(UN)STILL LIFE WITH FLOWERS

PART ONE

1. Species hybrid iris ‘Kinshikou’ at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.

It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.

So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.

2. Wildflowers and grasses at a park outside of Seattle.

Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.

3. Your narrator.

I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.

4. My grandfather, with his mouth open, second from left. Note the many drinks on the table and the cigarette in his hand. My grandmother sits next to him in the middle.

My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.

5. Bouquet at a farmer’s market in Washington State.

I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*

6. Shovel in hand…

As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.

My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.

7. A wasp or bee on Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.

8. Happy in the snow in Michigan.

One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.

9. A tulip.

Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!

A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.

10. Pink fawn lilies (Erythronium revolutum) at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline, Washington.

There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.

11. Left to right: my older brother, an unknown lion, my cousin, me, an unknown rabbit.

The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.

More about that later.

12. Naturalized lupines somewhere in the Adirondacks, New York State.

***

*From an unpublished manuscript.

**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.

May in the Garden

An explosion of beauty invites closer looks…

 

Worries fall away. Self-referential thoughts and chattering preoccupation fade as the graceful curve of a petal, the intoxicating scent of fruity roses and the crunch of footsteps on gravel light up forgotten territories of the mind.

 

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

These photos were taken at Bellevue Botanical Garden (near Seattle), all on May 21st. I used a 45mm f1.8 prime lens for all except the black and white paired peonies, the peony from behind and the tree from underneath – those three were made with a 60mm f2.8 macro lens. The camera is a micro 4/3rds (Olympus OM-D EM-1) so the lens focal length equivalents on a “normal” camera are about 90mm and 120mm, respectively. I used apertures from f1.8 to f20, for a soft background on some images and a sharp scene across the frame for others, and I often used spot metering.

The processing was done in Lightroom, but I also used Color Efex Pro on about four of these for additional enhancing, to get the image looking more the way I sensed it. The three black and whites were done in Silver Efex Pro, with a few additional tweaks in Lightroom. I’m one of those photographers who really enjoys the processing, so I don’t mind spending time modifying images after I’ve downloaded them. That might be because I was involved in drawing long before I took up photography seriously; I take the same pleasure in manipulating light, form, texture, and color on the computer that I did working with them on paper.

 

Transient Beauty

Whether cultivated or wild, flowers are enchanting. Form, symmetry, color and scent – these reproductive structures offer an abundance of gifts, gifts that we return to over and over. For me the attraction to flowers is like an addiction – I see one and I’m gone.

Here is a clutch of beauties then, beauties whose bloom fades even as these words zip from your retina to your brain. This very transience is a large part of the appeal. Happily, the magic black box fixes them in time for a little longer. Enjoy.

 

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

 

5.

 

6.

 

7.

 

8.

 

9.

 

10.

 

11.

 

The cultivated flowers seen above – the orchids and cyclamen – were photographed recently inside conservatories in Seattle and Tacoma. Some flowers here are skating the dangerous border between cultivated and wild; having been planted long ago, they grow in place now without human help. The witch hazel flower (#9) blooms at a botanical garden, well cared for indeed. The gem-purple crocus flowers took root from bulbs someone set into a hollow in an old tree stump, at the edge of a suburban park: a gift to strangers. The sprightly yellow catkins and the pendent cluster of fuchsia-pink flowers are blooming at Juanita Bay Park, while last year’s dried grass stalks still blanket the wetlands, seen below.

 

12.

Water and soil alike remain cool this time of year, but a sunny March afternoon draws turtles up from their muddy hibernations to bask on a log. In a few months, white water lilies will bloom across the bay’s surface, and a feast of wildflowers will embellish nearby woodlands, fields, roadsides, and gardens. I’ll be ready.

13.

