Armed with tall waders and her trusty canoe, botanical artist Becky Davis combs the coves and creeks of her native South Carolina to find the remarkable array of plants that make up her beautifully preserved specimens. In between forest forays and close encounters with alligators, we caught up with Becky to learn how her living artwork goes from waterway to wall.
terrain: How did you get started in making botanical artwork?
Becky: I’m entirely self-taught, and I started out with a two-week job as a floral designer for a beach club on Kiawah Island, on the South Carolina Coast. Those two weeks turned into a ten-year career designing arrangements for the club with wild, natural materials. While I was working there, I spent my free time developing my botanical skills, and in 2006 I decided to focus on making botanical specimens full-time. I set up a studio in my childhood home and started exploring the local area for specimens.
terrain: What are some of your favorite areas for collecting botanicals?
Becky: The area near my studio is my family’s hometown; we’ve been here since the late 1600s or early 1700s. It’s a very rural region, so everyone is friendly when they see me collecting—I’ve only ever had one person tell me I couldn’t collect specimens on their land, and I’ve met some really nice people while I’m out. Though I search primarily in creeks and coves—this region is home to the largest lake system in South Carolina—I also gather in ditches, on banks, and in the deep woods. I’ll even climb a tree if I see something I really want!
terrain: Are there certain favorite plants that you look forward to finding each season?
Becky: In spring, I gather ferns, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, native wildflowers like Carolina Phlox and Indian Pink, and hydrangea—oak leaf as well as blue mophead from my garden. Another favorite is fragrant waterlily, which is wonderful because of its heart-shaped leaves and long, graceful stem. I love the cinnamon fern, black-eyed susans, and lotuses, and wild grasses like switch grass and zebra grass, too. And in the fall I like to search for wild persimmons as a snack.
One of the most challenging things about gathering from the wild is how short the seasons can be for some plants. It can be hard to predict when a plant will be in bloom, since it all hinges on the weather. Some species only bloom for a week or two, so if you don’t catch them you have to wait a whole year!
terrain: Do you encounter a lot of wildlife while you’re gathering?
Becky: Because I’m in the water so much, I do run into alligators—they’re certainly not endangered around here! Surprisingly, though, they’re very shy. I have an aluminum canoe, so I bang on the side of it now and then, and they stay away. I also see a lot of birds—wild turkeys, cranes, and red winged blackbirds in tall grasses. In spring and summer, I come across rows of turtles sunning themselves on logs.
terrain: Can you share some tips for aspiring botanical artists?
Becky: When designing, I focus on staying true to nature. I like to show plants with their stems in-tact, and grasses at their full height. It’s best to start small—I press smaller specimens between the pages of heavy books like encyclopedias. Once you feel comfortable with that process, you can prepare larger cuttings by layering them between sheets of cardboard lined with clean newsprint to absorb moisture, changing the paper periodically and weighing them down. The most important part of the process is making sure your plants are completely dried, so they won’t mildew when you display them. It also helps to collect plants during the hottest part of the afternoon, when there’s no dew to add moisture.
Finally, if you’re collecting in the water, I strongly recommend waders. The water I work in is warm and shallow, which creates an ideal environment for leeches—I learned that lesson the hard way!