Tales of Two Grapevines (1 of 4)

From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

Vitis (from the Greek for the plant) includes approximately 60 species. The distribution is almost entirely temperate northern hemisphere with some penetration into South America…. Nearly all Vitis species are lianas, are wind-pollinated, and have roots that can store considerable quantities of nutrients during the dormant season. They form an integral part of forests, climbing up trees to produce their leaves, flowers, and fruit often tens of metres above ground level. They are particularly lush in woodland edge habitats, where their ability to cover trees may result in them being visually dominant….

“The appreciation of the grape vine simply as an ornamental plant is a recent interest — a few centuries, compared to the thousands of years the plant has been cultivated for its fruit and its fermented juice.”

From The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird:

“A climbing plant which needs a prop will creep toward the nearest support. Should this be shifted, the vine, within a few hours, will change its course into the new direction. Can the plant see the pole? Does it sense it in some unfathomed way? If a plant is growing between obstructions and cannot see a potential support it will unerringly grow toward a hidden support, avoiding the area where none exists.”

“When the tendril, which sweeps a full circle in sixty-seven minutes, finds a perch, within twenty seconds it starts to curve around the object, and within the hour has wound itself so firmly it is hard to tear away. The tendril then curls itself like a corkscrew and in so doing raises the vine to itself….

“Plants … are capable of intent: they can stretch toward, or seek out, what they want in ways as mysterious as the most fantastic creations of romance.”


This is the first of four posts featuring two grapevines growing in my garden. Even though I’ve posted pictures of these vines before (see Secrets Inside a Grapevine), I look forward to pushing my face and my macro lens into these two vines every spring and summer. Aside from the fact that they started as a gardening experiment (I didn’t know if they’d live because my back yard is heavily shaded), they ended out being among the longest living perennials I’ve planted (one now returning for seven seasons and the other one returning for eleven), I’m always fascinated by the shapes and forms they assume each spring. I’ve taken dozens of closeup photos of each one, attempting to approach them a little differently every time, trying out a variety of camera settings and using them as a subject to learn more about exposure, focal length, lighting and color.

There’s a wildness to their growth that at least partly accounts for my obsession with photographing them, and their largely unrestrained spread lets me create bits of drama with each image. Both vines continue to produce tiny new leaves throughout most of the summer, along with masses of tendrils that, occasionally, I snip from nearby bushes, plants, and even chairs to encourage them to take different paths. Both vines grow rapidly; like my wisteria and ivy ground cover, I keep an eye out for intrusiveness that can get out of control in a matter of days. Once their leaves drop off in late fall, I’ll trim each one back so that the woody stems are even with each plant’s supports, and it’s always entertaining (to me!) to see what tricks they have in store for the following spring.


This first vine — the younger of the two — is a Catawba Grapevine. It’s notable for the magenta colors on the back side of each new leaf, and many of the tendrils will start out as bright orange or red (as in the second photo) before they lengthen, start searching for targets, and gradually fade to light green as the leaves get larger and turn dark green (like the top leaf in the third photo).

The older vine, below, is a Concord Grapevine. It produces intricately structured leaves in a range of green and yellow-green colors, along with a large number of tendrils that (even confined by the pot and garden space it’s in) will reach nearly a foot in length before they latch onto something nearby.

The Concord’s more of a free-wheeler than the Catawba; its stems will stretch and hang suspended in the air much longer before the tendrils make attachments, which (from The Photographer’s point of view) can provide for some neat contrasts in colors, shapes, and lines.

This last photo is also from the Concord; it’s like a grapevine’s aspirational meme that I discovered one evening just before dark.

Imagine, for a moment, what this tiny leaf and tendril had to “know” about its surroundings to reach up, hook itself to that stick, and wrap around the stick to raise itself from the rest of the plant. Have a little fun and write your own caption! 🙂


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President Clematis

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“The most popular clematis grown is the gorgeous purple C. × jackmanii. It was bred in the [George Jackman] nursery in 1858 and is generally believed to be a cross between three other varieties.”

From The Clematis as a Garden Flower by George Jackman:

“[They] rank amongst the noblest of ornaments for low walls, trellises, etc., to which they must be necessarily in the first instance be nailed or tied; but once firmly fixed, they should be allowed to fall down in rich picturesque masses. Probably, however, the simplest and grandest use that could be made of them would be to plant them on large masses of rockwork, giving them a good depth of rich, light, and sandy earth, and allowing their shoots to fall over the face of the blocks without any training or pruning….

“When grown in this fashion… the
Clematis should receive every encouragement, so that it may not in any way be checked in its development.”

The never-ending thousands of purple flowers of the Clematis… form a rich combination of flower and foliage, the beauty of which no words can express.”


