Masumi Yamanaka, a resident botanical artist of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, suddenly stops in front of a 16-meter-tall tree and gestures upward.

“This is the Ginkgo biloba. She’s over 250 years old,” she says proudly as we admire its branches swaying in the breeze overhead. “Did you know her kind was on the planet when the dinosaurs roamed? Isn’t that incredible?”

This is how Yamanaka — the curator of “Flora Japonica,” a contemporary botanical illustration exhibition currently showing at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo — “introduces” visitors to the heritage trees at Kew gardens in London. “I always think of them as female, like Mother Nature,” she says as we pause again on a detour to Kew’s Herbarium, this time to greet a grove of giant pines. “Such species have adapted and survived so many environments on Earth — long before we even existed — so we really must respect them.”

It’s mid-August, and Yamanaka is preparing to visit Japan for the opening of “Flora Japonica,” which for its Tokyo showing has a supplementary show, “The Golden Age of Botanical Art — Flowers from the Collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew” at the University of Tokyo gallery, Intermediatheque.

“‘Flora Japonica’ focuses on Japanese artists and Japanese plants,” she says. “But ‘The Golden Age of Botanical Art’ covers illustration history, and it includes specimens from the university, as well as 17th- and 18th-century paintings from Kew gardens — many from the East India Company’s collection.”

As the point person between the Japanese institutions, artists and Kew gardens, Yamanaka jokingly confesses, “I think I’ve been traumatized by overseeing all this.” “Flora Japonica” alone, she explains, took six years to prepare and organize, and when it debuted at the Shirley Sherwood botanical gallery in Kew gardens in September last year, it received more than 60,000 visitors, making it one of the institution’s most popular exhibitions.

“But we still didn’t expect both Tokyo University and the National Museum of Nature and Science to want to host it,” she says, with a little laugh. “That’s why we took the opportunity to also stage something that offers the history of Kew gardens and educates visitors on the best botanists in Japan.”

Though the specific science of botany wasn’t introduced to Japan until the early 19th century, the oldest extant Japanese botanical illustrations — the “Bai-no-Soshi” veterinarian’s book of herbs — dates as far back as 1274. Since then, literati painting, nihonga (Japanese-style paintings) and ukiyo-e prints have all become renowned for detailed, if not taxonomically accurate, depictions of flora. With such history, it’s not surprising that today at least one Japanese artist usually makes the list of prizewinners at the annual Royal Horticultural Society London Botanical Art Show.

“Of the 35 artists, most are RHS gold medalists, while others have painted for Kew gardens’ Curtis’s Botanical Magazine,” says Yamanaka on the selection process for “Flora Japonica.” “And all the works are original commissions, so the artists started from scratch.”

She talks a lot of the dedication of artists who “invested their own materials and time,” professors who “wrote detailed essays for the catalog,” botanists who “scrutinized, measured and verified every single submission” and other colleagues whose contributions were all voluntary. Could this be, I ask, a reflection of a desire or even a need to remind others that botanical art still has relevance in the face of digital photography, 3-D modeling and new specimen-preservation techniques?

“Well, without scientific accuracy, such illustrations can’t be called ‘botanical art.’ They would be considered ‘paintings of flowers’ — so botanical art does need science,” Yamanaka replies. “But I’m not so sure science really needs botanical art any more.”

That evidently hasn’t deterred the passion or commitment of contemporary botanical artists, who are renowned for spending months to years on research just to document a single species. Yamanaka, who was introduced to Kew gardens by her mentor, then-resident artist Pandora Sellars, explains that it was a similar dogged determination that led her to where she is today.

She persuaded Kew gardens to let her visit the grounds every week, where she followed a rigid self-study regime and volunteered to help relocate more than 200,000 illustrations to the new Herbarium building when it opened in 2009. To support herself, she taught illustration part-time and even sold her apartment to move into a smaller one closer to Kew.

“Botanists and other artists often asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’d reply, ‘I’m a squatter,'” she says, reminiscing. “That’s how I discovered that many botanical artists started off as Kew gardens’ ‘squatters.'”

As a former ceramics artist who moved to England during the late 1980s to design for the department store Marks & Spencer, Yamanaka envisions harnessing that devotion to an aesthetic future of botanical art.

