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Vegetal Scale

Image above: 19th Century photograph replicating the girth of a Redwood - Sequoia sempervirens, California. In this case the tree measured 18m (60ft) in circumference. 

Relative to humankind, plants operate on much greater extremes of spatial and temporal scale.  The Ginkgo tree can trace its lineage to the Jurassic period while specimens of the Giant Redwood hold claim to being the largest tree in the world. Plant time exists both in accordance with the seasons and transformational growth. Goethe described the macrocosm of the ‘plant ocean’ which sustains insect life, while the microcosm can reveal processes and interdependencies hidden from the naked eye. Scale of dispersal can testify both to agency of the organism and assisted dissemination as well as provide evidence of modification and adaptation to environment over time. With such different relative values, the representation of vegetal scale can be challenging.  

“...these trees certainly attain 2000 years in age as computed by the rings of growth, & how many hundred years you may add for their persistence after growth has ceased or all but ceased it is of course impossible to say. -- Just fancy 3 generations taking you back beyond the Egyptian histories.” 

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker writing to Brian Houghton Hodgson 20-10-1877 JDH/2/22/2 f.93-94 

Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew   

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'Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins'

Hand coloured engraving. 

This coloured plate illustrates an essay on plant geography; 'Essai sur la géographie des plantes : accompagné d'un tableau physique des régions équinoxiales, fondé sur des mesures exécutées, depuis le dixième degré de latitude boréale jusqu'au dixième degré de latitude australe, pendant les années 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802 et 1803 / par Al. de Humdboldt et A. Bonpland ; rédigée par Al. de Humboldt'. Published in Paris : Chez Levrault, Schoell et compagnie, libraires, XIII--1805'. 

“I shall endeavour to discover how nature's forces act upon one another and in what manner the geographic environment exerts its influence on animals and plants. In short, I must find out about the harmony in nature.” Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) 

(Anne Buttimer)

“The irritability of plants… appears liable to be increased or decreased by habit; for those trees or shrubs, which are brought from a colder climate to a warmer, put out their leaves and blossom a fortnight sooner than the indigenous ones.”

Erasmus Darwin

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The Titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum 

The image shows a sequence of four photographs taken over a four-day period in 1901. 

“The single flower (or more correctly inflorescence) with the tuber (from which it springs almost directly), form together so ponderous a mass, that for the purpose of transporting it, it had to be lashed to a long pole, the ends of which were placed on the shoulders of two men. To give an idea of the size of this gigantic flower, it is enough to say that a man standing upright can barely reach the top of the spadix with his hand, which occupies the centre of the flower, and that with open arms he can scarcely reach half way round...”  

Dr. Beccari’s account published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1891

‘...we recognise that external Nature, amid which special life displays itself, acts in calling and awakening through the influences which the seasons of the year, nay even the hours of the day, bring forth...’

Alexander Braun 

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Illustration of Cassia laevigata (synonym of Senna septemtrionalis - left) by George Bond (c.1806-1892), 1831 and Podalyria calyptrata (right) by Thomas Duncanson (fl.1820s), 1824.  The latter has an accompanying note which reads ‘Raised in 1819 from seed collected by Mr. Bowie at the Cape of Good Hope’. 

Duncanson and Bond were gardeners, recruited by W.T. Aiton (1766-1849), superintendent at Kew, to document the plants growing in the Gardens in preparation for a Hortus Kewensis. Many of these living specimens had been supplied by collectors overseas. 

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Images of Fritillaria affinis 

Adapted from the work 'Species Boundaries: Fritillaria affinis', Royal Horticultural Society Plant and Art Fair - July 2018 

© Laurence Hill  


Laurence Hill's meticulously crafted life size comparative studies of Fritillaria demonstrate the breadth of diversity within species. The North American Fritillaria affinis shows great variability across its geographic distribution. To highlight this taxonomic complexity, these six portraits show examples from Oregon and Northern California. 

Claviceps purpurea 

Chromolithograph on paper 


Coloured plate depicting the various stages in the life cycle of Claviceps purpurea (ergot fungus) from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Volume 1, 1887. 

Claviceps purpurea is one species of a series of fungi (also known as ergot) that infect cereals and grasses but is also cultivated for pharmaceutical use. Ergot sclerotia (its compact body) can remain dormant in the soil for months at a time. 

Thomas Miedaner, Hartwig H. Geiger

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Water Plants: A study of Aquatic Angiosperms  

Agnes Arber 



In her work Arber considers the ‘Law of Loss’ , which is that “...structural reduction is one of the marked characteristics of water plants...”  

“If an organ be lost, the remembrance of it presumably in course of time becomes more and more remote, until finally, even if circumstances renew the need for it, the memory has so entirely faded that the plant cannot, as it were, recall how to reconstruct it. It is thrown, so to speak, on its own resources, and is thus compelled to discover for itself some method of responding upon new lines to the ancient need.”  

Agnes Arber

A painting of Ginkgo biloba on board made from the tree and framed by Ginkgo bark.  

Chikusai Kato, Koishikawa Botanical Garden, Japan, 1878.  

Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 


This painting is part of a series of similarly constructed works featuring the wood and bark of various genera, likely to have been used as teaching aids. 

[Linnaeus noticed that] “...a tree planted in a large pot and copiously supplied with water, produced branch after branch for several years in succession; but that if planted in a smaller pot, it speedily produced both flowers and fruit...He therefore designated this operation of nature by the name of “Prolepsis,”-anticipation...”  


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Artist Alex Metcalf has been described as the world's first 'tree-listener', devising an instrument to detect the internal sound as trees physically move water through the xylem (plant tissue). In 2021 he suspended sound domes from four of the oaks at Kew, giving visitors the opportunity to experience a range of tree noises. 

Craig Holdrege describes sensory observation in terms of both plant observation where "we go out with our attention to meet something particular and take it in with all its details" and “sauntering of the senses” where "…we try to create a kind of open receptivity that allows us to take in what appears at a given moment.” 

Chestnut-leaved oak 

Quercus castaneifolia 

Watercolour on paper 

© Masumi Yamanaka  


The artist Masumi Yamanaka illustrated this rare oak growing in the Gardens at Kew,

the tallest specimen of its kind in the country.  

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