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.

A Flower for Easter.

Purple pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)
Jewel-bright colours of the purple Pasqueflower.

It’s Easter Sunday today, so I thought I’d post a photograph of a pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris). This flower gets its name because it flowers around Easter time, with ‘pasque’ being like ‘paschal’, i.e. ‘relating to Easter’. (But I haven’t figured out whether the name should be one word or two. Pasqueflower or pasque flower? Both seem to be used.)

The Easter holiday tends to be a really busy time in the garden. Everything has started to grow very fast so that any old dead growth needs to have been cleared away to allow it space. (I leave the old foliage on some plants over winter to help protect them against frost.) The weeds are growing quickly too, so the battle with them keeps me busy. It seems like an unlikely and very distant dream that I might someday have a fairly weed-free garden!

But it’s seed-sowing that becomes the biggest rush for me. I really shouldn’t leave it so late. Everything else always feels so urgent and this year I’ve taken extra time to dig a pond. (That is going quite well and I’m hoping to have it done before the ground dries out and becomes really difficult to dig.) Now I need to get those seeds all sown and hope that all the tiny seedlings will have time to catch up…or they can just flower a bit late if they like!

With all the frantic gardening, it would be easy to forget to enjoy the garden itself and the tremendously sunny and warm weather we’re having this weekend. So I will make a point of sitting down for a while and just enjoy the outdoor scene for a bit. (That’s if the cat will let me have my seat…he thinks I put it in a nice sunny spot just for him!)

Whatever you’re doing this weekend, whether you celebrate Easter (or even have a long weekend for that matter), I hope you get a chance to get outside and enjoy some sunshine and the natural world. Happy Easter!

 

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.

A Little Survivor

Pink-freckled hellebore.
I thought I had lost this hellebore.

It’s the time of year when gardeners start peering anxiously at their plants, looking for signs of life. Are there new shoots emerging from the ground? Some leaf buds perhaps? Anything to show that the plant has made it through the winter?

But, as any gardener is unfortunately all too aware, it’s not just the winter that can kill our plants. There are all sorts of possible mishaps. Here, building work has been one of the biggest dangers to our garden plants in the last couple of years.

We’ve had several things done to our house, the main one being the addition of a conservatory. So there have been piles of building materials parked around the garden.

The resulting chaos was made worse by our decision to reclaim and re-use the brick pavers from the big old patio area where the conservatory was to be built. And, of course, they needed to be piled somewhere out of the way. Like the bit of border that has been overrun by a huge mass of Japanese anemones and is desperately in need of renovation…. and all before I could think to warn that there were other plants there too.

Pink-spotted hellebore flowers.
Last year there was only a single leaf on this hellebore – this year it has managed to flower.

To be honest, I’d forgotten precisely where the hellebore was and it wasn’t until I saw one lonely hellebore leaf poking out between a couple of bricks that I realised that it had pretty much been covered. The bricks were removed but I didn’t really expect the plant to survive. There seemed to be too little of it left. That made me feel both sad and guilty because it was such a lovely little plant and one that I had enjoyed photographing.

So you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was to discover that it was growing again and this year it has even managed to produce some flowers. (I feel as if it has forgiven me! And I’ve promised it that I’ll take better care of it in future!)

It’s extraordinary how strong the life force in plants can be and how they can often tolerate conditions that really should kill them. (I know, it’s true that the plants that you try to get rid of – the weeds – that seem show the most determined ability to survive.) Every so often you get a wonderful surprise when a plant that you fear has died reappears, when new buds grow on what look like dead stems, or when new seedlings spring up from old plants unexpectedly. That vitality can certainly be something to celebrate!

Pink hellebore flower.
The usual view of a shy hellebore flower.

Glorious Green: Ferns

A tightly-curled young fern frond.
A tightly-curled young fern frond.

By this stage of winter, the idea of lush green growth is tremendously appealing. It’s easy to dream of densely-planted borders bursting with re-emerging life – new shoots, unfurling leaves, and buds that swell with the promise of flowers soon to come.

Amongst all this imagined greenery, ferns would be an excellent addition. Their finely-cut fronds would contrast well with larger, more solid leaves and would bring their delicate textures and a subtle feel of pattern to the border.

Hairy reverse of young fern-frond.
The young fronds are very hairy on the back. They look almost furry!

For photography, ferns make an excellent subject. There’s lots of pleasing detail, especially in the new foliage. The tightly-wound curls of the young fronds are especially photogenic and the outside surface of the curl (the back of the frond) can be surprisingly hairy and looks soft to touch.

(Saying that has made me realise that I didn’t actually touch them. I could have put out a finger to stroke the back of a curl, but I didn’t. Perhaps I should have. Taking photographs can absorb you so that you forget to interact with plants – or a garden – in ways that you would do, if you were walking around without a camera. So maybe I need to leave my camera in its bag for a while and explore the garden, before I start to take photographs.)

Fern leaves.
Fern leaves can add some texture and pattern to garden borders.

In my real garden (as opposed to the imaginary borders where anything will grow), it is too hot and dry for most ferns. The Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) is reckoned to be able to cope with drier conditions than most, but that is if it’s in the shade. Most of our garden gets a lot of sunshine, but there is one area that is shaded by the house in the afternoon. Now I am wondering if that bit of ground might be suitable for making a bog garden and I’m imagining the other moisture-loving plants that would also be happy there. (Though there are ferns that don’t need such damp soil.)

If I do go ahead with this idea, the beautiful green growth of ferns would be a very satisfying reward. (Meanwhile, my imaginary garden is flourishing!)

Fern fronds with curled tips.
The curly tips of the fronds of this fern look unusual.