Seed-heads: Textural Interest in the Garden

After flowers fade in the garden, there’s a certain feeling of loss, of knowing that they have disappeared for another year. But some plants have something more to give the garden – attractive seed-heads that add their own texture and interest to the planting.

For a photographer, seed-heads make a great subject. They can have very ‘architectural’, interesting shapes and their textures range from soft and fluffy to extremely prickly. There’s plenty of variety to inspire pictures with different moods. Could be something soft and gentle, or something bold and eye-catching, or perhaps an image with a more nostalgic feel.

Seed-heads have that inbuilt message that something is ending but also remind us that there will be something new – new life – in the future. And for a gardener, seed-heads can be a reason for hope, if there is a chance of new plants springing up – or dread if they’re weeds!

I love to see the Pasque flower seed-heads every year. (Top photo.) They are so soft that you want to stroke them but they can also really catch the light. The fine hairs reflect the sun and make them gleam on a sunny day. (They’re irresistible to my cats too, who find that the heads swaying on their long stems make a great toy to bat a paw at, especially those that can just about be reached through the slats of a nearby seat. Fun for all!)

prickly seed-head
I wouldn’t like to touch this seed-head!

Other seed-heads are not at all welcoming to the touch. But they do at least look interesting in a photograph. I’m happy to say that the plant above was in someone else’s garden. I don’t know what it is, but I really wouldn’t fancy brushing against it in a border. Ow!

I don’t know what the seed-head in the bottom photo is either. It might be a protea. The photograph was taken in a garden that had big glasshouses, so there were a fair number of  non-hardy plants. The combination of textures and shapes and the soft browns, yellows and creams of this seed-head appealed to me. It’s very different to the seed-heads that I would find in my own garden and, like the Pasque flower, makes me feel that I want to reach out and touch it.

At this time of year, when there are few flowers left and so many garden plants are dying back for winter, seed-heads can linger. I like to leave as many as possible in my garden, so that when the frosts arrive, there will be something to photograph. A coating of frost can make a dried-out seed-head turn into something wonderful – a delicate structure with grace and sparkle. So if you like to photograph plants, it’s a good idea not to be too tidy in your garden. Leave those seed-heads standing and wait to see what magic a touch of frost or snow can bring!

I love to read your comments! Do you have any plants that you like for their seed-heads?

Seed-head
Mystery seed-head – could it be a protea?

Colourful Orchids

It’s getting chillier every day here and we’ve had some very grey skies during the week, so I thought I’d post a bit of bright colour on the blog today.

Wherever I go, I’m always keen to take the chance to photograph flowers. Sometimes there’s something new, or a plant that would be difficult to grow at home. You never know what plants and flowers you may come across when you’re out and about with a camera. It’s pretty much a matter of luck. (And lots of garden visiting!)

It’s also a matter of luck if you find flowers that are in good condition at the time and that you can photograph without other things being in the way. There’s not a lot you can do about distracting backgrounds but experimenting with different angles and getting as close as you can will help a lot.

The weather can be a matter of luck too. If you’re photographing plants outside or in a glasshouse, you’re better to choose a day that is slightly overcast. This will soften the light and make it more diffused, allowing you to capture the colours and textures of the flowers more easily. (Whereas bright sunlight, especially at the middle of the day will easily burn out highlights and create heavy shadows that obscure details.) Low-angled sunlight near the beginning or end of the day is much gentler and the slanting light picks out details beautifully, so it’s good choice if you can time your visit for it.

Blue Vanda Orchid
This Vanda orchid is an amazing blue.

The orchids here are ‘Vanda’ orchids. I’ve never tried to grow these (just the similar-looking Phalanopsis or ‘moth’ orchids), so it’s a joy to find some that I can photograph. Their rich colours and the characteristic dotted effect on the petals add to the visual interest of the photos. And wandering around them, camera at the ready, lifts the spirits – of this photographer at any rate!

The wonderful variety of flower shapes makes the orchid family an inspiring subject for flower photographers. I find them hard to resist and will always be on the lookout for these exotic, intriguing blooms. At home I occasionally grow Phalanopsis orchids.  They are pretty easy because they seem to thrive on neglect and nowadays they can be bought cheaply at most supermarkets. At the moment I have a couple of  orchids just waiting to be photographed. They have a similar white/purple/burgundy colouring but one is a Phalanopsis and I think the other may be an Oncidium, so the flower-shape is very different. (Photographs for a future blog post….)

I hope that these orchids have brightened your day. Do you have different orchids where you live? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Magenta Vanda Orchid
Magenta Vanda Orchid

Passion-Flowers are Perfect for Photography

The first time I saw a passion-flower was many years ago, on a holiday in England. It was the usual Passiflora ‘caerulea’, the blue passion flower. It seemed impossibly exotic for a flower growing in the UK at that time. And for someone still living in Scotland, with the colder winters there, the idea of growing one seemed to be pure fantasy.

A few years later I found some plants of ‘caerulea’ for sale in an Edinburgh shop and just couldn’t resist buying one – and, of course, taking lots of photographs of the extraordinary flowers. Later on, I managed to buy a plant of Passiflora ‘Amethyst’ (top photo) and became thoroughly hooked on these beautiful climbers.

For photography they’re a wonderful subject. From further away, the flower is graceful. Every part of it is elegant. There’s the shape of the petals and the way the strands of the corona are held in a ring. And then there’s the sculptural quality of the reproductive parts of the flower.

If you come closer in, there are plenty of details to photograph. You have the way the strands of the corona change from dark purple at the centre, to white, to blue at the outside. You’ll also see the dark purple mottling of spots that covers the three ‘styles’, with more, less pronounced purple spots on the five green ‘filaments’ that hold the anthers.

