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.
As a photographer, it would be easy for me to forget that being in a garden is not just a visual experience.
Scent is something that I tend not to think about until I am greeted by an unexpected waft of perfume from some nearby flowers.
For the past few weeks, a shrub in my neighbours’ garden has been flowering magnificently and leaning right over the fence into my garden. It has been a most welcome sight, but, beautiful as the flowers were, their scent was even more impressive. Strong and sweet, this scent has been filling the air near our back door and has made it a pleasure to step outside.
The shrub is a philadelphus or ‘mock orange’. I’m guessing, from its strong perfume and height (about 9-10 ft.) that it is likely to be Philadelphus coronarious. (You can see it in the top photo.) It has just finished flowering and now the two philadelphus shrubs in my own garden have taken over.
In the photograph above, you can see the older of these. I think it has been in the garden for a very long time and it was terribly overgrown and straggly when we arrived. I cut it back a lot and it has grown back strongly.
Despite now having quite a lot of shade from nearby trees, this philadelphus is heavily covered with flowers but their scent is not as strong as those on the neighbours’ shrub. By the look of it, I think that this one must be the cultivar ‘Virginal’ – it was one of the commonest ones. (Nowadays, there seems to be a very large number of cultivars available.)
In contrast, I do know the name of the philadelphus in the bottom photograph. It is ‘Belle Etoile’ – I’m sure, because I planted that one!
(Not knowing the full names of plants that you’ve ‘inherited’ or else photographed in other people’s gardens makes titling photographs accurately very difficult.)
Belle Etoile seems to have less scent than the others, however, it makes it up for that with the pretty purplish colouration at the centre. This makes it attractive to photograph, as well as blending it nicely with its dark pink and purple flowered neighbours in that border.
I’m enjoying the company of these lovely shrubs at the moment – what more could a flower photographer ask, than a beautiful subject that also happens to smell good while you’re working up close to it. Sweet!
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.
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.
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!
Sometimes I prefer the look of a photograph that has been converted to black and white, rather than the original colour version. And it can be even better if it has had some ‘toning’ added in Photoshop.
So why should that be? For some photographs, it may simply be that the original colours don’t work well together – as with the ‘Spider Lily’ above. The flower was growing in front of our house, which is painted ‘Suffolk Pink’. I didn’t like the pink wall as a background because it distracted from the flower too much.
Converting the picture to plain black and white got rid of the distraction but the result wasn’t terribly exciting, so the colour tones were added to create a bit of extra interest. This has given a look very like a cyanotype print which has been toned in tea. (Does that sound odd? Ordinary tea makes a great toner for cyanotype prints – takes the harshness out of the blue and turns the white paper a soft cream/brown shade.)
Other photographs may benefit from simplification. With the ‘Crown Imperials’ above, I was attracted by the lines of the veins on the petals, and to a lesser extent, by the way the curve of one of the leaves at the top echoes the curve of the petals below it. But in the original, the orange of the flower and the green leaves that contrasted with it competed too much for attention. Here, with the image as a monochrome, your eye can more easily follow the lines along the petals.
Both of the photographs below worked well in colour but the blue and brown duotone of the agapanthus and the warm pinky-brown monochrome of the astrantia give the images a new life. They have become something entirely different from the photographs I started with. (You can see the original colour photograph of the astrantia here. )
I think that the toned versions of the photographs work because their subjects no longer look as they do in nature. Without their normal colouring, the flowers are somehow unfamiliar. Because of this, they are able to be seen in a different way. Now there is a possibility that you may notice new details or simply react with feelings that the original colour versions wouldn’t have inspired.
It’s very satisfying to experiment with photographs in this way. There can be a restfulness, even an elegance, to the restricted colours in the final image.
If you fancy trying this on your own photographs, you’ll find that it’s not hard to do if you have an image-editing program. Photoshop, for instance, allows you to convert the photograph to black and white. You can then alter the colour in any way you like, using the ‘Colour Balance’ adjustment on the shadows, midtones and highlights or you can try the more complex controls available in the ‘Curves’ commands. (I should think that there are other possibilities with newer versions of Photoshop than mine.) And, of course, there are many other monochrome effects out there that you can try. You could have hours of fun with these!
There’s been a change in the last week or so. Early mornings have been misty and daytime temperatures have dropped enough to make it feel like time to put the summer clothes away. (Though after the extremely hot days we’ve had this summer, anything ‘normal’ will feel very cool.)
