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Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators

Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators

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Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators

812 pages
3 hours
Jun 30, 2014


To study a plant in detail is to make a fascinating journey of discovery. Even plants we think we know well will often surprise us as we look at the intricacy of their structure and how they are put together. This fascinating guide explains what flowering plants are and their relationship to other groups of plants. With drawings, paintings and photographs throughout, it advises on how to carry out a botanical study and will prove essential reading for botanical artists, photographers and all those wishing to gain a greater understanding of flowering plants. Contents include: practical advice on techniques, tools and other equipment used in botanical work; the structure and function of the main parts of the flowering plant, highlighting features that are important in illustration for botanical purposes; suggestions for projects, which can be used to assess your understanding or stimulate the start of a new project. Superbly illustrated with 366 colour images.
Jun 30, 2014

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Understanding the Flowering Plants - Anne Bebbington

Understanding the Flowering Plants

A practical guide for botanical illustrators

Anne L. D. Bebbington


First published in 2014 by

The Crowood Press Ltd

Ramsbury, Marlborough

Wiltshire SN8 2HR


This e-book published in 2015

© Anne Bebbington 2014

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978 1 84797 759 5

Frontispiece: A worker Early Bumblebee nectaring on the flower of a Dusky Cranes-bill (Geranium phaeum)


For Mary Brewin, my co-tutor in running the first ‘Botany for Botanical Artists’ course in 2010. Without her, this course would not have happened, nor been such a success.


I am deeply indebted to my husband John, not only for taking the majority of photographs in this book, but also for his tremendous help in checking all the material and for his support and encouragement. I am very grateful to Mary Brewin, Jan Cheshire, Catherine Day, Ros Franklin and Ken Victor for permission to use their artwork, and to Melvin Grey, Robert Sharrad, David and Madeleine Spears and Ruth Thomas for use of their photographs. I thank Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) for permission to include the simple idea for measuring tree height.

All photographs except those accredited otherwise are by John Bebbington FRPS.

All artwork except that accredited otherwise is by the author.




Appendix I: The self-assessment projects

Appendix II: Template for floral diagrams

Appendix III: Glossary

Appendix IV: Bibliography

Appendix V: Equipment suppliers

Appendix VI: Societies and courses



Botanical art lies along a spectrum linking art and science. As a botanist, my illustrations are most often done for scientific purposes but I greatly value and appreciate the knowledge and skills of those whose work has its origins in the world of art.

Part of my botanical training was a regular requirement to produce drawings and diagrams. ‘If you can draw it, you understand it’ was the maxim. This stimulated and guided my investigations and has given me a lifelong fascination with the intricacies of how plants are put together and how they work. It also gave me a real appreciation of the value of illustration to a botanist.

In 2004 Michael Hickey, an accomplished artist as well as a very knowledgeable botanist, founded the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI), an excellent forum for botanists and artists to meet and learn from each other. It was through IAPI that Mary Brewin and I came together to run a series of practical workshops. Our aim was to help botanical artists to gain a better understanding of the flowering plants and so inform their artwork, and also to share ideas about illustration techniques appropriate to different botanical subjects. An important part of the learning process was the completion of a self-assessment project between the workshops, designed not only to help students to assess their understanding but to encourage them to ask questions and research their subjects.

This book is based on material from the course, concentrating on the structure of the flowering plants and the role that different parts play in the plant’s success and survival in its natural environment. I hope not only that those who illustrate plants will find this book useful, but also that it will help to make botanical art in general more interesting and enjoyable.


About the book

Although written particularly with botanical artists in mind, this book should also help anyone wishing to gain a greater understanding of the flowering plants. It starts with advice on how to approach a botanical study and introduces useful practical techniques, tools and equipment. This is followed by an explanation of the terms used to describe the main parts of a flowering plant and its living processes. Succeeding chapters take each part of the plant in turn and describe their basic structure and the role they play in the life of the plant. Features of particular importance, which should be carefully observed, are highlighted. Suggestions for projects are made at the end of each of these chapters. These can be used if you wish to help assess your understanding of the chapter’s contents or can be used to stimulate ideas for a new project. Appendix I gives advice on carrying out these projects, together with two completed examples.

For those who are just looking for information about a specific part of the plant the contents page gives an outline of the topics covered in each chapter, allowing you to dip in and out of the book.

Insect visitors are not only important for pollination. This black ant feeding on an extra-floral nectary of Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) helps protect the plant from other small animals that might eat it.




