Stepping through a gate inscribed with the words Let Nature Be Your Teacher, you find yourself in an oasis of natural beauty in the heart of Minneapolis. Founded in 1907, the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary is the oldest public wildflower garden in North America. Today the 15-acre garden harbors almost 550 plant species that grow in wetlands, woodlands, savannas, and prairies. The majority of plants are native in Minnesota, and 379 were present in the garden when Eloise Butler and other botany teachers petitioned the city to preserve part of Glenwood Park. They called for a "Botanical Preserve" where students could study native plants in the rapidly developing metropolitan area. Today the garden has some 60,000 visitors a year.
In 2010, garden curator Susan Wilkins and Marilyn Garber, founder and director of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, joined forces to start a project known as the Eloise Butler Florilegium. A florilegium is a visual historical record of plants present in a given location. When this multiyear project is completed, students and teachers at MSBA will have painted representative images of 130 native species, chosen by Wilkins to portray the garden's range of natural habitats. Wilkins sees the project as a way to invite more people to learn from the garden's living library of plants. Garber sees this as a legacy project for the school, as well as a contribution to the community.
Each watercolor painting depicts a plant as it appears in the garden. Most artists visit the garden repeatedly and in all seasons to observe and photograph their specimens. Like a botanist collecting a plant in the field for display as a herbarium specimen, the botanical artist must fit the illustration to the paper and display both the upper and lower sides of the leaf, as well as other parts.
Why paint instead of just using photographs or herbarium specimens? For the artist, painting is a way to explore nature, often seeing things unnoticed at a glance. Herbarium specimens remain the gold standard for documenting the presence of plants in a given place. But unlike a specimen, a botanical illustration can show a plant's changes over time. Like a mosaic of time-lapse images, a single painting integrates phenological development such as changes in leaf appearance over the season or maturation from flower to fruit.
The illustrations presented on the following pages invite the viewer to study a plant's form in exquisite detail.