Writer, producer, photographer and educator, Anna Laurent, connects people with plants through her writing, research and design work.
A native of New England and Harvard graduate, Anna moved to Los Angeles four years ago. Soon after, she becamefascinated with the diversity of plants that could be found in California. Anna says it took moving to L.A. for her to notice plants.
And notice plants she has!
In 2008, Anna launched a personal project in which she began to collect seed pods (seeds and fruits) in her Hollywood neighborhood. Curious observers would occasionally ask her what she was doing. As Anna explained the seed pods she was collecting, she developed an interest in their diverse forms and universal functions. Her audience always appreciated the information she shared with them. That same year, Anna was approached by Print magazine to write a column. She chose to write a column about the form and function of seed pods and the role they play in a plant’s life cycle. She named the column Botany Blueprint and published articles about seed pods from September 2010 through June 2012. Her seed pod articles are now published on her website. Anna’s goal is to tell the stories of 100 seed pods and then publish this information, plus much more, in her new book, The Form and Function of Seed Pods (expected in 2013). The project’s geographic range has grown as she’s been partnering with botanic gardens and arboretums across the country, including Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, Genna Walska’s Lotusland, the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden, and Queens Botanical Garden.
Increasing public knowledge about plants is at the heart of everything Anna does. In addition to collecting seed pods and writing for Botany Blueprint, Anna writes two weekly columns for Garden Design magazine. Her Art + Botany column focuses on plant-related art themes and her Botanic Notables column brings attention to a wide range of interesting stories about plants. Other projects she’s pursuing include a digital field guide to botanical gardens that gardens can use to teach visitors about plants and their respective collections.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anna about how she educates the public about plants through her creative projects.
ARTPLANTAE: How did you come to realize that botanical literacy was something you wanted to dedicate yourself to?
ANNA LAURENT: My projects now are a culmination of my previous work. I studied literature and biological anthropology in college, in particular evolutionary mechanisms and behaviors. I spent the next years photographing, writing, and working on documentary media projects. Finally, when I moved to L.A., my interest in the natural world returned.The diversity of plant life in southern California — species native to tropical, desert, temperate, and riparian (water) regions – blew my mind. I realized how little I knew about the plants around me, and that didn’t seem right. So I began taking lots of walks and hikes, and just looking at plants. I was fascinated by the diversity of structures — flowers and seed pods — that work in different ways to accomplish the same ends; namely, attracting pollinators, repelling predators, and dispersing seeds. I also observed the way they interact with our built environment, and with each other. One of my favorite relationships was in front of my apartment – a wisteria vine embedded around a fig tree. They were battling it out through a gap in the pavement; neither had been planted by human hand. Both plants are really strong, which was fascinating, and appropriate. It was a tableau of botanic heavyweights. Plants are quiet and slow, so finding the drama requires a bit of patience, but it’s there. Botanic gardens are a fantastic place to learn about plants, of course, and I also love observing plants in the wild – observing species that make their way through sidewalk cracks, that populate disturbed areas, that crawl over fences in abandoned spaces. It’s so thrilling when you begin to notice it all.
AP: In what ways do you hope to promote botanical literacy?
AL: Every plant has a story, and I hope to encourage people to ask questions that begin to unravel that story. How did this individual plant happen to germinate at this particular location (e.g. Did the seed float by on a breeze?, Was it carried by an unwitting animal?)? When were the seeds of the species introduced into the region? What behaviors and structures has the plant evolved in its native habitat? What are the plant’s ethnobotanical uses? How has the plant been culturally referenced — have authors employed it as a metaphor, have countries adopted it as a national symbol?
Learning about plants offers a unifying perspective on history and space.By following the historical arc of a plant’s evolution, and its cultural associations, we build a unity between the modern era and our past. And plants also unify our disparate geographies. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan last year, it was fascinating to see hollyhocks and oleander — plants I associate with southern California gardens — growing wild in the mountains, and to learn about how people perceive them. Kurdistan is a pastoral region, which means that human settlements have evolved closely with plants. Knowledge is passed through generations, and plants are deeply embedded in the culture. I was told that the First Lady of Iraq was named for the hollyhock, and I heard a folk story about an early village that wielded oleander poison to defend against invasion. The oleander is still highly regarded today.
In the United States, there is a luxurious buffer between people and plants. We generally live amidst cultivated plants that don’t pose a significant threat, and we have pharmacies and markets that have packaged our plant-derived plants, so botanical literacy isn’t all that necessary for survival. At the same time, plants are nonetheless embedded in our lives, and it’s so important to understand how they behave, and what stories they carry with them.In my seed pod project, I examine seeds and fruits, asking questions such as: Why is this seed red? (Often because birds are the plant’s preferred dispersal agent), Why does the seed pod stay attached to the parent plant for so long? (This often occurs in vines and plants that tend to grow on sloping areas, so when the seeds mature, they have a little momentum when they hit the ground, and will travel farther). After I collect the specimens, I photograph them and write about their form and function. I am thrilled to have partnered with botanic gardens, receiving permission to collect at their gardens. I then put together an exhibit of the photographs to promote the garden’s collection and educational mission.
AP: Your mobile field guide app project is very interesting. Can you describe briefly what you would like to accomplish with your guide?
AL: I wanted people to have access to the stories behind each plant. When you visit a botanical garden, you see a plant in a single cycle of its life,and there is rarely room for more than a name label. The digital field guide will enable visitors to view all aspects of a plant’s life cycle, and to learn more about the plant. Plants can be identified through a map of the garden, but the app can also be used off-site to browse plant profiles. I find botanic field guides to be lovely bed time reading.
AP: How did you get started in journalism?
AL: I’ve always been a writer, and writing has been a significant component of everything I’ve worked on — companion content for photojournalism essays, grants for documentary films, typeface reviews for Print magazine. My writing now is really no different, I am just doing a lot more of it, and I am able to focus on one broad topic that I love. I’m really enjoying figuring out how to describe plants in new ways, and the process of writing about them inevitably gives me a greater appreciation of the species in particular, and the plant world in general.
AP: What have you been working on lately?
AL: For the past year, I’ve been working on a documentary media project, The Iraqi Seed Project. Looking at the agricultural landscape in modern-day Iraq and Kurdistan, it asks why farming is disappearing in the land where it was born. We bring into focus the region’s botanic legacies and current efforts to restore the Fertile Crescent. We just launched a website (www.thisisfertileground.com) with clips from three years of filming. The video player is poised over a farm with seeds of the region’s historically major crops. We call the site a collective garden; every time a video is watched, a plant grows a little bit. The idea is that by learning about Iraq’s farmers and plants, we are helping their crops grow anew. It’s a nice metaphor.