Elderflowers: Pink Fizz

Pink elderflowers
Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ has finely-cut foliage and frothy pink heads of flowers.

Time moves fast in the garden. One moment a plant is in full flower and the next it’s covered in seedheads or berries.

This year especially, with so much new work to do in the garden, I’ve been finding it difficult to keep up with all of the plants and flowers that I want to photograph. Sometimes I leave a plant too long and then find that the flowers have gone over before I get near them with my camera.

A few days ago I realised that the flowers on our bronze elder were almost gone and I really didn’t want to have to wait a year to have another chance.

Having chosen one of the last few flowers, I decided to photograph it indoors. This was the easiest way to get a sharp image. It has been quite breezy here recently and it takes very little to make the elder’s long branches sway – so not much chance of being able to focus on the flowers!

Of course, I could have collected some of the flowers to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’. The flowers can even be fried in batter to make fritters. Or the flowers could be left to produce berries for making an elderberry syrup.

(The syrup really doesn’t appeal to me because the berries contain cyanide and other toxic substances. These are destroyed in cooking, but  I still wouldn’t fancy chancing it!)

Other parts of the elder tree also contain cyanide, which may be behind the superstitious belief that burning the wood is unlucky.

There are many old beliefs surrounding the elder tree. These are a strange, inconsistent mixture! One one hand, it was said that if you burned the wood, you would see the devil but on the other hand, having the elder planted near your house would keep the devil away.

In early times, the elder was thought to be a protection against witchcraft and evil spirits but by medieval times, it was reckoned to be both the wood used for Christ’s cross and the tree on which Judas hanged himself.

Well, there’s no confusion for me. I simply enjoy the pretty flowers while they last and the beautiful lace-like leaves and dark berries too.

Flowers of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'-2121
The tiny pink flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’ – and it will be pink!

In Evening Light

Leaves of the smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria)
Leaves of the smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) have a fiery glow in the last of the evening light.

After a busy day, getting out into the garden for a while is wonderfully calming and restorative. The garden can look its best in the evening light too, when the low-angled light creates long shadows and shows up the textures of the plants. Colours come alive in this light, especially where the sun passes through flowers and leaves. (Just like sun coming through a stained-glass window.)

If I can, I like to spend some time in the garden at this time of day. Maybe I’ll do a bit of weeding or simply sit for a while. What I prefer to do, though, is to take my camera for a wander around the garden.

Yellow broom (Cytisus) flowers
Yellow broom (Cytisus) flowers gleam in the sun.

Late in the day, the light is warmer and yellower. (More of the blue in the light is absorbed by the atmosphere when it’s at this low angle.) It warms and intensifies the colours of flowers. Quite ordinary looking flowers like the broom above become much more appealing photographic subjects when the strong side-lighting shines through their petals and makes them glow.

In the apple blossom photograph below, you can see that the evening light has an attractive warming effect on the petals of the flowers. This brings associations of pleasant evenings spent outside and can conjure up thoughts of the summer to come, or past memories of time in the garden. Just with the difference of the colour in the light, you can give a photograph a little suggestion of emotion and make it a bit more than a straightforward record of the flower.

Blossom on a Braeburn apple tree.
Blossom on our Braeburn apple tree.

Because evening light creates excellent side-lighting that picks out the texture in petals and leaves, it makes them appear more 3-D. (Like the rather crinkly surface of the apple blossom petals and the hairy calyx behind them.) The shapes of flowers and details such as the stamens are also highlighted and the whole flower can be ‘spotlit’ in a way that helps to bring it out from its background.

Early morning light has the same beautiful low-angle effects as evening light but there’s rarely time to take an unhurried stroll around the garden at that time of day. (Not here anyway – there’s cats to be fed, humans to be fed and other distractions!) And as the dawn becomes earlier and summer approaches, it’s less likely that I’ll be out of bed to catch that very early light. (But doesn’t it feel quite heavenly to be up really, really early, when no-one else is around but the birds, and you have the whole world to yourself? I love it if I can manage it! Sadly, that’s not very often.)

