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Promoting the conservation of Sonoran Desert plants through botanical art
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Promoting the conservation of Sonoran Desert plants through botanical art

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Take a look at a garden or landscape. You probably see some plants.

Now focus in on one plant. Depending on the season, you might see stems, leaves, buds, flowers, seeds. You might note spines and barbs. If you look closely you might see hairs, scales and cracks.

Break a flower or pod open and you’ll notice parts you can’t see by sitting and looking at the garden.

These fine details, as well as plant features across seasons, aren’t easily seen in one photographic print. But they are in handrawn illustrations, which is why they’re still popular as plant records and art.

These painstakingly accurate drawings help botanists and the general public identify plants and more deeply understand how they grow. It’s the reason the Sonoran Desert Florilegium Program exists.

A modern botanical florilegium is a collection of drawings of plants from a certain area, region or garden, says Margaret Pope, a botanical artist who started the program.

For example, take a look at the Joseph Wood Krutch Garden in the middle of the University of Arizona Mall. It’s one of the program’s newer projects.

A guidebook might show what the garden looks like and include pictures of the individual plants there.

The garden florilegium will contain a series of illustrations that show every plant species in the garden. Each plate, as a botanical illustration is called, will show great detail such as how the flower is connected to the stem and the internal anatomy of flowers and pods.

The florilegium for the Krutch Garden will have 49 plates to correspond to the number of species in the garden. It will be held in the special collections section of the UA Libraries to be available to scholars, students and the public and for public exhibits.

The Sonoran Desert Florilegium Program is helping the UA Campus Arboretum launch a fundraising campaign for the $45,000 needed to pay for artwork. The garden florilegium already has one: program member Chris Bondante’s Opuntia basilaris, a prickly pear.

Bondante, Pope and several other program illustrators are busy with an upcoming book detailing about 400 types of legumes that are wild or cultivated in Arizona.

“Legumes in Arizona–An Illustrated Flora and Reference” is a project of the Desert Legume Program. Pope was tapped to help locate illustrations, provide names of volunteer artists and do some of the work herself.

She was searching through the stacks of illustrations in the basement of the UA Herbarium looking for material for the book. She says she was appalled that the historical plates were stacked in cardboard boxes and folders stuffed in a cabinet.

“I said, ‘OK, we have to do something about this,’” Pope recalls. She approached the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, of which she is a member, to sponsor the Sonoran Desert Florilegium Program, an idea that had been simmering in her mind for several years. The board decided in 2008 to incorporate the florilegium program as part of its nonprofit status.

“Our first project was to archive those works,” Pope says. “That’s what got me to finally decide to develop the florilegium program.”

It was a natural progression for Pope, who has been a botanical artist for more than 20 years.

She was a nurse-midwife when she left her job to marry, travel and raise a family. After her son was born, she became a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and started looking for new activities.

“I wanted to try to do something else,” she says, “and I was always interested in drawing.”

She tried her hand on color-pencil drawings of plants she saw at the museum. She took some classes and eventually taught drawing classes.

Today, she primarily works on commission, drawing for garden companies and other clients. She sells originals and prints to pay for her extensive volunteer work for local nonprofit organizations.

The wildflower poster she drew for the Arizona Native Plant Society was one popular piece, she says.

“Whenever I meet people, they tell me, ‘That’s how I learned the wildflowers.’”

Bondante is fairly new to botanical art after spending some 30 years as an illustrator of the human anatomy.

Bondante was inspired by her uncle, public artist and children’s book illustrator Charles A. Clement, and remembers that as a young girl she watched him work in his Tucson studio.

As a freelance illustrator in Los Angeles, she drew human and other animal illustrations for textbooks and research projects. In the days before laparoscopy, her anatomical drawings helped doctors understand what abnormalities revealed in medical tests looked like.

Bondante, who has degrees in microbiology and biomedical illustration, moved back to Tucson in the mid-1980s and taught biology at Pima Community College for 21 years.

She then spent some time working at the UA Herbarium, where the botanical illustrations sparked an interest.

Bondante has been working in the field ever since. About five years ago she started creating artful botanical watercolors that she hopes to sell as prints and cards.

“My training as a medical illustrator prepared me for this,” she says as she points to her pen and ink drawings for the legume book. “I’ve found my niche.”

Both women grow cactus and succulents in their yards. They are members of the Southwest Society of Botanical Artists. Bondante also is part of the florilegium program and the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.

Pope says she hopes the florilegium program helps people recognize the richness of the Sonoran Desert, “one of the most vegetated deserts in the world.

“My mission is to show people the beauty of plants so that they would preserve them.”

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at

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