"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Two Days with Cherry Blossoms

From “Green River” in Poems by William Cullen Bryant:

Beautiful stream! by the village side;
But windest away from haunts of men,
To quiet valley and shaded glen;
And forest, and meadow, and slope of hill,
Around thee, are lonely, lovely, and still.
Lonely — save when, by thy rippling tides,
From thicket to thicket the angler glides;
Or the simpler comes with basket and book,
For herbs of power on thy banks to look;
Or haply, some idle dreamer, like me,
To wander, and muse, and gaze on thee.
Still — save the chirp of birds that feed
On the river cherry and seedy reed….

From “To Cherry-blossomes” in The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick by Robert Herrick:

Ye may simper, blush, and smile,
And perfume the aire a-while:
But (sweet things) ye must be gone;
Fruit, ye know, is comming on:
Then, Ah! Then, where is your grace,
When as Cherries come in place?


When you live in an area with cherry trees aplenty, and they insist — as trees often do — on being photographed, it seems like your photoshoots need to include those trees. So this post features cherry blossoms from two of my recent trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, toward the end of March.

I selected the first five photos from a batch I took on a seriously brighteous day. That light was a bit too harsh for my personal taste and led to some washed-out colors, though the pinks in the blossoms held up fairly well. I threw out most of the photos I’d taken from that shoot and went back on a second day when the sun was on a break, using the overcast skies and some slightly underexposed camera settings to capture more saturated colors and the level of texture I like to see.

Thanks for taking a look!

Redbud Branches and Leaves

From “Redbud and Violet” in Gather Ye Wild Things: A Forager’s Year by Susan Tyler Hitchcock:

“A faint green mist hangs in the treetops. Then redbud darts into bloom, mauve blossoms on stark black boughs. The petals are pastel but seem shocking amidst gray shadows of winter lingering in the woods.

“The eastern redbud tree may stand up to fifty feet tall, squeezed thin in wooded areas but spreading broad when given space. Its range extends from the central Atlantic coastline into the Midwest. A shrubby cousin grows in California and a larger western redbud graces Texas and New Mexico. All redbuds flower bright and early, before their leaves arrive.

“A branch of redbud offers pleasure to many senses. Clusters of lavender flowers dangle from dark twigs, which curve like Oriental brush strokes. You sense its odor in the air. Draw closer and taste a single bloom, penetrating its inner center of sweetness. That flavor, subtle as spring’s morning light, can adorn this season’s menu.”

From World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil:

“Why is the redbud tree not called a purplebud tree? All the flowers are purple.”


The galleries below feature photos of several redbud trees that I took a few weeks ago just as the trees were entering their blooming cycle.

The first three photos are heavily backlit; imagine the sun just above the horizon to the left of where I was standing. The leaves caught my eye, so I tried to capture the scene as I saw it: off in the distance with the background heavily shadowed, the purple-pink blossoms rich with color, and the leaves glowing as if they were individual heart-shaped lightbulbs.

In the middle galleries I focused more closely on individual flowers and leaves. At this stage, the tree produces blooms from surprising places on some of its thick stubs, along with wispy clusters of flower buds running the entire length of thinner branches. And nearly every longer branch is tipped with two or three luminous, yellow-green leaves.

The last gallery shows three images of two of the trees I photographed for some of the closeups in this series.

Thanks for taking a look!

Dogwoods with White Blooms (2 of 2)

From Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill:

“The dogwood’s etymology is murky….

“One theory holds that the name descends from the Old English word for dagger, the wood being hard enough to fashion into goads and arrows as well as skewers and spindles. It furnished shuttles for the textile industry, which flourished in our village until the Civil War, when, as Kelby Ouchley notes in Flora and Fauna of the Civil War, the wood was used for ‘charcoal, engraving, mallets, tool handles, wedges, plane stock, harrow teeth, hames [the curved pieces of a harness], horse collars, ox yokes, wheel hubs, barrel hoops, machinery bearings, and cogs in various types of gears.’ Also gunpowder and toothpicks….

“There was no connection to dogs in the origin of the name, the canine element emerging only with a change in the language, when the a in dag became an o. Dog-tree, Dog-berry, Dog-timber, Houndberry — these names were coined, possibly because the bark was said to make ‘an excellent wash for mangy dogs,’ or because of the barking sound created by branches rubbing together in the wind.”