So evening time is, for me, a time I look forward to with anticipation on clear days. And when I’m gardening, I try to place plants that are especially colourful, or that have delicate structures, where the late sun can make the most of them. That smoke bush in the top photograph was planted where the setting sun could shine through its deep red leaves. It makes the shrub seem as if it’s alight. It’s amazing what a little bit of evening sunlight can do!

Camassia leichtlinii
This Camassia is in the last area to catch the sun and for a little while the colours become richer.

Snake’s Heads and Crowns of Leaves: Fritillaries

Three Snake's Head fritillary flowers.
This group shows the variations of colour in snake’s head fritillaries.

Snake’s head  fritillaries and crown imperial fritillaries are strange-sounding names for very unusual plants. For a photographer, the flowers make an enticing subject and I was lucky enough to be able to take some pictures of them in my friend Judy’s beautiful garden. (Thanks, Judy – I had a lovely time!)

The snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) gets its name from the shape of the unopened flower bud – long and pointy at the tip – a bit like a viper’s head. It has other folk-names, according to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ (a fascinating book, worth dipping into if you happen to get the chance). These include crowcups, leper’s bells, sulky ladies, and frawcups (possibly derived from a place-name).

These fritillaries were recorded to be growing in gardens in the UK in 1578 but not recorded in the wild until 1736. Some say that this suggests they may not be native to the UK but, even so, they used to be seen in their thousands growing in damp meadows.  Sadly, as agriculture developed over time and land was drained and ‘improved’, they lost these habitats. There are still a few places where they can be found growing wild and, thankfully, they’re popular with gardeners, so they are still able to create a magical sight every spring.

Close-up of Fritillaria meleagris flower.
The markings on this fritillary look as if someone painted them on!

The tiny chequered markings on the snake’s head flowers are irresistible. They make me want to get as close as I can to photograph the flower, in an attempt to show how much they look as if they’ve been carefully painted on by hand. The graceful shape of the flower, with those almost umbrella-like ribs at the top adds to the attraction. (Doesn’t it look just as if the petals are fabric, stretching over the ribs that are holding it in shape? Umbrellas for the ‘wee folk’!) The way the bell of the flower hangs from its curving stem, with one or two long and slender leaves soaring up from it, completes a very elegant flower.

Yellow 'Crown Imperial' flowers. (Fritillaria imperialis.)
The crown imperial has an extraordinary top-knot of leaves!

The crown imperial fritillary is very different from its serpent-like sister. A dramatically long stem holds the bold cluster of flowers up high. Instead of the one or two leaves rising above the flowers, there is a generous top-knot of leaves, giving a very distinctive appearance. This ‘crown’ of arching leaves is said to have given the plant its name, due to its resemblance to the shape of an imperial crown. However, a competing claim suggests that the name derives from the plant having been grown in the Imperial Botanic Garden in Vienna after the plant was brought there from Persia in 1576.

Like the snake’s head fritillary, I wanted to be able to get close enough to the flower of the orange crown imperial to show the markings on its petals. (The veins on the petals of the yellow version are barely visible by comparison.) These darker veins create a strong pattern of lines that make the flower even more pleasing to photograph. These flowers are such star performers when you come to take their photograph, that I think I will need to try growing some fritillaries in my own garden.

Orange 'Crown Imperial' fritillaries. (Fritillaria imperialis.)
The prominent veins of these orange crown imperial flowers make them all the more striking.

 

 

 

 

Tulips – Glowing with Glorious Colour.

Purple and white striped tulip.
Stripes in tulips were originally the result of a virus.

As March comes to an end, gardens are filled with plants coming back to life. New flowers are opening every day, providing an exciting array of  possible photographs. You can imagine, I’m sure, what a happy and busy time of year this is for me!

Among my favourite spring flowers to photograph are tulips.  The variety of colours and the amazing markings that some of the flowers have make them an obvious subject for a picture. When you also take into account the different flower shapes and the sinuous way that the tulip stems bend, then you have all sorts of possibilities for different images, whether bold, graceful, or full-on pretty.

