Horticulture: the blending of art and science

I remember once applying for a job at the USU herbarium. I really knew nothing about working in an herbarium, but I was just starting my horticulture degree and wanted to work somewhere on campus in a job related to my major. For part of the application I had to submit some plant sketches. I had never taken an art class – band always counted for my creative arts credits in school – but I didn’t let that deter me. I went out to my mom’s flower garden and sketched some gazanias as best as I knew how.

I didn’t end up getting the job. Sometimes I wonder how my life’s trajectory would have changed had I worked in the herbarium. Would I still have found myself in the weeds?

botanical illustration of plant roots

We tend to not think of the below-ground plant parts when thinking of their beauty, but there’s no denying the beauty of these sketches.

Regardless, I must have been more confident (or blissfully naïve?) as a college freshman than I am now, because I certainly would never apply for a job now that required me to have art skills. But I’ve always enjoyed botanical art and wished that I was better at drawing, so when I saw the following on the USU events calendar, I was definitely intrigued:

“Art and science come together at January’s Family Art Day! Plant scientists use art skills to document new plants. Come and examine plants and create your own descriptive drawings with pen and watercolor. Art making for all ages is offered from 11AM-2PM. This month’s Family Art Day activity will coincide with the USU Library exhibit “Roots: The Nature of Books” on view now in Special Collections through January 26, 2018.”

Could this be my chance to jumpstart a latent desire and learn a new skill?

botanical illustration of Columbine

At first glance I thought this was an illustration of carnations, but it really is Columbine, in all its many forms.

I almost talked myself out of going; instead, I talked my mom into coming with me. I had planned on bringing Grace along, too, but then she ended up taking an early nap. And you don’t want to mess with her naps. Had she come I might have actually done the activity part of the art day; as it was, I felt awkward (or intimidated) to be participating in the “kids” part without a kid.

The books, though? Those were amazing, and well worth the time to go see them. There were books from the 1600s! Detailed drawings of observations made with the naked eye, and with the use of early microscopes. It was inspiring and humbling to see and handle them.

botanical illustration of wormwood root crossection

Where science meets art – a beautiful, accurate drawing of a cross section of wormwood root.


sketches of plant cross sections

These drawings took me back to my plant anatomy class. My sketches for class were not as good as these, I can tell you that.

There were also more contemporary books; my favorite of which was an illustrated hiking journal of Yosemite National Park made by Donna and Peter Thomas. She made the sketches, he made the paper. For more about Peter and Donna Thomas, check out their site here.

picture of a nature journal

I aspire to be a better naturalist. And part of that aspiration includes keeping a nature journal. I can only hope that one day I can make something as beautiful as this.

Looking at these old – and new – botanical drawings I was struck by the thought that art and science aren’t as separate as we sometimes make them out to be. Those botanical drawings from the 1600s were so intricate and detailed that I don’t think you could have captured them any better with a camera. So often today when we see something beautiful or interesting, we pull out our phone and snap a picture. The scientists and artists who made these books had to capture those images and observations with their paper and ink. And if you’re taking the time to draw out all the details of a crocus at every stage of growth you probably start thinking about how or why it does the things it does. What started out as perhaps a desire to create something beautiful, by sparking curiosity and questions, has now morphed into a science project. How does the scientific method start again? Oh yeah, by making observations and asking questions.

botanical illustration of crocus

I think the title at the top of this page says it all: The Garden of Pleasant Flowers. Crocus are indeed pleasant, and are one of my favorite flowers signaling that spring is on its way.

Science and art. Art and science. I think this is what first drew me to – and continues to draw me to – horticulture – it really is a blending of art and science. Together they create a wonderful whole.

P.s. Even though I chickened out about participating in the art activity on campus, I told myself I would draw some of my plants at home. It took me a couple days, but one morning, while coloring with Grace I decided to try and sketch some of the plants on my kitchen table. No great works of art, I assure you, but at least they resemble their respective plant models. I think. (If you would like to see some truly great botanical art, check out my friend Tyler Swain’s work. I’d like to think that his summers spent working for us contributed to his talent, but I’m sure it was really the other way around – his attention to detail made him an excellent weed mapper.)

Tradescantia, a rose cutting, and my crocus in real life and rendered in ball-point pen and crayon on notebook paper.


  1. This is an awesome post. I’ve always thought you were a better artist than I. Way to be brave and try something new. (Again.)

    • Heather

      January 29, 2018 at 10:06 pm

      Thanks, Kim! I don’t know about that bit about being a better artist, but thank you all the same. I need to do it more often so that it doesn’t always feel like I’m trying something new.

  2. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that chickens out to do craft things without my kids 😉 But some day I’m going to get brave and take an art class, because I’ve always wanted to learn to draw/ paint better.

    I love those sketches in the old books, BTW – that would have been a cool exhibit to see.

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