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Roger Tory Peterson the Botanical Illustrator

Roger Tory Peterson the Botanical Illustrator: A Field Guide to Wildflowers


This exhibit presents a side of Roger Tory Peterson that often is overlooked, eclipsed by his fame as a bird artist. In fact, here you see represented one of the great projects of Peterson’s career – the Peterson Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Northeast and North Central North America.

Generations of bird watchers have depended on Peterson Field Guides; wildflower enthusiasts or “botanizers” have a legendary Peterson’s of their own. Since its first publication in 1968 Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers is the principal means by which students of flowering plants identify what they are observing in the field.

The project started in 1948 in a routine way for Peterson, as editor of the field guide series for publisher Houghton Mifflin Company. Margaret McKenny was chosen to write the text, but troubles getting the book illustrated resulted in Peterson taking it on himself. The job proved to be monumental. He made well over 1,500 illustrations, 1,344 of which were used in the book.

In order to draw the flowers Peterson had to locate them first, a task that took years and required thousands of miles of driving across much of the country, in sync with the sometimes-brief bloom periods of the plants he needed to find. Most of the illustrations were rendered by collecting during the day and drawing late into the night in lonely tourist cabins, his makeshift studio-on-the-go illuminated by a 200-watt daylight bulb he carried with him.

In addition to the hundreds of illustrations, Peterson greatly expanded the original text, invented a visionary set of icons representing plant families, and adapted his visual Peterson System to wildflower identification by combining it with an initial breakdown by color. As with his brilliantly conceived system for identifying birds, his wildflower book entailed grouping similar species and pointing out their field marks, which proved an eminently suitable method for amateur use.

Today, 45 years after its first publication, the Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers remains in print and continues to inform and inspire nature lovers. We hope you will enjoy this unique look at a rarely heralded part of the great naturalist’s career.