IT’S LIKELY that it would have caught your eye.
Strolling down sleepy Chapel Street in a turn-of-the-century downtown Hot Springs, you might have seen it there on her window sill, the dish garden brimming with club mosses and sundew. You might have made out the top of the Venus flytrap, the silver spines of dried thistle, the sprays of flowering yellow acacia. And if you looked really closely, beyond the dish and through the window, you might have seen her.
She was there for the better part of four decades, after all, more often than not in a wheelchair pulled up close to an easel. On the table beside her would be the implements of her hobby: a prism of watercolor pans, a stack of black construction paper, a tube of opaque white gouache and, in the center of it all, a wildflower specimen freshly untethered from the national park forest floor, its roots still intact, its petals still plucky. She’d take the paintbrush into her hands, her knuckles gnarled and knobby, and would set to work, brushstroke by brushstroke, rendering in painstaking detail the life in front of her. Purple false foxglove. Penstemon cobaea. May.
She was Inez Harrington Whitfield, known as “Miss Inez” to her neighbors and friends, of which she had many. She’d first come to Hot Springs from her native New York in 1901 as a 34-year-old in search of relief from the rheumatism that had plagued her since she’d fractured a knee and subsequently suffered infection. By 1908, she’d taken up residence in this small apartment on Chapel Street, blo
cks away from the Ouachita forest that would become her muse, her life’s work—a “paradise between the hills,” she called it, one that was alive with “nature’s bounty.”
On good days, when her aching body would allow it, she’d take to the hills, returning eagerly to her easel with her haul: dwarf irises and creeping buttercups in the early spring, wild geraniums as it neared summer, marigolds in the heat of August. As her arthritis worsened and her legs failed her, friends took over the hunt, bringing Inez specimens, which she’d then ask them to return to the forest after committing their likenesses to paper. On nice spring days, friends helped her into the backseats of their cars to ride through stands of magnolias or flowering redbuds. Once, in pursuit of a cluster of rare orange-fringed orchids, a group of local Boy Scouts carried her aloft on a stool for miles deep into the woods.
By the time she died in the summer of 1951 at the age of 84, she’d created more than 500 watercolor paintings of Arkansas flora.
“She never complained,” her friend Francis Scully wrote of Inez in the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record not long after her death. “I have watched her with amazement when she was working on a painting. Bright-eyed, and with a cheery smile, she would go to work and in no time would bring to life the flowers of the woods.”
“NO OTHER state has a similar collection.”
So read the invitation to the first major exhibition of Inez’s wildflowers in July 1941, when 400 pieces were shown in the Barton Building on Central Avenue during Hot Springs’ DeSoto Quarto-Centennial. Sponsored by the Hot Springs City Council of Women, the exhibition was “an opportunity of great educational value, as well as a revelation of one of Arkansas’ most attractive resources.”
It was also an opportunity to prove that the collection deserved to be saved.
Hot Springs had left a mark on Inez, no doubt, but the inverse could be said as well. (Case in point: A group of her fellow Hot Springians had pooled their money to buy her a three-wheeled, battery-powered wheelchair so that she “was able to safely perambulate at will from her small apartment on Chapel Street to the downtown areas.”) She’d made quick work of making herself useful to her adopted city—she helped organize the city’s first Little Theater, started a local chapter of the American Association of University Women, served as editor of the Hot Springs’ Visitor’s Bulletin and presided over the first Hot Springs Garden Club. But as her health declined and her medical bills grew, a group of admirers we’ll call The Friends of Inez knew they could help: They’d find a way to buy her paintings. All of them. Or as many as she had in her possession.
The group staged a campaign of sorts, headed by Mrs. Mary Mabel Lutterloh, one of Inez’s fellow garden-club officers, exhibiting their friend’s work around the state to draw attention to the collection. The goal was to raise $5,000—$69,248 in today’s dollars—to buy the work from Inez, which they’d then gift to the Museum of Fine Arts (aka today’s Arkansas Arts Center) for safekeeping. The Friends were effusive in their public admiration. “If you would like a pleasant way to spend a dull, wintry morning during the next two weeks,” wrote Mrs. Lola C. Byars in the Arkansas Gazette, “try seeing the Inez Whitfield collection of wild flower paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, City Park. I am sure you will find a real breath of spring, though the weather still registers winter.”
“The pictures are so lifelike that even untrained nature lovers instantly recognize them as wild flowers they have loved and gathered in childhood,” read a statement from the Hot Springs City Council of Women. “Their accuracy of line, form and color, along with the charm of natural poise and color-shading of blossoms, leaves, stems—and sometimes roots—make identification of species unquestionable.”
It worked. On May 27, 1945—Inez’s 78th birthday—Miss Vera Snook, trustee of the Inez Whitfield Collection Fund, submitted the last payment. On that day, 367 of Inez’s watercolors became part of the Arkansas Arts Center’s permanent collection.
SEVENTY-THREE years later, Ann Wagner, curator of drawings at the Arkansas Arts Center, is looking at a photo taken during that 1941 exhibition and is shaking her head.
“That somebody was documenting this at that date, just from the scientific point of view and the point of view of beauty and history and so on, there’s a lot of interest,” she says, “and it’s just heartbreaking to me that so many of them are in rough shape. Many are badly damaged by having been mounted on those acidic boards”—she motions to the photo—“because in those days nobody knew the difference. To get all of these in good shape would cost more than we’ll ever have.
“I think we even have the picture of the orange-fringed orchid. I just can’t assure you what condition it’s in.”
