Botanicum, curated by Katie Scott (@katiescottscott) and Kathy Willis, is a glorious museum of trees, flowers and shrubs which magically fits into your lap. Or rather, it’s a door to a landscape, a wide-open vista to to be explored, full of both fabulous and familiar plants, from trees with seeds which smell like vomit, to crops with their own ancient gods via an exploration of pollinators, useful properties and plant types.
Drawing design inspiration from iconic educational wall charts first popularised in the 19th century, this botanical garden in outsized book format has drawn many gasps of wonder from my children, as we’ve turned the pages. Soaking up the rich illustrations we’ve been reminded just how much beauty is out there in the natural world. Bold and clear, Scott’s illustrations let the intricate patterns, colours, and structural features of everything from Giant Redwoods to mosses amaze us, inspiring us to look with fresh eyes at the greenery around us. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book’s curation is that it mixes exotic plants and plenty you’ll find in your own neighbourhood.
Whilst the high impact illustrations (especially those with dark/black backgrounds, a seemingly daring choice for illustrating objects from nature, but one with lineage and tradition behind it) are what initially caught our attention, this lavish book is much more than just about (extremely) pretty pictures. Kathy Willis, the director of Science at Kew Botanic Gardens, has written an informative and very well-pitched text for children and families to enjoy, enabling us all to learn things which have surprised us and made us more curious about the world we live in.
Given that there are quite a few beautiful coffee-table books out there that could conceivably serve a similar purpose if all we were looking for was a giftable book about plants, I’d like to share an example of how the writing in Botanicum is perfect for its target audience. About the humble dandelion, Willis writes:
Dandelions look like they have one, large yellow flower, but they actually have lots of very small flowers collected together into a composite flower head. Each single flower in a head is called a floret.
The equivalent passage in The Botanical Wall Chart by Anna Laurent (a fascinating and beautifully produced book, but most definitely written for adults) states:
Inflorescence often mimics a single flower, with various arrangements of ray florets and/or disc florets in a capitulum subtended by involucre of bracts, sometimes with a central disc.
This, for me, is a shining example of why non-fiction written specially for children is so important. When you simply google for information, or rely on books written for a different audience, you’re unlikely to get a text that enables the child reader to engage, to build on what they know and feel like they are able to learn more.
Willis’s text isn’t without challenges; we’ve certainly learned lots of new vocabulary (and there’s sadly no glossary in this book, though there is a really useful collection of links to resources for further learning). But reflecting on this, I felt this book really offered something to our whole family: the illustrations appeal to a wide range of “readers” including quite young ones, whilst the text offers enough to also stimulate older children (and parents!).
It’s a testament to the book that it’s really set us on a journey of exploration; from visiting a real-life botanic garden, to the girls painting their own plant illustrations (see M’s painting of snapdragons from our allotment below), via trips to bookshops and libraries to learn more (our favourite follow-up books, also below), this book planted a seed of excitement and wonder in all of us. Bravo, Botanicum!
Another way this very special book inspired us was in the opportunity it gave us to look close up at some of the detailed beauty of all sorts of plants. This gave us the idea to create necklaces out “leaf-beads”.
First we got small cubes of fimo (oven drying modelling clay), and rolled them into small balls. We pierced each ball with a toothpick and laid them out on a baking tray, with silver foil underneath. On top of each ball we placed a small leaf; we chose a variety of herbs from the garden, looking especially for leaves with clear veins. Once each ball had a leaf on top, we covered them all with a sheet of baking paper, placed a second baking tray on top and pressed down hard.
When we took off the baking tray, we could see how the leaves had been pressed into the balls, and the balls flattened.
The baking paper was peeled off, and then, using a cocktail stick, the leaves were removed from the fimo, and the sticks used to create holes through the beads were gently twisted out, without distorting the fimo discs too much.
The fimo discs with leaf impressions were baked in the oven as per the fimo instructions (about 30 mins at 130 degrees C) and once cooled, the beads were threaded up to make necklaces.
Whilst we made our necklaces we listened to:
Other activities which might work well alongside reading Botanicum include:
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.