Bringing Adam's Mistletoe (Trilepedia adamsii) back to life: by Peter de Lange, Auckland
NZPCN needed a painting for the Individual Conservation Achievement Award given each year to recognise excellence in the field of plant conservation. The botanical artist, Sue Wickison, was approached and asked if she would undertake a commission.
Adam’s Mistletoe (Trilepedia adamsii)"It would be an honour", was her reply, "but I always work from living material".
Adams Mistletoe (Trilepidea adamsii), already on the logo of the NZPCN website, was thought to be an excellent species to represent the need for conservation. This plant is extinct and was last seen in 1954 on Sanitorium Hill, Maungakawa, near the Waikato town of Cambridge. So much for Sue's only criterion of needing living material! Could she bring the plant to life again through paint? Not only that but could she illustrate it and its favoured host mamangi (Coprosma arborea)?
Sue has a degree in botanical illustration and spent nine years as a Botanical Illustrator with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, working with herbarium specimens, so she was familiar with the requirements of the work.
Sue rose to the challenge of painting Adam's mistletoe and studied every specimen to familiarise herself with the species. For access to specimens she was kindly assisted by Drs Patrick Brownsey and Leon Perrie at Te Papa and Mr Ewen Cameron and Ms Mei Nee Lee at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
The specimens at the Auckland Museum proved especially important because they include the holotype. She also worked closely with Peter de Lange who interviewed Lucy Cranwell, Audrey Eagle, Mike Wilcox, Peggy Sexton, and Barbara Segedin - all of whom actually saw the plant alive, and in some cases collected it; critically examined most of the herbarium specimens available both here and overseas, and searched in vain for the species over large parts of its former range.
At the Auckland Museum, Sue had the chance to see the paintings and drawings that had been done by botanical artists such as Georgina Hetley, Matilda Smith (for Thomas Cheeseman's illustrated New Zealand Flora published in 1914), Fanny Osbourne, and Audrey Eagle. Interestingly these illustrations differed quite a lot from each other, which threw up further questions - were the differences due to the skill level of the artists or variation in the plant due to habitat, host type or stages of growth?
Key specimens that proved particularly useful to verify plant details were AK 103910 and 103911, for the habit and flowers, and AK 223974 for the fruit. Using calipers, Sue carefully measured all the details of the plant and drew up a flowering branch, like piecing together a fascinating jigsaw puzzle.
Determining the colour of the flowers was the biggest problem for Sue to solve, since Cheeseman, who originally described the species, was colour blind and there is no mention of colour in his description. Based on the colours of other species in the mistletoe group, on the old illustrations and on the distinctly striped herbarium specimens, a painting emerged. Knowing the flowers were basically pink and yellow is not really good enough for an artist since which pink and which shade of it are important plus there are so many yellows to choose from. Would a lemon yellow be closer than cadmium or a more vibrant Indian yellow? Were there nuances of colour changes as the flowers aged?
As the haustoria of Adam's mistletoe have never been described and there are no known specimens of this structure, illustrating them was especially difficult. Peter de Lange's research suggested that Adam's mistletoe had a growth habit very similar to the green mistletoe (Ileostylus micranthus), so Sue turned to that species for some guidance. The closest living material Sue could get to was Ileostylus micranthus at Nga Manu Sanctuary, Waikanae, kindly shown to her by Rhys Mills. That plant helped Sue understand the parasitic nature of the group and how Adam's mistletoe might have attached itself to its host.
The project of research and the final painting took a number of weeks to complete, using mostly Sminke watercolour paint on Schoellhammer paper. Layers of fine glazes of colour were gradually built up in the traditional style of botanical painting.
The final touches of hours of fine detailed dry brush work added depth and polish to the painting. At all stages of the illustration's preparation Sue carefully checked the details with mistletoe experts.
It is hoped that the award will be enjoyed by many recipients in years to come for the tremendous work that is being undertaken in the name of conservation.
Sue is currently working as a freelance artist on native New Zealand plants and preparing for a solo show in April at Savill Garden, Windsor Great Park, UK, which is to coincide with the opening of the refurbished New Zealand garden that is being given to the Queen.
See Sue's gallery for more details about her work and the NZPCN site for more details about Trilepidea adamsii.