Thursday, 21 August 2014

Summer Travels.....a Sketchbook Encounter with Linnaeus's 'Monster'

Last week I travelled by road to Austria and Switzerland via France, Belgium, Holland and was a long way! But the opportunity to paint the flowers on this trip was too good to miss. It's a long time since I've painted wild flowers and I'd forgotten that it can present quite a challenge.... and when the weather is wet it's near on impossible at times! Nevertheless I managed to produce some sketchbook studies and notes and took lots and lots of photographs. There's a whole heap of material from my trip so will spit it into two blog posts. Next week I'll focus on the mixed study pages but first off I'm dedicating this post to common Toadflax. It's a pretty common plant but it's an old favourite of mine so I make no apologies for getting carried away with it.....sometimes the story behind a plant makes a plant too tempting!
Linaria vulgaris L. (Common Toad flax) study page. Commonly found on disturbed ground at the roadside in Austria, Germany and Switzerland ( and much of Europe). This one was found in Germany near the roadside on waste ground. Note the mutated plant on the right.
The reason I couldn't resist Linaria vulgaris was sentimental, having grown it in my garden in Scotland some years ago, I'd been given a young plant from Aberdeen University Botanic Garden where I worked in 2005. Although I'd written about and it had flourished in the garden, I'd never actually painted it - so it was nice to encounter it again in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where it can be seen at almost every road verge at lower altitude. Initially and visually it wasn't a plant I was particularly interested in painting but the history of the plant really is fascinating and it became  more interesting as I studied it. I first learned about L.vulgaris when I chose to write and essay about floral mutations for an assignment about Carl Linnaeus, to celebrate the tercentenary of his birth - this task was part of a course I undertook with Uppsala University in 2007. The University provide some great resources on Linnaeus for anyone interested.
Carl Linnaeus had a particular interest in L. vulgaris because it is prone to a strange mutation which he first described over 250 years ago. A mutated form occurs on occasion, and the plant produces radially symmetrical  flowers with five spurs instead of the usual bilateral flowers, which have just one spur.
Left: The normal bilateral flowers with one spur. Right: the mutated 'Peloric' flower, exhibits radially symmetry with five spurs. The mutation is caused by a defect in the Lcyc (cyclooidea like gene) which controls the dorsoventral asymmetry in 'normal' flowers. Similar mutation is found in Antirhinums.
 Apparently Linnaeus was so captivated by the plant and the mutation that he grew it by his front door at his summer home in Hammarby for many years. He had originally been presented with the 5 spurred mutated version in 1742 by a young botanist, Magnus Zioberg and went on to write a thesis describing the mutated plant in 1744.
Carl Linnaeus, was the first to write about the peloric form of Linaria vulgaris over 250 years ago. Copyright Wikimedia Commons 
  Linnaeus placed the mutated plant in a separate classification from L. vulgaris and named it  'Peloria' which translated in Greek to 'Monster'. He could only conclude that the 'Monster' was an example of hybridisation which resulted from interbreeding between two separate species and suggested common toadflax and some other unknown species had interbred to create a new species. This controversial view challenged the religious views of the time and presented Linnaeus with a problem which left him in conflict with the church. The problem of conflict persisted for him as he developed his sexual system and classification of plants, which were seen to question God as the creator. Linnaeus's work was banned and ordered to be burned by by Pope Clement the XIII and he was accused of impiety by the Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala.
L. vulgaris has continued to fascinate and has been discussed in works by numerous evolutionary biologists, including Darwin, de Vries and Huxley, and used as an example of how mutation can lead to changes in morphology.  Read more about Linnaeus's Peloria
The mutation is now known to be caused by a single gene mutation. Linnaeus was wrong because L. vugaris was not a separate species but the principle he identified was an important one in evolutionary biology and the L. vulgaris research continues to this day.   
The study page, Linaria vulgaris I worked on 14 x 10 inch Langton extra smooth HP paper ( kept in a plastic bag!)
I also had a small notebook for listing species and notes.
Although its only a study page I still prefer to create a well balanced page so try to fill the space as evenly as possible. This usually happens fairly naturally as a rule. Just make sure nothing is too cramped or far apart. 
  • I make one colour study of the whole plant in situ to document the general plant 'arcitecture'  - this is the focal point of the page. 
Focal point - whole plant, quick watercolour sketch in colour
  • After drawing the whole plant I make some small colour studies at the page edges before drawing and painting a couple of flowers to test the chosen colours. I had a fairly limited palette. An Ultraviolet light wash was used for the shadows. I put this in first because it's a light flower and I find it easier to lay shadows first on light flowers). I used Lemon Yellow (NT), Cad Lemon and Cad Yellow. For the greens I used Cerulean Blue, Cad Lemon with a small amount of Perm rose. I also added some Fr Ultramarine for the darker greens. I varied the ratio of  the colours for the lighter and darker shades ( i.e. more yellow for the lighter stems and new growth). I made a couple of smaller studies of the individual flowers in colour to test the colour before painting the larger piece. I think that I would change the Cad lemon for Win Yellow if i were to paint it again because WY is transparent. On this occasion I didn't have it with me.    
Colour studies
  •  A simple line drawing of the plant was also made for clarity - this enables me to get a really clear understanding of the plant in terms of the leaf and flower arrangement on the stem.
Line drawing, whole plant stem
  • Flowers are the feature of the work so I made studies of the regular bilateral flowers, front and side view ( required for a bilateral flower ) I already had a rear view in colour, so no need for duplication but I did also draw a flower which had yet to open. These were made in graphite using a 2H and HB pencil and scaled x 1.5 for clarity. I made a single study of the mutant flower ( only one study required because it's the same on all sides). Peloric version shown above in main text.  
Flower studies showing various stages and views
  •  I didn't draw the reproductive parts other than the stigma on spent flowers but could possibly track down a potted specimen at a later date if I wanted to add this.
  Back to the Travels
After many hours of travel and an overnight stop in Germany we finally arrived in Kappl, a small village in the Paznaun valley, Province of Tyrol, Austria. Kappl is located over 1,250 m above sea level, the clouds roll through the mountains and the air feels incredibly clean.   As we climbed the winding roads a far greater diversity of flowers was immediately apparent. Many of the plants commonly seen can be found here in the UK but seldom is there such diversity in one small area. In my next post I will share the mixed study pages from Kappl and St Moritz.

The road up to Kappl where a diverse range of Alpine flora was found.


  1. What a beautiful study,it's perfect. I never knew about this mutation in toadflax, absolutely fascinating, thanks Dianne xx

  2. Thanks Diane, that was so interesting to read.

  3. Fascinating read and of course, superb studies!

  4. Gorgeous yellows Dianne. Lovely to see work like this in the field. I hope you enjoyed your trip!

  5. Stunning story you tell and the story adds a wealth of info to the lovely flowers you've captured. If history books were written and illustrated like this, they would be so much more interesting to read and the reader would likely recall much more of the pertinent info. Thanks for taking the time and effort to post this incredible piece.

  6. I really do love your sketch page of this plant, the mix of pencil and paint makes such an interesting field study.
    Your posts are always full of wonderful facts and a feast for the eyes, beautiful drawings.

  7. Wonderfully informative post Dianne, and exquisite study page.

  8. Thank you for sharing this! I am specially interested since I am from Uppsala and Linné is close to my heart :-). I have always loved this rather humble but joyful flower - I have it wild in my so called garden 40 km south of Uppsala. Next year I will take inspiration from your blogpost and try to draw and paint it ( I am a student on the SBA course)
    Thank you for writing such a nice and interesting blog!