Getting the Wildflower Show on the Road

by | May 4, 2015 | Native Plants

Collene Sweeney working on a botanical illustration

Collene Sweeney working on a botanical illustration of a native seed in the Center’s Herbarium.


WHAT DO YOU GET when you ask an artist and nature lover to illustrate a state license plate? When the artist is Collene Sweeney and the plate will support a favored conservation organization, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

“I felt extremely honored to be asked to design it,” says the retired Texan about being approached by the Wildflower Center to develop a plate on our behalf in fall 2013.”I said, ‘I just want to do this for fun!'”

Sweeney first began driving 42 miles down to the Center in 2011 to create black and white botanical illustrations here. A fellow master naturalist in Williamson County had heard a center staff member talk about the need for drawings of at-risk plants, seeds and more. Sweeney, who has degrees in fine arts and technical illustration, met with the former plant conservation director and immediately signed right up.”I had lunch with Flo Oxley, who’s a dynamo, and I’ve been here ever since. When Thursday rolls around, it’s like ‘I need to be at the Wildflower Center.'”

That said, a career as an industrial designer at IBM and developing icons and images for computer software hadn’t completely prepared her for botanical designs. “I hadn’t done pen and ink drawings since I got out of St. Edward’s University,” she notes. Sweeney has provided nearly 200 drawings since then that help the center properly ID natives using minute details that photographs can’t always replicate.

On a Roll

For the specialty Texas Wildflowers license plate, her task was to depict a Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), pink evening primroseIndian paintbrush and an Indian blanket. Sweeney developed several simplified variations of these wildflowers that are symbols of spring statewide so they would be recognizable at high speeds. She set each aside for at least a week before finalizing them, but can’t recall how long the process took.”When I get involved in my art,” she says,”I essentially lose time.”

The Texas Wildflowers license plate

The “Texas Wildflowers” license plate that will soon grace cars of Wildflower Center supporters.


Her favorite time sink? Drawing the texture, shape and other details of seeds from plants such as Carolina snailseed (Cocculus carolinus), bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) and water dragon (Saururus cernuus). Some take less than an hour, whereas others can take three Thursdays to complete. Her love of drawing and the subject matter makes up for the time.”I am just absolutely fascinated with the design of some of them – how beautiful and bizarre they are, like from an alien planet.”

Another favorite has been depicting the sometimes varying leaves found on the same ash tree. Though millions of Ash trees occur statewide, all are at risk of being killed if an invasive beetle continues its westward march across the country, making it especially important for staff and volunteers to correctly identify these trees. That is done before freezing down seeds from native Mexican ash and other species in case there is a need, and ability, to resurrect their populations in the future.

Hitting the Road

Hearing about conservation concerns surrounding ash trees and some other plants she’s drawn has left its mark. As a result, Sweeney has made seed collections on her own for the Wildflower Center’s seed bank. Such collections are valuable, notes Plant Conservationist Minnette Marr, because center staff can’t always gain permission to enter privately owned landscapes that blanket most of the state.

In Sweeney’s case, the collections have included a copper lily (Habranthus tubispathus) at her family’s ancestral home near Waco, and white winecup (Callirhoe involucrata var. lineariloba) at a friend’s place where she keeps one of three horses. The pink flowers of this unusual winecup feature bands of white, and in Texas, it occurs in just a few counties.

A white winecup in bloom

The uncommon white winecup at the Williamson County stable where Sweeney collected seeds.


Sweeney sowed some spare seeds of this winecup in her own backyard as part of responding to conversation messages she’s picked up while working on her drawings on site.”I’m really seriously collecting seeds now for my property and focusing in on our natives, especially pollinators. This work has made me intensely conservation-minded – and much more knowledgeable about native plants.”

As pleased as Sweeney is with creating illustrations and the idea of “a little bit of my art going down the road,” center staff have been thrilled to work beside her.”She has a very generous nature and a lot of humility,” says Dr. Damon Waitt, the Center’s former senior director and botanist who approached Sweeney about developing the license plate.”We liked her style, not just as an artist, but as a person.”

To learn more about purchasing the Texas Wildflowers license plate here.