• Lady Slipper Orchids by Ann Love, one of 48 works of botanical art on display now at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Lady slipper orchids are a native perennial wildflower found across Canada.

    Lady Slipper Orchids by Ann Love, one of 48 works of botanical art on display now at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Lady slipper orchids are a native perennial wildflower found across Canada. (Image courtesy the artist, Canadian Museum of Nature)

The tulips aren’t the only things in bloom in Ottawa right now.

Art of the Plant, a new exhibition on now at the Canadian Museum of Nature, aims to connect visitors to the beauty and intricacy of the plant world, not through cutting-edge displays but through the time-honoured tradition of botanical art.

The exhibition features 48 drawings and paintings of native Canadian plants by contemporary botanical artists from across the country. Canada is one of 25 countries mounting national exhibitions this month in a global celebration of botanical art led by the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Used from ancient times to document the medicinal uses of plants and then later by Carl Linnaeus and his contemporaries to catalogue the world’s plant species, botanical art today presents both artist and viewer with an opportunity to pause and admire nature’s diversity.

“Botanical art brings the wonder of the everyday into our lives," says Kerri Weller, exhibition chair for Art of the Plant and a teacher of botanical art in Ottawa. “It makes us slow down, focus, observe carefully and calmly … and gives us every incentive to protect the world we live in.” 

While there are many ways to artistically portray a flower, botanical art is distinguished by its intent, which is to depict the plant in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically accurate. Of the 48 works featured in Art of the Plant, 26 were selected by a jury that included museum botanists; the others are invitational submissions by artists who have been recognized by the prestigious Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The plants portrayed run the gamut from wildflowers to trees to lichens. Some, such as narrow-leaved cottongrass, are found in every province in territory; others have a very limited range in Canada, such as the Garry oak, which is found only in extreme southwestern British Columbia. Many are thriving, but others are at risk, including the boreal felt lichen, which was once found across Atlantic Canada but is declining in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and has disappeared altogether from New Brunswick.

Educating the public about global plant biodiversity and the importance of conservation is a major goal of Art of the Plant and the Botanical Art Worldwide Project. But for the artists, drawing from life also provides a respite from the frantic pace of modern life.

“I like the way that you really immerse yourself in nature, and you actually become part of the environment you’re in,” says Kristin Rothschild, an Ottawa-based artist with work exhibited in Art of the Plant. “The hummingbirds come on their regular visits and you realize there’s a rhythm and a pattern to things.”

“You get drawn into looking,” adds Rosalind Allchin, another Ottawa artist who began taking botanical art classes with Weller seven years ago. “Before I started painting, I would just walk past things and think ‘Oh, that’s pretty’ or snap a photo and move on, but painting is focusing; it’s calming.”

During the run of the exhibition, the museum will host several botanical drawing workshops for seniors, as well as talks and tours, and on May 22, the International Day of Biological Diversity, a slideshow will be unveiled in the exhibition space featuring 900 artworks from the Botanical Art Worldwide Project.