Let's Talk About Botanical?

Visit an art show labelled Botanical Art and straight away you get twitchy. That's not botanical art it's flower painting, that's a fungus, that's not a plant. If you have heard it all before then you can see that once the topic of what is "botanical art" arises then the "heat in the studio" also rises.

Today we are starting a conversation about the definition of terms. In particular what do we mean by:

- botanical illustration?

- botanical art?

- flower painting?

This article is the first part of a series of integrated activities based around our forthcoming exhibition Purely Botanical?

One of the activities will ask members to categorise a number of artworks into these three common categories and this will be followed by an open discussion, hosted by one of our members and also an ABBA Trustee, Martin Allen. Details of this event will be published in the near future, it should be fun!

Back to today's topic. You would have thought that these three innocuous phrases would be easy to define. As it turns out the more you analyze the terms the more complex it gets so for this conversation we lay out some background and we invite your thoughts and opinions through our Forum.

With this in mind and depending on the time of day in your part of the world, grab a coffee a cup of tea or a nice glass of wine and settle down for an extended read.


First Term - Botanical Illustration

As an intellectual exercise let's break down the terms first.

Botanical (adj.)

The Oxford® dictionary defines the term botanical as: "relating to botany" and it can be used as an adjective or a noun (botanicals). Dig a little deeper and since botanical is defined as relating to botany this seems the word to tackle.

BOTANY = "the scientific study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants"


The root word botanic is late 17th century from the French botanique which originated from the Greek botanikos, "of herbs".

The key words in the definition of botany for our conversation, are probably:

  • scientific

  • study

  • structure

  • physiology

  • distribution

  • classification

  • plant

  • genetics

  • ecology

In short we are interested in - "the detailed structure, ecology and classification of a plant".

Liverworts - Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur (1904),

Since it all revolves around the term "plant" we should probably go back to the Oxford® dictionary again.

PLANT = "a living organism of the kind exemplified by trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, and mosses, typically growing in a permanent site, absorbing water and inorganic substances through its roots, and synthesizing nutrients in its leaves by photosynthesis using the green pigment chlorophyll"


Old English plante ‘seedling’, plantian (verb), from Latin planta ‘sprout, cutting’ (later influenced by French plante) and plantare ‘plant, fix in a place’.

If we get a little more scientific the name Plantae or plant when applied to a specific group of organisms, usually refers to one of four definitions. Some of these definitions are historical.