Nature writer Sonya Patel Ellis has crafted a book of subtle beauty and sensational inspiration with the creation of The Botanical Bible. Her book is a heavyweight exploration of the relationship between plants and people, with gentle tips on how to nurture, respect and strengthen our bonds to the natural world.
Wilma: The Botanical Bible is such a love letter to the natural world that I’m wondering what have plants come to mean to you through this process?
Sonya Patel Ellis: Exploring the evolutionary and humanitarian story of plants and flowers has absolutely deepened my connection with the botanical world. I knew the general taxonomy (classification and structure) of the plant kingdom but was blown away by the developmental intricacies of this billions-of-years-old timeline from single-celled organisms; and also the intrinsic shared history of plants and people. How did some eukaryotic organisms (those with cells that have a membrane-bound nucleus) evolve into humans while others evolved into palm trees? My mind often wanders to this divergent yet relative phenomenon while out running on Wanstead Flats, cooking up a plant-based feast or nature crafting with my kids.
When did your interest in botany begin?
Like many folks, my passion for and curiosity about plants was awakened in childhood, beginning with wildflower walks down old colliery navigation lines and across still-fruiting rhubarb fields in Wakefield where I grew up. My siblings and I would bring mini flower presses along, which brought us even closer to nature as we pored over the colours, patterns and details of our finds. A lifelong obsession with David Attenborough delivered the basics of botany; a stint at art college during the early nineties plus over 20 years as a writer and editor of illustrated books – many rooted in nature and the environment – furnished me with the explorative mindset and in-depth knowledge of the botanical world. I set up Herbarium Project in 2013 (now A Botanical World), hunting down, pressing, mounting and labelling plants and flowers as a creative and ever-so-slightly compulsive way to learn more.
How can a beginner take steps to live a more botanical life?
Step one is acknowledging how much of a botanical life you already live. We all live in a botanical world from the plants that provide our morning coffee, to the natural fibres harvested to create our clothes, books and furniture. We’re surrounded by plants or plant matter pretty much all the time, if we open our eyes to them.
Step two is similarly easy: go outside and spend time looking at or interacting with plants. Pressing plants and flowers is a wonderful aid to this process as you have to slow down, often coming across plants, seasonal changes or botanical elements that you hadn’t noticed before and you’ll get a beautiful artwork at the end of it.
After that it’s about building upon a plant-based activity that inspires you. For example, combine a passion for cooking with growing your own herbs or sourcing seasonal fruits or vegetables – what better way to learn about plants or share that knowledge then by serving up a delicious meal [there are gorgeous sections in the book devoted to recipes and herbal applications of plants].
You can be inspired by the numerous ways in which artists, designers and craftspeople have been inspired by plants and flowers for centuries, such as Viviane Sassen’s otherworldly photographs and botanical illustrations from Robert Johnson’s Temple of Flora (1807). The Botanical Bible is packed full of references to help inspire and guide you on a journey through the botanical world.
Why do you think there is such enduring fascination with plants in culture?
Plants bring people together. They unite people from all walks of life in their beauty, purpose and inspiration. I think people are searching for those uniting or levelling elements more and more, especially in times of turmoil, upheaval or political uncertainty. The plant kingdom is also hugely diverse, providing ample opportunity for individual self-expression via the flowers we like to display in a vase, the ones we might be drawn to on a floral dress, or the flavours or tastes we are attracted to.
Instagram has also had a huge impact, providing instant ways for plant lovers to connect. This in turn has brought more attention to more historical traditional sources of plant communication such as botanical gardens, herbaria, periodicals and publications; and helps put the spotlight on hugely important, associated issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Plants bring people together. They unite people from all walks of life in their beauty, purpose and inspiration.
How do you incorporate botanicals into your own daily routine?
My botanical world is very much a case of work-meets-play-meets-family life. I’m lucky to have a garden and constantly developing home studio in which to play out much of my ‘botanical world’, including writing about plants (I’m currently writing a book about herbs for The British Library), making botanical pressings and testing out recipes and remedies. I also try and teach my two boys about plants and flowers, whether it’s through drawing or rubbing leaves or foraging for blackberries.
Do you need to be a botany aficionado to enjoy The Botanical Bible?
The book is obviously designed to appeal to people who already have a penchant for plants but equally, I would love for it to fall into the hands of those who don’t. While putting together the Botany for Beginners section I was particularly thinking about creating an antidote for those dry, boring textbooks that can put people off amazing phenomena such as photosynthesis or transpiration before they even have time to digest it. My overriding aim was to compile a book that really illustrates the many connections between plants and people – a book that puts cooking next to contemporary art, herbal remedies alongside botanical illustration, and parallels the complementary worlds of science, art, ancient history and popular culture.
Do you think the plant kingdom teaches us to live in a more harmonious way?
People and plants are so apparently different it’s easy to forget that we share many of the same cellular features. It’s also common knowledge that plants produce a significant portion of the life-giving oxygen that we breathe, as land plants and a division of ocean-swelling phytoplankton. The plant kingdom in one form or another provides so much of what we need to survive.
On a more philosophical note, the natural world has so much to teach us about modern life; most importantly to slow down, stop taking things for granted and remember that the human race is part of nature, not an outsider species looking on. One of my favourite pages in The Botanical Bible is titled Growing Home Together and touches on ideas around wilderness, nature and conservation with writing by American poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder. The last line in his poem ‘For the Children’ reads: Stay together learn flowers go light. There’s really no better advice for modern living than that.
The Botanical Bible is published by Harper Collins
A Botanical World by Sonya Patel Ellis is a fascinating digital exploration of botanical living
Sonya’s passion for nature is infectious and whenever we meet, she’s always full of ideas sharing new recipes and techniques. I’m in awe of how she created this wonderful book in the midst of family life but it’s a real testament to her love of the botanical world and how it links into all aspects of our lives.