Hunt show looks at plants with protection
With a thistle in its crest, it seems fitting that Carnegie Mellon University plays host to the exhibit “Dangerous Beauty: Thorns, Spines and Prickles.”
At the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, high atop the Hunt Library, visitors need not take caution, as all are behind glass, keeping everyone safe from a scratching.
The exhibit was organized by the Hunt's assistant curator of art Carrie Roy, who says, “This exhibition began, for me, with what might be a small obsession with thistles, the pesky but beautiful weed I grew up hating in the fields near my home in Colorado. Coming to Carnegie Mellon, where the Scottish thistle is our crest, and here at the Hunt Institute, where we have many varieties of thistle represented in so many different ways, my obsession grew.”
In researching possible ideas for an exhibit to include a variety of prickly plants, Roy was fascinated to learn that thorns, spines and prickles are not all the same thing.
“I was even more struck to learn that roses do not have thorns, but have prickles,” she says.
For example, “Rosa canina L. (Rosa Linnaeus, Rosaceae),” a watercolor on paper by Petr Liska of the Czech Republic depicts tiny prickles on the stem beneath rose hips, the fruit of the plant.
As roses are characterized by a huge number and variety of species, so, too, are the varied prickles. Some, as in “Rosa acicularis Lindley,” which is also known as prickly rose, have stems densely covered in thin, straight, hairlike prickles.
Others, as in “Rosa canina Linnaeus” and many of the modern cultivated varieties like “Rosa centifolia Linnaeus,” have larger, often hooked, woody prickles. Some species of Rosa Linnaeus have vestigial prickles with no sharp points, and others may not have any prickles at all.
“Citron: Citrus medica (Citrus medica Linnaeus, Rutaceae)” another delicately detailed watercolor, by Italian artist Marilena Pistoia, depicts one example of a large and diverse genus, Citrus Linnaeus, which contains shrubs and small trees that possess true thorns, which emerge from the axil of the leaves.
“In some cases, older plants produce fewer thorns as they increase in size and become less vulnerable to predation, while others maintain their thorns for life,” Roy says. “Occasionally, the thorns themselves, as structures homologous with stems, will produce buds and leaves of their own.”
The examples included in this exhibit focus on Citrus most often cultivated for their fruits and that have aromatic flowers, two aspects for which protection from animals is necessary.
Then, there is a hyper-realistic watercolor of a teasel by English artist Celia Crampton.
The teasel is from the genus Dipsacus Linnaeus.
Deriving from the Greek word for thirst and referring to the cuplike formation where sessile leaves merge at the stem to collect rainwater, Dipsacus Linnaeus is most often used and depicted in its dried state, as in Crampton's piece.
The teasel, like the thistle, has spiny bracts in addition to spines along the midrib of the underside of the leaves and prickles along the stem.
Another work on display by Crampton, “Dipsacus fullonum Linnaeus” depicts a Fuller's teasel, which has historically been used in the textile industry as a comb for cleaning and raising the nap on fabrics, particularly wool.
The dried flower heads were attached to spindles or wheels and teased the fibers in the fabric, a process later mechanized, replacing the dried teasel with a metal card.
“Some people still prefer the teasel head, however, as it is gentler and more likely to break itself than damage the cloth should it encounter resistance,” Roy says.
On view in the lobby is “Dangerous Utility,” a mini-exhibit of open books organized by assistant librarian Jeannette McDevitt.
Like its much larger counterpart, it focuses on thorns, spines and prickles, but in regard to how such plants have been used as tools by humans over the years.
This mini-exhibit contains a few books from the library collection as well as a print, “Agave americana (Agave americana Linnaeus, Asparagaceae),” a hand-colored engraving by English botanist, botanical artist and engraver Henry C. Andrews (1799-1830), that depicts what is perhaps the most useful of all of them, the Agave, which has been used to make everything from tequila to rope.
Displayed just steps from the elevator, this mini-exhibit should not be overlooked if one wishes to grasp the full experience of all things thorny, spiny and prickly.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.