Over millions of years, evolutionary developments along numerous branching pathways have given rise to huge numbers of different living organisms. When there are large numbers of items (such as living organisms), our senses become overwhelmed with information. Sorting things into groups helps us to see patterns reflecting differences and possible relationships.

Fig. 1.1 A flowering plant – the Rock Speedwell (Veronica fruticans).

Fig. 1.2 How evolution works.


In the Plant Kingdom the major groups recognized today are the mosses and liverworts (Bryophytes), the ferns and their allies (Pteridophytes) and the seed plants (Gymnosperms and Angiosperms). The algae and fungi (and therefore the lichens), once part of every botanist’s education, are now considered to be sufficiently different to be assigned to separate kingdoms!

Fig 1.3 The major groups of plants.

It is thought that these major groups of plants all evolved from a common, marine algal ancestor. In the move from the sea to life on land some major reproductive hurdles had to be overcome. How could the swimming male sperm reach the female egg without water, and how could the female egg be protected from drying out? The more primitive land plants, the mosses and liverworts, together with the ferns and their allies, have only partly solved this problem. The egg cells and the embryo which develops from the fertilized egg are at least initially protected by the maternal tissue. The sperm, however, is still reliant on a film of water in order to swim to the female organ and so, in order to enable sexual reproduction to take place, these plants are restricted to habitats that are damp, at least from time to time. In the seed plants protection has gone a stage further. The egg cell, and after fertilization the embryo, are enclosed and protected inside the seed. In most seeds there is also a store of food, giving the embryo a start in life. The male sperm no longer have to swim to the female but are contained within pollen grains. With their tough outer coat, pollen grains can travel long distances through the air, carried by wind or animals, to reach the female organs, only releasing the sperm in the proximity of the female egg cell. Thus for sexual reproduction these plants are now liberated from the need for damp conditions.


The flowering plants (Angiosperms), the most evolutionarily developed of the seed plants, appeared about 135 million years ago and now dominate our planet. Not only is the developing embryo protected by the seed, but the seed itself has become enclosed by an ovary, which, as the embryo begins to develop, forms the fruit. The other major group of seed plants, the conifers and their allies (Gymnosperms), has taken another route; here the seeds are not completely enclosed by an ovary, although in the conifers woody scales forming a cone help to protect the seeds.

Since the era of the ancient Greeks there have been many attempts to classify the flowering plants, with one of the best-known being that by Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century naturalist. Sexual reproduction in plants and animals was a subject of much interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was on the arrangement of the male and female sexual organs of the plants that Linnaeus based his classification system. In the descriptions, however, he drew extraordinary comparisons with human love. For example, in an essay written in 1730 he describes the function of the petal: ‘in itself it contributes nothing to generation but serves as the bridal bed, which the Great Creator arranged so beautifully, and garnished with such precious bed-curtains, and perfumed with so many scents, in order that the bridegroom and his bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with so much greater solemnity’ (Silvertown, 2009). Descriptions such as this drew the wrath of the Church down upon his head. In spite of this, the characteristics of the flower have proved to show less variability than other parts of the plant and remain an important part of modern classification systems today.

a) Wellingtonia cones (Sequoiadendron giganteum) showing the woody scales which help to protect the naked seeds. The word Gymnosperm comes from the Greek Gymnos meaning naked. It is the same root as the word gymnast comes from, the early Greek athletes normally exercising and training without any clothes on!

b) Developing fruit of Red Campion (Silene dioica) showing seeds completely enclosed within the ovary. Angiosperm derives from the Greek word angeion meaning a vessel or container.

Fig. 1.4 Cones of a Gymnosperm compared with the fruit of an Angiosperm.

Until recently, classification systems were largely based on visual observations, but with modern advances in the study of genetics, we now have a much better understanding of the real relationships between living organisms and their evolutionary pathways. Although on the downside this means that some groupings and names with which we have become very familiar over time have changed, a classification system based on this new information is likely to be much more robust and stand the test of time.

a) Great Yellow Gentian (Gentiana lutea) a dicot, with 5–9 perianth parts and leaves with parallel veins.

b) Black Bryony (Tamus communis) a monocot, with flower parts in multiples of three but broad leaves which look as though they have net veining.

Fig. 1.5 Examples of a dicot and a monocot whose appearance may be confusing.


Two major groups have long been recognized: the monocots (Monocotyledons) with one seed leaf, and the dicots (Dicotyledons) with two seed leaves. It is not always easy to see this diagnostic feature, especially in the smaller seeds (see Chapter 11). There are, however, other characteristics that can help you to distinguish these two groups, but watch out – not all plants show the characteristics typical of their group!