Striped flowers of tulipa orphanidea 'Flava'
Tulip orphanidea ‘Flava’ has delicate coloured veins on its petals.

Tulips with coloured markings – the ‘feathered’ stripes, as in the top photo, or the more delicate veining of  ‘orphanidea’ (above), can be especially lovely. These are the flowers that I look out for because they add a lot of extra interest to the photograph.

But the single-hued flowers are great too. These tulips, with their brilliant, saturated, colours and simple shapes help the photographer to make very bold, eye-catching images.

For next year, I’m planning to create a small bed for cut flowers that can be used for photography and tulips will be an essential addition to it. And for now, there are tulips in the garden that haven’t opened yet…I’m waiting!

Tulip 'Prinses Irene'
There’s a flame-like glow from this tulip flower.

Flower Photography for a Rainy Day

Purple and white violet (viola).
A flower to photograph when it’s too wet and windy outdoors.

The weather has been quite wild here over the last week – very windy and wet too. (A huge change from the spring-like sunshine of late February.) So there has been no chance for anything staying still enough to take photographs outdoors.

Luckily, I have some plants in pots that have been sitting in the conservatory while they’re waiting for the ground to dry out enough for them to be planted in the garden. (There’s been a lovely scent from the primulas and, I think, the tiny pansies in there – I’ll miss it when the plants do go outside.)

I took this pansy into my little studio space and set up my lights and a white background. It was only after I’d taken a few photos that I realised I had company…the unfortunate plant had become home to some greenfly. It’s amazing how much more you can see in a close-up photograph compared to just looking straight at something. Now I have some nice sharp shots of greenfly, but somehow I don’t think they’ll be very useful to me! It didn’t take long to dust the wee devils off with a soft artists’ paintbrush. (Usually it’s cat hairs that I have to brush off – they can be practically invisible until you look at the photo magnified on the PC monitor.)

Centre of a violet.
The yellow and black centre of this small pansy makes me think of a bee.

You can see pansies planted all over the place at this time of year in the UK. They’re cheap to buy and easily available everywhere, so they do get pretty much taken for granted. But I do love the colours, especially the way they blend into each other, giving a soft, almost watercolour effect.

Having the plant indoors made it easy to keep the flowers still while they were being photographed. When you’re working outdoors, movement in the slightest breeze is a big problem with macro photography.  The area of focus is so shallow that it takes very little to take your flower out of focus and, if you’re not watching carefully, it can be easy to miss the fact that the flower has moved.

Spending an afternoon indoors, taking photographs with plenty of light and being able to keep warm and dry felt like quite a luxury. However, there a flowers out in the garden that are still waiting for their chance to be photographed…so I’m hoping for some better weather next week!

High-key photograph of violets.
Playing with a high-key effect with these little pansies…

The Early Flower Catches The Photographer

White Pulsatilla vulgaris (Pasque Flower)
White Pulsatilla vulgaris (Pasque Flower) already in flower.

Last week, I wrote about finding all the new stocks of plants coming into garden centres very tempting. So you may not be surprised to learn that I bought a few of them. (If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you will probably know me well enough by now to expect it!)

I tell myself  that I have a great excuse, because I need something to photograph and there isn’t a lot available in the garden yet. And buying plants instead of cut flowers means I can grow them in the garden for the following years. Neat reasoning, eh? All the same, I’m glad that there are several plant nurseries nearby, so that I can buy reasonably-priced small plants rather than spending a fortune on larger plants elsewhere.

It’s interesting to see just how far advanced these plants that have been grown in large, heated glasshouses are, in comparison to garden plants. I have pinky-purple pasque flowers growing in the garden but they won’t be in flower for weeks yet. (Probably April or May.)

Hairy flowers of Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasque flower).
You can see how hairy these pasque flowers are!