From “The Dogwoods” in Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems: 1968-1998 by Linda Pastan:

I remember, in the week
of the dogwoods, why sometimes
we give up everything
for beauty, lose our sense
and our senses, as we do now
for these blossoms, sprinkled
like salt through the dark woods.


This is the second of two posts featuring dogwood trees blooming early this spring. The first post is Dogwoods with White Blooms (1 of 2).

At the end of this post, I’ve included before-and-after versions of four of these photos. Photographing large, bloom-filled trees can be an interesting challenge: there are often so many flowers in both the foreground and background that you end out with no apparent focal point for the images. I often address that by zooming in on individual branches and their flowers; but sometimes I want to include larger sections of the tree with multiple branches and blooms. Doing that, though, causes the camera to further merge foreground and background elements together, especially since I will likely use a higher f-stop, and that tends to flatten the appearance of the image and reduce any sense of three-dimensional depth. I may see certain branches and flowers as the photograph’s subject, but the camera thinks differently: it includes, at least partially in focus, all the elements of the tree that are within the range of the f-stop I selected.

So to give the image a better focal point — which you will perceive as the image’s subject — I use Lightroom’s masking tool to first select the background, a task it does with remarkable accuracy as long as some elements are in focus and they contrast well with the foreground. I then soften and smooth out the background by reducing texture, sharpness, and noise; followed by adjustments to highlights, brightness, and shadows to darken it just enough to create greater differentiation from the foreground. Since I’m effectively pushing the background farther away from you, I may also reduce saturation, because objects that are farther away from our eyes tend to be perceived as containing less color.

Before proceeding, I’ll turn the mask off and on a few times and verify that I’ve included all the background elements I want, and that unmasked areas represent what I will want in the foreground as the subject. For the last photo of the four, then, the masked background looks like this:

I want this background mask as precise as possible, and may adjust it with a brush if it’s included or excluded unwanted elements. I then duplicate and invert the mask (that’s why I wanted it to be so precise), which flips it from a background mask to a foreground (or subject) mask, to look like this:

I can now adjust the appearance of the image’s subject, which — in the case of these dogwoods — typically consists of decreasing shadows and blacks to subtly brighten the flowers, without making them excessively bright. I am generally doing the opposite of what I did to the background, including adding texture (instead of removing it) to give the flowers some additional detail. And since white flowers tend to reflect colors from their surroundings — typically, yellow and green from nearby tree trunks, branches, and leaves; or blue from the sky — I’ll reduce yellow, green, and/or blue from the image overall to whiten the flowers.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Dogwoods with White Blooms (1 of 2)

From Dogwoods: The Genus Cornus by Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow: 

“Where does one begin with the dogwoods? From the battlefields of ancient Troy to the most humble and celebrated gardens, to modern molecular biology, the dogwoods have touched our history through the ages and are among the most recognizable of the plant kingdom’s treasures.

“Of course, in penultimate position sits one of the top dogs of the garden-plant world, the flowering dogwood,
Cornus florida. A singular specimen in bloom seems quite enough to break the wretched hold of Hades and allow Persephone to ascend once again, bringing spring to a bleak and barren winter landscape….

“Beyond the world of the ethereal, dogwoods have figured central to the march of civilization in many ways.
Cornus mas was said to have provided the wood used by Odysseus and his men to build the Trojan horse and finally wrestle victory from the hands of defeat. The branches that were too small to provide lumber were used as arrow shafts….

“Historically, some European species have been cultivated for centuries…. As ornamentals, the tree species have consistently been the big winners of gardeners’ affections. Almost immediately after the first ships returned to England from the New World, seedlings of
Cornus florida began showing up in British nursery catalogs….

“Dogwoods have been with us since the time of the dinosaurs….”

From “Branches” in Spans: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Seydel Morgan:

Somewhere in here it’s there, in a tributary
of circuitry, among the jungled arbors,
the ramifications of the heart —
it’s the forked road up the mountain
it’s the dirt road to the left
and then
way back in the pale light of April
against dark and leafless hardwood branches
the dogwood flashes white….


I took the photos for this post (and the next one) a couple of weeks ago, surprised to see the dogwoods so filled with blooms. They usually bust out in mid- to late-April, those with white or cream-colored flowers typically appearing first, followed soon by red ones. So far, though, I’ve not seen any of the reds; plants of all sorts seem to be behaving weirdly this year, emerging on odd schedules and showing unusual growth patterns — in part, I think, because of the deep freeze we experienced toward the end of last December through early January.