We’re no longer woken by the light in the early hours of the morning and the evenings suddenly feel darker.
I love the beauty of autumn – the changing colours and (especially) the softer light that it brings. It’s a light that has lost the harsh glare of summer, making it much better for photography.
Even so, I always feel a slight melancholy at the ending of summer. It’s something I’ve felt since childhood. I was brought up in Caithness, the ‘far north’ of Scotland, where it seemed to hardly get dark at all on summer nights. That, coupled with the long school holidays created a marvellous feeling of freedom and unlimited time. (And the windy winter days, when darkness would fall by about 4 pm were, by contrast, something to dread.)
Now, as a keen gardener, it’s not just the leisure of summer that I miss, but all of its plants and flowers too. I miss watching new leaves unfurling and buds fattening up and showing that first little sliver of colour before they pop open and reveal their glorious petals…..but this year is different. Because I can see that I need to be more positive and enjoy the moment rather than regretting the fact that summer is ending. Instead, it is time to plan for next year and to do the work that was impossible in summer. (Right now that means digging. A lot of it. The hot weather meant that the ground became rock hard and my plans to dig a pond and new borders have been put off until this last couple of weeks. It’s amazing how much easier a drop of rain makes the work!)
Of course, new borders means new plants too. The fun part! And time to indulge in a bit of fantasy…. That’s where the photo at the top comes in. I saw the acidanthera in a garden last September and was impressed by how graceful they looked. (Much taller than I expected too.) So now I’m imagining how lovely they would look reflected in the planned pond and thinking what else might look good on that side of the garden – particularly if it’s a plant that looks good now and helps to extend the life of the border later into the year. (My overall plan is to have a garden with plenty to photograph for as much of the year as possible.)
The white hibiscus was in a garden I visited a few weeks ago. It has a simple elegance which I think would look good if I keep the planting around the pond fairly unfussy. (And I already have a couple of other hibiscus bushes in the garden which still have some flowers, so there’s a decent length of flowering period.) The white hibiscus with red markings (below) would echo the colouring of the acidanthera but would be a bit much if planted close to them and could look too fussy in the pond area.
Other flowers that could look good planted in my imaginary (so far!) border would be white gaura, with it’s flowers that look like dancing little moths or tiny butterflies and the dark buttons of the tall red scabious that already seeds itself around my garden.
My mother would never have approved of this white and red border – she always said the two colours should never be used together for cut flowers because it was unlucky. (The colours suggest blood and bandages, apparently.) And this was from someone who denied that she was the slightest bit superstitious…hmm. (Anyway, a real border would have other colours too – not sure what yet.)
It’s quite fun to design a fantasy border, and to finish with, I can’t resist adding a clematis to the mix. (They’re one of my favourites and I find them very hard to walk past in the garden centres. This one is in my garden already and it’s called ‘Ville de Lyon’.)
If you have any suggestions for planting to go around my pond and the border behind it, please do add them in the comments. I’m happy to gather as many ideas as possible because the pond and border will be a reality next year – I’m digging them at the moment!
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.
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!
After such high temperatures recently, it seems appropriate to post some pictures that suggest summer heat.
It’s not often that I get the chance to photograph bright red or orange flowers. That’s a shame. really, because there’s nothing quite so bold and brilliant or downright fiery.
Red is a colour that I’ve been a bit over-cautious with in the garden. There are some dark reds – penstemons, clematis, and a scabious that likes to pop up everywhere. And there’s a nice little red potentilla too, but that hasn’t done very well this year.
An exception is the one very bright orangey-red oriental poppy that leans over the path to the greenhouse and all but grabs you by the ankle as you pass. There’s absolutely no ignoring it when it’s in flower but by August it feels like a distant memory.
There’s even less orange in the garden. (Though I now have a lovely clump of crocosmias that were given to me by a friend.)
The reason for the lack of hot colours here is that we had planted the garden up in softer colours to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere. (Or maybe just a place to have a sneaky snooze in the shade…)
Now it’s time to wake things up a bit with a touch of heat. Time to be a bit more adventurous. (And I’d really like the opportunity to photograph more bold, zingy, hot-summer flowers….of course I would!)
What are your favourite bold flowers? Any red or orange ones that you especially like? Planting ideas and suggestions are very welcome in the comments. (And I love an excuse to go to a garden centre!)