Species of concern

By Patrick Smith

A historic exhibition of botanical illustrations will be running through April at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. The exhibit is being presented to draw attention to the need for conservation efforts in the United States and worldwide.

Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World,” an exhibition of 44 original artworks depicting endangered or threatened plants from throughout the world, was curated by the American Society of Botanical Artists and features work by some of the group’s 1,200 members. It is the first traveling exhibition the society has put on. The group hopes to teach people the value of conservation and also inform people that botanical artwork is a thriving, modern form.

“It’s a unique way to really expose a wider audience to species endangerment,” said Robin A. Jess, executive director of the American Society of Botanical Artists. “Botanical art isn’t something that’s just found in antique books or old, stuffy botanical museums, but it is being made by contemporary artists who are very interested in plant preservation, and also in creating beautiful works of art. And I hope people take a minute to read why these plants are endangered.”

Local artist Kathleen Garness, who is also a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists, has one of her illustrations featured in the traveling exhibit. She said along with enjoying the beautiful works, she hopes people realize the importance of conservation.

“Conservation of what remains should be a top priority,” she said. “Because once it’s gone, you can never get it back.”

Garness’ painting is of two yellow lady slipper orchids, a species of concern that is native to Illinois.

“They used to be very common in the woodlands, but because of the destruction of the woodlands for development and people picking [the flowers], many of them have disappeared,” Garness said. “The population of this species has been declining steadily for years.”

According to Garness, that’s especially bad news for the state’s ecology.

“Orchids are like the ‘canary in the mine’ for ecological quality, when they disappear, you know that something in the system has changed, probably not for the better,” Garness said. “They are especially sensitive to surface water quantity and quality, which is why we need to be tracking them. Orchids and people both need high quality water supplies.”

To get to the two delicate flowers she illustrated, Garness had to “slog through brush and wet prairie potholes.” And her experience was not uncommon, according to Garness and Jess, who is also an artist with pieces in the exhibit. Botanical artists often have to go to great lengths to find and get near their subjects, but both said the hard work is more than worth it.

Julie McCaffrey, the senior media relations specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, said she is grateful for the artists’ work.

“I think it’s wonderful because these are incredibly detailed illustrations that are true to life, that were drawn from life. And it is really interesting to get the story of these endangered plants,” McCaffrey said. “A rare orchid is so beautiful and to see, and to hear the story of how challenging it is to even find these plants to draw them is fascinating and sad.”

Illinois has the second-most wildlife lost to land development in the United States after Iowa, according to Garness, and that is troubling for the entire country’s wildlife population.

“Chicago is one of the keystone areas in the nation’s environmental movement,” Garness said. “We have ecosystems here that are more rare than the rainforest, and the greater Chicago area boasts more different ecotones than almost anywhere else in the country, if not continent.”

According to Jess, the loss of unique wildlife in Illinois highlights the importance of taking action in one’s local community.

“It points out that people don’t have to look to the Amazon river basin or tropical areas, they can look right in their community for plants that need protection,” Jess said.

The exhibition started in Missouri and after it leaves Chicago, it will head to the New York Botanical Gardens before the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.