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See Dazzling Botanical Imagery Through the Ages

A glorious visual compendium of plants and flowers that spans thousands of years.

Iwasaki Tsunemasa, Papaver somniferum, from his book Honzō Zufu, 1920–2.
Iwasaki Tsunemasa, Papaver somniferum, from his book Honzō Zufu, 1920–2. Courtesy the National Diet Library, Japan/Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016

The new book from Phaidon, Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, features a rich collection of 300 images of various plants and flowers in the form of illustrations, photography and SEM micrographs. This depth of visuals is suited to the subject matter: images of the botanical world have existed for over 5,000 years, according to the book’s introduction, and have been an essential part of plant identification and categorization.

Not all of the contributors began as botanists, however. For example, one of the most famous catalogers was the 18th-century artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who became known as the “Raphael of flowers”. Redouté painted stage scenery in Paris and was discovered, and trained, by the botanist Charles Louis l’Héritier de Brutelle. Over the course of his career, as he navigated revolutionary France, both Marie-Antoinette and, later, Josephine Bonaparte were his patrons. He illustrated more than 50 botanical books and his delicate watercolors are instantly recognizable.

Plant also provides biographical information for each image, which is often as illuminating as the work itself. One illustration consists of delicate pen-and-ink drawings of plants, surrounding by small script—a letter exchanged between botanists to document species. In another, shown above, a poppy blazes bright blue. According to the book’s text, this was created for the color edition of the Honzō zufu, the “Illustrated Manual of Plants”, produced by Iwasaki (Kan’en) Tsunemasa in the 19th century.  

Here is a collection of images from this beautifully illustrated book:

Erich J. Geske, Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), from National Geographic, 1925. (Photo: National Geographic Creative/ Bridgeman Images/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Philip Reinagle, Large Flowering Sensitive Plant from Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora, 1799. (Photo: Natural History Museum, London/ Science Photo Library/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Mieko Ishikawa, Acorns from Brunei, 1997. (Photo: © Mieko Ishikawa/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Ernst Haeckel, Liverworts (Hepaticae), from Kunstformen der Natur, 1899. (Photo: © Fine Art/ Alamy Stock Photo/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Rosa centifolia: Rosier à cent feuilles, 1820. (Photo: The Art Archive/ Eileen Tweedy/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin and Johannes Scarf, Various flowering plants, 1792. (Photo: Natural History Museum, London/ Science Photo Library/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

Rob Kesseler, Scabiosa crenata, a hand-coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM). (Photo: Collection of Rob Kesseler/ Courtesy Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, Phaidon 2016)

The cover of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, released by Phaidon books in September 2016. (Photo: Courtesy Phaidon)