From her fifth-floor office in the National Museum of Natural History, Alice Tangerini has a stellar view: to the right, Constitution Avenue runs in front of the Classical Revival facade of Federal Triangle. To the left, the Washington Monument rises from behind the National Museum of American History.
She doesn’t spend much time with this vista; as the Smithsonian’s botanical illustrator, her gaze is on plants, dried specimens of dead plants, up close, and closer, under a microscope. Sometimes she hydrates stems and flower parts, coaxing zombie life into them. She can become so absorbed in the structures that four or five hours will pass without her realizing that the sun has long set behind the Washington Monument.
After a week or so, she will have produced a line drawing in ink of her subject. When I visited recently, it was of a tropical relative of the mistletoe. Magnified, she could see that some of the tiny flower stalks bore female flowers, other stalks male flower parts, all attached like microwave dishes to their towers. The finished illustration will form a composite of a dozen or so drawings, some showing flower parts whole and in section.
“When I first looked at them, I thought they were all in bud. They weren’t; that’s the mature flower,” she said. After decades of this, the discoveries keep coming.
The other reason Tangerini doesn’t need the view out the window is that she has been living with it for an awfully long time. Now 70, she came to work in the museum’s Department of Botany in 1972, right out of college, and had worked there as an intern dating back to 1968. The wing she works in, which was just three years old at the time, holds one of the world’s largest collections of dried plants, an herbarium of some 5 million species.
Botanical illustrators like Tangerini are rare and becoming as endangered as some of the plants they draw. And yet their work has been essential for botanists describing a new species, or assembling plants for floras — voluminous lists of wild plants in a region or country.
Bobbi Angell, a botanical artist in Brattleboro, Vermont, explains the shift: Floras are not commissioned as they once were; they are laborious and expensive undertakings, botanists retire and are not replaced, and much of plant taxonomy has shifted to the molecular level.
“I get calls from young, aspiring artists, and it’s kind of hard to encourage them,” said Angell, a freelance artist who has worked for more than 40 years, including on commissions for the New York Botanical Garden as well as the Smithsonian.
The prospect of being among the last of her kind is one of the reasons that Tangerini, who could have retired some time ago, is still here.
But she hangs on mostly because drawing plants is her life and the botany department, her family. “Working here is the best. I’m using my talent, they respect it, and I don’t run out of work,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Her office is relatively small, with a drafting table, a pair of large screens for digital work, and a table for her microscope and its attendant devices, including a hot plate to dry hydrated plant parts. There are trays for tweezers, snips, needles and hooks. Other containers hold quilled inking pens and stippling instruments.
The ink-on-paper drawings tend to be in black and white. For color work, she draws on the computer. She shows me how this is done, quickly and accurately, using a stylus to draw a fresh stem on the subject plant. Most of her work, however, still takes place on paper.
On a nearby desk, a large herbarium sheet holds the mistletoe, named Dendropthora, and she shows me a finished illustration of a tropical shrub named Paullinia. A stem with foliage forms the spine of the composition, while the edges are full of various flower and seedpod dissections. The work is a composite rather than a portrait. The goal is to reveal the aspects of the plant that characterize the species, down to the length and placement of stem hairs.
Such an illustration can convey information that the descriptive text struggles to make known, said Laurence Dorr, one of the department’s eight botanical curators. “The illustration does it better than almost anything else, and does it much, much better than a photograph.”
I often think about the overlap between horticulture and botany. I don’t know if you have to be a gardener to be a systematic botanist, but I think every gardener in time becomes a botanist, if only to marvel at the way each species has developed structurally — morphologically — to find its niche in nature. As gardeners are driven to plant ecologically, that link must only become stronger. Botanists aren’t driven by the aesthetics of a plant, but they surely share the gardener’s wonder at how nature has engineered plants for their habitats. It is in understanding the wild ancestry of garden plants, whether that’s a hay-scented fern or a black oak tree — that the informed gardener is the most successful.
Scientific illustrations may not have the exotic beauty of, say, the jungle paintings of Martin Johnson Heade. They are flat and no-nonsense and exist to aid scientific identification. They aren’t seen much outside the realm of floras and scientific journals. But even if she is too modest to state it, Tangerini and her colleagues have devoted their lives to the task of discovering, and thus protecting, plant species and their ecologies that are the basis of life on Earth. Plant communities are under threat, spectacularly in the mass fires of the Amazon or the Australian bush and less visibly in the cumulative loss of habitat to a subdivision here, a new highway there. We need people to show us what’s at stake; this is Alice Tangerini’s window on life.
As Dorr puts it, “She’s helping us look at the world.”