With the fading of our last passionflower last month, things are muted, florally speaking, right now inside our garden. The exceptions would be our small hibiscus shrub and our jade plant, whose delicate white flowers are already beginning to emerge. We’re predicting that it will enter full snowball mode weeks earlier than it did last year. But for now…we wait.
We wait, and we read. For the past week we’ve been frolicking through the pages of Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers, photographed by Robert Llewellyn and written by Teri Dunn Chace. Published in September by Timber Press, this book examines 28 of the most common families of flowering plants, and is a captivating combination of art, literature and science.
Robert’s impossibly close photographs (over 300 in total) are a triumph: You can literally count the pollen grains on the stamens of a jonquil, run your fingers along the dew on a purple beardstongue, and see exactly where the petals of a Campanula medium fused together to create the flower’s bell shape. We’re no longer observers — we’re now participants in the emotional lives of these specimens. In many of the photographs you feel like you’re falling into the flowers.
And we’re along for the ride. Call us Thumbelina.
This is macro photography taken to an entirely new level. What’s so shocking about these images is that every part of the flower is in focus; Robert achieved this seemingly infinite depth of field by taking numerous shots of the same blossom and stitching them together using software originally designed for microscopes. The plants were shot on a white light table, and the images maintain the same heartbreaking clarity you’d find in a 19th century botanical illustration.
Photographs by Robert Llewellyn.
“You don’t ever have a bad day looking for flowers,” Robert notes in the acknowledgments.
Each chapter is accompanied by an essay by Teri, a writer and editor (CV: Horticulture, North American Gardener) who was raised in California and now lives in “farm and orchard country” in Upstate New York. The essays in Seeing Flowers gracefully weave the flowers’ botanical specifics into cultural context: About borage, Teri writes, “All the plants have flowers in shades of true blue, which is not always easy to find in the plant world. In some of the species, the presence of anthocyanins makes the distinctly red or pink buds open light purple and gently age to blue. […] Botanists believe the color change is a signal to pollinators (mainly bees) that the nectar and pollen has become depleted, a chemical ‘no vacancy’ sign.”
About the nightshade family: “There is an old story, probably apocryphal, that during the American Revolution a Loyalist chef tried to poison General George Washington by preparing a meal that included tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum. […] It is true that early Americans did not trust tomatoes, did not consider them edible, and did not cook with them.”
The essays are accompanied by quotes from a diversity of sources — from Margaret Atwood to John Muir to William Carlos Williams. And you already know how we feel about William Carlos Williams on the topic of flowers.
We highly recommend this optimistic and refreshing book. If you’d like to see your flowers on an even larger scale, Timber Press is giving away a 16″×24″ gallery-quality print of one of Robert Llewellyn’s photographs on archival paper, plus a copy of Seeing Flowers. Sign up here — by 5 PM Pacific Time on Friday, November 8 — for a chance to win.
We were thrilled to catch up with Teri, who talks about Robert’s breathtaking images, why she believes plant awareness is on the rise, and what she grows in her own yard.
We’re not ashamed to admit that we sniffed the pages of this book — several times. (And we swear we smelled flowers!) Robert Llewellyn’s photographs are that intensely realized. How would you describe his work?
Robert’s photos are very…painterly. In fact, some people have exclaimed, “They’re not watercolors? They’re photographs? Really?!” His technique is truly unusual and time-consuming, part science and part art.
Like the work of any great artist, the images are infused with a distinctive character all his own. Once you know his work, you can tell his from another’s, I mean, the same way you can look at a painting and say, ‘that’s a Monet,’ you can look at one of his photos and say, ‘that’s a Llewellyn.’
To me, the images are respectful and graceful, and really fascinating. Some are pretty bizarre; some are pretty sexy, actually. His work gives new meaning to ‘extreme close-up.’
What might surprise readers when they read Seeing Flowers?
This is not purely a botany or science or gardening book —not at all. Flowers do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of history and culture. That is why I included some interesting stories about them, tucked in some weird and intriguing factoids, and opened each chapter with a literary quote. I’ve got quotes from Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda to a relatively unknown Vietnamese poet.
Why did you write this book?
I have always appreciated flowers in many ways. Yes, I am a botanist and a horticulturist, yes, I have made a career out of writing and editing material about plants and gardening. But I love just looking at flowers…sniffing them, crawling among them in my garden, bending over them on a hike, admiring them over someone’s fence, picking bouquets, going into a florist shop.
But I am also a lover of literature and art. So I set out to appreciate flowers from every angle I could think of. To be honest, it’s tricky…it’s like trying to capture a butterfly in a net!
When you were working on the book, was there a photo that came in or a fact you encountered that surprised you?
Many of the flowers in the book are known to practically everybody. Even people who don’t ever garden! Morning glory, for example. There is an awesome closeup of a bluish-purple morning glory blossom, spread out over two full pages, about three-quarters of the way through the book (pages 222-223) that takes my breath away. One reviewer [Joanna Brichetto] remarked — I love this — that this image ‘looks no different from a Hubble-captured image of a vast nebula.’ To have something you thought you knew and thought was ordinary look so strange and gorgeous is…well, it’s thrilling!
We know it’s like choosing between children, but is there an essay in Seeing Flowers that’s particularly close to your heart?
There is one essay in this book that I wrote straight from my heart. It’s the “Afterword” at the very end of the book, page 293. I tell the story of one last lesson a morning glory had to teach. It’s about beauty in death.
How did you choose the plant families you did?
We had to group Robert’s photos in some fashion. Organizing them by family sounds very scientific and botanical, I know, but — check this out — it actually was the perfect way to allow me to point out similarities and details. I learned some amazing things, things I had never known or noticed before. I think, I hope, my sense of discovery and wonder come across as you read the chapters.
Why do you think plant awareness is on the rise right now?
Nature on our planet is in a state of distress, some might even say crisis, what with global warming, overpopulation, new and scary stresses on plants, creatures, water, landscapes. But I do see cause for hope. People are increasingly aware of the quality and origins of their food, for instance, and more people are trying to eat locally and in season.
Before pollution, agribusiness and other damaging pressures destroy our environment, people like you and me can and should learn and act to save and protect diversity, to do our little but mindful part to promote the health of the planet. Does that sound too general? I guess what I mean to say is — and I actually think this book Seeing Flowers can contribute, in its small way — we need to see and appreciate nature. “Not man apart” from that, as the poet Robinson Jeffers said.
What do you grow in your own space?
I grow vegetables, herbs, flowers, and shrubs in a small yard in the heart of a small village. No lawn! (A shrinking lawn is a good thing — everyone, please, plant food and flowers instead!) Yes, I have morning glories draped over my back fence. My favorite herb is oregano, ever since a friend turned me on to making a salad out of nothing but fresh oregano leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, thin-sliced red onion, and balsamic vinaigrette.
And anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to thank Robert and Mike Dempsey, the designer of the book Seeing Flowers. The stars aligned with this book! It is elegant and beautiful, the sort of thing you just sit down with and feel a hush of wonder sift over you as you turn the pages.