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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.

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The artists who captured these plants in ink, paint, and colored pencil were required to search for their own subjects. Any plant was acceptable as long as it was listed as threatened or endangered by a state, federal, or international government body or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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Just finding a plant to depict was, for some artists, a multiyear effort. Take the elusive pitcher's thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). Artist Derek Norman spent five years searching for the threatened plant with cream-colored, fragrant blossoms, which flowers and produces seed only once before dying.

Mr. Norman's subject, found infrequently on beaches and dunes of the western Great Lakes, mostly in Michigan, is vulnerable to human impacts like shoreline development and recreational vehicles.

In Norman's own story of drawing the pitcher thistle he recalls spending two "sweltering, hot, humid days in the company of biting flies, a colony of ants, and the occasional attacking red-wing blackbird" as he drew a highly detailed pencil illustration of the plant in situ.

Such perseverance and dedication to capturing an image of fleeting botanical beauty is admirable but, some might ask, in the digital age why not snap a few dozen high-resolution photos instead?

Botanical artists and scientists say there is no comparison. Hollender explains that a hand rendering of a plant allows the artist to emphasize important features and select an optimum composition that is descriptive and aesthetically pleasing in a way the camera cannot. Artists can depict light or even a certain state or condition of a plant to create an ideal image.

Botanical art, no matter the medium, is not merely about the reproduction of physical facts, says Carol Woodin, coordinator of ASBA exhibitions and a painter herself. "Details are important, but there is a human interpretive element and the hope of depicting the dynamism of a given plant that is inherent in botanical art."

A botanical artist seeks to "draw the viewers in, stopping them momentarily, disengaging them from the jangle of modern life to pause and take a breath," Ms. Woodin says. "Perhaps through the depiction of these endangered plants we can captivate viewers with the strangeness and beauty of each form."

Peter Raven, a renowned botanist and advocate for protecting biodiversity who wrote an introduction about the importance of plant conservation for the exhibition, says plants have a complex beauty that can be interpreted differently depending on the imagination and vision of the artist.

"Art concerning plants is thus like all art, subjective and interpretive. In a scientific sense, drawings of plants can convey much more about the essential characteristics of a plant than any other form of representation, but paintings and digital images can contribute other aspects," he says.