It is 350 flower-filled years of growth, research and exploration since the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh’s beginnings as a 17th-Century physic garden, and in the time between the demise of its sometime contemporary art gallery Inverleith House in 2016, and the reinvented Inverleith (now Climate) House as is, an exhibition series was planned to celebrate.

Florilegium is a combination of a pre-planned exhibition and a lockdown response, which is being staged in the former Inverleith House. “When I arrived at the Botanics 18 months ago,” says Head of Creative Programmes, Emma Nicolson, formerly of Skye’s celebrated Atlas Arts, “there was a plan for something called RBGE Florilegium, to create an ongoing physical record of plants collected and studied at the garden. Other Botanic Gardens, like Eden and Kew, had them, but we didn’t.

“What we do have is an amazing archive of botanical art and scientific drawing, so this was a push to create our own collection of botanical illustration related to the gardens. And I said, fantastic! But how can we broaden it out?

“How can we make it unique, because of the history of contemporary art in the garden? That was the conversation we had at the beginning of this year. And then of course we were all swept in to this pandemic and everything was put on hold.”

Fortunately, the call had already gone out to botanical illustrators worldwide, “and whilst the pandemic meant they couldn’t respond to the Botanics itself, it did mean that people in Brazil, Taiwan and India, amongst others, could draw from plants locally that related to our collections. It’s led to an amazing array of work.” Nicolson and a volunteer have spent weeks selecting some 40 works for the exhibition. Downstairs the newly green walls are crowded with botanical illustrations; upstairs, rooms dedicated to four contemporary artists are repainted in pinks and blues.

The crux for Nicolson was to work out how she could intersperse the botanical illustrations with contemporary art works, not least given the new working difficulties of lockdown.

Nicolson started with Scottish-based artist Lyndsay Mann. “I already knew of her extended film work on the Herbarium, an edited version of which we’d used for the launch of Climate House in June,” says Nicolson. “And so we’re using the full film here, because it’s such a wonderful document.”

Lee Mingwei’s work, Sonic Blossom, in which a singer wanders the gallery and gives a random visitor the gift of a song, is reimagined for Covid times as Invitation for Dawn, a zoom meeting in your own home in which an opera singer sings you a song chosen for you. The details are in the gallery for visitors, along with the dates.

“Nicolson tells me she experienced the piece in June, when a singer called her and sang a Grieg lieder. “I cried! The whole experience, of being sung to, of being given this gift, was very moving.”

There is photography from Scottish artist Wendy McMurdo who had been in talks with Nicolson about photographing plants in the glasshouse for the Biomes project. Nicolson tells me that McMurdo’s mother had contracted coronavirus early in the pandemic and was sent into a nursing home and, very sadly, subsequently died, as did so many. “Wendy’s written a really poignant piece describing that episode. When we talked in lockdown, she said, I’ve got this incredible plant, a cardiocrinum giganteum lily. It started to grow outside her window during lockdown, around the same time that her mother had got sick.” The lily’s span marked the timeframe of her mother’s illness. “That species came to Edinburgh from the Himalayas about 170 years ago and was propagated in the nurseries here,” says Nicolson. “It shows the incredible power of plants to be a symbol of growth, regeneration and death.”

There are family links in the work of Barbados-based artist Annalee Davis, too. Davis will show a series entitled, As if the Entanglement of our Lives Did Not Matter, which includes portraits of her ancestors, her “mixed heritage, a family portrait of family members not allowed to live together.”

Davis, who is based in a studio on a dairy farm which stands on the land of a 17th-Century sugar plantation, literally mines the ground the plantation stood on and its archives, history and economics, drawing together the threads of communities, working towards reconciliation, decolonisation, here making botanical drawings of the plants that grow on the former plantation on plantation ledger papers.

“We were so excited to get her work,” says Nicolson. “We’ve managed to find examples in the herbarium of the plants that Annalee has included in the drawings as well. It makes a really lovely direct link to our collection.”

Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, Inverleith Row/Arboretum Place, Edinburgh, 0131 552 7171 Until 13 Dec, Daily 10.30am – 4.30pm (Pre-book time slots)

Critic's Choice

O is for Light is a new exhibition by the artist Catherine Sargeant, tutor at Leith School of Art. Created over spring and summer 2020, these sky and text paintings are the product of grappling with the “dramatic unknown” as Sargeant puts it, of the situation which we all faced in March. Sargeant found her own comfort in painting the “ever-changing sky above,” although, locked-down away from her Edinburgh WASPS studio in an attic flat in Tillicoultry, she found herself painting with and on whatever came to hand, from emulsion paint to newspapers.

There are two series in the exhibition, the first, from 30th April, a series of small paintings hung in a grid, the second a series of larger works. Each are from different locations, reflecting a widening geographical scope as lockdown eased. For the 30th April series, Sargeant would paint looking out of the same west-facing attic window in Tillicoultry, jotting down a few thoughts about the day, editing the sentences down, eventually, to one word per day. From May to August, Sargeant took her paints out to complete a 100 day project, collaging an image of the sky into a 100 page book. “By this time I was able to venture further afield, so I was looking north, south, east, aswell as west,” says Sargeant. Some of the skies are still from Tillicoultry, some in Edinburgh and a few on the west coast near Gairloch. “Once I was back in my studio in Edinburgh I chose a few of the pages for reference to create the larger paintings.” All these are on display in the gallery along with the collaged book.

Catherine Sargeant: O is for Light, Upright Gallery, 3 Barclay Terrace, Edinburgh, 0131 221 0265, Until 6 Nov, Weds - Sat, 11am - 5pm; Sat 11am - 4pm

Don't Miss

Martin Parr's Think of Scotland is a round-up of some of the photographer's best Scottish photos, showing elements of life as we live it, from remote post boxes to tarrings and featherings. First shown at Aberdeen Art Gallery and created in partnership with Magnum, these images are the result of 25 years of visits north of the border. A social documentarist, Parr's view is an idiosyncratic and a fond one, filled with humour and his own unique viewpoint. The colours are gaudy, the images sometimes grotesque, full of contradictions which are left unresolved.

Martin Parr, Pier Arts Centre, Victoria Street, Stromness, Orkney,01856 850209 Until Nov 7, Thurs - Sat,10am - 5pm