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First published in NZ Gardener magazine’s March 2018 issue; and, 23 March 2018

Originally written for NZ Gardener magazine

Botanical artist Sue Wickison is fascinated by a plant that you could say is somewhat out of this world. She recently completed a watercolour of the rather morbidly named Flower of Hades.

“I was intrigued,” she said. “It’s parasitic and lives on the forest floor where it attaches itself to a host root of native trees. Once established, it takes nutrients off the host and creates a burr which eventually turns into a wood rose such as those that were once prized by collectors.”

Indeed, Dactylanthus taylorii (to give the plant its proper binomial nomenclature) is a New Zealand native, and the only fully parasitic flowering plant and the southernmost member of its mainly tropical family.

Wickison had been looking for plants to paint for a black-and-white exhibition at Kew Gardens in the UK when she discovered this particular subject for the Botanical Art Worldwide exhibition, an exhibition which links people with plants through botanical art. Ngāi Tipu Taketake – Indigenous Flora is New Zealand’s contribution to this global project and will run at Auckland Botanic Gardens from March 30 to July 18.

Wickison explained that while the flower’s prime pollinator is the nocturnal short-tailed bat, moths, centipedes and wetas also come to the site looking for nectar and pollen.

“DOC keeps the locations secret because so much habitat has been lost that in some areas the dactylanthus has completely disappeared. The bat is endangered as well.”

Her biggest challenge was to understand the structure of the plant and how it works. “I wanted the painting to tell the whole story of the plant, its flowers and the pollination process, so depicted the feathery female flower and various stages of the developing seeds as well as the male flower with the weta looking for the nectar.”

Wickison’s passion for natural history developed during her childhood in Sierra Leone in West Africa where her father (a teacher, amateur botanist and artist) would take her on plant-hunting expeditions.

This passion eventually led to a degree in Scientific Illustration from Middlesex University, London.

She went on to work as an illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, though her career has always had an international flavour.

She has travelled to the Solomon Islands to collect orchids for Kew Gardens on a Winston Churchill Fellowship and illustrated books for agricultural and forestry authorities in the Solomon Islands, Nepal and Vanuatu. She has produced over 50 natural history stamp designs for 10 Pacific Island countries (including New Zealand) and has exhibited widely.

Now based in the Ohariu Valley near Wellington, the high point of her career, she said, came when she was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society gold medal in 2008.

Wickison loves working in watercolour because of the way it captures the details and nuances of colour of the plants and flowers. When she was painting dactylanthus, she applied the paler colours first and then gradually built the intensity of the colour before adding the markings.

“Then I put on geeky magnifying glasses to do the dry brush work required for the finest detail. During the final stage, I used the microscope to assist with the drawings of the flower dissection that I did as the scientific depiction of the plant at the base of the painting.”

Wickison estimated that that the painting took more than 150 hours to complete.

She is keen to give credit to David Mudge, a DOC volunteer who has studied the dactylanthus for more than 11 years.

“Not only did David take me to see the plant in its native habitat, but he lent me his time lapse photographs of the whole sequence of the plant, bat and insect population around the dactylanthus sites. His assistance was invaluable.”

After Auckland, Ngāi Tipu Taketake will tour the Wellington Botanic Gardens and Millenium Gallery, Blenheim, and possibly other New Zealand centres.