Gingko Biloba, by San Francisto Art Institute student Reed Walker

When artists look to Mother Nature for design inspiration, it’s quite likely their search will land on something green.

From intricate patterns to vivid colors, plants have much to offer the visual artist. That’s central to the message Carol Manahan delivers in the classes she teaches as an adjunct professor at theCalifornia College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute.

In her “Plant Matters” courses at both schools, Manahan asks students to adopt a group of plants on the school’s campus, and to observe and document their changes over the course of the semester. Students post their observations and images to on the schools’ respective profiles.

“The instruction I’ve given them is that they need to post their own observations, not information from Wikipedia or a horticultural source,” Manahan says.

Her reasoning is that there are plenty of places Web-surfers can go to find detailed horticultural information about particular plant species—including other Plants Map profiles. But the profiles Manahan’s students post are the only ones in the world that focus on those individual plants, and record the ways those plants are shaped by their location, its microclimate and particular characteristics.

The posts reflect the creativity of these artistic minds, and are indicative of the many reasons people find for loving plants.

coastredwood“The Coast Redwood is a very huggable tree,” student Vivian Harp wrote of one of 16 of this species she found on the CCA campus. “Their fibrous bark is attractively burgundy red and surprisingly soft to the touch.”

“As the sunlight shimmies through the pine leaves, they leave beautiful patches on the ground, amongst the fallen pine cones and pine leaves,” student Kimberly Cho wrote of a Blue Atlas Cedarat CCA. “Standing under such a tall, indomitable tree, it is hard to not to let your mind wander … one thought that flitted through my mind was how small and almost transient people are in comparison to these trees.”

Manahan likes that through posting to Plants Map, her students can become part of a larger network of people interested in gardening, horticulture, and plants in general.

She found the mobile-friendly website a few years ago, when searching for a way to organize her students’ observations and document the plants they’d studied.

“We had tried various blogs, but we had never really come up with a formula that worked,” she said. “I liked that this site would also give students a place where they could share their images and writings about the plants.”

From vivid photographs to illustrations of the plants, Manahan’s students have shown creativity in their postings.

“We’re giving an artist and designer’s eye view,” she said. “Some students are animation students, and they’re developing characters based on the plants. It would be fun to have those characters up there.”

All of this creative work around plants has a deeper purpose.

“I’m really hoping to help students care even more about the natural world and the factors that are influencing it,” she said. “That’s part of my motivation in teaching science the way I do.”

The schools where she teaches are fruitful backdrops for this work.

California College of the Arts’ Oakland campus dates to 1922 (the school itself was founded in 1907), and was developed under the leadership of a skilled horticulturalist. As a result, its grounds contain more than 50 species of trees and two student gardens—one for the study of herbs and dye plants and another for California native species.


Loquat, sketched by California College of the Arts student Caroline Walters

Because CCA is planning to move to a single campus in San Francisco, in a much more industrial property that won’t house as much greenery, Manahan feels a particular urgency to document the plants on the Oakland campus, “because it isn’t clear yet what role that campus will play moving forward.”

The San Francisco Art Institute is housed in a 1920s building, where a courtyard houses a number of plants. In a more modern area of campus, a meadow is home to diverse species such as the California Buckeye, agaves, poplar, olives, plums and more.

globeartichokesfaiIn addition to her Plant Matters classes, Manahan also teaches a class about the natural history of the San Francisco Bay Area. The study includes field trips to many different places, including nearby botanical gardens.

Manahan has used some of Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags, which display a QR code that can instantly link anyone with a smartphone to that plant’s online profile, and hopes to install more in the future.

“Our students spend a lot of time indoors in the studio, and their studio work is very demanding,” she said. “For us to have something where we get to go outside and just sit and look at a plant and draw it, it’s a wonderful change of pace for them. I think it really complements their art education well.”

It also teaches them that people are interested in plants for many different reasons.

“I hope it encourages other people who aren’t horticulturalists but like plants to use the Plants Map site in a creative way,” Manahan said. “The world of people who are interested in plants is pretty broad.”

To learn more, visit the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute on Plants Map.