Pasque flowers like it in the garden here. The well-drained soil and open, sunny site suits them. It’s actually a native plant in the UK and East Anglia (which includes Suffolk, where I live) is one of the areas that it grows in. Sadly though, it’s rare as a wild plant now and you’re much more likely to see it growing in gardens. However, as a ‘local’ plant, they’re both drought-tolerant and wonderful for bees.

The flowers themselves are delightful to photograph – fresh, pretty and entirely charming. And then there’s the bonus of the rest of the plant being photogenic too. That’s because it’s so very hairy (and soft enough that you want to stroke it). All the soft little hairs that cover the finely-cut leaves, flower buds, and even the outside of the petals, help to give the plant a silvery appearance when they are caught in sunshine. Later the seed-heads become very ornamental, like some sort of silky, wildly fluffy pompoms. (My cats think they’re great fun for having a swift bat at with a paw!)

The pasque flower that I bought will no doubt be joined by others. (I have to wait for them to flower at the nursery, so that I can see what colour they are.) And I’m sure that a few hours will be spent photographing them…happy times!

Flower of Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasque flower).
Delicate white and rich yellow make this a very attractive spring flower.

Something Different

Blue-veined flowers of primrose 'Zebra Blue'.
Fun with stripes! I bought this Primula ‘Zebra Blue’ so that I could photograph the flowers.

As spring approaches, there are new stocks of plants coming into garden centres and other plant-sellers, such as supermarkets and market stalls. After winter, it’s a huge delight and an even bigger temptation to see all these fresh plants that are just waiting for us to buy them.

There are the usual bulbs – snowdrops, crocuses, irises and daffodils. And at the moment there seems to be a huge number of primulas (or primroses) everywhere, in just about any colour you might want. They glow brightly at you, flaunting their brilliance and offering themselves as a cheerful reassurance that spring must be almost here.

Like many others, I found myself wandering past these happy little plants, wondering which would be the most uplifting addition to the winter-weary borders in my own garden. Unexpectedly, I came across one that I haven’t seen before and which intrigued me much more than the gaudier varieties…a stripy-flowered primrose!

Macro photograph of Primula acaulis 'Zebra Blue'
The yellow centre is a striking contrast to the blue and white petals.

The primrose I bought turned out to be ‘Zebra Blue’. It has white petals which are veined with a wonderfully deep blue (which looks rather as if ink has been spilled onto the flowers and gradually crept along the veins). The deep orangey-yellow centres are the perfect contrast to offset the blue and make the flower very eye-catching indeed.

Most of the flowers and plants that I buy are seen as potential subjects for my photography. A flower with markings like these is an ideal source of inspiration for an afternoon spent experimenting with different compositions.

The prominent veining of the petals and the vibrant contrast of the centre of the flower makes this primrose a very bold subject. It’s easy to use the patterns produced by the veins to create a rather abstract feel. But, because some of the flowers have a more muted colouration, with much paler veining (sometimes becoming a lighter, more denim-blue), there is the option of creating a softer, more gentle image too. I have only just started exploring where this little flower may lead my photography and I reckon that I need to spend a few more hours in it’s company…what fun!

Blue-veined primrose flower against a yellow background.
I used a contrasting yellow background to give a bolder image in this photo.

Winter Jewels

Frosted Agapanthus seed-head
Frost has made a miniature sculpture from an agapanthus seed-head.

There have been a few frosty mornings recently. This morning’s was one of the heaviest frosts so far, the other was on Christmas Day. Both were still and silent, as if the cold was somehow transfixing not just the frosted plants, but sound and movement too.

These are the mornings that feel special in the winter garden. Camera in hand, it’s time to explore this frozen world of new creations. Old seed-heads and dead foliage are transformed into glittering sculptures that will last only until the sun erases them. It’s an ephemeral world – cold and quiet and unfamiliar.

Frosted allium seed-heads
Frost has created tiny firework bursts from these alliums

I always hope that some of the more interesting seed-heads will last long enough to become frosted. This year the weather has been kinder than most winters and there has been little in the way of strong winds or heavy rain. So the seed heads of agapanthus and alliums have kept their frail structures intact and are even holding onto quite a few of their seeds still.

