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Celia Rosser's Banksias

Ros Cornish

Celia Rosser's name is well known to many Society members. She is an outstanding botanical artist and spent over twenty five years illustrating all of our banksias*; a labour of love. She first saw a banksia, Banksia serrata, near her home in rural Victoria and was so taken with its unusual and distinctive flowers, with their intricate design, that she decided to paint it. She had already been painting Australian native plants that she had seen and in 1965 had her first exhibition in a Melbourne gallery which included three banksia watercolours. In 1967 she published her first book, Wildflowers of Victoria, and in 1970 she accepted the position of Science Faculty Artist at Monash University. In this position, she illustrated Peter Bridgewater's The Salt-marsh Plants of Southern Australia and George Scott's and Ilma Stone's The Mosses of Southern Australia.

Celia's fascination for banksias was well known at Monash University. The Vice-Chancellor was approached about getting Celia to paint them all and in 1974 she was appointed University Botanical Artist to paint every known species of Banksia. At that time there were thought to be 58 species but soon after, Alex George became involved in the project and he brought the number up to 72. Following the national survey for The Banksia Atlas in 1987 the final tally was 76. It took Celia 25 years to illustrate them all. She has seen nearly all of the species in the wild and would do five or six drawings prior to the final one. Each painting is life-size. Once completed, she would send them to Alex George for scientific approval. One small species only took six weeks to complete but most would average three months for each painting. The culmination was the publication in 2000, of a three volume set of books called The Banksias with the text written by Alex George.

Celia Rosser has been honoured in many ways. In 1977 she was awarded the coveted Jill Smythies Award for Botanical Illustration from the Linnean Society of London, and in 1966, the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM.) for her contribution to botanical art. In 1981, Monash University honoured her artistic achievement by awarding her an honorary Master of Science degree and in 1999 an honorary PhD. In 1978 she had a variety of banksia named after her. A chance seedling from a batch of Banksia canei seeds, from a cone collected at the type locality at Wulgulmerang in Victoria, looked very different from the others. It had a prostrate habit, deeply serrated leaves and very small flowers. The discoverer of the plant, the late Alf Salkin, registered it as a cultivar, with the Australian Cultivar Registration Authority, and named it Banksia 'Celia Rosser'. He speculated that the plant, because of its prostrate habit, may have been a primitive alpine form and may have been common in globally colder conditions of a million years ago (sadly, this cultivar seems to be be no longer in existence; Ed).

Banksia rosserae - habitat
Banksia rosserae
Banksia rosserae: habitat (top) and flowers (bottom)
Photos by Mark Ross: reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License from Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Celia's greatest honour, and something which delighted her, was the naming of a Banksia species after her. After the completion of The Banksias, a new species was discovered, in 2000, on a cattle station on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, south of Mount Magnet in Western Australia. Peter Olde and Neil Marriott described it (and two new Grevillea species) in Nuytsia (2002, 15 (1) 85-99) and named it Banksia rosserae in honour of Celia and her standing as one of the world's greatest botanical illustrators.

Only twenty seven B. rosserae plants are known, within a radius of about twenty kilometres. It is the only banksia species found in arid conditions. The plants are very old with massive lignotubers and, although they held seed cones, there were no seedlings or young plants growing in the area. From the time of their discovery until June 2006, the B. rosserae plants did not flower, but at the end of March 2006, cyclone Glenda caused the equivalent of a year's rain to fall in the area on one day. This seems to have prompted the flowering in June. Celia went with a party of botanists and banksia enthusiasts to see the flowers and took some home to paint. She was very pleased to have seen the old plants flowering at last and to capture their full beauty in her latest painting. Is this the last banksia to be illustrated or are there more out there waiting to be discovered?

For further information on Banksia rosserae, see the Wikipedia entry for the species. The site has excellent links to other information on banksias and Celia Rosser.

From the newsletter of The Australian Native Plants Society (Canberra), September 2007.

* Apart from Banksia rosserae, at least one other new banksia has been described since the publication of The Banksias. Banksia croajingolensis from the north-east coast of Victoria was described in 2007. In addition, the recent move (2008) to transfer the entire genus Dryandra to Banksia (thus more than doubling the number of Banksia species) also post-dates The Banksias. The transfer has been accepted by the Western Australian herbarium but it is not yet clear if it will be fully accepted nationally.

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Australian Plants online - 2008
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