Love-in-a-mist: Nigella damascena

White nigella damascena flower
I love the splash of magenta at the centre of this white nigella flower.

There’s something very appealing about the name ‘love-in-a-mist’. It sounds old-fashioned and romantic,  which suits a flower that has been a cottage-garden favourite for a long time.

The flowers are intricately structured and appear to float above a light, frothy mass of finely-cut foliage. (The foliage looks very like that of fennel. So much so, that one of the names of the species Nigella sativa is ‘fennel flower’.)

The combination of the complex flower structure and the angular shapes of the foliage make it a very pleasing plant to photograph. (The seed-pods too. They are strikingly puffed-up globes that have spiky-looking little horns on top and a ruff of feathery foliage around the base.)

Nigella flowers come in blues, pinks and white. Those I like best are the flowers that are white, but veined with blue or green, as in the photo below. These have an especially elegant look, which demands that you get really close to the flower so that you can see it properly. For next year, I’d like to grow and photograph some of the cultivars that have dark centres – ‘Midnight’, ‘African Bride’ or ‘Delft Blue’.

Right now, though, I need to get out in the garden and collect some of the ripe brown seed-heads that are just waiting to sprinkle their seeds everywhere. Then I can sow them in among the bulkier plants in my newest border. They’ll provide an excellent contrast to the shapes of irises and large-leaved foliage plants, as well as the bolder flowers of dahlias and echinaceas. If I’m organised enough, I’ll try to sow them at intervals throughout the spring and summer, so that they give a longer season of foliage and flowers.

They may seem small and rather shy, as they hide in their cloud of foliage, but nigellas are a really pretty and useful garden plant. They do deserve to have their seeds sprinkled in any spare corner you may have!

Nigella damascena bud
A bud lives up to the name ‘Love-in-a-Mist’

Deceptive: Cactus Flower

Yellow echinopsis cactus flower
Not as soft as they look – those hairs on the stem can irritate your skin!

What could be more inoffensive than a flower? We’re used to thinking of them as pretty and delicate – which this cactus flower certainly is. And it’s ephemeral too. The flower only lasts a day or two before it’s gone.

But don’t be taken in by the fragile appearance of the flower. See those hairs on the flower stem (or ‘flower tube’)? They aren’t as soft and silky as they look. And, oh, don’t touch! I did – accidentally – and I regretted it.

Those hairs don’t look anywhere as threatening as the spines on the body of the cactus but they can be really painful to your skin. I don’t actually know (or remember – it was a long time ago) whether it was the hairs themselves containing some sort of irritant, or whether the hairs hide tiny barbs. Either way, it taught me to be more careful!

If you do get cactus barbs or hairs stuck in your skin, remove what you can with tweezers. Then try covering the area with a thin layer of a suitable household glue (Elmers etc), lay a piece of gauze over it, let it dry and pull off to remove the rest. Ouch!

Clematis: Squeezing Extra Colour into a Small Space

Clematis Hagley Hybrid 1476
This ‘Hagley Hybrid’ flower seems to be enjoying the evening sunshine.

Gardeners are always wishing for more room to grow plants. Inevitably there will be another flower, a shrub – even a tree – that we’d like to be able to find space for.

Since we don’t have gardens with elastic sides, we just have to squeeze things in as best we can. Or be extremely disciplined about the plants we buy. Nope, that’s not happening here! But then, I have the ‘excuse’ of needing new plants to photograph…

Clematis Arabella 2302
The mauve flowers of Clematis ‘Arabella’ are carried on short scrambling stems.

A sneaky way of cramming some extra flowers into the garden is to grow climbers. I have several clematis plants growing through shrubs where they take very little extra space. Roses and clematis are a classic combination, but I tend to use any shrub as a potential climbing frame.

I love clematis. I think it’s pretty much my favourite plant, so I face terrible temptation at my local nurseries. (One of them has usually got a good selection at very reasonable prices – very difficult to ignore!) So, as you may guess, I’m now trying to find extra spaces in the garden for more clematis…eventually I may run out of space for them too!

Clematis Mrs N Thompson
‘Mrs N Thompson’ is bright and bold.

It’s a moment of pure delight to see the first flowers on a young clematis. They’re always more beautiful in their richness of colour and the graceful way that they hold their flowers, than any picture on their label. Sometimes I forget where I have planted a clematis, and then have a happy surprise when I spot the colour peeping out here and there on the host shrub.

