This article was first published in Espores on the
24 Jan 2020

Botanist of the month: Gerardo Stübing

Gerardo Stübing Martínez (Valencia, 1957) is a Valencian botanist, visual artist, researcher and pharmacist of German origin. He says that his name, on the one hand, draws people’s attention and is easy to remember yet, on the other hand, is difficult to spell for most people. With a degree and PhD in Pharmacy, he graduated years ago in Fine Arts from the UPV (Polytechnic University of Valencia), where he is currently developing his second PhD thesis. A Botany professor for over thirty years at the University of Valencia, he tells us that he owes his interest in plants to his father, who was a great Cactaceae fan and collector. He currently combines research projects on taxonomy with environmental management, medicinal plants and ethnobotany projects. He is also coordinating an innovative project about the use of mycorrhizas for crop improvement along with Alberto Guillén, a specialist in these organisms. He also connects all of these research activities with artistic and outreach-oriented projects, that are but always looking at his passion: plants.

What attracted you to Botany?

I have always been attracted to the natural environment, particularly -like most people- to animals, which is why I considered studying Biology. Later, however, I was majorly influenced by my father’s great cacti garden, since he was an enthusiast of these plants and collected them. In the end, I started a degree in Pharmacy and met Manuel Costa and Juan Bautista Peris, who infected me with the Botany virus and ever since I am always keeping an eye on plants.

What has your professional career been like so far?

I started out as an intern for the Department of Botany at the Faculty of Pharmacy, where I developed my final degree dissertation. Then, I worked on my PhD thesis and became a teaching assistant, and later an associate professor at said department. Throughout this period, beside my teaching activities, I have started different research lines for several decades: first phytosociology, then taxonomy, and finally environmental management, ethnobotanics and medicinal plants. Right now, I am in search of combining botany and art: my research aims at finding out how to apply a botanist’s vision and perception to artistic creation from a transmodern perspective. I believe this topic to be quite important, as it helps in spreading love for plants in our society and, therefore, strengthen our awareness regarding loss of biodiversity and climate change. This is precisely what my second PhD, now in Fine Arts, deals with. 

What is your current job about?

 Apart from keeping these research lines that I have talked about active, I am currently keen on finding a way to project all of the knowledge that I have been acquiring throughout these years into my art. I am reaching interesting conclusions, realising that professional deformation allows you to perceive things that others cannot.

Can you elaborate?

When working on an art piece representing a plant through different techniques, if one were to look at this plant just as it is, they would either not pay attention to any particular detail or deem it an average plant, with no special appeal to it. However, looking at the final product would make this same person go “how gorgeous”. What happened is that I brought out the plant’s most attractive and least common detail or perspective, only because I can see beyond it. Now I am working on what I call “biohaikus”: haikus are short Japanese poems usually inspired by nature, but from the perspective of someone without botanical training. On my part, however, when I look at a plant the following questions arise in my head: where and how does it live? Why does its flower look like that? How does it spread its fruits or is pollinated? Then, my haiku is written based on what such an image makes me feel, trying to also convey biological aspects of this plant in terms of its morphology and interaction with the environment.

Gerardo Stübing in Yakushima, a Japanese island designated as a natural World Heritage Site by the UNESCO and well-known for its landscapes and ancient cedar forests

As a botanist and pharmacist your specialty are medicinal plants, what interested you in this field of study?

I became interested in this field thanks to Juan Bautista Peris, one of my greatest inspirations in Botany. Medicinal plants play a key role in Pharmacy, a realisation that prompted me to start out in this area, Peris and I being, to a certain extent, pioneers in scientific phytotherapy at national level. Now many are the research groups in this field, but at the time, thirty years ago, giving lectures on medicinal plants from a serious perspective was considered a pioneering activity.

Exhibition with works by Stübing at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Valencia, where Stübing has been a teacher for over thirty years

Are you proud about having participated in any particular project?