It’s exciting to find out what the frost has been up to in the garden. There are all sorts of little gems waiting to inspire a close-up photograph. The cold makes it hard to linger for long, but it’s worthwhile. For the work of the frost has made it possible to photograph something delicate and transient and, once winter has gone, it will be a long time before the opportunity returns.

Hydrangea petiolaris with frost.
Hydrangea petiolaris with a light touch of frost.

It doesn’t take a lot of frost to create something to photograph. The plants in the centre of the garden, where it is more open, get a lot of frost but those towards the edges are sheltered by fences and evergreen shrubs. The climbing hydrangea in the photo above has a fairly protected position. But its dead flower-head has had enough frost to line the edges and pick out the veins of the larger petals. The tiny flowers in the centre of the head have been turned to lace – an effect that will vanish as soon as the frost melts.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) covered with frost
Wild carrot (Daucus) was sown late to catch the frost

Sometimes there are still a few flowers left in the garden for the frost to embellish. I had sown some wild carrot seeds much later than normal, in the hope that the plants might still be around when the frosts came. So the frost turned the flowers that were left on the plants into little ice-encrusted embroideries, just waiting to be photographed up close.

Other flowers aren’t really supposed to be around when the heavy frosts arrive. The Anemone coronaria below was too eager to flower. (Last year’s flowers were much later – probably sometime in February.) The mild weather in December persuaded them to put in an early appearance but the flowers couldn’t last long once things turned more wintry. Never mind! The flower may have ‘gone over’ quickly but for just a short time, the frost has turned it into something wonderful, and allowed it to add a little magic to the garden.

Anemone coronaria, covered in frost
This Anemone coronaria flowered very early and got thoroughly frosted.

Colour for a Grey Winter’s Day

Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis)
Pink veining adds interest to the petals of these moth orchids.

I’ve been saving this group of orchid photographs for this month. There’s not a lot to photograph in the garden at the moment. (But I have taken photos of the few flowers that are out there – that will be another post.)

At this time of year, it lifts the spirits to have some flowers indoors. And it’s nice to have something to aim a camera at without getting damp and chilled.

Macro photo of a spotted orchid
The dark pink spots give a delicate effect to the petals of this orchid.

These are all ‘moth’ orchids (Phalaenopsis), which are now very cheap to buy in many supermarkets. They’re very good value too, because the flowers can last for many weeks or months. (Much cheaper than buying cut flowers.) I’ve found that I can usually get the plants to flower a second time, but after that they tend not to do very well. That’s really down to my lack of knowledge about orchids. I should read up on them and look after them a bit better…

Actually, I stopped writing and had a look around on Google for some info. There’s some very detailed advice on the RHS website and having read it, I can see that I need to find a better windowsill for my plants and be more careful about the temperature. Ah, OK, so I will pay a bit more attention in future!

Macro photo of a yellow moth orchid
Yellow moth orchid – more spots!

As you may imagine, I tend to be attracted to the various markings on moth orchid flowers. The top photo has strikingly pink veins that look almost like stripes and most of the others have spots of varying size. These details work well in a macro photograph and provide something more for the eye to appreciate. The forward-facing lip of the flower gives a natural place to focus, especially with the spots, stripes and blushes of colour that can be found there.

The varied colours and markings on moth orchids can make the flowers look very different from one another. This gives each plant a unique personality. The yellow orchid above, for instance, looks neat and dainty while the more greenish orchid below, with its wild spots and streaks of bright pink, looks decidedly bohemian.

Macro photo of a pale green orchid with pink spots.
The colouring of this orchid is quite an attention-grabber!

An orchid is a pleasing subject for a spot of indoor photography on a chilly winter day. All you need is a nice bright window and a large sheet of white card to reflect some of the window-light back into the shadows.

The delicate translucence of the orchid’s petals will allow the light to pass through, showing up the details of coloured veins or spotty markings and highlighting the structure of the flower. You may also find that you can see the glisten of the crystalline structure of the petal surfaces, as in the photo of the yellow orchid. The colours of the flowers are enriched by the soft window-light too, making them reminiscent of exotic silks.

