Editorial: In just eight panels, a remarkable mural tells 3.5 billion years of plant history on Earth

Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2016

Tucked away in an otherwise nondescript hallway of the Lyman Plant House at Smith College is a powerful new mural that depicts the evolution of plant life over some 3.5 billion years. The eight panels combine beautiful art with the detective work of paleobotanists. It is a visual delight.

It took a decade and the collaboration of a muralist from Sherborn and a scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to complete a project that was a gleam in the eyes of Michael Marcotrigiano since shortly after he began work in 2000 as director of the Botanic Garden at Smith. But it didn’t gain traction until a day in 2006 when his colleague, Madelaine Zadik, manager of education and outreach at the botanic garden, saw a photograph in the Gazette showing a Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation van on which a forest scene was painted.

That led Marcotrigiano to find the muralist who created that scene, Robert Evans. As it turns out, Evans had experience in painting murals for museums including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the New England Aquarium in Boston, and he was enthusiastic about signing on for the plant project.

The challenge for Marcotrigiano was boiling down the history of plants on Earth into eight significant periods that could fit in the corridor’s available space — or as he puts it: “It was hard to figure out what to do with 4 billion years in only 60 feet.”

That’s why paleobotanist James W. Walker, an emeritus professor of biology at UMass, was enlisted. He decided on the eight periods to depict — from the Age of Stromatolites 1.25 billion to 3.5 billion years ago, to Plants and Human Affairs showing the last 11,500 years.

Unlike other depictions of Earth’s history, which are often represented by way of the animal kingdom, plants are the dominant element in each of the eight panels painted by Evans. Accompanying text describes how the plant kingdom evolved by adapting to the changing environment on Earth, allowing for more complex propagation until the introduction of animals and insects led to pollination and the eventual dominance of flowering plants.

While the first four murals are made up only of plants, a giant dragonfly appears in the fifth panel titled Coal Swamp Forests, which grew in tropical wetlands. Because there was no seasonal temperature change, plants grew year-round, resulting in a large amount of dead plant matter which eventually became coal. Dinosaurs and birds are introduced in the sixth mural, and the relationship between flowering plants and animal pollinators is seen in the seventh panel.

The mural concludes with its most evocative scene showing the interaction between humans and plants, and suggesting an uncertain future. While plants dominate the scene, at its center is an earth-moving machine in a tropical forest, with cultivated fields and a distant city in the background. The text ends: “Overpopulation, industrialization and other human activities are destroying habitats and changing climate, endangering species, and causing extinctions.”

Paleobotanists rely on fossils to reconstruct how extinct plants looked. For example, the second mural, showing a scene about 400 million years ago, depicts flora near today’s Scottish village of Rhynie based on a fossil collection from that area. Those primitive vascular plants, which had tissue to conduct food and water, are now all extinct.

A collection of plant fossils on loan from the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College is in the Church Exhibition Gallery at the Lyman Plant House, a few steps from the corridor to the Palm House containing the mural. The fossils are on view through the end of the Spring Bulb Show on March 20.

The mural itself is permanently on display. Challenging environmental conditions did not allow Evans’ actual paintings to be hung on the wall. They were digitized on a flatbed scanner in Boston, and those images were embedded in laminate panels which are not as susceptible to changing moisture, light and temperatures.

The Lyman Plant House is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is now an added reason to pay a visit — perhaps the only exhibit anywhere that makes plants central to a fascinating lesson in evolution.


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