Welcome to Spring

Scented 'Paperwhite' Daffodils
Scented ‘Paperwhite’ Daffodils

Daffodils…right now they are everywhere. This week we had the first ‘official’ day of spring with the arrival of the spring equinox. And right on cue, there are daffodils opening their cheerful flowers in a welcome to the new season.

Out in the country here, there are daffodils growing on the roadside verges outside houses and farms. In town, they’re at the start of garden paths or close to the front door. It feels as if everyone has some daffodils growing in a position where they’ll be both a welcome to anyone coming to their houses and a greeting to passers-by.

Daffodil 'Geranium'
Daffodil ‘Geranium’ has a lovely scent.

Outside my front garden there is a large ‘green’ – a wide area of grass with trees that stretches between the main road and the minor road that serves the houses here. In springtime, swathes of daffodils enliven this green, creating a colourful welcome for drivers coming into the town.

In our own front garden, we have a group of miniature daffodils growing in one of the borders, but most of our daffodils are in the back garden. Seeing so many daffodils by other people’s front doors makes me feel that I should grow some more by the front path next year, as a welcome to visitors and to ourselves when we return home. (Maybe a pot of  scented tazetta daffodils, such as ‘Geranium’ or ‘Paperwhite’ – they both have a delicious scent.)

'Ice Follies' daffodils
‘Ice Follies’ on the green outside my home.

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.

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.

Are You Dreaming of a White Christmas?

Frosted fennel seed-head
Heavy frost makes this fennel seed-head look like a Christmas decoration!

Snow can bring a bit of magic to the garden at this time of year. It covers up the dead  leaves of perennials, hides weeds and makes tiny sculptures from the seed-heads that you’ve left for the birds. And if there’s frost too, then those seed-heads become like icy Christmas decorations.

It’s rare for us to get snow at Christmas here in the east of England. In fact, in the last few days, hubby and I have been using a mild spell of weather to get work done in the garden. (It’s very pleasant if you manage to follow where the sun is as you work.)

Snow is more likely in January, when the temperature always seems to drop and you really start to notice the cold. If it snows, then there’s not much chance to get any work done in the garden. It’s a good time to grab a camera and go for a walk, looking for things to photograph.

Snow-covered Echinacea seed-heads.
Guess what’s hiding under the snow! (Echinacea seed-heads.)

There are water meadows very close to our house, so this is where we usually walk. They become a great plain of white, etched with the dark shapes of trees and the even darker waters of the river. After one especially deep fall of snow, the temperature had risen enough to let the top surface of the snow melt slightly but it then re-froze as it got colder again. This made for a very satisfying walk, crunching through that top icy layer into the soft snow beneath.

Back in the garden, the plants may all turn to soft mounds of white. It can be hard to remember which is which. Everything becomes unfamiliar, clean and, for once, immaculately tidy. These are the days when I don’t look at the garden and immediately begin to think of all the jobs that are waiting to be done there. Instead I wander around with my camera, looking to see what strange forms the snow has created from the plants.

The opportunity to take photographs in the snow is quite rare here and doesn’t usually last very long. (These pictures were taken some time ago.) So if it snows this winter, I’ll have to take my chance quickly and get out into the garden to see what transformations the snow has made.

Snow-covered Eryngium seed-heads
Eryngium seed-heads – prickly little starbursts in the snow.

Snow is part of our romantic image of Christmas – all white and crisp and ideal for sledging, snowballs and making snowmen. We very conveniently forget chaos on the roads, cancelled flights at snowbound airports and horribly slippery paths. Snow is an essential part of Christmas cards, holiday TV and happy childhood memories.

I won’t do a Bing Crosby and wish that all your Christmases may be white – it may be inconvenient for your travel plans or, if you’re reading this on the other side of the world, more than a bit unlikely! But I will say ‘May your days be merry and bright!’ I hope that you have a very happy Christmas.

Anemone seed-head capped with snow.
The fluffy seed-head of an anemone wears a little cap of snow.

Translucence

Yellow tulip back-lit to show detail of petals
Tulip back-lit to show detail of petals

One of the ways I like to photograph flowers is to light them from behind. It brings out the translucent nature of the petals, allows the colour to glow, and shows up details that you wouldn’t see under normal front-lighting.

In the photograph of the yellow tulip above, I wanted to show the delicate lines of the veins in the petals. Without the back-lighting, they would have been pretty much invisible, but here, with the light coming through the petals, they are much easier to see.

The layering of the petals where they overlap one another creates areas of varying shade and this helps to give emphasis to the petals’ curving shapes. It also creates variations within the yellow of the tulip – more interesting, I think, than the flatter tones I’d have got if I had just lit the flower from the front.

Clematis lit to exaggerate the colour
Clematis lit to exaggerate the colour

While the yellow tulip was photographed to give a realistic image, the green clematis above has had its colour exaggerated by the lighting and it was then saturated a bit more in Photoshop. If the flower petals are thick enough, the light from behind can make the colour appear richer. However, if you give this technique a try, you’ll find that the results will vary with the strength of the light coming through the petals and how much the petals themselves allow light to pass through. If you use a flower with very thin petals, the colour may become much lighter and you could instead create an image with very soft, delicate colours – a lovely effect.

I can’t remember the name of the clematis below (this one grew in my garden in Scotland), but I hope I’ll find the same one again because these pinky-purply shades are among my favourite colours.

In this photograph, the petals on the left-hand side have the light coming through them from behind but the right-hand petals are lit from the front. That was because I wanted to light the centre of the flower to capture the detail there. As a result, the veins of the petals on the left show up very clearly, but the petals on the right have a much more solid appearance and you can see the slight magenta marking on the petal’s midrib.