I’ve spent many happy hours with just an orchid, a camera and a macro lens. The orchid is a flower that really makes it worthwhile to get up as close to it as possible – and that’s something I intend to do very frequently!

Macro photo of a dark-magenta moth orchid
This must be one of the most easily-available orchid colours.

Hydrangeas: Delicate and Colourful.

A pink 'lacecap' hydrangea.
A ‘lacecap’ hydrangea growing in my garden.

Hydrangeas make me wish that I could just wave a magic wand and change my garden soil…moister and more acidic would do fine.

Then I would be able to grow blue hydrangeas, or, failing that, a nice purply-blue shade like the hydrangea in our old garden in Scotland. It was Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii’ (a lacecap) and had flowers that ranged from a good blue to a more lilac/pink shade. Many of the flowers graduated from blue at the centre of the petal to pretty much pink at the outside. It was really delightful and lovely to photograph.

The hydrangea in the top photograph is growing here in our Suffolk garden. It’s very pretty but there’s no chance of any blue in its flowers. Unlike our Scottish garden, which had a fairly acidic soil, the soil here is alkaline. So our hydrangeas will never be blue. (Oh we could try…with acid-based compost, rainwater, and added aluminium sulphate or organic materials such as coffee grounds and eggshells, but that’s doing things the hard way. Much better to go with the conditions you have.)

Purple and blue hydrangeas.
I wish I could grow hydrangeas with these colours here!

So I can only dream about having hydrangeas with flowers in wonderful shades of purple and blue like in the photo above. Or even a stunning blue like the hydrangea below. (Well, winter is a good time for indulging in fantasy gardening, sitting by a warm fire with your favourite books and seed catalogues.)

Visiting other people’s gardens does at least give me a chance to photograph hydrangeas of different types and colours. Finding a plant that you really love is one of the great joys of garden-visiting. And usually means that there’s a growing wishlist of plants to hunt for in the nurseries and garden centres.

Blue Hydrangea
What a fantastic blue!

I find that the flowers of the lacecap hydrangeas are much easier to photograph than the mophead types. The mopheads can be an unruly mass of flowers that don’t cooperate when it comes to creating structure within the photograph. The arrangement of the lacecaps, with their tiny ‘true’ flowers at the centre of a ring of bigger sterile flowers, means that it is easy to find an attractive angle for a photograph.

As well as the pink lacecap, we have the climbing Hydrangea petiolaris here. It’s growing along a shady fence and I’m a bit worried that it might actually be holding the fence up now! Replacing the fence panels in the future, without damaging the plant, might be really difficult, so I should try propagating some cuttings as insurance. The flowers of this climber are very like the lacecap flowers – again they make a good photograph. (I have just photographed a frost-covered flower that had lingered on the plant. That’s for another ‘frosty flowers’ blog post very soon.)

Pastel-coloured 'mophead' hydrangea.
This ‘mophead’ hydrangea has very delicate colours.

Looking at the colours of the flowers here has me dreaming of summer gardens and making plans for my own. Our soil here is rather too dry for hydrangeas to be happy. The plants we already have needed to be watered frequently while they were young and the pink lacecap can still wilt a bit on a really hot day. It may be possible to create a more suitable space for hydrangeas in one of the areas that we’re re-developing in the garden. Somewhere with a bit of shade, maybe. But there will need to be lots and lots of good compost added to the ground to help it retain moisture…that will not be a quick job!

While I work to improve the soil in the garden here, I may just have to wait before planting any more hydrangeas. Meanwhile I hope I’ll be able to enjoy more of them in the gardens I visit. It’s exciting to see plants that I’ve not seen before, such as the oakleaf hydrangea below. (These seem to be less common than the mopheads and lacecaps here in the UK.) And I hope I’ll be able to take some more photographs too. (That’s my kind of plant-hunting!)

White oakleaf hydrangea
The large, rough leaves are a great foil for the white flowers of this ‘oakleaf’ hydrangea.