I am particularly fond of one of them: a project on medicinal plants that I carried out in Cuba with Juan Bautista Peris, Santos Cirujano (researcher at the Spanish National Research Council) and Armando Urquiola (researcher and director of the botanical garden Jardín Botánico de Pinar del Río in Cuba), in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Conselleria de Educación (local Ministry of Education). The starting point was Cuba’s medicine supply problem, some of those medicines being replaceable by medicinal plants. Let us say, for example, that a man with conjunctivitis comes to a small village: here in Spain that would not be a problem, as he would just be given eyedrops with antibiotics. But in Cuba there are no eyedrops available. What can we do, then? Our suggestion is the conjunctivitis to be treated with a plant-based tea from the area. For this we developed a software linked to a database containing locations, images and compositions of medicines, meant for professional use in primary health care. This software allowed doctors to select their location and their patience’s affliction, and then they would automatically be presented with the plants around them that they can use and in which ways. This project was carried out and completed to an 80%, but due to differences in political policies in Spain, fundings were cut off in the 90’s.

Have you met interesting people through your work?

Yes, I have. I think botanists are very interesting people or, at least, different than most. We all share a special sensibility, so even if in certain circumstances momentarily arguments may break out, we all react the same way in front of plants, which creates a sense of empathy.

Exhibition “Cavanilles/Stübing. Un camino, dos miradas” (One path, two views) held at the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid) in 2016

Speaking of sensibility, you have two facets: besides being a botanist and researcher, you also have a creative side. How did you start out in the world of art? And photography?

Initially, photography was a means of documentation to me. Several books that I have published include hundreds of images taken with analogue cameras, a reference in graphic formats in the Valencian Community for a long time. Then I sort of put it aside, dealt with other activities, and now I have brough photography back into my work as a means of artistic creation, beyond its practical aspects. I am currently working mostly with photography techniques from the 19th Century, but using 21st-Century technology. My first artistic phase was focused on paintings, but now I have evolved towards this type of photography.

In the Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona, USA)
Monument Valley (Arizona, USA)

An aesthetic context where nature is still your main source of inspiration.

Always. In fact, I would say that I am already affected by the phenomenon known as professional deformation: I am always looking at plants, even in the city.  And each time I reassert that there is more to them than what people can see from the surface. For example, if you show someone a drawing consisting of some lines and curves, they will probably identify them as a woman or man’s body. Yet, if with those same lines you draw a plant instead of a person, a botanist would be able to tell you as much as its species, whereas the first person in our example would just say “I have no idea what this is”.

What can this botanist-artist duality bring to the table?

It would have been impossible for me to create plant-centred art without my initial botany training. I used to be a very pragmatic person -fitting the German stereotype- and think that in science anything that does not help us achieve results is useless. I would see art, then, as more of a hobby. But I guess that was just me being young, because when you grow up you realise that this mindset is a complete mistake, and that rather art and science are actually very similar their differences aside, such as art being freer, less resource-dependent and more immediate. Such characteristics are very convenient for impatient people like me: you do not depend on others and, if you are lucky to have a job that has your basic needs covered, then you can express yourself freely through your art. If we all had a more artistic point of view, we would be more productive, more effective in problem-solving, and on general terms our society would just work better and we would be happier. Philosophy and art are possibly the disciplines that should be promoted the most for a society to achieve its desired levels of wellness and prosperity. Not only that, but this artistic projection also awakens a sense of sensibility towards nature, which is precisely what my current artistic-scientific project deals with.

Gerardo Stübing’s exhibition “Biomorfías” at the Jardí Botànic of the University of Valencia
The piece “Biomorfías” was exhibited in the gallery Sala Hort de Tramoieres of the Botànic from January to March, 2014

Can you tell us more about this project?