The photos:

  1. An orchid at Volunteer Park Conservatory, in Seattle, Washington.
  2. An orchid at Wright Park Conservatory in Tacoma, Washington.
  3. A white cyclamen at Volunteer Park Conservatory.
  4. A blossom on an old, bent cherry plum tree at the edge of a parking lot outside of Seattle. This tree, Prunus cerasifera, is also called Purple-leaved plum and is native to western Asia and the Caucasus.  Photographed with a Lensbaby.
  5. Another blossom from the parking lot trees, neglected but going strong. (Sadly, just down the block, a row of these lovely trees was removed last year because of construction work on a huge retail complex).
  6. More cherry plum blossoms, at Kruckeberg Botanical Garden in Seattle. This site will walk you through the difference between cherry and plum trees. Both are beautiful, both are celebrated. Cherry trees (Prunus serrulata), are blooming in Tokyo and Kyoto now, but in Washington, DC, peak bloom is not expected until the first week or two in April, due to cold weather. Plum trees (Prunus mume) originated around the Yangtze River in China. Their very early bloom bloom made them an important symbol in oriental art.
  7. Cherry plum trees bloom in the rain on a suburban street near Seattle. Taken with a phone from inside the car with the rain-strewn window rolled up.
  8. Yes, it’s a flower. This is a Weeping willow (Salix babylonica) catkin. Willows have male catkins on one tree, females on another, and this is a male catkin, ready and waiting at Juanita Bay Park.
  9. Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’) flowers bloom alongside the dark curls of last year’s leaves, Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  10. A native Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), blooms at Juanita Bay Park. Though the fruit isn’t palatable to humans, it’s eaten by animals, and hummingbirds take nectar from the flowers. As early as 1792, collections of this plant were made by Archibald Menzies, the naturalist on George Vancouver’s great global expedition. The explorers Lewis and Clark found R. sanguineum blooming further east, near the Columbia River, on March 27, 1806. Two hundred twelve years later it still blooms in late March, throughout the region.  It also blooms in cultivation, thanks to David Douglas, a botanist and explorer who enabled his employer, the Royal Horticultural Society (then called the Horticultural Society of London) to introduce the flowering currant to English horticulture in the mid 1820’s.  Here is a Royal Hort description of one of many cultivars available now.
  11. This charming group of crocus was growing in a huge tree stump at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland. Someone must have planted them there, where just enough soil stuck to the stump for the little flowers to thrive and bloom.
  12. The new green shoots of the invasive Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) are rising quickly from the detritus of last year’s decaying growth. Volunteers are slowly removing many of the non-native plants at this popular wetland park. Currently they’re focused on Himalayan blackberry, a prickly, difficult plant to eradicate. I don’t know when they’ll ever get to the Reed canary grass. If they do, it would be a huge challenge to eradicate since much of it grows in very wet places.
  13. At least a dozen turtles lined up on this log to bask on a warm March afternoon at Juanita bay Park. Today it snowed briefly. Ah, March!

DRAWING NEAR

Moving in closer,

there are intricate other

worlds

waiting.  How strange,

the way the tiny

fragments morph

through the lens.

And again

on the screen.

Again,

as I make small adjustments – a little less clarity

here,

more detail

there.

Pull down the saturation,

draw the focus in with

a vignette…

the possibilities are endless,

whether you have a lens and

computer,

or not.

Just

look.

 

Consider.

(It’s a kind of worship, isn’t it?)

 

Photos taken at the Bellevue Botanical Garden in Bellevue, Washington.

SLOW FADE

Anemones! These beauties were an unexpected gift when a delivery was wrongly made to our door. I have enjoyed watching them bloom and fade over the course of several weeks. They have always been a favorite flower (but then, I have so many favorite flowers!) for their color and balletic form, and especially for their graceful slow fade.

 

From Wikipedia:

Anemone coronaria is widely grown for its decorative flowers. Numerous cultivars have been selected and named, the most popular including the De Caen and St Brigid groups of cultivars.[2] The De Caen group are hybrids cultivated in the districts of Caen and Bayeux in France in the 18th century.  Anemone coronaria means crown anemone, evoking regal associations.

In Hebrew, the anemone is calanit metzouya. “Calanit” comes from the Hebrew word “cala כלה” which means “bride“, “metzouya” means “common.” The calanit earned its name because of its beauty and majesty, evoking a bride on her wedding day.[6] In 2013 Anemone coronaria was elected as the national flower of the State of Israel, in a poll arranged by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (החברה להגנת הטבע) and Ynet.[7]    Anemone coronaria grows wild all over Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

 

Lumix G3 with 20 mm Lumix prime lens at f 2.2 and 2.8; natural light; processed in Lightroom

SUMMER GARDEN NOSTALGIA

Summer afternoons can evoke a certain dreamy nostalgia.

I was feeling it recently, and remembering a public garden I used to haunt. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden, in the New York City borough of Staten Island, is a somewhat forgotten place, being overshadowed by major institutions like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden.

