Olneya tesota, desert ironwood - 1856 and 2011

The Sonoran Desert’s ironwood, Olneya tesota, was first described in 1854 by Asa Gray in his Plantae Novae Thurberianae. The new genus was named after Gray’s friend and colleague Stephen Thayer Olney, a Rhode Island botanist. According to George Thurber, who collected the plant during the U.S.–Mexican Boundary Survey, tesota was the Mexican name for the tree.

These two illustrations of ironwood, separated by more than 150 years, show how the artists’ exquisite attention to detail can take the illustrations well beyond scientific description to create beautiful works of art. In the colored pencil drawing, the flowering branches have become nearly leafless as the spring buds appear. The lithograph concentrates on the subsequent fruiting branch along with enlargements and dissections of the flower. Both works are meticulous in illustrating botanically accurate phases of development, but they do so in an artistically elegant way.

Margaret Pope’s colored pencil drawing was one of several plant portraits commissioned by the Tucson Botanical Gardens and exhibited there in 2011. The lithograph from 1856 was one of the illustrations that accompanied John Torrey’s botanical reports for the Pacific Railroad Survey Report (Vol. VII, Lt. John Parke’s expedition). As was too often the case, the artist is not credited in the report but was likely one of the illustrators working for Torrey and Gray, the two botanists who prepared reports for most of the government surveys of the time.

Botanical illustrations from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries as well as contemporary illustrations will be presented in the Florilegium’s exhibit Botanical Art of the Sonoran Desert: Past and Present that will be shown in the Ironwood Gallery at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum from August 24 through October 27, 2013. — Cindy Hartwell

Many more exceptional illustrations from government survey reports (1846-1855) can be seen here in the Historical Botanical Art section and in the online exhibit Botanical Art of the Sonoran Desert: Past and Present.


This appeared in the May 2013 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.