- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

From 1804 through 1806, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled up the Missouri River, across the territory of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, over the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Their mission was to find a direct water route to the West Coast for commerce. Though the explorers never found a navigable passageway, they advanced the science of their day by discovering and collecting more than 200 unknown plants.

Four of their specimens, pressed onto pieces of paper, form the touchstone of a delightfully old-fashioned exhibit of botanical art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Brown and desiccated, these leaves, stems and grasses come alive along with dozens of other plants in new drawings, paintings, sculptures and jewelry. The 25 artists responsible for the works are students and teachers associated with the botanical art and illustration program begun in 2004 by the Corcoran’s College of Art and Design in partnership with the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Their display of flower power celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition and forms an interesting offshoot to the larger bicentennial exhibition on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Represented in the Corcoran show are about 70 specimens collected by Lewis, who briefly studied botany in Philadelphia before assuming the duty of plant specialist in the wilderness. (Clark was the mapmaker.)

Illustrated in fine detail is the first plant selected by the explorer, the Osage orange, and the last, the raccoon grape, gathered in Kansas near the end of the expedition in 1806. Also repeated in several works is the camas, a wildflower with an edible bulbous root discovered in Idaho. In his journal, Lewis compared fields of the blue blossoms to “lakes of fine clear water.”

No map identifying the location of the plants along the expedition route is included in the exhibit, but an excellent brochure fills in some of the gaps with information about the species. A folded drawing in the center of the show, “Native American Rations and Remedies,” is particularly enlightening in explaining how Indians taught Lewis and Clark about the value of certain leaves and roots for food and medicine. Pineapple weed from Idaho made a sedative tea. Wild licorice tasted like sweet potato. Narrow-leafed purple coneflower, a type of echinacea collected in North Dakota, was found by Lewis to be “a cure for the bite of a mad dog and snake.”

Meticulously rendered in pencil and watercolors, the exhibit’s most faithful botanical images combine fine-art technique with keen scientific observation. They convey the impressive variety of Northwestern flora and the reasons why Lewis, a military man who confronted hostile terrain and natives, spent hours picking and pressing delicate plants.

Juliana Weihe’s watercolor of the silky lupine, found in Idaho and Montana, reveals the unusual structure of its star-shaped leaves and purple blossoms. Tall scouring rushes are painted by Robin Hill to emphasize the joints of these abrasive reeds, which the explorers used to clean utensils. Vicki Malone’s spiky, flattened grasses express the fragile beauty of even the most common prairie plants.

Also worth a look is Julie Wolfe’s flower-encrusted jewelry, a contemporary spin on naturalistic art-nouveau designs. John Sonnier’s stone sculpture of pawpaw, a fruit eaten by Lewis and Clark near the end of their trip, recalls how carvings of other American cultivars, tobacco and corn, were used to ornament the U.S. Capitol.

In basing their botanical art on the explorers’ discoveries, the artists faced the challenge of finding species that grew 200 years ago and growing the Northwestern natives in hot, humid Washington. Some of their works were developed during field trips to Idaho and Montana, where students retraced the footsteps of Lewis and Clark to spot the same wildflowers encountered by the explorers.

Other images were based on relatives of the original plants. Wendy Cortesi’s detailed draw- ings of cobs and kernels document a descendant of the red Mandan corn sown at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, who masterminded the expedition.

Lewis sent back cuttings and seeds to Jefferson, but the explorer never got around to publishing his findings before committing suicide in 1809. After the expedition, he handed over his pressed specimens to his botany teacher, Benjamin Barton, who passed them along to a German-born gardener, Frederick Pursh. In 1813, Pursh included dozens of Lewis’ discoveries in a two-volume guide to North American plants. This book was the first to provide a coast-to-coast botanical survey of the United States and give Latin names to the species found earlier by the explorer.

WHAT: “Botanical Treasures of Lewis & Clark”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street at New York Avenue NW

WHEN: Through July 9; Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

ADMISSION: $8 adults; $6 seniors and U.S. military; $4 students; $3 members; “pay as you wish” on Thursday after 5 p.m.

PHONE: 202/639-1700

WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org

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