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Endangered plants you'll likely never see

'Losing Paradise,' a new botanical art exhibition of 44 rare species, illustrates the art form's enduring value – even in this age of digital.

By Jon LetmanContributor / September 2, 2010

As a botanical illustrator, Wendy Hollender is accustomed to working everywhere, from sultry tropical jungles to dusty hillsides knee-deep in grass.

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In 2008, in search of rare plant subjects, she ventured to Hawaii where, by chance, a critically endangered scentless Hawaiian mint was on the cusp of blooming. When Ken Wood, a conservation biologist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden asked if she would render the yet to be described plant known from just 15 wild individuals, she couldn't resist.

That drawing, along with several she made of exceptionally rare forms of hibiscus, are on display at the exhibition "Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World." Housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., through Dec. 12, the show is a collection of botanical drawings of 44 of the world's rarest plants, half of them native to the United States.

The 41 artists from five continents in the exhibition are peddling an old craft with the simplest of tools, but one that still has a profound importance for science and conservation.

Armed with colored pencils, a ruler, eraser, magnifying glass, and pad of paper, Hollender captured the scarcely known purple blossoming mint on paper just as its curved floral tubes swelled with life. The timing, as Mr. Wood recalls, "was perfect, just magic."

Part of the beauty of using simple tools like pencils and paper, Hollender says, is that it allows for maximum mobility and the freedom to concentrate on her subjects. Undistracted by the medium, she says, "I feel as if I am 'hooked up to my plant' when I work."

Back in New York, where Hollender is coordinator for art and illustration at The New York Botanical Garden, she submitted her five rare plant illustrations (the four Hibiscus drawings and the mint, known as Stenogyne kauaulaen­sis) to the juried show, a project of the Am­erican Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA).

Among the endangered species featured in the exhibit are some of the most intriguing plants you'll probably never see: the pima pineapple cactus, the ghost orchid, the longolongo, the tupa rosada, and Begonia samhaensis. Their respective native habitats are equally captivating: Mexico's Sonoran desert grasslands, the Florida Everglades, Fiji, Chile's temperate rain forests, and Yemen's wind-scorched Socotra islands.