Human Flower Project

An Eye for Plants


Direct experience is the best launching pad for botanical education. Put aside the microscope, and let naked fingers and eyes do the studying.


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A walk in the park in Mendicina, Italy, with botanical vision

Photo: Desi

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

Horticulture today focuses systematically on scientific principles applicable to the cultivation of garden and ornamental plants, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, and landscape and nursery crops. In addition, horticultural scientists explore and explain the many contributions of plants to a healthy environment for human life and well being.

Liberty Hyde Bailey, co-founder of the American Society for Horticultural Science [ASHS], was both a horticulturalist and a botanist. Cornell University curator Elaine Engst writes, “He worked to remove the barriers between theoretical botany and practical horticulture. He believed that horticulture should be an applied science based on pure biology, and that it should reflect the application of basic botanical knowledge. As early as 1885, in a speech titled “The Garden Fence,” Bailey urged botanists and horticulturists to reconcile their interests by ‘getting the science from the field and laboratory into the garden’” (Cornell University Exhibition—L.H.B.: A Man for All Seasons; Elaine Engst, curator, 2004).

Reading the second edition of Bailey’s Lessons with Plants (1899) has been inspiration for us – as it should be for anyone interested in plant science.

imageLiberty Hyde Bailey

Photo: Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum
After working with the renowned botanist Asa Gray at Harvard University, Bailey began his career by teaching at what is now Michigan State University and then spent many years at Cornell as a faculty member and dean.  For a significant span of time, he exerted a commanding influence on the literature of horticulture, writing 65 books that, together, sold more than a million copies. He also wrote more than 1,300 articles and published over 100 papers in plant taxonomy.

He was among the first scientists to recognize the importance of Gregor Mendel’s work and to cite it. The first American book on controlled experimental breeding was written by Bailey in 1892. It was he who coined the now common plant term cultivar–a variety of a plant that has been selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation. [culti(vated) + var(iety)].

Personally, what we most admire about him were his sustained efforts to explain botany to laypeople and to popularize the study of plants. To him, an awareness and appreciation of plants began with salient visual encounters with plants and direct observation of their interesting attributes.

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Observing asparagus plants growing on sand dunes

Photo: Uniiversiteit Leiden

Here are two of our favorite quotes from Bailey’s book Lessons with Plants (1899):

Ten minutes a day…of short, sharp and spicy observation upon plants is worth more than a whole text-book of botany.

It is often said that a person may learn a great deal about plants with only a very ordinary hand lens. This is true; but he [sic] can also learn a good deal without any lens. It is not impossible that in the haste to give the pupil a microscope, we have forgotten the training of the natural eye; and it is upon this natural eye that the great mass of people must depend.

In light of those two quotes, here is an introspective question: Have you developed (or do you continue to develop) your “natural eye for plants?” 

Bailey advised that drawing sketches of plants and writing about plants can help to develop a person’s awareness of plant diversity.

imageSketching a Flower

Image: Deviant Art

He did not recommend complex and free-ranging observations to develop the novice’s natural eye for plants. He cautioned, “Enough will be gained if the pupil’s interest is merely awakened in some new direction….It may be sufficient for one day to drop the suggestion that there are many shapes and sizes of leaves; then let the pupil observe and reflect.

What experiential knowledge can be derived from such observations? To many people, all leaves are basically alike. But sustained and careful looking at leaves reveals that not only do leaves vary in architecture from species to species, but also within species, and even within a single plant specimen. For example, a single mature, healthy oak tree may bear 200,000 similar leaves, yet no two leaves on that tree are identical.

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Journaling About Plants

Photo:  The Living Center

Field-collecting, handling, and coming to recognize various plant specimens was another route Bailey recommended to hone the beginner’s perceptive viewing skills in what he termed “observation lessons.”

imageLiberty Hyde Bailey’s Boyhood Vasculum (plant field-specimen carrier)

Photo: Cornell University Library

When he traveled to Germany, Bailey first saw photography being used to record plant specimens. Thereafter, he became convinced of the value taking photographic images to understand and remember plants better as well. 

“When Liberty Hyde Bailey learned to use a camera in 1886, he did so not as a dilettante, but as a committed photographer. He used the perceptual approach of still-life artist in composing his images. Although he continued to develop his photographic skills throughout his life, his primary goal was not to create outstanding images [although he often did], but to document horticulture” (Cornell University Exhibition—L.H.B.: A Man for All Seasons; Elaine Engst, curator, 2004).

imageL.H. Bailey’s Venerable 8” x 10” Field Camera with a Betax No. 3 Lens was his Favorite

Photo: Cornell University Library

We think Liberty Hyde Bailey was one of the first to see photography as a botanical teaching tool. We have long recommended employing plant photography as a means of remediating what we have termed “plant blindness” (see also “One for the Plant Paparazzi).

We have observed that on the road to overcoming plant blindness, the first and natural inclination of novice plant photographers’ (university students whom we have mentored, N=27) was to photograph flowers—especially showy, colorful, insect-pollinated ones. But as their observational skills sharpened, their image sets progressed: they began to take images of little-noticed flowers in the trees above them, and of small or inconspicuous wind-pollinated flowers at their feet as well. Then fruits, leaves, stems/trunks, exposed root systems, and landscapes began to draw their attention—typically in that order. 

Studying the composition of these photos, we noticed a tendency to migrate toward a standard imaging sequence: long establishing shots to medium shots to detail-oriented close-ups, and then to images with subtle and familiar scaling-referents in many of their images to help convey magnitude and support visual cognition.

In addition, over time, these photographers began to transition from “capturing” a plant to using natural lighting and non-canonical framing to convey a feeling for the plant, as well as providing their viewers with a sense of place.

imagePrairie Smoke Image (Geum triflorum) Taken with Black Backdrop by Vern Leibbrandt.

Photo: Vern Leibbrandt, University of Wisconsin Arboretum

To have as sense of place is to perceive natural features, patterns of human settlement, and social relationships all as components of landscape. We have found that one of the best places to first photograph plants is close to home, focussing on the plants that grow where the novice lives. Kent Ryden recognizes the necessity of inhabiting place when he says, “A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines” (Mapping the Invisible Landscape, 1993).

Bailey and our own research have taught us that the joys of looking at plants can be enhanced in several key ways:

By beginning with just the natural eye

By making brief but regular, plant-mentor-stimulated observations of plants

By sketching selected plants that one observes

By writing about plants that one has observed

By field-collecting, handling, and coming to recognize local plants

By photographing plants and plant parts

By refining one’s plant photography skills to convey a sense of scale, to spark a human emotive response, and to capture the essence of a place.

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Conveying a Sense of Scale for a Fruit Via Fingers

Photo: via flickr

Why begin the study of plants with looking? Plant experiences should precede plant science instruction, Bailey asserted; if plants bring you joy while you are looking at them, then you will want to learn about plant science—willingly and enthusiastically.

“It is a marvelous planet on which we ride,” wrote Liberty Hyde Bailey. “It is a great privilege to live thereon, to partake in the journey, and to experience its goodness. We may co-operate rather than rebel. We should try to find the meanings rather than be stratified only with the spectacles. My life has been a continuous fulfillment of dreams.”

He spent 90th birthday collecting palms in Grenada.



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