Minna Fernald's painting of  fewflower milkweed.
Minna Fernald’s painting of fewflower milkweed. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History

Minna Fernald painted flowers—the yellow blooms of a prickly pear, the purple petals of the savannah meadow beauty, the deep red of the scarlet mallow. Her work was precise and detailed; each painting looks as if it might have illustrated a work of botanical science sometime in the past. In the years she lived in Florida, she made hundreds of these paintings, but sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, her work disappeared.

Not long ago, the botanist Mark Whitten was scavenging through the drawers at the University of Florida Herbarium, looking for archiving materials, when he found Fernald’s paintings.

In the dark and cool drawers of the herbarium, the paintings had kept their bright colors and details. They were a window to “a much more wild and interesting Florida,” as Whitten put it.

"Orchid and obedient plant" by Minna Fernald.
“Orchid and obedient plant” by Minna Fernald. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History

Fernald moved to Florida later in her life. Born in 1860, she was living in Maryland when she met a graduate student in zoology, a man fascinated with arthropods, and married him. They lived nine years in Pennsylvania and decades in Massachusetts. In Maryland, Fernald had been trained in watercolor painting, and wherever she went, especially when she traveled, she took her sketchbook with her. She and her husband came to Florida as retirees, and she dedicated herself to painting the flowers she found there. In the 1940s, she donated her collection to the University of Florida, where over time the paintings were forgotten.

Today, many of the flowers Fernald documented are hard to find and live only in preserves. The paintings capture the plants’ bright colors and liveliness in a way that botanical samples, dried and drained of color, cannot. The herbarium plans to digitize the paintings and give them a new life online.

A prickly pear by Minna Fernald.
A prickly pear by Minna Fernald. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History
Scarlet Mallow.
Scarlet Mallow. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum of Natural History