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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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Dr. Raven, who Time magazine named a "hero for the planet," and who is president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, sees botanical art's value to science and conservation in its ability to "intrigue people and nourish their intrinsic interest in plants."

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From a practical viewpoint, botanical art also offers insight into the plant world necessary for science. Alice Tangerini, a veteran staff illustrator for the Smithsonian's department of botany, says, "My drawings serve as eyes for botanists and can communicate a physical structure visually to anyone in the world, regardless of language. If I've done a good drawing, a botanist doesn't even have to read the description."

Ms. Tangerini, whose audience is primarily botanists, specifically taxonomists, uses waterproof ink on archival quality drafting film that is resistant to heat, light, and water. This, along with a smoothness and the translucence of film make for a preferred drawing surface.

Often she is the first person to ever draw a particular plant, and so her illustrations are crafted to depict the perfect example of a plant. She can omit natural external damage and emphasize a particular characteristic such as microthin hairs or minuscule bumps that would be all but invisible to even the best camera. Her illustrations are based on various sources and supplemented by photography but, Tangerini says, cannot be replaced by it.

Working almost exclusively from dried herbarium specimens, Tangerini says she takes dead plants and makes them look alive again. These black-and-white line drawings are intended to be used for decades, if not centuries, as primary reference material for identifying plants.

Describing her own work, Tangerini – who drew an extremely rare Mexican tree called Mortoniodendron uxpanapense for "Losing Paradise?" – is anything but sentimental. "We're just interested in morphology here, not color or how pretty something looks."

Yet her pen-and-ink illustrated plates, which can include up to 15 drawings of a plant's parts at varying degrees of magnification and in different stages, capture the natural beauty of plants increasingly threatened by invasive species, climate change, and other human factors.

With a growing awareness and concern for conservation (2010 is the United Nations' International Year of Biodiversity), there's a renewed interest in botanical art by artists and the public, Woodin says. She adds that viewers unfamiliar with botanical art are frequently struck by the level of detail, complexity, and simple beauty on display in each work.

"There are 41 different artists in the show," Woodin says. "So there are 41 different ways of depicting and viewing the plant world, from quillworts and cycads to orchids. This makes for a fascinating experience and a realization that the art form continues to be relevant and ever-sprouting."