Fig. 1.6 Differences to look for when distinguishing dicots from monocots. Differences in the internal anatomy also occur but are not included here.

Fig. 1.7 Examples of plants included in the major groups of flowering plants.

DNA data suggest that there are several primitive families which were formerly placed with the dicots but never really fitted comfortably, for example the Water Lilies (Nymphaeaceae) and Birthworts (Aristolochiaceae). It appears that these split off before the dicots and monocots separated. These will now be called predicots and will be placed before the dicots, which will be known as eudicots to distinguish them.

The arrangement of major groups and families in a flora

Plants are typically arranged in floras in a sequence that reflects their evolutionary relationships. These sequences are now also subject to debate and change. The decisions are not always easy; for example, in many floras the dicots were thought to be more primitive and typically preceded the monocots. It now seems that these two groups branched off at approximately the same time from the predicots. This is obviously not easy to represent in a linear sequence and therefore in the New Flora of the British Isles (Stace, 2010) it has been decided that, after the predicots, the eudicots will continue to be placed before the monocots as this is an arrangement familiar to most British botanists. Be aware, though, that in most British floras changes have been made to the sequence of flowering plant families within these groups.

How does all this affect the botanical artist?

The most important thing to remember is that classification is man-made and is therefore always likely to change with time as research reveals new information and opinions change. This will also often result in changes to plant names. Don’t let this worry you. It is not critical if you have not been able to find the most recent name, or the plant’s name subsequently changes. The most important thing to know is that the scientific names of plants are followed by the naming authority. This enables those who need to to track down the history of the name and any changes.


Local or vernacular names

For generations plants have been given common names, which vary from region to region. The most commonly used name for Primula veris is Cowslip in England but Coucou (Cuckoo) in French. Here in Britain Cuckoo Flower is just one of the names used for Cardamine pratensis, also commonly known as Lady’s Smock!

Even within a region where the same language is spoken you may find differences. The name ‘bluebell’, for example, is used for different plants in England and Scotland. While the history and folklore behind these vernacular names is often fascinating, it is easy to see how they can create confusion and it is important therefore to add the scientific name to your work as well as the vernacular name.

Scientific names

Educated men wrote in Latin and therefore it was the natural language to use for naming living organisms. Surprisingly, however, until the eighteenth century there was no widely accepted system for naming.

Before Linnaeus, living organisms often had as many as seven or eight Latin words in their name. Linnaeus, with his highly organized mind, not only attempted to devise classification systems for living organisms but also devised a naming system. While his classification systems have been much modified as our worldwide knowledge has expanded, particularly in the last decade in the light of modern genetic research, his binomial system of naming living organisms still forms the basis of our naming system today. In this system names of plants (and other living organisms) are reduced to two words. The first name represents the genus and the second name the species. The renaming of the potato by Linnaeus shows how much simpler these names are.

Fig. 1.8 Primula veris. This plant’s most familiar English name, the Cowslip, probably derives from the Old English cũslyppe (cowslop), as it was commonly found in meadows amongst cow dung. It has many other names of folk origin, including Buckles, Crewel, Fairy Cups, Key of Heaven, Petty Mullein, Palsywort, Peggle and Plumrocks.

a) Campanula rotundifolia, the Scottish Bluebell, commonly called Harebell in England.

b) Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the English Bluebell.

Fig 1.9 The Scottish and English Bluebells.

Naming new plants – type specimens

When a new plant is named, a type specimen – an actual example showing the defining features of that plant – must be placed in a recognized institute. The Kew herbarium, for example, contains over 350,000 type specimens. If you search the internet for Linnaean Herbarium Online, you can see examples of Linnaeus’ original herbarium sheets.


The hierarchy of classification

It is helpful to have some understanding of the hierarchy of classification when looking for and writing plant names.

a) Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis integerrimis, the early Latin name for the potato plant before Linnaeus introduced the binomial system.

b) Solanum tuberosum

The much simpler name devised by Linnaeus using his binomial system

Fig 1.10 The scientific naming of the Potato.

Other lower order sub-divisions include:

Rules when writing plant names


The first part of the name, the genus, always starts with a capital letter and the second part, the species name, should be all lower case. Both names should be highlighted, for example when writing by underlining and in print by using italics. After the first mention of a genus name, it is acceptable to use only the initial letter for the genus.

The naming authority should always be included. This enables a botanist to check the history and status of the name. The authority may be indicated by the full name, by an abbreviation or just an initial. ‘L.’, for example, tells us that the plant was named by Linnaeus. The authority name should not be highlighted, and abbreviations and initials should be

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