Nonsense Botany on National Poetry Day

We look back at a great creative summer project inspired by Edward Lear's nonsense plants, when a group of young carers from Centre 33 came to write poetry and get creative
Edward Lear is perhaps most famous for The Owl and the Pussycat. However, he was also a talented landscape painter, cartoonist, travel writer and zoological illustrator. Amongst his many works is Nonsense Botany, written in 1870 to delight readers with illustrations of Professor Bosh’s botanical discoveries in the Valley of Verrikwier, near the Lake of Oddgrow. These beautifully bizarre pen and ink illustrations of fictitious plants became the starting point for the summer workshops.

On the first day, the children found out a little bit about Edward Lear, his difficult childhood and how he liked to draw, make up words and write poetry. After looking at his bizarre illustrations of plants such as Armchairia comfortabilis, Manypeeplia upsidownia and Piggiwiggia pyramidalis, the children set out to find plants that resembled everyday objects and everyday objects that resembled plants. They also discovered some real life curiosities amongst the carnivorous plants, and agreed that nature could definitely be stranger than fiction when they heard the story of pitcher plant, Nepenthes species, from Borneo that have evolved to be ‘shrew loos’.

Through the week, the children enjoyed drawing, creating stories, book making, painting, printing, paper marbling, poetry and simply being out in the Garden and by the end of the workshops, each child had created a great big concertina book containing collages of their own work, found images, shared poems and shared prints. We are grateful to be able to share this poem written by one of the participants.

Furry and soft, the zebra plant lurks
In the shadows of the African bush,
Smelling of hot sunset and dead grass.
Black and white caterpillars and stripy poisonous snails
Suck moisture from the funnels of its leaves,
Blown by the wind it rustles, grumbles, jiggles
Tiny zebras fall from the seedhead,
Sweet as mint humbugs.
Nothing else like it in the world.

Once all final touches had been made, the week was finished off with a celebratory picnic on the Main Lawn. The workshops were part of the Community Arts Programme, funded through the Percent for Art levy on the Sainsbury Laboratory. The workshops took the theme of nonsense botany, in celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Edward Lear, and were led by storyteller Marion Leeper and artist Alex Hirtzel.
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