But every now and again, Ann says, one of Inez’s flowers finds itself on the wall in one of the center’s galleries. Every now and again, someone stops and reads about the Hot Springs artist who painted it. But now, thanks to the wonders of the digital age, 376 of the native Arkansas plants Inez immortalized exist in the center’s online archive, their petals rendered in pixels. Some, we’d venture a guess, may no longer grow in the wild, a fact of modern society that vexed Inez. (“Even wakened imagination cannot aid sufficiently to bring into accurate vision or repicture the natural condition that existed one hundred years ago in this blessed valley of health-restoring hot springs,” she wrote.) But the 15 published in this issue, pictured alongside descriptions from retired botanist and University of Arkansas at Monticello professor emeritus Eric Sundell, are still thriving.
And maybe, should you find yourself in the Arkansas woods this summer, one of these wildflowers—a perky black-eyed Susan, a grove of feathery Queen Anne’s lace—might catch your eye. Maybe you’ll stop. Maybe you’ll linger.
That’s all Miss Inez would have wanted.
Common name: Oxeye daisy
Binomial: Leucanthemum vulgare (formerly known as Chrysanthemum leucanthemum)
Found: Ozarks, Ouachitas and scattered in the Coastal Plain
Blooms: May through August
“We’ve got a bunch of ‘true’ daisies in the state—four or five species of daisies, and they are in a different genus,” says botanist Eric Sundell. “This is the only species that we have in the genus Leucanthemum, so technically, botanically, the oxeye daisy is not a daisy like all the other daisies we have. The heads—which are made up of the yellow center and the white fringe of rays—are much larger than that of a ‘true’ daisy. The head of a ‘true’ daisy is about the size of a nickel. The oxeye is twice larger. I also read that the oxeye is the preferred flower for testing if your significant other loves you or not. This is the ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ flower.”
Common name: Eastern prickly pear
Binomial: Opuntia compressa
Blooms: May through July
“This is one of two species of true cactus in the state. We’re not used to seeing them because we get so much rain in Arkansas. The flowers are spectacular. It has edible fruit, but you have to be very careful because the whole plant is covered by tiny barbed bristles. If you’re going to eat the fruit, you’ve got to be sure to get those bristles off the surface before you peel it and eat what’s underneath. The fruit is really sweet and delicious.”
Common name: Black-eyed Susan
Binomial: Rudbeckia hirta
Blooms: May through October
“There are nine species of Rudbeckia in the state, but almost all of the others are called coneflowers. They are not nearly as common. This is the only one that’s actually called black-eyed Susan—there’s one other that’s called brown-eyed Susan. This is a sunflower-family plant, and what you see as one flower is actually a composite of many flowers. The center has a bunch of tubular flowers that are very small; then around the fringe is a bunch of what they call ‘ray flowers.’ Those are very large, and they do most of the show to bring in pollinators.”
Common name: Mullein, velvet or flannel plant
Binomial: Verbascum thapsus
Blooms: Biennially, May through September
“Have you ever seen this? You probably have and maybe didn’t recognize it. It’s a weed from Europe and Asia, so it’s not a native species. It’s a real weed, but it’s an impressive weed because it can grow 6 feet tall. The leaves are absolutely covered with dense hairs so they feel like velvet or flannel. They are so impressively hairy that the settlers used to use the leaves as baby diapers. Campers will sometimes use them as toilet paper.”
Common name: Queen Anne’s lace
Binomial: Daucus carota
Blooms: May through October
“It’s also called ‘wild carrot’ because it’s the ancestor of the cultivated, edible carrot. It’s important to stress that it’s in a family of many highly poisonous plants that look just like it. You can tell a member of this family even if you’ve never had a botany class. A lot of our herbs and spices are in this family, too. That’s another reason why people are tempted to eat it. I used to teach botany, and I would read a couple of newspaper articles to the students for our class about people who died in Arkansas eating it, thinking it was going to be a carrot.”
Common name: New Jersey tea
Binomial: Ceanothus americanus
Blooms: May through June
“It’s a pretty little shrub. I think it’s the only one in the collection that is technically a woody plant, so it stays above ground all winter and flowers in the spring. I read in a couple of places that during the American Revolution, the leaves were used as a tea substitute when they were having trouble importing the tea from England.”
Common name: Spring spider lily
Binomial: Hymenocallis liriosme
Found: Along the central Arkansas River Valley, in the Grand Prairie of southeastern Arkansas and in the Coastal Plain
Blooms: May through August
“They are gorgeous and huge! These are cultivated as ornamentals. They grow in marshes, wet prairies, roadside ditches, and down in South Arkansas, you’ll see them right from the road, growing in ditches. The petals and sepals, those long skinny white things, give the flower a spidery look. They’re widely cultivated, and they’re one of the showiest wildflowers in the state. The spring spider lily might be the biggest wildflower we have, really.”
Common name: Showy beardtongue or purple beardtongue (formerly called foxglove)
Binomial: Penstemon cobaea
Found: Ozarks, and southwest Arkansas on blackland prairies
Blooms: May through June
“That’s a gorgeous plant, and not common. It grows in soils that are derived from limestone or dolomite and would be low in acidity and high in alkalinity. For that reason, it occurs in the Ozarks, and in southwest Arkansas on blackland prairies because prairies derive from calcareous substrates. You’ve got to be in the right place to see showy beardtongue. It’s hard to find, so when you do see it, it’s kind of special.”
Common name: Yarrow
Binomial: Achillea millefolium
Blooms: May through August
“It’s native to both North America and Eurasia, which is pretty rare. There aren’t many plants that occur naturally on both sides of the world like that. Apparently, it has numerous medicinal uses. It’s showy. It’s easy to grow, and it’s widely cultivated—a lot of different colorful ones that you can buy. They have gorgeous fernlike leaves. Altogether, it’s a gorgeous plant.”
Eric Sundell is a retired botanist and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. The UAM’s Sundell Herbarium is named in his honor. He is a charter member and former president of the Arkansas Native Plant Society.