Margaret armstrong's "field book of western wild flowers"

“Every well-educated person is eager to know something, at least, of the wonderful organic forms which surround him in every sunbeam and every pebble; and books of natural history are finding their way, more and more, into drawing-rooms and school-rooms, and exciting greater thirst for a knowledge which, even twenty years ago, was considered superfluous to all but the professional student.”

Written in England in 1855 by the English writer and historian Charles Kingsley, this observation could also have applied to the growing interest in nature that would soon take hold in America.

One of the first publications for amateur naturalists in the U.S. was How to Know the Wildflowers: a guide to the names, haunts, and habits of our common wild flowers. Published in 1893 by Frances Theodora Parsons (under the pen name of Mrs. William Starr Dana), this very successful guide was followed three years later by Parsons’s How to Know the Ferns. The illustrator for these guides was Marion Satterlee whose excellent line drawings fulfill the basic requirement for illustrating a field guide—clear and concise drawings that can be seen easily in a small format and that convey the identifying characteristics of the plant.

The publication of field guides proliferated on the East Coast and soon followed the western expansion of the country as travelers and settlers became interested in the vast botanical wealth that they encountered. Guides to Colorado’s wildflowers were the first to be published, then books for California and the Rocky Mountains. What was lacking at the turn of the century was a guide that would serve to identify wildflowers for the entire western region. The first book to do this was published in 1915. Field Book of Western Wild Flowers was written and illustrated by Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) who had no formal training in either botany or art.

In spite of her lack of formal art studies, Armstrong became one of America’s foremost designers of the ornate book covers that were in vogue at the turn of the century. In 1890, Armstrong began designing covers in her distinctive Art Nouveau style with an emphasis on nature motifs. By 1910, the dust-jacket had replaced these beautiful covers, and Armstrong went on to other pursuits. While traveling in the West, Armstrong found the existing regional wildflower guides to be inadequate and decided to write one herself that would encompass the entire West. With Professor John James Thornber of the University of Arizona serving as botanical advisor, Armstrong wrote the text and prepared all of the illustrations in a relatively short amount of time. All of the illustrations were drawn from live specimens—a total of 48 watercolors and 500 line drawings—all produced between 1911 and 1915.

Although the text of the book is sufficiently technical to correctly identify the flowers, it is also full of engaging observations. Take for instance Armstrong’s candid description of the jumping cholla:

“The distant effect of this plant is a pale, fuzzy mass, attractive in color, giving no hint of its treacherous character—more like a wild beast than a plant.”

Or of the saguaro:

“These tree-like plants are wonderfully dignified and solemn in aspect, with none of the grotesque or ferocious effect so common among their relations.”

Even in the midst of today’s abundance of wildflower guides, Armstrong’s work is worth seeking out, for both her unique artwork and perspective.

Shown here are examples of her art that compare her stylized portrayals of wildflowers used for book covers to her paintings of the same flowers included in Field Book of Western Wild Flowers. — Cindy Hartwell

This appeared in the June 2016 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.