plants

Beauty and Nature

I may live an urban life, but there are still pockets of natural beauty all around. There’s a pathway near my house that leads between two fields in which horses graze, and the other morning half the grass was dusted with a sprinkle of frost and emitted a white glow, while the stark green of the other side was trampled as the horses meandered and whinnied. Looking up, we saw a plethora of autumnal reds, yellows and browns, as differently shaded leaves fluttered on the branches above us.

perfectly peculiar plantsPerfectly Peculiar Plants by Chris Thorogood, illustrated by Catell Ronca

The overwhelming vibrancy of this book sucks in the reader as if they are a fly teetering on the edge of a Venus flytrap. Featuring a different plant on each double page spread, the colour of the illustrated plant takes over the page, blending with the insects and birds depicted alongside it. With a watercolour wash background, this is an immersive plant book, a far cry from ancient plant identification tomes that feel cold and staid. Indeed, Ronca’s illustration of the bee orchid looks like a psychedelic Kandinsky painting.

Written by a professional botanist, the text doesn’t shy away from complete explanations and correct information. There are Latin names here, but also exciting enthusiastic prose that aims to convey a love and respect for plants as well as an interest. And the plants chosen are truly magnificent. They are peculiar indeed – from the Dead Horse Arum which looks like an animal’s tongue and apparently smells like a rotting animal, to the Giant Waterlily, which produces heat. The text is written in small paragraphs in a large typeface but for so few sentences, Thorogood provides specific, pertinent information in easy to understand language.

The selected plants are global, and feature different peculiarities, but there’s also an emphasis on some general information about plants – how they get energy, how they work with animals, and of course how they need protecting.

A glut of information, displayed wondrously. You can buy it here.

book of treesThe Book of Trees by Piotr Socha, illustrated by Wojciech Grajkowski

I am lucky to be surrounded by trees despite living in London. A cherry tree lightly brushes the front window, and I can see the broad oaks, beeches and chestnuts that line the roads and fields opposite. Socha’s book is as large in scope as the oak, attempting not to just identify trees, but to understand their importance, their physical and spiritual natures. This large hardback is beautiful in itself – a beauty that comes in part from its source material, and Socha references this.

In fact, this is almost a story of trees rather than a non-fiction book. Its narrative sweeps from a basic understanding of the cyclical nature of trees, to their physicality – age, size, material, leaf shapes etc, to their spiritual and magical elements, their role in the environment as homes and sources of food, to the elements they inspire – wood art, buildings, musical instruments, human-constructed tree-houses and so much more. But the tree’s overwhelming beauty and magnificence makes itself known in the stunning illustrations that dominate the pages – leaving just a strip of text at the border to highlight information. The range of leaves and roots is illustrated, but as the reader journeys through the tree and its importance in different cultures, the author/illustrator team showcase how trees have been used to map our evolution, to map families, and to provide spiritual succour. As with The Book of Bees, there is humour liberally applied to the fact-giving, and a sophistication in both image and text. The Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia pictured overgrown with tree roots is simply sublime. You can buy it here.

wild buildings and bridgesWild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature by Etta Kaner and Carl Wiens

It is fairly rare to come across a mainstream children’s book on architecture, and this is certainly one of the more pleasing ones. The premise is the exploration of how nature’s patterns and design informs architecture – using the beauty and aesthetics of nature, as well as problem-solving features within the laws of nature, to good effect in man-made structures. As well as general spreads giving examples of such buildings, there are also small profiles of architects and small experiments to conduct at home – teaching by practical example.

All of this is explained in a range of text, diagrams, illustrations and photographs. Techniques that copy nature include conservation of water, keeping cool, repelling water and strength in shape and design. There are also references to inspirations – the Gherkin in London was inspired by the Venus Flower-basket Sponge. Some of the buildings and structures are quite extraordinary – the Easter Dawyck Bridge that mimics nature’s recycling process, the Council House 2 office block in Melbourne that is modelled on African termite towers, the Wave apartment complex in Denmark that aims to mirror the water of the fjord on which it sits.

There are even admissions of mistakes when architects haven’t quite understood the science behind the natural structures they are copying. This is a fascinating book, documenting not only how we learn from nature but also how we can try and live in harmony with it – using natural light, or local materials and resources. You can buy it here.

riversRivers by Peter Goes

The beauty of this book lies not so much in its depiction of nature, but in the stylistically elaborate carving of time and space into the geographic linearity of the world’s rivers. Goes blends the true depiction of the shape of each river that he profiles with an almost surreal aura, festooning each river with tributaries of information and branches of illustrations to sum up the cultural, historical, and natural history of his rivers.

Covering rivers all over the globe from the Thames in Europe to the Yukon in North America, the Niger in Africa to the Fly in Oceania, Goes takes each river and uses his scattered style to meander from the centre of his river into a stream of consciousness about it. So, for example, The Thames profiles its source and route as well as its water level, but also explores the meaning behind the name, the history of the Frost Fair, the kingfisher on the water, The Thames Barrier, the Henley Boat Race and so much more – each nugget of information illustrated in monochrome. There’s a playfulness to the information too – some personal opinion, and clearly a very personal selection of rivers and facts, but this is an extraordinarily dramatic graphic resource. You can buy it here.

 

How Botanicum Came to Life by Katie Scott

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I am delighted to host Katie Scott on the blog today. She previously illustrated Animalium, which was published to high acclaim in 2014. It was one of the new heavily illustrated and gorgeously presented non-fiction titles for children that have come to dominate this particular market. And now, Katie has returned with Botanicum, a glorious plant museum with 100 full colour pages, which brings Kew gardens into a child’s own bedroom – wherever it may be. 

Working on Botanicum has been such a wonderful process. When I first spoke to the publishers about the idea I couldn’t have been happier with the subject matter. Even though Animalium was an incredible book to work on, it’s the plant kingdom that has always been my strongest source of inspiration.

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Just before we started to plan out the book, I heard the news that Kew would like to be involved. And shortly after that, more good news that their Director of Science, Kathy Willis, would be interested in writing it! The association with Kew has brought the book to a different level than we could have achieved on our own. The resources there are incomparable to any others.

On my first day visiting I was shown a fern specimen, collected by Charles Darwin, in their Herbarium, which houses over seven million plant specimens. Their rare book and art archivist presented me with a selection of botanical prints and handwritten manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 13th century. I’m fascinated by early science, and to see some of the earliest botany books on record was possibly the most inspiring way to start the Botanicum journey.

Many more days were spent in the gardens, and the nurseries, wandering around and collecting names of specimens I thought we should include. I like that the Botanicum cover refers to Kathy and myself as ‘curators’. I feel that’s an accurate description of how the project came together. The list of plants we included were very much curated, and in a very collaborative way. Some I would insist on having, others were ‘must haves’ for Kathy . And in this way I think we have made a collection that includes the most visually fascinating, scientifically interesting and historically important.

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In total I think the book took about six months for me to illustrate. Which is nearly double the time it took to create Animalium. There is so much more detail and I think plants as a subject simply take me longer to draw. I wanted the book to show the diversity of shapes and colours in the plant / fungi kingdoms, and for each page to feel different from the last: whether that’s the twisting and flowing composition of Creepers and Vines, or the linear and structured layout of Bulbs. We were also quite keen to give a few plants the space to sit alone, which was granted to Ginkgo (genetically quite isolated) and the Giant Water Lily, which seemed to warrant a solo page to highlight the incredible size and beauty of its leaf.

With thanks to Katie for her insight. You can buy the book here