“Weird Plants” author Chris Thorogood, a botanist and an artist, calls on us to see the marvels of plant life and the urgency of saving it.

Chris Thorogood

Chris Thorogood is surrounded by plants — both around his office and on his drawing table.

As an evolutionary botanist, he serves as head of science and public engagement for Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum in the United Kingdom.

But when he’s not researching the genetics or taxonomy of plants around the world, he’s often drawing them. His stunning illustrations have appeared in scientific journals, magazines and books like 2018’s Weird Plants and 2020’s The Botany of Gin (the latter coauthored with Simon Hiscock).

We connected with Thorogood by video to talk about the fine line between science and art and how both serve to aid in conservation.

What’s your evolutionary story? Where did the science and the art combine for you?

Well, I think they go very well together. Often we can put subject areas into boxes. In school we think of everything as compartmentalized, whether, you know, it’s math or science or art, and whether you’re good at this or not so good at this one, or which one you like. And one of the things I love about my career is that all of those boxes disappear and everything starts to overlap.

Wow. That’s great.

It’s quite liberating. I work quite closely with physicists today in solving problems from an evolutionary point of view. And then art and science, they also cross boundaries as well, in more ways than one.

I teach undergrads biology here, and we get them to draw things. Some of them don’t like it, because “I hate drawing” or whatever, but it’s a means of examining something really closely. And sometimes it’s only when you take the time to draw and capture visually what it is you’re looking at that you really make sense of it. And so I think the boundaries between those two disciplines dissolve somehow.

Coming back to your question — how did that happen? — I was always fascinated by the living things that existed around me. And I also had an innate, sort of burning desire to capture what I saw on paper.

A lot of the artists I’ve interviewed work in a particular medium. And I’ve seen that you’ve done pen and ink. You’ve done pencil, oil, watercolor. You’re doing the science, you’re teaching. I saw a video of you playing the piano. How on earth do you do it all?

Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I do a tiny little bit of everything, and I don’t spend enough time on any one thing. But you know, sometimes we can put ourselves in those boxes that I mentioned earlier. People say, “Oh, I only do watercolor” — but how do you know? Because if you’re good at those, you’re probably good at using the other things you just haven’t tried.

I’m a big advocate for just, you know, getting stuck in.

So, watercolor is the traditional medium for botanical illustration, which I do like, but it’s not a forgiving medium. With oil paints, I think they’re not always as precise and accurate, but they can capture the life of something, and you can get carried away and you can put your soul into it in a way that you can’t with watercolors. If I’m feeling in a mood where I want to be precise and particular and really concentrate and be focused, then watercolors are fine, but if I want to express what I’m doing more, I’d say oil paints are better.

Yeah, you can have those happy accidents with oil, but the watercolor must really play into, like you said, the scientific studying of an element of a plant. Which do use first, the scientific eye or the artist eye?

I think the scientific one, and I think it helps guide me in terms of the art. And as I say, I think these things overlap, but sometimes it can be a hindrance, particularly when I’m working with watercolor. I can’t sometimes see past an imperfection or inaccuracy, and sometimes it can be quite a difficult process for something that’s supposed to be very relaxing and enjoyable.

I’ve sometimes embarked on a very detailed watercolor and then fallen out of love with it. And it’s only if I come back to it six months later, it’s like, “Oh, that’s all right.” Maybe that’s the scientist in me, because we like everything to be sort of formulaic and I want it to be right and precise and sometimes art doesn’t work in that way.

Has being an artist improved your science?

Oh, I like that question… Yes, it has, because you’re always looking and being inquisitive and examining. I mean, if you think about art in terms of illustration or drawing or capturing something, and if you strip it back to basics, you have to look very closely at what it is. And you’re questioning it. Maybe not cognizantly, but you’re permanently asking questions and then you capture it on paper. And I think having that artistic side to sort of examine, scrutinize, make sense of, and seek to understand — that’s what a scientist does, asks questions and tries to find the answers to them.

Right. And you’ve also got another unique role in that you’re a science communicator. So these things must all bleed together.