The plants in  these pictures were in pots sitting on a tiled conservatory floor, so  I used a large sheet of white paper to give a plain background. Because the plants can be an untidy mass of leaves and stems, each flower was gently disentangled from the rest of the plant and the stem holding it was stretched across the white background. This isolated the flowers, got rid of background distractions, and allowed a bolder image to be made.

For the photograph at the bottom, I decided to simplify things further and removed a few of the leaves on that stem. (Cruelty to plants!) Then I placed the flower, with its leaf and the little tendril, in a way that would create a composition with the shadows that they cast.

Before taking close-up photographs like this, it’s a really good idea to check that there’s no dust or bits on your backdrop and that there aren’t any wee beasties in the plant (unless you want them there). It’s frustrating to open an image in Photoshop just to find some tiny critter practically waving and shouting, ‘Yeah, I’m here!’ And if you have pets, don’t forget to check for hairs. I have two cats, one long-haired, and it’s just amazing to see where those fine hairs can get to. (Thank goodness for Photoshop’s heal and clone tools!)

I’m always on the lookout for plants that will make good photographs. Many of the plants in the garden here are chosen this way. So you can imagine my delight when we moved into this house and I discovered that the neighbours had a blue passion-flower that was sneaking under the fence into our garden. There was great excitement when the first flowers opened. Sadly, the plant disappeared. I don’t know if it was due to a very cold winter or if the neighbours decided to get rid of it.

As you would expect, I soon got some plants of my own and the two you see in the photos here are currently living in our conservatory. (I’m trying to learn not to over-water them. They like better drainage than I had thought and I’ve nearly lost them a couple of times!)

In the garden, I’m trying ‘Constance Elliot’, which has pure white flowers and is said to be scented. It’s growing over an arbour and seems to be doing well but I don’t know if it’s hardy enough to come through a cold winter. (Mulching it should help.) It hasn’t flowered yet – that’s something to look forward to next year.

If you’re reading this from somewhere warmer than the UK, passion-flowers may be a common sight for you. You may have some of the more tender varieties that, here in England, I can only dream of. I wonder if there are plants that won’t grow where you are, that you really wish you could have? Do let me know in the comments!

The blue passionflower - Passiflora 'caerulea'
The blue passion-flower – Passiflora ‘caerulea’

Rowan Lore

Autumn is the ‘berry time’ of year. In our neighbours’ garden, a rowan tree is now heavily laden with glistening red fruits.

This small tree reminds me of the rowan trees that grew in the garden of my childhood home in the north of Scotland. Rowans can often be seen growing beside houses throughout the Scottish Highlands.

In the past, these trees were seen as a ‘lucky’ tree – a superstition which was a diluted form of earlier beliefs in the rowan’s magic powers, especially as an antidote to evil.

In Britain, the rowan was once regarded as one of the most powerful protectors against the forces of darkness. It was believed to keep away witches and malicious spirits and to avert the evil eye.

Witches were believed to be afraid to come near a rowan tree because, if a christened person should touch a witch with any part of the tree, then the Devil would be entitled to carry her away to Hell as his tribute.

Faeries and spirits also kept their distance from the rowan. An old tale tells of a woman who prevented a ghost’s return to its grave by barring its way with a rod of rowan.

Another tale shows that even the Devil himself was believed powerless against the supernatural force of the rowan. A young miller’s apprentice had rashly arranged to meet the Devil. His anxious friends advised him to take a rowan branch with him, draw a circle around himself with it and, whatever happened, to remain within the circle.

When the Devil appeared, he threw a book to the boy and asked him to write his name in it. The boy refused to return the book. Enraged, the Devil made the most terrifying attempts to reach him, but could not break through the magic circle. Defeated, the Devil eventually disappeared, leaving his book in the hands of the startled apprentice.

Since any part of this magical tree was able to turn aside evil, both its wood and its berries were used to make charms.

To make a more powerful charm, red thread was combined with rowan because red, as the colour of blood, possessed a strong magic. Red rowan berries were strung on a red thread to make an amulet which could be placed around the neck of a child to keep it safe from the powers of the unseen world.

”Rowan tree and red threid

Gar the witches tyne their speed”

(Scots traditional charm,  gar = makes,  tyne = lose)

Red thread was also used to bind rowan twigs in the form of a cross which was frequently used to protect young children and livestock. During the dangerous period before baptism, when a new-born child was particularly at risk from witchcraft, the evil eye, or even abduction by faeries, a rowan cross might be fastened to its clothing or to the cradle.

Beltane (1 May) and Halloween were reckoned to be the most dangerous times of the year, because evil forces were then at their strongest. To stay safe, it was wise to carry a sprig of rowan or even to have a piece of rowan wood sewn into your clothing. You might also place a rowan cross above the doorway of your house to make sure that no witches could get in.

It was thought unlucky to use rowan for ordinary firewood, or to cut one down, except for special uses. The tree that protected the Scottish Highlander in life, sometimes protected him in death too, for a coffin or bier made of rowan wood was regarded with great respect.

During its long history as a magical protector, the rowan has earned affection and respect. Nowadays, however, it is more valued as a graceful garden tree which is also very beneficial to wildlife. Next time you see one, I hope you’ll think of the significance the rowan has had for our ancestors and, maybe, imagine how they felt about it. Sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree!

I’m intrigued by beliefs, superstitions and folk-tales about the plants that surround us. I’d love to know more, so if you know any, I’d be delighted to hear about them in the comments……