It’s a gem though.

Never crowded, it sits on the grounds of an old sailor’s home and contains a wide variety of gardens – a rose garden, perennial borders, fish ponds with tropical plants set around them in the summer, a greenhouse and wonderful old trees, an herb garden, a white garden enclosed by old trellis, a pleached hornbeam allee…and that’s not to mention the impressive Chinese Scholar’s Garden and an Italianate garden.

Here is a selection of images from a landscape I came to love, taken from 2008- 2011.

I’ll save the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Italianate Gardens and glass house for another time…

 

 

So many photographs. And there are many more. I spent many hours with my camera at Snug Harbor.

For those who like naming things, here are some names:

1) A clematis in the White Garden

2) Can’t remember the name of this pretty white flower

3) Rose

4) One of the old homes on the grounds, now sometimes used for photo shoots

5) Hosta, Hakone grass and other foliage plants make one of many wonderful compositions in the perennial garden

6) Cotinus, or Smoke tree, with leaf shadows in late afternoon sunlight

7) Crinum asiaticum, a tropical spider lily grown each year and set in containers outside the greenhouse

8) Walkway after heavy rain, planted with annuals and tropicals

9) Praying mantis with Joe

10) Praying mantis with asters

11) Japanese anemone in the White Garden

12) Hakone grass

13) Hakone grass going to seed

14) Spider lily (Crinum asiaticum)

15) Brugmansia – also called Angel’s trumpets, they provide a spectacular display in large containers each summer.

16) Clematis gone to seed in the White Garden

17) Poppy pods!

18) Peonies after a storm

19) Peony

20) Water lily – Nymphaea sp.

21) Fall color in the garden

22) Brugmansias – how I love them!

23) Fallen petals

24) Late summer border composition – Smoke tree, Perovskia (Russian sage), Yarrow, Bergamot

25) The Rose Garden, early September

26) Clematis on the trellis

27) Grasses in fall

28) Fallen petals in spring

29) The peached allee of hornbeam, a repsite on hot days

30) Quarter moon under a crooked tree

31) A resident Mallard pair

APRIL: No Regrets

Seattle enjoys an extended spring season, thanks to cool weather and abundant moisture. We don’t have those temperature spikes that can turn spring into summer in a day. Right now the city is full of color – it may not be the yellow of a shining sun, but it certainly is the intense acid green of new leaves and the blues, purples, pinks and yellows of spring blooms.

There is a small, but choice garden tucked in a corner of the University of Washington’s campus. It surrounds the Miller Library, a public horticultural resource, and includes the Soest Herbaceous Display Gardens, a fragrance garden, a courtyard, and a transitional area tying the buildings to the Union Bay Natural Area beyond. It’s all set on a fairly small parcel of land, but there are many delights here, for the eyes, nose, and all the senses.

This weekend there was a book sale, a plant sale, a botanical illustration exhibit, and a garden full of early spring treasures. (Yes, I scored a few great books!)  Pearly gray skies cooperated yesterday by holding off from releasing the rain until the afternoon, giving me time for photography.

Above, one of many interesting compositions: Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) nods its creamy flower heads in front of Barrenwort, or Bishop’s Hat (Epimedium  acuminatum), with its red-tinged, elegant leaves and pretty little flowers held on impossibly fine stems.  At their feet there are anemones  in bud and tiny white flowers I couldn’t identify.

Below, a mix of black-leaved Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) with – again, I’m not sure – probably another Mondo grass – but what a beautiful look!

 

A Giant Wakerobin (Trillium chloropetalum) is planted under a bed of flowing ornamental grass. Typically these native woodland flowers are planted in a woodsy setting, maybe under a tree, but I think this is brilliant.

Below, a Japanese flowering cherry tree (Prunus serruata ‘Shirofugen’)  in full bloom – it’s just about the end of the cherry tree blossom time here, so this tree with its cloud-like bloom was a welcome sight.

 

This garden is typically “Pacific Northwest” in it’s restrained aesthetic – orderly and calm. The fragrance garden benches, like most wood structures here, are host to various lichens. Narcissus nods its pretty head shyly behind a bench, below.