Translucent purple clematis
Translucent purple clematis

A set-up like this is very easy to do if you can find a lightbox of the kind that’s used for viewing slides and negatives. These boxes have a translucent ‘opal’ top surface with daylight-balanced light tubes behind. All you have to do is lay your flowers on top and add some soft light to the front of the flower if you want to show the detail of the stamens etc. (Otherwise they would be likely to be in silhouette.) For the frontal lighting, you need to make sure that it isn’t too strong, otherwise it would drown the effect of the back-lighting. Soft, overcast light from a window would be the easiest thing to try.

If you try this back-lighting technique, remember to check that the light isn’t making your flowers hot and wilting them. You can always take them away from the lights in between shots, even give them a rest in some water for a while.

Comments are always very welcome – please feel free to add yours!

Ever So Pretty In Pink: Cyclamen

Cyclamen persicum cultivar in pink
Cyclamen persicum cultivar – like ruffled silk

 

Some flowers have a personality all of their own.

This little cyclamen looks to me as if it (she?) is all dressed up for a party in ‘her’ best dress – in frills, flounces and soft pleats of magenta silk. She’s a real show-off, dancing around with her skirt swishing and swirling around her.

Even the details of this glamorous bloom are exquisite. The cap behind the petals has the appearance a soft fabric, contrasting with the silky smoothness of the petals. I can just imagine this as an embroidered velvet, with perhaps some tiny seed beads added into the stitch-work. (Can you tell that I’m interested in textile art?)

By the way, I just had to go and look at a botany book to find that the ‘cap’ is actually the calyx, made up of leaf-like sepals.

Close-up of calyx and petals of pink Cyclamen persicum cultivar
The velvety-looking calyx surrounded by silky, swirling petals

It seems odd then, that earlier relatives of this flower had the distinctly earthy common name of ‘sowbread’. This was because the root of the plant, despite being poisonous to both man and most animals, was believed to be a favourite food of wild boar. (I don’t know about that, but I have seen a grey squirrel run across my garden with a nice fat cyclamen tuber in its mouth.)

The name ‘cyclamen’ also comes from the plant’s root (a disc-shaped tuber). It is derived from the Greek word ‘kyklos’ (circle).

The ancient Greeks, according to Hippocrates, used cyclamen in their medicine. Over the centuries its uses have been very varied. It was used for dressing wounds and was also thought to help ease childbirth but feared as a danger to pregnant women. In medieval times, the tuber was believed so powerful that if it was worn around the neck, or its juice smeared on the belly, that it could trigger a miscarriage.

Other uses for cyclamen root have been as diverse as using it to make soap (the tuber contains saponins) and fishermen using it to stun fish. (The fishermen would grate the toxic root and sprinkle it over water where there were fish. They would then gather the stunned fish that floated to the surface. Makes me wonder if the fish became at all toxic to eat…)

Today cyclamen is, despite its toxicity, still used in homeopathy. But it is far more likely that you’ll come across one of the many cultivars as either a beautiful (but tender) houseplant or as a hardy autumn or spring-flowering plant for your garden. Whichever they are, they’re little beauties!

Pink Cyclamen persicum
The swirling petals almost appear to be moving…

Astrantia – A Pretty Flower With An Intriguing Past

Astrantia 'Roma'
Astrantia ‘Roma’ is delicate, airy and very photogenic.

In last week’s post, I said that a flower’s structure is one of the main things that makes me want to photograph it.

Astrantias are a good example of this. The shapes created by the outer ruff of petal-like bracts and the inner ‘pincushion’ of tiny flowers make it irresistible to me and my camera.

The astrantia flower offers plenty of detail to photograph. The inner pincushion of flowers has stamens that are like little threads. Just behind each minute flower is a ribbed part that looks like a miniature corn-cob – this will eventually become the seed.

Behind the flowers, the papery bracts are delicately veined with pink or green. Choosing to either bring these veins into sharp focus or to let them blur softly into the background allows for a different feel to the resulting photograph. To take advantage of this, I usually make a series of photographs. Experimenting with different depths of focus and photographing from varied angles is a very pleasant way to spend a morning and it’s ever so easy for time to just pass me by…

The shape of the astrantia flower has given it one of it’s common names – ‘Hattie’s Pincushion’. Who Hattie was, I have absolutely no idea. But it’s a sweet little flower to have as the last trace of her memory.

Astrantia’s other common name is ‘Masterwort’ and it’s this name that you find in historical references.

As ‘Masterwort’, astrantia was believed to have a number of medicinal uses. In ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’, Nicholas Culpeper describes many ways that it could help his patients.

Maladies ranged from ‘all cold griefs and diseases, both of the stomach and body’, to cleansing and healing wounds, and preventing rheumatism and gout. Culpeper also suggests that it should be taken with wine to ‘extract much water and phlegm from the brain, purging and easing it from what oppresses it’.

However, I really wouldn’t recommend trying astrantia as a remedy for any of the ills that Culpeper mentions. His herbal was completed in 1653 and medicine has changed a bit since then!

Nowadays, being ‘a pretty face’ is quite enough for astrantia. It has become popular with garden designers and is easy to grow. Since astrantias prefer moist soil, I find that I need to keep them watered in my dry Suffolk garden. But they grow happily in shade and mix beautifully with other plants. (I think they’d look great combined with grasses, so I plan to try them with Stipa tenuissima next year.) For many gardeners, perhaps the best thing about astrantias is that slugs don’t seem to eat them. Yes, a plant that’s pretty much slug-proof – how wonderful!

Pink astrantia
Astrantias can be pink, red or white.