Published: June 2007
Helene Schmitz
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience while covering this assignment?

I was with botanist Pia Östensson in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. We were desperately stalking Caesalpinia gilliesii—commonly known as the bird-of-paradise bush—for our book. We'd been all over northern Tenerife, with no luck. Then, learning that it might be found in the southern part of the island, we rented a car and headed south over the mountains. After hours of random driving, we suddenly discovered the bush in a roundabout by the highway. The Caesalpinia flower was very delicate, so we carefully packed it in ice and drove like mad over the mountains and back to the hotel, where I'd made a darkroom out of the bathroom. To have succeeded in making a portrait of this rare flower was a very happy moment.

What was your worst experience while covering this assignment?

I failed to photograph the male Urtica dioico, the infamous stinging nettle. Actually, I did get shots of the female of this species. It also stung but was much easier to handle. The male, however, was another story. It was hard to find a male among the stinging nettles, but when I finally did, its tiny hairs caused a lot of pain. I kept getting stung. After trying for two days to get it on film, my arms were red with stings, and I was in a terrible mood. So I gave up.

What was the strangest experience during this assignment?

I wanted to get a picture of Manila hemp (Musa textilis), an exotic flower also known as the banana palm. Peter Litfors, a botanist at the University of Stockholm, had kindly given me access to the university's greenhouse so I wouldn't have to go abroad in my pursuit. But to enable me to photograph the plant's flower, he had to cut down a whole banana palm. I was completely nonplussed. Seeing this tropical tree lying out on the ground on a wintry Stockholm night was a surreal experience indeed.