Thaumatophyllum • Editorial • Science: Biology, Botany

  • About this project:

    I'm an avid plant-collector and like to photograph plants and greenhouses as a hobby. For a long time, I'd been wondering about the relative lack of high-quality photographic references in botany: it can be difficult to correctly identify a rare plant using only jargon-filled, written descriptions and dried-up specimens that barely resemble their living counterparts. It's become trivial to photograph and document anything, even including GPS coordinates, with just a cellphone — so why weren't more field researchers using this tech to aid in collection and classification?

    Curious, I decided to get in touch with some botanists and ask that question. I pitched the idea as a visual project for Quanta Magazine, where I'm art director. Although the topic of botanical photography didn't fit in with the hard, basic science Quanta is known for covering, my initial research became useful as the project morphed into something else.

    In the spring of 2018, a friend in the plant community (the botanically-savvy Mick Mittermeier, now Aroid Curator at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden) mentioned that a new paper came out with evidence to support re-categorizing an entire genus. Now that was an interesting and worthwhile story, grounded in fundamental biology: "DNA Analysis Reveals a Genus of Plants Hiding in Plain Sight". I set off to do the journalism: more research, interviews, writing, image-gathering, photographing, and so on.

    To photograph some of the plants that were reclassified, I got to work with the immensely skillful Haarkon team. They're famed for their wonderful photography (especially within the Instagram plant community, for their photos of gardens and glasshouses around the world). Many thanks to the staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for helping us with access to living Philodendron-cum-Thaumatophyllum plants, as well as for providing some of the preserved type-specimens shown in the piece.

    I'm also grateful to Quanta editor John Rennie for his guidance and developer Rachel Lim for the interactive features included in this piece.

    Image credits:
    Haarkon for Quanta Magazine
    Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine
    Cassia Sakuragui, UFRJ
    Martius, C., Eichler