The galleries below feature three blooms from a President Clematis vine growing in a pot near the pond in my back yard. It’s due for replanting — and movement to a sunnier spot — since it only produced a few flowers this year. It’s a very-early-spring job to relocate most flowering vines and plants here in the southeastern U.S. — in part because if you wait much past the end of April, there’s a good chance of a large temperature spike in May that will turn you into a perpetrator of plantslaughter.

It can be a puzzling balancing act to figure out when to relocate plants here: a freeze in April isn’t unusual, but neither is a heat wave in May. I think you actually only have about 20 minutes (possible exaggeration!) in April-May to move plants successfully, and it’s still a bit of a crapshoot. But I’ll give it a try in early 2022.

Here’s the first flower.

Despite dodging frequent rainstorms over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been alternately working in the garden, taking pictures of my own plants and flowers, and making trips to Oakland Cemetery to photograph whatever has come into bloom (I found tons of fresh-faced irises over the weekend; stay tuned!) — and I’ve again accumulated quite a backlog of unprocessed photos. Every now and then — say, for example, when I see I’ve got several hundred photos to work through in Lightroom — I get a little nostalgic for the days when you took pictures with a film camera, dropped the rolls off at the nearest pharmacy, then picked them up and stuck a few prints in a photo album before cramming the rest in a drawer.

On the other hand: it’s probably true that if I still shot film, I’d have built a darkroom by now, and I’d be spending my evenings bathing print paper in developing chemicals instead of poking at a keyboard, patiently picking tiny bits of pollen, bugs, and spiderweb filaments off flower petals and adjusting exposure sliders and colors. Someday, though, I’d like to learn more about how analog (darkroom) photo processing compares with digital, and how the capabilities of both line up with each other.

Here’s the second flower, a flatter and larger bloom.

The flowers in this post exist in the real world among a tangled mass of clematis vines and leaves, their clay-pot home, and a surrounding village of other stuffed planters. So even though these were close-up photos, I still did a lot of cropping and background darkening to eliminate the visual clutter and focus on the petals and the flower’s central structures, despite having positioned the lens as close as I could (about a foot from the subject).

Handheld macro photos at such short distances can be a challenge, because the slightest movement pushes the image out of focus. One trick I learned that helps address that is to focus manually, move slightly forward so the subject is just out of focus, then move slightly backward and take several shots (in burst mode or using exposure bracketing) just as the image comes back into focus. Sounds weird, maybe, but I think it works because you’re not trying to force yourself into a stiff position and are instead matching your movements to the movement of the camera and to the rhythm of the camera exposing the shots. Try it, you’ll like it! 🙂

Here’s the last flower; it was missing one petal, so I posed it to show its best features.


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Bernadine Clematis

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“Clematis vines were growing all over the world, both wild and in gardens….

“The most popular clematis grown is the gorgeous purple
C. × jackmanii. It was bred in the Jackman nursery in 1858 and is generally believed to be a cross between three other varieties. George Jackman published The Clematis as a Garden Flower, in which he suggested planting a clematis garden with the vines trained over picturesque old tree stumps. By then though, a new fashion had started of pegging down clematis vines to cover the ground and fill flower beds. William Robinson also suggested they should be allowed to grow through shrubs such as azaleas, ‘throwing veils over the bushes here and there.’

“The new British hybrids were introduced to America in the 1890s, but the British ‘wild’ garden style of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson never really became fashionable here, probably because America was wild enough as it was. Andrew Jackson Downing, the American landscape gardener, said that clematis ‘are capable of adding to the interest of the pleasure ground, when they are planted so as to support themselves on the branches of trees.’ They do not seem to have been allowed to sprawl over the flower beds.

“Clematis are most often seen nowadays growing up mailboxes, where they hang nicely in ‘veils.’ The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful, especially when seen up close — which we have an opportunity to do whenever we collect our junk mail and bills.”


In my garden, the first clematis vine to produce buds and flowers is a Bernadine Clematis. The photos below span a couple of weeks, from the early April arrival of wee buds to the appearance of full grown flowers by mid-month.

The first two images might be photos of the smallest flower bud I’ve photographed; it was barely an eighth of an inch long, yet still capable of reflecting sunbeams in such a way that it looks like it’s got its own light source. It seemed too fragile to even stay on the vine, and yet….

…. a few days later, the buds (and vines) are a lot more robust. The second photo below shows the same bud from above, in its upstanding position.

I took these photos a couple of days before the flowers opened. In the last three images you can see hints at some of the color that will make its way into nature’s final version of the flower.

Here are two of the blooms, over a few days. The first four photos were taken two or three days before the last four. The intensity of the colors wanes somewhat as the flower gets larger. By the time the petals have reached full size, they’ve flattened quite a bit, and less shadow along the petals’ centers reflects light differently. The blue color softens and purple shifts to lavender, getting lighter each day. The petals will turn almost white, until they detach in the wind or rain and blow away.


Thanks for taking a look!

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