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Required Reading: Seeing Flowers


Required Reading: Seeing Flowers

November 8, 2013

Back in the early 2000’s I was working on a certificate in horticulture at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Science had never been my strong point and I was struggling to get through a basic botany class.  Too bad this wonderful book had yet to be published.  There I was slogging through a dry textbook with its minimal line drawings and unadorned prose that reduced flowers to their basic function, reproduction, and ignored their beauty.  

Photographs by Robert Llewellyn


Above: Epimedium xyoungianum is a member of the Barberry family.

How much better it would have been if I

 could have been looking at Robert Llewellyn’s amazing photographs. Yes, all the flower parts are here, clear and visible, but in his hands the anatomy of the plants, the petals and stamens and pistils and sepals, seem to explode off the page and fire the imagination. 


Above: Love-in-the-mist, Nigella damascena, is a member of the buttercup family.

Mr. Llewellyn is a Virginia photographer with a lot of experience in capturing the wonders of the natural world.  Trained as an engineer, he has managed to perfect a way of photographing plants with an unlimited depth of field.  Using a specially designed camera he shoots each part of every flower up to fifty times at various distances.  


Above: Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum, belongs to the Lily family.

A computer with software developed for microscopes then assembles the shots into a composite image which combines the sharpest parts of each picture.  The results are the vivid and fascinating flower portraits contained in “Seeing Flowers”. Many of the photographs resemble finely detailed botanic art, but the amazing thing here is that no artist has manipulated the image.  Everything you see is what nature created.


Above: Lobelia erinus belongs to the Campanulaceae, the Bellflower family

You might not learn all there is to know about botany or taxonomy from this book, but its great accomplishment is that after you see the images, there is an afterglow of amazement.  You want to learn more and that’s where gardening writer Teri Dunn Chace comes in.  

Out of hundreds of plant families, she has chosen to cover 28.


Above:Euphorbia xmartinii “Ascot Rainbow”


To expand on Mr. LLewellyn’s photos, she has written a brief essay about each family giving their typical characteristics, cultivation, history and details about some of the plants in the family. 

If you are curious to know what plants may be related to that amaryllis you coax into bloom every Christmas, Chace lists daffodils, snowdrops and paperwhites.  She notes that while many members of this family, the Amaryllidaccae, resemble lilies botanists have given them their own category.  With over 4000 species,the Liliaccae family is already quite crowded.  



Above: The flower of Queen Anne’s lace curls inward after pollination.

One of the most interesting chapters is on the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, the carrot family. Carrots, it turns out, are closely related to many herbs and vegetables such as parsley, cilantro, fennel, celery and dill.  What you may not know is that Queen Anne’s Lace, the delicate wildflower so common along our highways is also member of the carrot family and, like the carrot, its roots are edible.   Not all members of this family, however, are so benign.  Conium maculatum, poison hemlock, is part of the Apiaceae and may be the plant that killed Socrates.


Above: The meadow anemone, Anemone canadensis, belongs to the Buttercup family.

 The study of botany teaches the facts about plant structure and reproduction, but looking at these exquisitely detailed photos can give you a completely new appreciation for nature’s infinite variety.  Robert LLewelyn makes the point that looking is not the same thing as truly seeing. As I turned  the pages I was struck by how many different forms a flower can take.  


Above:Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is a relative of the amaryllis.

It can be just a tiny wisp of a thing like a snowdrop or as massive and substantial as a sunflower or as showy as a dahlia or a peony or as convoluted and strange as an orchid.  No matter what it looks like the flower exists to lure the pollinator.  To the scientist the flower is defined by its function, but no one can deny it is the beauty that keeps all of us in love with flowers.


“Seeing Flowers” is available for $22.54 at Amazon.com.




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