I must admit, I’ve lost a few clematis plants over the years. Some were planted in areas that were just too dry and others may have been struggling with too much heat at their roots. Now I try to pay a bit more attention to putting them in more suitable places, but it does take them a while to get established here. It’s worth a bit of care and patience though, because the flowers are simply lovely.

Next week’s blog post could be a bit late, or have fewer photos. That’s because my trusty old PC is dying, so I will have to move on from Photoshop CS3 at last. (I’ve been resisting that change for a long time.) We do have a new PC, but there will be a lot for me to learn in the way of photo-processing – argh! (Wish me luck!!)

Clematis Victoria 2398
‘Victoria’ has brought some delicate beauty to the variegated euonymus that it’s weaving through.

Daisies: Simple but Pretty

Anthemis tinctoria-2299
The flowers of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ glow in the evening sunshine.

Daisies – the kind you find in your lawn – are the first flowers that I remember being aware of as a child. (Though I was a few years older by the time I tried the fiddly task of making a daisy chain.)

Now, as an adult, I’m aware of the tremendous range of daisies – the different colours, sizes and growth habits that give each their own character.

That character can vary greatly because the daisy family (asteraceae) includes plants you would expect, e.g. asters, coneflowers, dahlias, marigolds – and a lot that are a surprise, for instance cornflowers, and, believe it or not, lettuce!

Echinacea 2486
The large flowers of echinacea give a naturalistic look to the garden.

The bold shape of the bigger daisies, such as echinacea, makes them a great plant to mix with more delicate plant forms for contrast. (I have lots of fennel and verbena bonariensis which create an airy feel, and wispy grasses give a softness too.) Add in other plant shapes – spires (veronica and veronicastrum maybe) and some bold leaves – and you have a border full of textural and architectural interest.

Aster-2466
This tall aster has flowers of a very attention-grabbing colour!

My own garden is in a state of constant change at the moment. (I think that most gardens probably are.) The main border that I’ve created over the last couple of years has filled out so much that the plants no longer have enough space. Some plants are busily setting seed everywhere while others have grown more than I expected. So there will be a lot of shifting plants around!

As I re-organize borders and create new planting areas, I hope to add lots more daisies, especially some of the late-flowering ones like heleniums and dahlias. (My plan is to create a garden that allows me the opportunity to take photographs over as long a period as possible.)

There will certainly be plenty of choice for me because the daisy family is vast, so there will be a colour, size and shape to suit any planting plan I come up with.

Doronicum-flm-645
Doronicum (leopard’s bane) flowers are a cheerful sight in spring and early summer.

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!

Summer Scents: Philadelphus

Philadelphus Coronarius flowers
Our neighbours’ beautiful philadelphus leans over the fence into our garden.

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.

White philadelphus (mock orange) flowers
This Philadelphus was in the garden when we came here – I think it’s probably ‘Virginal’.

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!

Flowers of Philadelphus 'Belle Etoile'
Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ has a magenta blush at the centre of the flower.

Little Stars

The star-shaped flowers of Allium christophii.
The star-shaped flowers of Allium christophii.

The shape of flowers is one of the main elements that draws me to photograph them. If it is a plant with a distinctive shape, especially when it’s graceful, then (as I’m sure you’ll expect) I’m keen to create images of it.

Allium christophii is one of the more spectacular early-summer flowers, with it’s firework-burst head of delicate purple stars. Each little star reflects light, giving it the appearance of being metallic. They remind me of the rich colour and sheen of anodised aluminium.

Flowers of Ornithogalum nutans
Ornithogalum nutans has a spike of starry flowers.

While the allium has a very sculptural look, there is something softer and more subtle about Ornithogalum nutans (AKA ‘Nodding Star of Bethlehem’). I hadn’t seen it until a recent garden visit and I was immediately attracted by the elegant white flowers with their green markings. They would look lovely mixed in a border with ferns and and something with bold leaves – hostas, maybe. (I think they’d be a great choice for the rather more ‘natural’ pond-side border that I’m currently planning.)

Flowers of Scilla peruviana
The little stars of Scilla peruviana orbit the still-unopened flower buds

Scilla peruviana is another plant that I’d like to grow so that I can photograph it. The purple and blue stars look as if they’re in an orbit around the darker buds that are still waiting to open. There are lots of possibilities for interesting compositions here, but it helps if you have the plants in your own garden so that you can spend some time experimenting. (I’m always wishing I could spend longer with the interesting plants I find in the gardens I visit. The only solution is to do a bit of plant-shopping!)

