if they might have come from many different sources. The organization of the book is exemplary. First is an overall alphabetic listing, with thumbnail sketches, and then the terms are broken down into specific categories, such as roots, leaves, surfaces, so that it is doubly useful, first if you know a term but are fuzzy about its meaning, or if you are dealing with a particular area of morphology and need a term to describe a particular quality. Part of the joy of a book such as this is its thoroughness, and I have yet to come up with a needed term that wasn't defined. 

A very recent addition to the ranks of plant glossaries is The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms by Michael Hickey and Clive King.with a copyright date of 2000. The first listing is alphabetical, with definitions and no illustrations, and then, like the Harris and Harris specific categories are featured and illustrated. In the Harris and Harris the categories are just a rearrangement of the text and illustrations, here is a collection of relevant illustrations, with specific plants drawn to show a comparison of the terms and their differences. The illustrations are large, with pages devoted to variations that make the terms quite clear. Besides the units devoted to plant parts there is a section devoted to “Growth and Life Forms”, as well as sections devoted to conifers and their allies, and ferns and fern allies. On the whole the Cambridge book is more extensive, and somewhat more technical, but the use of illustrations serves in a very real way to make the terms meaningful to a visually oriented person and if you are investing in a single glossary the extra cost may be well worth it.

I don't know whether nature guides come under the heading of a scientific library, but there are three that I find consistently useful, although two of them, even in paperback, are too large to carry on field trips. First is A Field Guide to Wildflowers by Peterson and McKenny. This is one of the Peterson series, and how he managed to make the hundreds (thousands) of drawings so clear, accurate and beautiful is a wonder. I own and depend on the one subtitled… to Northeastern and North Central North America being a New Englander, but I am certain that others devoted to other geographical areas are equally satisfying. The pattern of the book groups flowers first according to color, and then subdivides primarily by morphological features. There is a color section at the head of each color unit in my book, and since the species are not repeated in the black and white sections this necessitates some back and forth page turning. I own a number of other wildflower field guides, but find myself coming back to the Peterson, time and again. The text for each species is sparse, but manages to list family, Latin binomial, geographic range and flowering dates, as well as salient features that distinguish the particular species. 

The other two are identification books by George Symonds. These make extensive use of black and white photographs, and although I am not a fan of photography in nature guides these are clear and detailed and feature everything from twigs and bark to flowers and fruits, and end up creating an effective and informative guide. The first is The Tree Identification Book with photographs by Stephen Chelminski, and the second companion volume is The Shrub Identification Book. The books are arranged by “pictorial keys”, pages of photographs of parts of the plant, like thorns, leaves, flowers, bark, and then by “master pages” where all the parts of a particular species are united, along with habit photographs. Under the leaves section, for example, you will find pages of a genus with various species together so you can compare the size and shapes of the parts that are portrayed at the same scale. I don't know about you, but for me shrub identification skills are way behind my ability to spot a tree or wildflower, and I am extra thankful for Symond's bonus volume in this area. 



1. The Plant Book, second edition (1997) David Mabberley, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521414210 

2. Manual of Cultivated Plants (1949) L.H. Bailey, The Macmillan Company (out of print) 

3. Guide to the Flowering Plant Families (1994) Wendy B. Zomlefer, University of North Carolina Press ISBN 0807821608 

4. Botany Illustrated (1984) Janice Glimn-Lacy and Peter B. Kaufman, Chapman and Hall ISBN 0442229690 

5. Plant Identification Terminology, second edition (2001) James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf, Harris Spring Lake Publishing ISBN 0964022168 

6. The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms (2000) Michael Hickey and Clive J. King, Cambridge University Press ISBN 0521790808 

7. A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (1968) Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, Houghton Mifflin Company ISBN 039508086X 

8. The Tree Identification Book (1973) George W. D. Symonds, William Morrow & Company ISBN 0688050395 

9. The Shrub Identification Book (1963) George W. D. Symonds, William Morrow & Company ISBN o688050409 has all of the books - some at very reasonable prices - right now, even including the out of print Bailey! Ó