They do seem to do that, but I didn’t necessarily plan it in that way.

I’m very passionate about the importance of plants. I think they’re sometimes neglected, particularly when it comes to messages about conservation and the importance of biodiversity. People are excited by animals. They’re engaged and intrigued by animals, and often not so much with plants. You talk to people and that know, plants are beautiful or they’re great in my garden. But they see them as a backdrop for animals to exist against.

I like to find ways to gently challenge that notion and to help people to see plants in a different way so that we might get better at valuing them, understanding them, and then hopefully protecting them and conserving them. So I think that communication isn’t necessarily something that I ever planned to do, but I think like all things should come first from your sort of your compass and your passion. And I suppose that’s where it does for me.

Your book Weird Plants must tie into that.

Weird PlantsYeah. It’s funny because these “weird plants” — I sometimes feel like they almost sort of wrote themselves in a weird way. I didn’t set out to do it in that way, but I started a collection of paintings on these particularly strange plants. And then they suddenly made sense to me to fall into these groups — i.e., the “killers” and the “vampires” — and they started to take on almost characters and roles. And it was easy to tell stories about these plants, all the while explaining the science.

Because that’s what it’s about. It’s science and it’s obviously illustrating, it’s an artistic endeavor, but it sort of followed its own path. It was very much a journey rather than a preconceived idea that I then went out and did.

How do you expect the average person interacts with one of your pieces?

One of the things I hope it might do is to show plants in a way that maybe they haven’t seen necessarily before. I like to slightly shock that norm and to present a plant in a different way, I suppose.

Tell me about that shock. What are you trying to convey artistically or emotionally, or whatever the case may be?

I do want my artwork to be accurate, and I like to show it in its habitat. So when I did the collection for Weird Plants, I wanted to show them as they are. I like painting them to get the character of them. I like the dead bits, the blemishes on the plants, all of that. And I think the reader — if you will, the audience, the interpreter of your painting — I think you help them and do them a favor by doing that, because you help guide them into the picture and help them believe that that what they’re seeing is real. And that’s harder if you strive to make everything perfect, which is not how it is in nature. It’s chaotic.

I did a painting of a pitcher plant called Nepenthes extincta — which of course, the name says it all. What I set out to do was to bring something back to life that now sadly exists only as a squashed type specimen. And the mountain that it grew on in Mindanao, in the Philippines, has been razed to the ground, because it’s a nickel mine. It’s just gone forever. And I don’t wish to present that as token of doom or to depress anyone or to upset them. But I do think it’s important that people appreciate that there are lots of marvelous things still to discover and to understand, and in order to do that we need to protect them and conserve them.

What do you think of the state of the art of scientific illustration? Is this still a growing vibrant field?

Yeah, I think it is. It’s difficult to get a sense of how many people are doing it, but on Instagram there’s quite a thriving community of botanical artists, and also some different age groups as well. So, so I have a lot of optimism there.

What’s your biggest challenge — as an artist, a botanist or both?

My biggest challenge is our biggest challenge, and that is to engage people to appreciate the importance of plant life. I mean, it’s not just plants, of course. It’s all life and ecosystems. But plant life specifically, because it doesn’t have as much traction as animals.

If you go out and ask someone, on my street or yours, what does conservation mean? You can have a conversation about protecting living things. And then you say, “well, what living things?” And they’ll tell you, “a tiger, or a rhinoceros.” They may even say “shark,” but they will not mention a plant. And why would they? Those messages about the importance of plants aren’t loud enough.

Sometimes I sit on these meetings, in a conservation remit, and you hear about certain plant species in Africa that it’s a fait accompli, we know that a certain species will become extinct by next year and there is nothing we can do about. And I sometimes wonder if that would be the case if it were animals.

So, whilst it’s not necessarily my job to sort of lobby and to bring about change in that way, I think what I am perhaps able to do is to bring about more awareness and appreciation for the importance of pants. And if I can do that in just a small way, and particularly with a younger cohort and a new generation, then I suppose I’ve done my job.

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.