This is the first post I’ve done that ties my experience as a botanical model maker with my other love–bonsai. I collected this clump of bird’s foot violet from a ditch along Bull Shoal’s Lake in southwest Missouri 23 years ago with the intention of making an exact replica of the plant in its surroundings using various materials–epoxy, acetate, vinyl tubing. I was working for one of only a handful of studios at that time that produced museum quality botanical models for natural history museums. You might be familiar with dioramas that include taxidermy animals that recreate a specific habitat and also have plants and flowers, even trees. People often assume they have been preserved in some way like freeze-drying. The best museums like the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History in New York City contain models that are fabricated from archival materials designed to last indefinitely.

The process I used to make the model of the bird’s foot violet in this post was to dissect a flower and make molds in silicone rubber of all its various parts, cast them in resin, assemble the resin parts and finally paint them with an airbrush. My process is unique in that I make the model while the plant is in bloom. Most of the museum companies I’ve worked for collect the specimens, make the molds and preserve the plant in order to come back and finish the work when the time is convenient. I was always disappointed with the result of that method because something is always a bit off when you have to use photographs for color reference and how the plant goes together in general. I like to think I can achieve the highest level of believe-ability by following through while the plant is in its bloom cycle. That means being in sync with nature’s schedule, which isn’t always convenient for us.

Here’s a photograph of the model before I get bogged down by the technical description:


And another close-up of the morel mushroom model cast in epoxy resin:


The six spotted tiger beetle in the first photograph is a spread specimen, not a model. I hadn’t master making insect models at the time I made this little habitat group–that came later 😉

You may be wondering how this relates to bonsai, which is the art of growing trees in bonsai pots? When we display our trees, we often include a small pot that contains a plant that indicates the season in which we are showing our tree. This is called an ‘accent’ plant. I became seriously interested in bonsai right around the time I made this botanical model, and while I didn’t know much about bonsai display, I was interested in keeping these plants I collected as specimens for models alive and well in containers. The first container I planted my bird’s foot violet clump into was an eight inch terracotta flower pot. It wasn’t long before it dawned on me this tiny plant looked pretty silly in that huge pot and it was established enough after a year to get it into something a bit smaller. I don’t have photos of all the pots I’ve used in 23 years of growing it but the pot I’ve got it in now is a piece of scrap iron I found from what was left of a piece of heavy equipment that was abandoned alongside a mountain road. A bulldozer or something like that. It’s cup shaped with three drainage holes built right in–a ready-made!

Here’s a shot of the violet used 23 years ago to make the model from as it is currently:


Part of the magic of the art of bonsai is the fact we can keep small plants like this for a very long time in such a small pot; I have not done anything but water, fertilize and protect from extreme weather conditions all those years. You can tell if the plant needs re-potting by how quickly water drains out the bottom of the pot. When drainage is slow or non-existent, it’s time to remove the plant from its pot, rake out some of the old soil and trim any damaged roots with a scissors. Then you add a little fresh soil to the bottom of the pot and you’re good to go for a few more years. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing these images and how I’ve managed to tie these two art forms together in this post. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve got any questions.