The project is called “Joies botàniques de la Ribera” (Botanical hidden gems from la Ribera, Valencia). Through plants, our objective is to place importance on the biodiversity of our environment and the risk this biodiversity is at. The project is organised by Aureli Domenech and Tono Herrero, in collaboration with community of municipalities Mancomunitat de la Ribera, the University of Valencia via the Office of the Vice-Principal for Territorial Projection and Participation, and the Conselleria de Agricultura, Medio Ambiente, Cambio Climático y Desarrollo Rural (local Ministry of Agriculture, Environment, Climate Change and Rural Development). For this project we have selected 35 plants from the region of la Ribera -very rare, endangered, common specimens, etc.- and we have represented them through alternative photography. Each plant has been assigned a profile with a QR code that you can scan to access some information. The main art piece is called Maig de 2050 (May 2050), a calendar of that month and year that intends on raising awareness on the issue of biodiversity loss and our active and often unconscious role in it. Each box has its own plant and next to them there is a ballot box for people to vote for 4 of them, which is the estimated proportional number of plant species that will have disappeared by 2050 if we do not take action. Then, metaphorically speaking, the act of placing a ballot into the box shows that our actions can save or kill certain species.

Art piece Maig de 2050 from the exhibition “Joies botàniques de la Ribera” in Sumacàrcer, Valencia

Has your work changed over the years?

We have gone from traditional botany, in which I was trained -mostly floristics-, to a new botany unarguably propelled by molecular biology and scientific progress. I think we are turning towards a fairer conception of biology, since for a while everything outside of molecular biology was disregarded. Little by little we have come to realise that experts in floristics are disappearing without replacement, and although in theory we can count on programmes and apps for the identification of plants, in practice you cannot identify a problematic plant without a good florist, someone trained for years to become an expert. I obviously do not mean to say that an 80% of our efforts should go to these older disciplines, but at least there must be a 10% or 20% percent of resources to keep this training alive, as it is absolutely necessary. of resources to keep this training alive because it is absolutely necessary.

With your teaching experience, would you encourage students to pursue the same career as you?

The thing is, at this very moment, as I was saying, botany is on the decline -although I have no doubts that this situation will change-. In any case, nowadays education-related decisions must o be made highly considering vocational aspects, since career prospects are not to be taken for granted. That means, if you enjoy something… just go for it.

What does the future hold for botany, then?

I predict a difficult future for botany in the short term, although due to climate change and the need for biodiversity conservation we are witnessing an increased awareness on this type of disciplines.  And I think that this could take traditional botany, with the incorporation of all of this new knowledge, to regain its rightful place.

What is an essential skill in your profession?

Imagination, creativity and hard work, lots of hard work.

Out of all of the plant species that you work with, which one would you say to be your favourite and why?

The thing is, I like all of them, and I truly mean it. Besides, it depends on the moment of my life we look at: initially, I used to observe them as rare phenomena that could lead me to conclusions for the publication of a paper, but now I observe them simply for what they convey, for their aesthetic potential. Another relevant realisation is that we must remove their colour. That is, to really appreciate a plant we must forget about its colour because that automatically takes us to think about its flowers and the cliches that come with them.

That seems risky, removing their colour.

Quite the contrary, it is fantastic. You get to see their shapes, structures, fractals… which is captivating. You see a withered leaf, rotten even, on the floor, with its different colours, with hyphae or a growing fungus that is a living microworld in gorgeous shapes… but you must distance yourself from the concepts of flower and carnation, which are in everyone’s imagination.

Which botanist would you have liked to meet in person?

Probably Heinrich Moritz Willkomm because many of us have used his Prodromus Florae Hispanicae as a reference work for plant identification, when we did not have the Flora Europea. It is fascinating, and makes me wonder how is it that such a work was developed at the time, with limited resources. 

What is the first thing that you do as you walk into your office?

It depends on the day. I must admit that turning on my computer used to be my first action of the day, and now what I do first is to look at my phone, but since I do that at home before leaving for work, when I get to my office, I already have all the information that I need, so I can go for a coffee. But I do not have completely fixed habits.

In the case of a fire, what would you save from your office?

My slides. I have so many, 30 000 or more.

What is the worst part of your job, and the most rewarding?

I honestly think that my job is incredible. Obviously, there have been rough times, but looking back I consider myself to be privileged. I love teaching, my artistic side… I have no complaints.

Journal of scientific dissemination of the Jardí Botànic University of Valencia.
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