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THE REAL DIRT ON: Beatrix Potter's World Beyond Bunnies

Beatrix Potter's illustration of the reproductive system of Hygrocybe coccinea (1897).

By Susan Krzywicki.

Beatrix Potter, of Peter Rabbit fame, was born in 1866 to a well-off British family. From an early age, she was talented at capturing real life in her botanically accurate illustrations of animals and plants, as well as drawing cozy buildings and decorative items. Interestingly, she was also caught up in the late-19th century mycology mania.

The Amateur Scientist

Scientists were in the midst of a dramatic controversy about the nature of lichens. A new theory had been proposed that lichens were actually a combination of fungi and algae. Potter submitted studies of mycological samples to scholarly journals and argued theories about how lichen reproduce. She felt her work to have been overlooked by the male-dominated institutions of the time.

Recently, the well-respected Brain Pickings blog published a piece about her contributions and the difficulty of getting heard. And the BBC just published an article questioning her role as the rigorous botanist. It may take more time for historians and scientists to sort this out. However, in 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology for the sexism with which they treated her; this came a full one hundred years after she submitted On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae to the Society.

A book by Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, explores the role of nature in Potter's artistic and scientific endeavors and contains sixteen pages of color illustrations. According to The Scientist “Potter drew the first record of the fungus Tremella simplex in Britain. She painted the fruiting bodies, the basidiospores [reproductive spores], and all other parts at all ages in the fungus life cycle.” Potter actually grew her own fungi from over forty different spores. As she propagated, she made detailed observations in twenty-minute increments, while drawing beautiful images that stand alone as artworks.

Act Two: Author and Illustrator

Potter's images of mushrooms rival anything in her children’s books. But the charming stories and illustrations for such characters as Mrs. Tittlemouse, reflect her increasing success in the publishing world, and the era of her scientific studies closed. She spent this period drawing and writing and tending to her literary legacy, and moved full-time to the Lake District.

Hill Top Farm, where Beatrix Potter lived in her later years, is now owned by the National Trust. Image courtesy of Richerman.

Act Three: Shepherd in the Country

Beatrix Potter's participation in village life, her animal husbandry activities, and her delight in the simple aspects of country living then formed the third act of her life. She married a local solicitor who helped her to establish Hill Top Farm, where they bred Herdwick sheep, the local “fell” sheep. A fell is a high and barren landscape feature, such as moor-covered hills. Sheep are free-ranged on common land. The local Herdwick sheep are perfect for this: they do not stray far and enjoy robust health while living simply on forage.

Legacy of Land

Having made her fortune in book sales, upon Potter's parting in 1943, she did leave one last gift to the world—Hill Top Farm and over 4,000 acres of land in the Lake District were donated to the National Trust. Also, if you are headed to England, the largest collection of Potter's drawings, over 450 minutely detailed paintings, can be seen at the Armitt in Cumbria, England.

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She was the first horticulture program director for the California Native Plant Society, was the chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee, and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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