Watercolours of plants in the Botanic Garden

Richard Dowsett

I first started painting at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens while attending one of their Botanic Art courses. I used to wander round the garden after the session finished for the day and sneak into the glass houses before the class started. I quickly started sketching and now most Tuesday mornings will see me there sketching and taking colour notes. Some of these are painted in situ, but as I paint life-size the sheets of paper become unmanageable unless conditions are ideal. So normally, pictures are worked up from sketches.

It can be a challenge identifying the plants accurately but the Living Collections portal is invaluable as it rules out what a particular plant isn’t! If you think any identification is wrong please let me know.

Iris reichenbachii is a perennial bearded iris species that is native to the Balkans, and into northeast Greece. Flowers are a dull purple, yellow, or violet, with each stem giving one or two flowers. The chocolate form can be mistaken for Iris mellita. It is sometimes commonly known as the ‘Rock iris’ in Romania. In the Botanic Garden it is grown at waist height in the Mountains Glass House.

I painted this on one of the first botanical art classes I attended at CUBG. I liked the fact that the lip is nearly black and then put some mountains emerging from the mist in the background; exactly as I remembered them in the Alps in 1973.

Helleborus niger. Black hellebore was the dominant purgative of antiquity, frequently prescribed for that purpose by Hippocrates, the father of medicine, in the fifth century B.C. It was said to be introduced by Melampus, with which he healed the madness of the daughters of Proteus, king of Argos. The sedative property of hellebore was noted about one hundred years later by Theophrastus. In the Botanic Garden it is grown in beds in full sun to moderate shade.

I liked the challenge of painting white flowers on white paper. At Anglesey Abbey I have painted the purple variant naturalised in the woodland.

This sequence of Iris foetidissima plants were followed over a complete season to catch all the stages of flower development. Grown in seasonally mown areas in light to moderate shade.

The seed heads and berries are easy to find but the surprisingly inconspicuous flowers (drawing above) are harder and easily missed. I was lucky one year. It is native to the UK It is one of two native species; the other being the Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus) which is semi aquatic.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus (commonly known as wild daffodil or Lent lily) (Welsh: Cennin Pedr) is a perennial flowering plant related to the Amaryllis. In the Botanic Garden grows in full sun to moderate shade in seasonally mown areas.

This species has pale yellow tepals, with a darker central trumpet. The long, narrow leaves are slightly greyish green in colour and rise from the base of the stem. The plant grows from a bulb. The flowers produce seeds, which when germinated, take five to seven years to produce a flowering plant. (Sexual seed reproduction mixes the traits of both parent flowers, so if garden hybrid cultivars are planted close to wild populations of Narcissus pseudonarcissus, there is a danger that the new seedlings, having hybrid vigour, could out-compete the wild plants.)

The species is native to Western Europe east to Germany and north to England and Wales. It is commonly grown in gardens and there are many cultivars available. Wild plants grow in woods, grassland and on rocky ground. In Britain native populations have decreased substantially since the 19th century due to intensification of agriculture, clearance of woodland and uprooting of the bulbs for use in gardens.

I painted these genuine species plants poking up from a covering of snow.

Aesculus hippocastanum I first started painting horse chestnuts over 20 years ago when I followed the bursting buds through to the flowering spikes. This was pre Cameraria ohridella, the Chestnut Leaf Miner Moth. This more recent painting is life-sized and you will notice the moth culprit flying off to find new pastures. The moth, although inconspicuous, is easy to find and catch. Amazingly this tree still had conkers, despite the depredations of the Leaf Miner Moth. Found in woodland areas.

Musa basjoo, known variously as Japanese banana, Japanese fibre banana or hardy banana, is a species of flowering plant belonging to the banana family Musaceae. It was previously thought to have originated in southern Japan, from where it was first described in cultivation, but is now known to have originated in subtropical southern China, where it is also widely cultivated, with wild populations found in Sichuan province.

Musa basjoo is a herbaceous perennial with trunk-like pseudostems. In the Botanic Garden you will find it sheltering by the glass houses growing to around 2 m with a crown of mid-green leaves growing up to 2 m (6.6 ft) long and 70 cm (28 in) wide when mature. The species produces male and female flowers on the same inflorescence which may extend for over 1 m (3.3 ft). I have never seen the yellow-green fruit which are inedible, with sparse white pulp and many black seeds.

I painted this life-size over several visits. The diameter of the bracts is around 8 inches and the flowers are very popular with honey bees.