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

White Asters / Shasta Daisies (1 of 2)

From “Spirals: The Math in Snails and Sunflowers” in Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does by Philip Ball:

“Of all the patterns and forms of nature, the spiral has probably held the greatest appeal for mystics and dreamers. It is revered by adherents of ‘sacred geometry,’ who consider the patterns and forms of nature to embody spiritual truths of the cosmos. Spirals are found in ancient and indigenous art ranging from the carvings on the Bronze Age stones of Newgrange in Ireland to the paintings of Australian Aborigines.

“Nothing better exemplifies the apparent mystery and profundity of the logarithmic spiral than its manifestation on the heads of flowers such as sunflowers and daisies. The seeds of a sunflower head are arrayed in rows that trace out not just a single logarithmic spiral but two entire sets of them, rotating in opposite directions. The pattern that results has profound mathematical beauty: crystalline precision combined with organic dynamism, creating shapes that seem almost to shift as you stare at them….

“If you count the numbers of spirals in each set, you find that they only take certain values…. For smaller sunflowers there might be 21 spirals in one direction, 34 in the other. For very large heads, there might be as many as 144 and 233. But only these pairs of numbers — never, say, 22 and 35. Why are some of these numbers favored over others?

“No one is yet sure why the sunflower seeds adopt this arithmetical arrangement. One longstanding idea is that it enables the florets or seeds or leaves to pack most efficiently as they bud from the tip of the growing stem…. This is simply a geometric problem: if you want to arrange objects in an array spiraling out from a central source, what should be the angle between one object and the next? It turns out that the most efficient packing, which gives the double-spiral Fibonacci pattern of phyllotaxis, is one for which this angle is about 137.5 degrees — known as the Golden Angle.”


This is the first of two posts with photographs of white asters — most likely, Shasta Daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum) — that I recently took at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. Many of these Shastas appeared in large clumps — spanning fifteen to twenty feet horizontally — and (as you can see from the first three photos) were quite content to grow in the shade of an old Oak Tree, while edging their way toward sunnier positions on one of the garden’s sidewalks.

As is true for most of the flowers in the Aster family Asteraceae, the central disc of these daisies actually consists of many tiny, individual flowers — which gave rise to “Composite” or “Compositae” as an earlier name for Asters. While working on some of the close-up photos in this series, like this one…

… I became a bit obsessed with how the orange-yellow disc looks, where (below in a zoomier view), you can see how the center of the center is packed with flowers but the outer edges are not.

In my imagination (such as it is!), I thought maybe some little bees had come around, picked the flowers from the outer rings, and gave them happily to their other bee friends. Hey, why not? But then it occurred to me that they probably wouldn’t have managed such nearly perfect circles as they picked the flowers, so that might not be an accurate observation.

I wanted to learn more about why the central discs looked like this, and after a few abortive attempts, hit on a question I could ask one of my AI Assistants:

When I look at photographs of a daisy’s disc florets, it appears that some of them are empty, especially around the outer edge of their circle. Why do they look like that?

The response I got included several possibilities — including “removal” by insects (haha!) and wind or rain damage — but the most plausible explanation was that the disc fills with flowers from the center outward, and those in the outer rings had not yet matured. Armed with this knowledge, I went back a few days later and checked some of the same flowers again to see if the discs had filled in — but it was too late and the white Shastas were already beyond their flowering stage. Perhaps next fall, I’ll try that again.

That the central disc fills with flowers from the center to the outer edge was equally fascinating to me, and digging into that I learned a little more about what happens. The tiny florets actually grow in two concentric spirals — with one spiral running clockwise and the other running counterclockwise. Look again at the zoomed-in photo and you can clearly see the spirals. And once you see them, you’ll see them every time you look closely at a flower like this.

