NORTHAMPTON — In 88 percent of Earth’s history, before the dawn of plants, the Earth was covered with microscopic bacteria. Flowers didn’t evolve until after the Jurassic period – late in the Earth’s lifespan, comparatively speaking.
These are just two of the highlights of the newly completed, 60-foot mural at the Botanic Garden of Smith College, “Plant Life Through the Ages.” The eight-panel mural depicts 3.5 billion years of plant evolution. It is believed to be the first mural in the world devoted exclusively to plants.
“Since all animals ultimately depend on plants, understanding plant evolution, and the processes which drive it, is important,” says botanist Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the Botanic Garden. A teacher at heart, he thought the mural could fill a void and help educate the general public on the often overlooked plants, which are vital to all life on Earth.
While the first seven panels display how plants became more diverse, complex and varied growing into trees, ferns and wide-ranging flora, the final panel captures the negative impact humans have had on plants through deforestation, large-scale agriculture, overpopulation, industrialization and other activity.
“There are 100 times more plant extinctions than there are species evolving,” Marcotrigiano says.
The paintings that make up the permanent exhibition were digitized and reproduced on panels that can withstand changing temperatures and direct sunlight. They are displayed on one wall of a long, narrow corridor that connects the Church Exhibition Gallery in the Lyman Plant House to the Palm House greenhouse.
Visitors who enter the Lyman Plant House may view dozens of plant fossils, many of which are painted in the murals. Signs and an accompanying brochure indicate which panel contains the painted version of the fossilized plant. The fossils are on loan from the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.
The gallery also displays samples of scientific illustrations drawn from fossils. The muralist, working with the scientific advisor, used botanical drawings like these as the basis for his paintings.
Paleobotanist James Walker, a professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, decided which time periods in plant evolution would be depicted in the paintings, providing a list of plants and animals from the periods and a self-authored plant evolution booklet. The animals were included as a frame of reference and to make the paintings more visually interesting.
Artist Robert Evans, of Sherborn, worked closely with Walker and Marcotrigiano to create scientifically accurate paintings. The end result is a series of acrylic paintings that are more works of art than textbook illustrations.
The first panel captures Earth as a planet of bacteria, where the presence of more carbon dioxide and Sulphur and less oxygen than today made the sky the colors of sunset. Evans says he drew from what scientists know about Saturn’s moon Titan to capture the colors of that period.
In the second-to-last mural, where plants evolved to produce flowers for the first time, Walker says he advised on the flowers’ colors based on the colors of those plants’ descendants.
The panels are representations of the likely landscapes during the periods they reflect. The one exception is the second panel, which reveals small, primitive plants based on the flora from a fossil collection found near the Scottish village of Rhynie.
“Everything you see in that one mural is found at that specific site in Scotland,” Walker says. Like most of the plants in the mural, these plants are now extinct.
The Devonian period, reflected in this panel, was the “Big Bang” of plant evolution, Walker says. “By the end, true leaves and stems had evolved; even seeds had evolved by the end of the period.”
To help put the 3.5 billion years into perspective, there’s a chart displayed at the entrance of the corridor that captures the duration of the time periods reflected in each panel. Even though humanity’s time on Earth is miniscule in comparison, civilization’s impact on plant life is clearly shown in the final panel, representing the last 11,500 years.
“We tried to dramatize forest displacement and how our impact can destroy what is one of the most valuable resources we have,” says Evans, whose work has appeared in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Harvard Museum of Natural History and throughout the country. It seemed like a fitting capstone to the previous panels, he says, to create a scene that reflects the human destruction of plant life that took millennia to evolve.
“We’re a part of nature, an overactive one. You might consider us a cancerous one,” he says. “In many cases, we’re hurting ourselves by what we do.”
The permanent exhibition, “Plant Life Through the Ages,” is in the Lyman Plant House, the Botanic Garden of Smith College, 16 College Lane, Northampton. 413-585-2740. www.smith.edu/garden/exhibits/exhibitions.html
Theresa Sullivan Barger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.