February 7, 2012

The secret teachings of plants.

As if in obedient response to my recent expression of interest in illustrations of plant dissections, my botanical illustration teacher Mali held a plant dissection workshop over the course of three days last week. As it turns out, she teaches them over summer every year; but I'm not going to let that ruin my enjoyment of the coincidence.  I was particularly happy that it would be Mali teaching this course, because I'm extremely fond of her and find her love of scientific drawing contagious. This is an example of an exquisite Boronia painting with dissections by Mali:

Needless to say, I was very excited to be learning these skills and was determined to get as much out of the course as I could. I managed to scrounge up enough pennies for an old stereo microscope that I found on ebay, and swindled a free dissection kit from my kindly vet-student sister Kate. Although was looking forward to it immensely, I actually enjoyed dissecting and observing plants even more than I had anticipated; and despite the fact that I barely managed to dissect and illustrate the inner workings of a single flower over the whole workshop, when the three days were up I was left wishing it wasn't over. Three days of staring at such microscopic detail ended up feeling like three hours, and I felt as though I would need another month to actually complete what I was trying to draw...which amounted to little more than a few pencil sketches and some notes:

Just to deliberately confuse and challenge myself, being the contradiction-loving Gemini that I am, I chose to read a book called The Secret Teachings of Plants on my way to and from the workshop. The book, a gift from my very dear friend Jerome, discusses the limitations of science to accurately describe nature, and specifically plants. Not that the book dismisses science altogether, as it necessarily covers a lot of scientific ground, but it does call into question the sense of certainty that people derive from the process of scientific reductionism. I haven't finished the book yet, but what I read of it served as a nice reminder during those three days that I was merely observing patterns that frequently occur in nature, rather than discovering cold hard facts that were indisputable.

So anwyay, onto what I did during the workshop: first up was pulling apart a lily and bud to see what a fairly simple flower looks like when pulled intro it's various sections. I was rather pleased to be working with lilies, as the ones we used were very similar to the gorgeously scented Stargazer lilies that I had in my wedding bouquet, and that I am familiar with from years of drawing them. As I'm sure many of you have noticed, these flowers have one of the most visible reproductive systems of any plant you're likely to see:

Once we'd pulled them apart and identified the various parts - petals, sepals, stamens, anthers, stigmas, styles...then we got to cut them up and look at them under a microscope. It was pretty awesome. I can't show you any images from under the microscope because mine is a rather old one (there are new digital ones with a usb cable you can connect to the computer), but maybe that's better anyway - all the more reason to draw what I'm seeing accurately so there's no need for photographic documentation. We learned a fair bit about basic botany on the first day, and about how images are sized, scaled and arranged on a page both for scientific and artistic purposes.

On the second day we got to dissect flowers from the daisy family, and happily Mali had brought Echinacea flowers which happen to be another one of my favourites. Echinacea was my introduction into the world of herbalism, a subject close to my heart, and I've always loved the flowers as a symbol of that initiation. Like lots of things I love, I originally thought they were weird and not particularly beautiful at all, which I think is what makes me all the more fond of them now.

 The reason Mali had chosen daisies for us to dissect is because they're thoroughly complicated, as I soon found out. The really interesting thing I discovered about the Echinacea was that the actual flowers - ie the section of the plant containing the male and female parts used for reproduction - were in fact covering the entire surface of the spiky receptacle in the centre.  This was not one flower, but many flowers combined, and the long orange spines that protrude from each flower are just the bracts. This meant that dissecting one of these tiny flowers in order to find out how it reproduces involved picking one of them up with tweezers and cutting it in half under the microscope. In the cross-section below, each of the orange spines represents one flower, and the halved seeds can be clearly seen at the base of each one:

flowers and bracts:


Each flower was only about 9mm tall and 1mm wide. Below you can see my sketch of a seed on the far left, then a flower in the middle, and a bract on the right, all magnified by 10. I couldn't believe how long it took to draw those simple little things, and it occurred to me that perhaps I was taking more care and spending more time observing rather than drawing because I knew I didn't have the benefit of photographs that I could refer to later.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to take my echinacea specimens home after the class due to current restrictions on plant matter leaving the gardens, but I have them sitting in the fridge at the botanical garden observatory where my classes are held, and I intend to squeeze some more drawing time out if them before they perish. Hopefully one day I'll have time to complete a full scale painting of an echinacea in colour, and with all the dissections and individual parts illustrated also. One day.


Lucia said...

hey, it looks like a beautiful workshop, where do i sign up????

Amy Duncan said...

hey Lucia, you can find all the details of classes and workshops held at the botanical gardens through their website. I don't think there'll be another dissection one 'til next summer though, sadly. I go to the classes at the melbourne gardens but they also hold them in geelong and cranbourne.

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