This arrangement is not only not random, it runs in a mathematical sequence among the flowers in the Aster family. Starting from the center outward, the number of individual florets follows the Fibonacci Sequence — where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233. Most of the smaller Asters — like the Shastas in this post — have 34 or 55 individual florets (yes, I counted them!) in the outer ring. Sunflowers — also members of the Aster family — are often used to explain this mathematical sequence in nature, so if the subject interests you, search for terms like “Fibonacci sequence and sunflowers” or phyllotaxis (which encompasses the study of natural shapes, merging botany and math) on YouTube and you’ll find quite a few fun explanations.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Autumn’s Aromatic Asters

From “Aster oblongifolius” in Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens by Allan M. Armitage:

“The aromatic aster… is loaded with blue-purple daisy-like flowers that persist into late October. When brushed lightly, the blue-green leaves release a fresh, hard-to-describe but pleasant fragrance. This aster grows from rhizomes (as do most asters) and will attain a height of 2-3′ in the wild. Up to a dozen well-branched stems occur on a mature plant, and each holds narrow 1″ long leaves. The flowers are violet to pink to blue, each being about 1″ wide.”

From “Aster oblongifolius” in The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Asters by Paul Picton:

“The flowerheads have 20-30 violet, rarely lavender or pink, rays and yellow disc florets. Pale green leaves are oblong or lanceolate-oblong, to 8 cm (3 in) long, and rough on compact clumps….

“If freedom of flower production over a long season counts for anything
A. oblongifolius and its offspring deserve to be much more widely planted by gardeners. The most aromatic parts of the plant are said to be the green-tipped bracts below the rays. The variable species has already provided gardeners with the selection known as ‘Fanny’s Aster’, which is similar but smaller. [Flowerheads] are freely carried over a long period on bushy sprays, with many branches which spread horizontally.”


Below are seventeen images of Aromatic Asters that were among the earliest asters to appear this autumn at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. I photographed these in the first week of October (already a month ago!) while hunting down zinnias. Their tiny violet/purple blooms with orange and yellow centers create one of my favorite color combinations — yellow and purple — that capture the eye’s attention against the dark green background of their stems and leaves. Visually, they make up for their small size by blooming profusely in these rich, highly contrasted colors.

I spent some time puzzling over whether these were Aromatic Asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) or Bushy Asters (Symphyotrichum dumosum), given that Bushy’s flower is so similar in appearance. But the fragrance of these Aromatics was quite distinct — reminiscent, actually, of scented fabric softeners — so I stuck with the idea that I’d gotten the name right, especially since Bushy Asters are scentless. And Aromatic Aster’s unopened blooms emerge in a unique shape — similar to a cone or teardrop shape — that differentiate them from Bushy Asters.

Thanks for taking a look!

Sunflowers and Goldenrod (2 of 2)

From “Sunflower” in History of the World in 100 Plants by Simon Barnes:

“Sunflowers were cultivated in North America long before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. They were grown for food, but no doubt their dramatic appearance was part of the appeal. Certainly it was the look of the plant that prompted Europeans to take sunflowers back across the ocean. Once there sunflowers became a crop plant all over again, useful and humble. But now the plant is ineluctably associated with the cult of genius and the legend of the tormented artist.

“There are seventy species in the genus
Helianthus, but it’s the cultivated species Helianthus annus that mostly concerns us here: the one with the flower-head that looks like the sun. It’s not technically a flower but an inflorescence. Each head comprises many individual flowers; each of the outer flowers, which most of us refer to as petals and a botanist calls ray heads, are in fact individual flowers. These outer flowers don’t do sex, being sterile: they are a come-hither signal to insect pollinators, which feed from the many tiny flowers arranged in cunning spirals on the central disc.”

From Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katherine S. White:

“[Goldenrod] is as sturdy and as various as our population; there is delicate dwarf goldenrod, silver goldenrod, tall yellow goldenrod in a multitude of forms and shapes-spikes, plumes, and panicles of native gold….

“Descend into a bog and there, growing wild, is goldenrod; climb a mountain and there, between the crevices of boulders, is goldenrod; follow the shore of the sea and goldenrod gleams along the edge of the sands; drive along our highways from coast to coast in August and September and the fields and ditches are bright with goldenrod….