 

 

 

The strange Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris), above, is planted in the courtyard in raised beds with moss-covered boulders behind it.  It’s a European native that is not found often in the wild now, because of habitat loss and picking.  Here in the Pacific northwest, the Chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is similar; it too, is not often found growing wild. Two years ago I found a few on a small mountain south of here known for it’s plant community. They perched precariously on a rocky overhang, so I struggled to photograph them, crawling as close as I could. Yesterday’s stroll was easier.

 

 

 

Fawn lilies light up a dark corner of the garden above. Below, hosta spears boldly break through the mulch! From ground level, they are so amusing , especially with raindrops about to tumble from their tips.

I love peering at the ground in early spring, when plants are just beginning to emerge.

 

 

Below, another Bishop’s Hat, (Epimedium x perralchicum ‘Fröhnleiten’).  Above, three different fern fiddleheads are outrageous contortionists, expressing the intense release of pent up energy.

This appreciation of spring is dedicated to Peter Matthiessen, who died yesterday.  A celebrated author, nature lover and explorer, I knew him better as Muryo, back when we were members of the same Zen Buddhist organization in New York. Peter was a fantastic story teller, weaving tales and transporting you to faraway places with ease and finesse.

His writing inspired me, from my first encounter with it, in the New Yorker Magazine in the sixties. Later, in 1981, I attended a workshop on Zen and Photography that Peter co-led with John Daido Loori. I was impressed with the way both men handled an overflow crowd and answered tough questions. They mentioned studying Zen with a teacher named Bernard Glassman at a nearby Zen center. I had been interested in Eastern thought for years, but always shied away from any sort of group involvement. Matthiessen and Loori were smart people, I reasoned, maybe this place is OK.

Still I hesitated, until a few months later a flyer for the same Zen center crossed my path. I knew then the time was right. I ventured up to the rambling, old mansion on the Hudson where ZCNY took root, and it changed my life. For the next five years, I lived there, immersing myself in Zen instead of studying it in books. I would not have gone to that workshop if Peter hadn’t been leading it, and I would not have considered ZCNY if he hadn’t spoken well of it.  So I him to thank for the spark that set in motion an experience that nourishes me to this day.

He lived a long, full life. No regrets.

 

Gasho, Muryo.

Fiddling with Focus

This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is to tinker with focus.

Is the focus just how sharp and clear an image is, or is it about more than that? Focusing manually on part of an object to separate it from the background and emphasize it is a technique I go back to again and again. I was thrilled when I first got my hands on a camera with manual focus control.  And digital processing adds another dimension to what can be done with focus. You can sharpen or blur certain areas but not others, or with Lightroom’s clarity tool you can intensify contrast, giving the appearance of sharper focus, or decrease the clarity for a hazy, soft effect – again, either over the entire image or on part of it.

And of course you can draw the viewer’s eye to what interested you – get them to focus on it – in many more ways, using composition or color for example.  So focus is a big topic, but here are a few images I fiddled with this weekend, during (and after) a trip to the local botanical garden.

Smoke trees seem to beg to have their soft, airy panicles contrasted with the details of  the tiny, subtly colored filaments. Manually focusing in does that, and a relatively wide aperture helps keep the background soft. Later, adding a pale halo (a vignette) around the edges of the image further emphasizes the soft-focus aspect of the plant and draws attention towards the details.

It seemed a good idea to do something similar with Angelica plants that are coming into full flower and driving the bees mad these days, so I focused on just a portion of the flower head and used a fairly wide aperture when I took the picture. But I decided to play with it some more in Lightroom, using the clarity tool selectively to increase blur towards the back of the flower and increase contrast just a little in the foreground.

Just for fun I thought I’d capture some of the color and form of the garden by using the manual focus again, but winding it completely out of focus (sometimes I feel like I’ve done that to myself!).  I find photos like this hard to look at and unsatisfying somehow  – I want to settle my eye somewhere.  But I like trying to abstract my surroundings, and I think if I keep playing with this I may get an image I really like.

And that’s what the Photo Challenge asked of us – to play around, to tinker, to fiddle with focus.

Hundreds of other responses to the challenge can be found right here.

It’s Six Weeks Past the Solstice…

… many flowers have bloomed and withered,

but others are coming into their own now,

in the gardens,

and in the wild places.

