Story Time! – The Plant Book: Drawing to Learn Taxonomy

I’ll confess, I had originally written the following true story for a very different purpose, but it seems to fit perfectly into the ethos of my blog, so away we go!

I am not great at memorizing taxonomic names. Frankly, I’m unsure who is. But as a biology student, it was a cross I had to bear.

As an aid to learning these names for my plant taxonomy course, we were required to create a collection of dried plants. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much good at this either. I don’t have the most delicate touch, and for the first two weeks I struggled to line my leaves up nicely, flatten flowers and get everything to fit in a binder without breaking my specimens. It also didn’t help that we usually had about twenty minutes at the end of class to re-identify and catalogue some 20 specimens that had dried from the previous week. I was floundering.

But during those two weeks it occurred to me: why not use a skill I already had? I could draw the plants. From then on, each week those 20-30 plants would end up not pressed a binder but drawn in brown ink in a small book. I also wrote the names and characteristics off to the side.

Hand drawn illustration of Verbascum thaspus plant and flower detail. Brown ink on white paper.
Verbascum thaspus, the common mullein.

Instantly my grade improved. With a more time and space to explore the plants in a more creative way, I was learning them much better. The drawings were certainly not all expert, especially toward the end of the course when time was not on my side, but engaging my creative sensibilities gave me a window through which to see the world of plants that had been obscured by the drudgery of pressing and handling delicate specimens. At long last I was flourishing.

Of course, the fear was that I would be penalized for not doing the assignment correctly. However, when my professor saw me working on my “collection,” he was delighted. In fact, at the end of the semester he asked if he could borrow the book to make scans. The drawings have become teaching tools, and creative interpretations to the traditional plant collection are now not only allowed, but encouraged.

Hand drawn illustration of Erigeron annuus, eastern daisy fleabane. Brown ink on white paper.
Erigeron annuus, eastern daisy fleabane

This project ultimately proved successful when I first failed, then tried something different and unorthodox, taking adequate time to fully explore my subject from a new angle while still embracing failure. Many of my drawings were clumsy, rushed, and unskilled. But through these drawings I activated an understanding of the material I just wasn’t getting through a traditional collection. By blurring the lines between science and art, it is possible to facilitate greater understanding of each. This mode of working is not just valid, it is vital.

Utilizing interdisciplinary approaches to engage scientific knowledge gives us windows into different worlds. After all, at their core, are a plant collection and a book of illustrations all that different? Through my experience, I think not.

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