Art beat // Botanical artists

Art and science meet in the garden

BRYN MAWR — It must have been May, Marilyn Garber said, recalling trilliums in full bloom.

That was when Garber visited Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Theodore Wirth Park to view the white, spring-blooming wildflowers. The stroll soured when she realized she’d lost her keys somewhere along the garden’s flower-lined paths.

A garden volunteer drove her home to pick up a spare set, and the woman’s kindness salvaged the day for Garber, founder of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art in West Calhoun and a past president of the American Society of Botanical Artists. It also convinced Garber the 103-year-old garden was just the place for a florilegium.

A collection of botanical paintings that provide a visual record of a specific plant community, the florilegium will take at least several years to complete. But a decade after opening her school Garber believes she has a group of instructors and students prepared for the undertaking.

“We’ve been around long enough that we have a really good stable of artists who are well-trained at this point, many of them,” she said. “… Some are getting into national and international botanical exhibitions, and so we needed a project.”

That project will document some of the 550 species found in the garden, which is named for the Minneapolis botanist who successfully persuaded city leaders to set aside the preserve in 1907. Then just three acres with an orchid-sprouting bog at its center, the garden today is a 15-acre enclosure within Theodore Wirth Park that includes sections of wetland, woodland and prairie.

When Garber visited in mid-August, garden curator Susan Wilkins had compiled a list of 110 plant species, including conifers, ferns and dozens of flowering plants to represent the bounty and diversity of the garden. Wilkins’ suggestions included the showy lady’s slipper, the Minnesota state flower and one of the native orchids so prized by Butler.

“I wanted to have nearly all the … plant families of the garden represented, so that was one criteria,” Wilkins said. “And then, also, [I included] plants that are just visually interesting … and plants that have historic importance.”

Garber said she would like the florilegium to include 200 species in five years, an ambitious goal considering a single painting might involve 50 hours or more in the studio. The work requires a highly technically skilled artist who can bring out the inherent beauty in a twig, blossom or berry while at the same time accurately recording every vein in every leaf.

There is no room ­— and arguably no need — for embellishment.

“I don’t know that we can improve on nature,” Garber said. “The trick is: Can we capture it well enough?”

For more information on the florilegium project, go to