A gardener’s art project



Browsing the LATimes yesterday, I found Deborah Netburn’s article on Botanical Serigraphs: The Gene Bauer Collection. Gene Bauer is a California gardener and naturalist who planted almost a million daffodil bulbs behind her property and was the native flora chairwoman of California Garden Clubs, Inc. during the 70s. As chair, her job was to educate the members of the clubs about native flora, so she traveled throughout the state, studying wildflowers. During 1972-78, she created over 50 small booklets containing screenprints of her own drawings of native plants, each accompanied by an essay.


Each booklet focused on just one plant, like the desert mariposa (Calochortus kennedyi) or the buckhorn cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa). The drawings are clean, accurate yet simplified, and vividly colored. (Actually, though I’ll be happy to have the book, I’d love to get my hands on an original print.)

These are the type of projects we so rarely see now. These books are much like the broadsides of the literary world—also popular in the 60s and 70s—where poets would do a small print run of a poem and perhaps an artwork in a small booklet or folded poster. I have a few of these, and once curated an exhibition of them. It’s really a labor of love because there’s no money to be made from this type of project. Indeed, Gene Bauer sent her books (there was usually a print run of 50) free to her fellow flower enthusiasts; she bore all the printing costs herself.

Bauer did her initial drawings with colored pencils and then hand-screened them on papers of various weights. This is not traditional botanical drawing; the shapes are simple and bold, with a strong graphic sensibility, many of the colors brighter than you’d expect. There is a strong Modernist influence, though no abstraction, of course. The essays are well-researched appreciations; she does not pretend to add new botanical knowledge.

The only reason this book is even possible is that the people who received the booklets saved them. Bauer’s house and collection was destroyed in a fire in 1997; friends returned their copies to replace the lost booklets and then this collection of all of them was created, by map publishers (who now specialize in geographic software) ESRI.

I would love to have a book like this with drawings of New York State wildflowers. As Amy’s Wicked Plants demonstrates so well, drawings of plants bring out subtleties of shape and form as no other medium can.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. How wonderful the collection has been saved! Not only because they are beautiful works of art, but also because some of those plants may now be rare!

  2. Bauer’s work/example is such a marvelous argument in favor of self-publishing. The stigma that still exists puzzles me…
    And, of course, the Internet is making it possible for poets, artists, and writers of all sorts of subjects to self publish without spending a fortune.

    I would love to see Bauer’s works in person. What I love about her work is that even though they are not traditional botanical illustrations, they still contain the details one needs for identification, while being exquisitely beautiful and original works of art.

  3. Wow – I just ordered this book a few days ago from ESRI ( I use their software for work ). Can’t wait for it to arrive ! There really is nothing like a botanical drawing to bring out the subtleties of a species.

  4. As an illustrator I enjoy seeing success in botanical publishing that does not involve photos. Getting any book published with drawings is next to impossible these days.

    I am fortunate that a casual encounter with a fellow dog walker at the park got me a gift of a large collection of very similar prints. He perked up when I explained that I illustrate horticultural books…the next day he presented me with two boxes of Hisao Yokota prints (signed and numbered). I live on the east coast and the wildflowers are from the west coast but I don’t care – they are lovely as are Gene Bauer’s.

  5. They are beautiful, and I was struck by how Japanese they are in style and feeling — the simplification of shapes is particularly lovely. Thanks for telling us about them.

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