That’s an interesting mythological tidbit above — in the first quotation — about the Trojan Horse being built from the wood of a dogwood tree. I had never heard that before, and, unfortunately, the authors don’t provide any sources for the claim. As is often the case, the authors’ switch to the passive voice — “Cornus mas was said…” — is a hint at ambiguity, one that could have been easily address by simply saying who said it. In a different book about dogwoods — Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill — quizzicisms are raised:

“In Dogwoods, the definitive guide to the species that are available in nurseries, Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow suggest that the tree was ‘central to the march of civilization,’ since wood from Cornus mas, the dogwood native to southern Europe, Iran, the Levant, and other parts of Eurasia, was supposedly used to build the Trojan horse, the fabulous contraption in which Odysseus and his men hid while the rest of the Greek forces pretended to sail home….

“The European dogwood, also known as the cornelian cherry, is probably too small to have supplied planks for the Trojan horse. But the wood is elastic and hard enough to lend credence to the story that the Greeks’ weapons were made from it; the classics scholar Minor M. Markle III argues that for centuries it was ‘prized as the best material for spears, javelins, and bows.’ Philip II of Macedon used it to create the sarissa, the long double-pointed pike central to the success of the phalanx, the infantry formation that changed the nature of warfare. By the time his son Alexander the Great began his conquest, Markle writes, ‘the name of the wood was used in poetry as a synonym for spear.'”

Nevertheless, Dogwoods: The Genus Cornus is a lovely book, notable for its broad coverage of all sorts of dogwoods and the accompanying photographs — even of many shrubbier plants that I would have never guessed were members of the Cornus genus. It’s available on The Internet Archive’s Books to Borrow collection; if you have (or create) and account there, you can check it out at this link.

Maybe on my next outing I’ll find some discarded dogwood branches on the ground, sharpen them like spears, and stab me up some litter to see how well they work.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Blooming Apricot Trees

From Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells:

“The apricot’s botanical name is Prunus armeniaca, which means ‘plum from Armenia,’ but apricots originated in China, where they were cultivated from ancient times for their blossoms, fruits, and kernels. They most likely traveled to the Middle East, along with other Chinese commodities such as silk… and Alexander the Great might have brought them home.

“The ancient world was familiar with apricots; their common name probably comes from the Arabic
al-barquq. When they were grown in Spain by the Moors their Spanish name became albaricoque. But apricots ripen early, and some etymologists suggest that their name perhaps comes from the Latin praecox (‘early’) and apricus (‘ripe’).”

From “A Garden Song” by Austin Dobson in The Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garmey:

All the seasons run their race
In this quiet resting-place;
Peach, and apricot, and fig
Here will ripen, and grow big;
Here is store and overplus —
More had not Alcinous!

From The American Gardener by William Cobbett:

“In England the kitchen-gardens of gentlemen are enclosed with walls from ten to sixteen feet high; but this, though it is useful; and indeed necessary, in the way of protection against two-legged intruders, is intended chiefly to afford the means of raising the fruit of Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots, and Vines, which cannot, in England, be brought to perfection without walls to train them against; for, though the trees will all grow very well, and though a small sort of Apricots will sometimes ripen their fruit away from a wall, these fruits cannot, to any extent, be obtained, in England, nor the Peaches and Nectarines, even in France, north of the middle of that country, without the aid of walls….

“Hence, in England, Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots, and Grapes, are called Wall-Fruit. Cherries, Plums, and Pears, are also very frequently placed against walls; and they are always the finer for it; but, a wall is indispensably necessary to the four former.”


As far as I know, I had not previously photographed these blossoms before, on a tree that PlantNet tells me is an apricot tree. While it’s a very useful resource, it’s always a bit speculative to rely on PlantNet (or any other internet source) as a way to identify unfamiliar foliage — simply because so many flowers look like so many other flowers (especially in the early spring!), and naming conventions can be very confusing. There is an approximately equal chance that these are the blossoms of a wild cherry tree or almond tree — though after a while (a long while, of comparing random other-people’s images), I convinced myself that it was most likely an apricot. There was only one tree with blossoms like this that I could find at the gardens — and I could identify the cherry and almond trees — so that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

Thanks for taking a look!

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