Botanical accuracy should always be our aim, but if we fall short, there’s no real shame in it, well, only a little. When someone corrects us it’s important to show humility and thank them. They will feel good. Mis-identifying plants is very common because it’s difficult to know the names of 350,000 flowering plants in the world off by heart, and often it’s just too tempting to guess in the hope that a less knowledgeable companion will believe you. Even botanists tend to specialise in just a few, a favourite group, be it a genus or a family. Ask them about a plant outside of their group and they’re generally clueless. The hope is however, that unlike most, with a good identification guide to hand, they will be able to work it out. That means matching characters listed in the guide (leaf shape, ovary position, flower structure etc) to the plant in question. Some great people were prone to botanical inaccuracy. Case in point: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At the time of painting La Ghirlandata in 1873, either this great english poet and artist didn’t have a good plant identification guide, or he had been given some bad botanical advice.
Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata
The story behind La Ghirlandata (The Garland) is that the woman’s face repeated in the painting, that he transposed with his sitting model, is that of William Morris’ wife Jane, who Rossetti was fixated on. In addition, he was fresh from attempted suicide and a drug addict. These feelings were channelled into the painting. Rossetti was big on symbolism and he consistently turned to plants to prove it. Honeysuckle and roses (ie in the garland) sit at the top of the harp and indicate sexual attraction and devotion. The vine creeping and attaching to the woman on the right indicates creepy attachment – it was his friend’s wife after all. And, the deadly blue poisonous monkshood in front indicates a desire to kill. Or does it? Unfortunately he got the plant wrong, painting instead the somewhat less dangerous and more cheery larkspur. Oops. How do we know he intended to paint monkshood, well his brother told us, and its cultural reference would perhaps be more fitting with the intensity of the artwork. To check it is in fact larkspur, we took a closer look: La Ghirlandata (1873) is currently on show at the revamped Guildhall Art Gallery in London and the images below were taken in situ.
Not a hood in sight!
Can you see the spurs? Leaves look a bit Monkshoody though??
Larkspur and Monkshood have much in common, so Rossetti wasn’t such a terrible botanist, if in fact it’s true that he didn’t intend to paint larkspur in the first place. Both plants are in the family Ranunculaceae (or Buttercup family) and are both tall with spikes of blue flowers, so not that dissimilar from a distance. Up close however, they are, as the names suggest, larkspur has a spur on the flower and monkshood a covering hood. In the painting there is no real hood in sight (allowing us to view the yellow colouring of the multitude of stamens that characterises this family) and a spur is noticeable on the back of flower heads.
Larkspur left, Monkshood right.
Larkspur is a common name for flowers in two genera, Delphinium and Consolida. Most likely, as Rosetti was english, his likely source of inspiration was our native Larkspur Consolida ajacis. The Monkshood he should have painted was Aconitum napellus.
Roses and honeysuckle