Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Plant of the Week

Skeleton weed
Lygodesmia juncea (Pursh) D. Don ex Hook.
other common names: rush skeleton plant, skeleton plant, prairie pink
Lygodesmia: from Greek lygos, meaning “a pliant twig,” and desme, meaning “a bundle,” from the fascicled twiglike appearance of the plant
Juncea: meaning stiff, like a rush
Daisy family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Interview with George Olson: Part 2

What advice would you give to younger nature artists? What are the particular challenges of being a botanical artist?
My advice to a younger nature artist (or any young artist) is to draw constantly and do your own work. That means working from a real specimen instead of someone else’s photograph or painting. Given the difficulty of finding and identifying real prairie plants (not to mention setting them up in your studio), it is always tempting to settle for secondary sources such as photos and reproductions that can be accessed more easily. The challenges of being a plant artist are similar to the challenges facing all artists, but with a few small variations: the challenge of working with live plants, which keep changing during long periods in the studio—blossoms close and re-open, leaves wilt or lose color, stamens and pistils go through their life cycle even as parts of cut flowers, etc.; finding good specimens in areas where road banks, cemeteries, and railroad beds are disappearing or are subject to mowing and spraying; sorting out the plant species that are native to the tallgrass prairie as opposed to those that are introduced or invasive; drawing a 10-foot plant on 30 inches of paper. This problem is shared by writers who try to express the vastness of the prairie.

What are your favorite natural areas in Iowa and the Midwest?
In Iowa: Rochester Cemetery Prairie on Interstate 80 just east of Iowa City and Hayden Prairie State Preserve, 240 acres just off Highway 63 in northern Iowa. In Illinois: Johnson Prairie in Woodhull, a small restored prairie established by Kenneth Johnson and myself in 1982—the Johnson Prairie has been a prime source of prairie subjects (and the site of much hard work) since that time; McCune Sand Prairie Reserve, 200 acres near Mineral; Munson Township Cemetery, 5 acres near Cambridge; and the Nachusa Grasslands, 1,000 acres near Dixon. In Wisconsin:  the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, 1,260 acres (including a 50-acre prairie restoration) near Madison. In Missouri: Shaw Nature Reserve, part of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 22 miles west of St. Louis.

PLATE 16. TALL GOLDENROD, Solidago canadensis
Source of specimen: Johnson Prairie
Tall goldenrod is so widespread in the American landscape that Americans take it for granted. John Bartram, the eighteenth-century naturalist, was reluctant to ship goldenrod to European customers because it was such a common “weed” in the U.S. Many botanists have tried to explain how goldenrod galls develop. David Klein, the Amish naturalist/author, describes his search for goldenrod galls in the winter landscape in Great Possessions. He uses the larvae encased in the gall as bait for winter fishing.

PLATE 36. SPOTTED HORSEMINT, Monarda punctata
Source of specimen: McCune Sand Prairie Reserve
The genus Monarda honors Dr. Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), who lived in Spain and wrote the first herbal that dealt with plants from America. Its English edition (ca. 1570) was called Joyful News out of the Newfound World. John Banister, the seventeenth-century English explorer, refers to horsemint and leaves us a record of the sweet fragrance of unspoiled Virginia: “In our way home ye rich low ground abounded with a kind of wild baulm, which being trampled on by our horses as we rode thro it mightily refreshed us with its fragrant scents.” Gardeners who have cleaned up a patch of bee balm in spring or fall will know how its spicy aroma can fill the entire yard.

PLATE 37. CULVER’S ROOT, Veronicastrum virginicum
Source of specimen: Johnson Prairie
The common name honors a Dr. Culver, an early American physician who prescribed the root for a wide range or ailments. Veronicastrum honors St. Veronica. Virginicum honors Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. Culver’s root is a tall handsome plant with a spike of white flowers and whorls of bright green leaves with sharp teeth. Culver’s root can be a rather challenging subject for the artist because of the tiny white blossoms that have to be shown ascending rhythmically up the tall stems. The white blossoms on a white background can also be a problem.

PLATE 51. QUEEN OF THE PRAIRIE, Filipendula rubra
Source of specimen: Johnson Prairie
Because of its height, queen of the prairie is one of those subjects that demands some adjustments on a 30-inch piece of watercolor paper. This plate shows the top of two stems plus a detail of one leaf. Queen of the prairie well deserves its name because of its commanding height as well as its spectacular pink blossoms. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa wrote that since queen of the prairie was used both for heart trouble and as a love potion, it is difficult for students of the prairie reading historical references to separate the emotional from the physical aspects of these uses.

—George Olson, The Elemental Prairie: Sixty Tallgrass Plants