Time to Celebrate - Intermountain Flora is Finally Finished

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 3


It’s eight volumes (well, actually six volumes, in eight parts) published over a 40-year period, conceived decades earlier.  3868 pages. 146 vascular plant families, 3847 species and 1571 varieties, each and every one illustrated with diagnostic line drawings. By any standard Intermountain Flora (IMF) is a remarkable achievement. Add in the exacting standards of its senior authors and the result, with the final orange-clad volume published this summer, is monumental, widely acclaimed as one of the finest floras ever published.

IMF treats plants in the geographically and floristically defined region between the Sierra Nevada and

Rocky Mountains, basically Utah and Nevada with bits of bordering states. A significant number of species overlap with plants skillfully illustrated by Jeanne Janish in Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest (Hitchcock et al.), and those illustrations were reused in IMF. The remaining two thirds of the species were illustrated by several artists, including Robin Jess and Bobbi Angell. Robin started illustrating for Dr. Arthur Cronquist in the late 1970’s; Bobbi came along soon after to work with Drs. Noel and Patricia Holmgren. Robin and Bobbi initially shared an office and microscope at NYBG but later worked exclusively from home studios. They worked in intermittent and concentrated bursts, controlled somewhat by their availability but also dependent on the schedules of the authors.

After long months in the field each season, the authors spent long days in the NYBG herbarium and library, preparing exhaustive treatments. Senior authors and numerous specialists contributed treatments of various taxonomic groups, and treatments were peer reviewed while in process. 

The larger genera, including Penstemon, Astragalus and Eriogonum, represent lifelong research interests of the individual authors.  Many new species were discovered and described during preparation of the Flora, including a blazing star the Holmgrens found, while their flight was grounded after 9/11, unexpectedly extending their field season. 

Illustrations were considered an integral part of the project from the beginning. The line drawings were made from herbarium specimens and were designed to be consistent in format with Janish’s illustrations. Every species and variety in the region was illustrated, from thorny desert shrubs to spring ephemerals.

Working in the detail as required, the artists got to know families and genera of plants intimately without ever having seen most of them alive. A ‘habit’ for most species at life size was drawn with details at appropriate scales.   Microscope work was a constant feature, selecting details to be enlarged and illustrated based on the ‘key’ characters highlighted in the authors’ treatments. 

Diagnostic details were often painstakingly refined, especially when considering varieties of species of complicated taxa. Working in fits and starts, Bobbi llustrated the genus Eriogonum over an 8.5 year period. While not sorry to finish it, she certainly came to appreciate its diversity and complexity. 

The process of preparing the plates involved the inimitable teamwork of the Holmgrens. Once the manuscript was written, edited and typeset, and corresponding artwork finished and inventoried, plates composed of 2–5 species were designed. 

While Pat proofed typeset pages, Noel arranged the plates to correspond to the layout of the text, allowing an ease of use for users of the flora, with illustration laying as close to the treatment as possible. 

The individual drawings were cut and pasted onto stiff board by Noel Holmgren. He always allowed for reproduction at 50% of original size.  Labels were added as he worked, relying on Leroy lettering, then Kroy lettering, and finally laser printed type.  His artistic eye and steady hand has given the volumes their characteristic and much lauded aesthetic appeal. 

Because the authors considered art work to be such a significant and integral part of IMF, they dedicated Volume 3A. “to the illustrators, especially Jeanne Janish, Bobbi Angell, and Robin Jess, whose skillful drawings give vivid life to the text.

”Walt Fertig (in the Wyoming Native Plant Society Newsletter) stated: “[IMF] could just as easily be marketed to aficionados of fine botanical art.” Lynn Bohs (in Systematic Biology) commented: “Drawings are of exquisite quality and render Intermountain Flora the gold standard for identification of any species found in the area.”

Several other artists worked on specific groups - Anthony Salazar drew many Asteraceae species, Laura Vogel contributed illustrations to several families in the last two volumes, and nine talented artists/students at Desert

Botanic Garden illustrated the Cactaceae, including ASBA members Marsha Bennett, Karen Ann Gengle, Molly Coxson Gill, Elaine Hultgren, JoAnn Loza, Lynn Reves, Daniela Siroky, Sandra Turico and Gigi Wilson.

Given the time span of the project and the gracious and patient nature of the authors, the work schedule was always agreeable.  Artists worked freelance, submitting invoices for each species.  Early funds for the project came from National Science Foundation and the work was later funded by private foundations and donations.  Senior authors Cronquist and Barneby passed away. The Holmgrens officially retired from NYBG years ago, but no one noticed as they still work everyday. Laura Vogel is now an instructor at NYBG. Robin has moved on to arts administration, now directing ASBA. Bobbi still draws IMF plants – stacked in a cabinet are a group of Penstemons for an IMF supplement. But let’s not mention that – IMF is finished and all are celebrating! For more information and purchase contact NYBG Press at:  nybgpress@nybg.org.

  • IMF illustrator Robin Jess pictured in the earliest days of the project
  • Bobbi Angell puts her hand to the job for IMF illustrations
  • A Camissonia plate, Volume 3A, a composite by Bobbi Angell, Jeanne Janish, and Robin Jess
  • Dr. Holmgren composing and pasting up
  • The Intermountain Flora, completed at last