The other day – another bright and sunny one –

I thought I would see what’s blooming

at the Botanical Garden nearby:

IMG_4233

Here are descriptions of the flowers above  – with a little botany thrown in:

Hydrangeas are at their peak now. The first photo and the two after it show a pure species Hydrangea – H. aspera. No hybridizing here – just as nature made it, and isn’t it gorgeous? Plant breeders like to play around and hybridize to bring out certain qualities, and mostly they do come up with improvements on the species. But I like to see the species itself, too.  This one is native to China.

The fourth photo is a close up of the flower of Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), a southeastern U.S. native shrub.

Then the Coneflower – Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’Echinacea is another American native. You may be familiar with cold and flu remedies made from parts of certain Echinacea species. As with many plant-based “natural” remedies, studies produce contradictory evidence as to their efficacy – some say they work, others claim they don’t.

The typical coneflower is purple or pink, but plant breeders somehow managed to create this nice off white cultivar with softly drooping petals that show off the bold head of disc flowers. Did you know that the “petals” around the head are (botanically speaking) ray flowers, which serve to draw attention to the plant? The head is made of many disc flowers, and that’s where fertilization and seed formation happen. So what we call the flower is actually hundreds of disc and ray flowers packed into an attractive bundle.

In the second Hydrangea photo above you can also see the two types of flowers – tiny reproductively active ones in the center where the bee is working, and pretty ray flowers around the edges, attracting pollinators – and us, too!

I’m not sure which white lily that is in the sixth photo, but it looks to me like Casa Blanca – a wonderful old standby. This one seems to be bursting with energy.

A view of the top of the Perennial Border at the garden shows Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus caroli-alexandri)  in the foreground and Pervoskia atriplicifoliaRussian Sage – behind it.

The eighth photo is a geranium, Geranium ‘Gerwat’ Rozanne, thought to be a hybrid of two Himalayan region geraniums. That gorgeous deep blue makes a good counterpoint to the hot colors that often predominate late summer gardens.

A close up of Perovskia atriplicafolia, or Russian sage, follows. It’s a very popular perennial, native to Central Asia, which blends beautifully with other plants.  It has a strange, pungent scent that I like, and when I see this flower I often crush a little in my hands and inhale deeply. Apparently I haven’t gone far enough though – the leaves can be smoked for a mild high, according to internet sources! And supposedly you can put the little flowers in a salad.

Then, a fat and happy bumblebee enjoying the pretty pink Siberian yarrow, Achillea sibirica ‘Camschatica Love Parade’. Maybe it’s time to talk about naming plants! I don’t know why, but someone decided to use a strange spelling for Kamchatka (a Russian province where the flower is native). Then on top of that they had to tack on “Love Parade” when they named this cultivar.  Well, I can guess why the “Love Parade” – it’s just pure advertising, isn’t it?

Siberian yarrow is native to an arc stretching from Canada through Alaska, over the Kamchatka Peninsula, and on down through parts of Japan, Korea & China.  It was used in both Chinese traditional and Native American medicine (and it still is).  My favorite use though, is for the I Ching, that ancient book of divination.  A bundle of 49 stalks of Achillea sibirica was painstakingly counted and divided following a complex method to produce one of 64 hexagrams, the meaning of which was then used to answer a query.  For centuries a method using 3 coins has been more popular than using yarrow stalks because it’s much quicker. Now there’s an even faster click method – the online I Ching.

Other yarrows, like the well known white wildflower Achillea millefolium, are common in many places worldwide and have been used medicinally and spiritually for tens of thousands of years (the name is from Achilles, of the Greek legend).  This link contains an extensive history of yarrow use along with some literary references.

Next is a close up of Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata ‘Schneeflocke’) – so much prettier here, where it has room to billow, than squashed into a tight bouquet. Originating in Europe and Asia, it has gotten out of hand in some parts of the U.S., becoming an invasive species. But in Peru it’s an important export for the florist trade.

More Hydrangeas follow – the white one with pink edging is H. paniculata ‘Ruby‘ and the final one is H. macrophylla ‘Jogosaki’ – a lacecap hydrangea from Japan.

While photographing a Hydrangea bloom I noticed a shiny green blob on a nearby leaf. It was so small I reached for my reading glasses to be sure – and yes – a Tree frog! How many times have I looked in vain for these wonderful little creatures, and never found one? So here’s the tiny guy with the big voice: our (very common) Pacific Tree Frog.  I’m sorry the photo wasn’t in better focus, but it was hard to get it just right.  Still, you can see its amusing expression – why so glum? It’s a beautiful day!