Botanicum – Leafing through a plant museum

posted in: Kathy Willis, Katie Scott | 8

botanicum_coverBotanicum, 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.



sandwichboardWhilst we made our necklaces we listened to:

  • One by BE. This is an album featuring 40,000 bees, to accompany the Hive installation at Kew Botanic Gardens, highlighting the plight of the honeybee and focusing on the importance of pollination
  • The Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin
  • Gonna Plant a Garden by Judy Caplan Ginsburgh

  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading Botanicum include:

  • Going on a leaf hunt with sticky sandwich boards, just like we did a few years ago
  • Taking Botanicum outdoors and using it to play a version of I Spy, looking out for plants in the garden which also feature in the book
  • Watching David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants – lots of short clips are available to view on the BBC website

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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.


    8 Responses

    1. Anamaria Anderson

      Oh, that does look lovely and inspiring! I had my eye on Historium last year–now I’ve added this one to the list. I especially appreciate your comparison of the two texts, too. Aside: have you read The Invention of Nature??

      • Zoe

        Hi Anamaria, I came across reference to this book whilst thinking about my review for Botanicum, but I haven’t read it. Sadly (and somewhat unbelievably) it isn’t in my library (or the network I have access to), so I’ve added it to my watch list, in case I come across a cheap copy somewhere in a second hand bookshop. Did you enjoy it?
        Zoe recently posted..Botanicum – Leafing through a plant museum

        • Anamaria Anderson

          It’s on my list, too! I’ve read Wulf’s Founding Gardeners, and got on a 18th century botany kick earlier this year after reading The Signature of All Things.

          • Zoe

            I feel ashamed I haven’t read many books marketed for adults this year. I’ll add these two to the watch list! One of the things I really liked about Botanicum is its relatively rarity – whilst there are very many books on the fauna side of natural history for kids, flora is much less frequently the topic of kids’ NF.
            Zoe recently posted..Botanicum – Leafing through a plant museum

      • Zoe

        thanks Se7en! Now just planning a dress to wear with them 🙂 I have this fab fern fabric I got cheap and it would set them off to a T, just need to create the time for a bit of sewing!

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