The last plant is one that I do have in my own garden. You may have come across the edible blue flowers of borage (also appropriately known as ‘starflower’) as a pretty addition to summer salads or frozen in ice cubes for drinks. Here, I let it seed around an area of the garden so that the bees can enjoy it. Borage is also an excellent companion plant for anything growing around it because it adds trace elements to the soil. (So it’s not just a pretty face!) Pimms, anyone?

 

Flowers of borage (starflower)
Borage is also known as ‘starflower’, a very apt name!

Rhododendrons: Woodland Beauty

Orange rhododendron flowers
I loved the warm glow of these rhododendron flowers.

I was lucky enough to be able to get out and do some garden-visiting last weekend. It was incredibly hot, so I was happy to get out of the brilliant sunshine and into the garden’s wooded depths. Once there, I was delighted to find myself surrounded by the jewel-bright colours of rhododendrons in full flower.

It was difficult to get close to many of the flowers, but I was able to get near enough some of the prettiest to photograph them. (If you’re visiting a garden, that can be surprisingly difficult because it’s easy to get in the way of other visitors, especially if paths are narrow or you’re there at a busy time.)

White rhododendron flowers with red/orange markings.
Spectacular red and orange markings drew my eye to this white rhododendron.

Having got close enough to a flower that’s still in good condition, the next problem is coping with the light. On a day with dazzling sunshine and trees overhead, it’s difficult for the camera to capture detail in both the highlight and shadow areas. If I was taking the photograph at home, I’d use a diffuser (basically a fine fabric stretched over a rigid frame) to soften the light falling on the flower.

Alternatively, if I hadn’t been in too much of a rush that morning, I should have remembered to bring a small fold-up reflector (or even just a piece of white paper or card) that I could use to bounce some of the bright light back into the shadows. I won’t make the mistake of being so unprepared next time!

Hoping that I could still get a reasonable photograph, I tried to find flowers that were more shaded. However, that wasn’t possible for many, including the white flowers above. So I decided to take the photograph anyway, bracketing the exposure a bit so that I could choose the best one.

White rhododendron flowers tinted with pink
A slight pink blush to the white petals and deeper pink buds make these rhododendron flowers look especially delicate.

It’s at times like this, that shooting with the camera set to create RAW files really comes in useful. Once I was home, I was able to use the RAW development software to both darken the highlights, pulling back some of the detail into them, and lighten the shadows. There’s a limit to what software can do for you, but it shows that it’s always worth having a try at a photograph, even if the conditions aren’t ideal.

The photograph below was taken on a different day, when the light was more overcast. You can see that the effect is generally softer and that there are no harsh highlights or shadows to distract from the detail. A slightly grey day may not be what most day-trippers would wish for, but it certainly makes life easier for photographers!

Pink rhododendron flowers with dark red markings
The dark markings provide a bold contrast to the pretty pink of the petals.

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.

Beauty in the Woods: Bluebells

 

Flowers of British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) with the flowers all hanging on the same side of the stem.

Right now, in the UK, you can see swathes of blue among groups of trees and along the bottoms of hedges. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself in a bluebell wood. It’s one of the special sights of springtime and a precious part of the British countryside.

But not all bluebells are the same…and it’s not always easy to tell which are the true native British bluebells. The bluebell below is a Spanish bluebell, which you will find growing in many gardens. (These bluebells came from my own garden – I had to crop the picture quite tightly to remove some of the rather chewed-looking bells. I wonder what has been eating them…)

Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
A close-up of a Spanish bluebell, showing the arrangement of flowers on the stem.

So how do you tell the difference between the two types of bluebell? There are a few clues that should help. The Spanish bluebells hold their flowers on all sides of the stem and stand very upright, whereas the British bluebell’s flowers hang in an arch, mostly on just the one side of the stem. (However, the photograph below shows what appears to be an immature flower at the left-hand side of the picture. I’m assuming that it has yet to develop the characteristic arch.)

The flowers of the British bluebell are a darker colour and the bells are a slimmer and longer shape. The leaves are also slimmer (about 1.5cm or half an inch wide), while the leaves of the Spanish bluebell are twice that width. Additionally, our native bluebells have a sweet scent but there is none or little from the Spanish flowers.

Just to make identification difficult, the two plants hybridise very readily and the hybrids are becoming very common. There is a fear that these hybrids may take over from the less vigorous British bluebell and that over time the genes of the native flower will become diluted by the incomer. It would be a pity if that happens. Our native bluebell is a sign of ancient woodlands and a sea of these deep blue, scented flowers is a wonderful sight.

Bluebells growing among birch trees.
Bluebells growing among birch trees.