Her talk of focusing on composition without compromising scientific integrity and “imbuing illustrations with a message” is also echoed in the 80 paintings of “Flora Japonica.” Compared to the Curtis’s Botanical Magazine’s historical examples, also on show at the exhibition, the contemporary renderings are more naturalistic in arrangement and less diagrammatic. White space is effectually used and occasionally a visiting bee or butterfly is even included.

Yamanaka’s own work on display, “Miracle Pine,” though not commissioned specifically for the exhibition, is perhaps the best testament to this artistic philosophy.

“A year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, some children from Iwate Prefecture came to Kew gardens to donate seeds from the Ai-kuromatsu tree to the Millennium Seed Bank. This is the same hybrid species as Rikuzentakata’s ‘miracle pine,’ the only tree of thousands in the area that survived the tsunami,” she says. “Sadly, the miracle pine died soon after, but it is still a symbol of resilience and hope, as well as a messenger — a reminder that nature has the strength to survive. We should respect and learn from that.”

As a return gift to Rikuzentakata, Yamanaka visited the area, documented Ai-kuromatsu and studied photographs of the miracle pine before painting it, uncharacteristically for botanical art, in its entire form. After the exhibition run, her “Miracle Pine” will be donated to the city, where the actual tree has also been preserved as a monument. The taxonomic detail of the painting is scientifically significant, but the pine’s unique, iconic shape also “tells a story,” Yamanaka says, going back to the discussion of contemporary botanical illustration.

“Even if it’s not offering a scientific message, botanical art is still relevant,” she insists. “It can be symbolic.”

“Flora Japonica” at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, and “The Golden Age of Botanical Art” at Tokyo University’s Intermediatheque both run until Dec. 3. For more information visit www.kahaku.go.jp and www.intermediatheque.jp.

The flora that inspired 80 original paintings by 35 Japanese artists

Japan has thousands of endemic plant species — wisterias, irises, even its own buttercup. There are many, Masumi Yamanaka says, “that people don’t even realize are native to the country.” From a list of 300 Japanese plants growing at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, 80 were chosen by 35 artists to illustrate for “Flora Japonica.” Each artist was given three years to complete their paintings, which were stringently checked for taxonomic accuracy by Tokyo University botanists.

“A few had to be rejected, despite being donations,” Yamanaka says. “There were definitely some blood, sweat and tears, but the end result is fantastic.”

Here are a few examples from the show.

Acer palmatum

Acer palmatum: Watercolor by Kyoko Ohara, painted from a specimen collected at Ibaraki Nature Museum in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Acer palmatum: Watercolor by Kyoko Ohara, painted from a specimen collected at Ibaraki Nature Museum in Ibaraki Prefecture. | © KYOKO OHARA

Japan’s best-known maple, the Acer palmatum has exceptional variability, making it a popular choice for gardeners. Its Japanese name is Iroha-momoji, and it’s native to most of southern Japan.

It is illustrated by Kyoko Ohara, a Nihon University College graduate who has won a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) silver medal for another painting of maples.

Citrus unshiu

Citrus unshiu: Watercolor by Kayako Miyazawa, painted from fruiting specimens collected in Shizuoka.
Citrus unshiu: Watercolor by Kayako Miyazawa, painted from fruiting specimens collected in Shizuoka. | © KAYOKO MIYAZAWA

Also known as C. reticulata Blanco, this citrus fruit is believed to have been introduced to the West via southern Japan during the 17th century. The unusual epithet “unshiu,” however, is a reference to the Chinese origins of the satsuma. Known in Japan as Unshu-mikan, it is illustrated by Kayoko Miyazawa, an established glass artist and RHS gold-medal winner.

Magnolia obovata

Magnolia obovata: Watercolor by Mieko Konishi, painted from a flowering specimen collected on Mount Iwane, Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, and showing flowers at three different stages.
Magnolia obovata: Watercolor by Mieko Konishi, painted from a flowering specimen collected on Mount Iwane, Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture, and showing flowers at three different stages. | © MIEKO KONISHI

A giant beauty, the Magnolia obovata is one of the world’s largest magnolias. Its trees can grow to 30 meters tall, with leaves 45 centimeters long and flower diameters of 20 centimeters. Native to Japan, it’s also known as Hoon-no-ki and can be found in mountainous woodland.

The artist Mieko Konishi studied plant ecology at Kobe University before learning botanical art at Kew gardens. Her work has been widely published and she is the chairperson of the Kobe Association of Botanical Illustration.

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