“The very ubiquity of the flower has given it a bad name as an irritant to hay-fever victims, but I’ve recently read that it is the ragweed and flowering grasses growing alongside goldenrod that are the villains during the late-summer hay-fever season. The goldenrod also has the great advantage… of owing nothing to man, of enriching no seed company, or companies, and of being as wild as our national bird, the eagle.”

From “Journals (1853)” in The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau by Henry David Thoreau:

“I see the sunflower’s broad disk now in gardens… a true sun among flowers, monarch of August. Do not the flowers of August and September generally resemble suns and stars? — sunflowers and asters and the single flowers of the goldenrod. I once saw one as big as a milk-pan, in which a mouse had its nest.”


This is the second of two posts with photos of sunflowers and goldenrod; the first post is Sunflowers and Goldenrod (1 of 2). For the photos in this post, I zoomed in on individual sunflowers or sprays of goldenrod — except for the three photos of a sunflower trio from behind (which are actually my favorites of this series).

As some interesting botanical info-bits:

Both the goldenrod plant and the sunflower plant are members of the Aster family Asteraceae. Sunflowers are in the Helianthus genus; goldenrod is mostly in the genus Solidago, but there are goldenrod varieties in other genuses also.

PlantNet identifies these sunflowers most consistently as Beach Sunflower or Plains Sunflower — sunflowers whose blooms are smaller than their more famous relative, the giant sunflower Helianthus annuus.

I first thought the photos were of either Black-eyed Susans or Brown-eyed Susans (see Black-Eyed and Brown-Eyed Susans (1 of 2); and Black-Eyed and Brown-Eyed Susans (2 of 2)). But while the flowers are similar in appearance (and the blooms about the size of Susan blooms), the form of the unopened buds, tall stems, and distinctly-shaped leaves give these away as sunflowers. And, unlike Susans, these tend to appear not in groups or clumps but — as you can see — as a single stem, or two or three stems. 

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Sunflowers and Goldenrod (1 of 2)

From “Sunflowers” in The Story of Flowers and How They Changed the Way We Live by Noel Kingsbury:

“For many of us, sunflowers are plants to grow for children. They are also important for the cut-flower industry, but are primarily an agricultural crop. Charred remnants of sunflower seeds from ancient Native American cave encampments have been pored over by archaeologists trying to work out when, where and how the plant was first domesticated. Current thinking is that this was in the region of the Ozarks (in the state of Arkansas), with hunter-gatherers collecting the protein-rich seeds to eat. Domestication reduced a large number of small heads to a smaller number of larger ones, and eventually to just one great big head. The plant spread across North and South America, and then, following the arrival of the conquistadores, by the sixteenth century it was in Spain and rapidly being taken up all over Europe — but initially only as an ornamental.”

From “Rough Goldenrod” in The Story of Flowers and How They Changed the Way We Live by Noel Kingsbury:

“Goldenrods — for many the quintessential autumn flower — were one among the many daisy-family plants introduced to Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the end of the latter century, various forms of two particularly vigorous species, S. gigantea and S. canadensis, were thriving as late-season border plants; they were popular as cut flowers, too. Both species are very vigorous, and by the middle of the next century they had well and truly escaped. They began to cover areas of waste ground in Germany, while in Britain it was the suburban rail network that took them far and wide, helped by domestic gardeners throwing unwanted plants over the back fences of gardens that lined the railway cuttings.

“By the late twentieth century the plants were thoroughly unpopular, and had given the whole genus a bad reputation. That is a shame, because many are garden-worthy plants, such as…
S. rugosa, which spreads only slowly, looks very elegant and attracts butterflies in hordes…. There are many other species for a variety of habitats, and since all are good pollinator plants, their rehabilitation — particularly in the context of the current interest in native plants and ecological planting — seems well on the way and much deserved.”

From “The Garden in September” in The Poetical Works of Robert Bridges by Robert Bridges:

Now thin mists temper the slow-ripening beams
Of the September sun: his golden gleams
On gaudy flowers shine, that prank the rows
Of high-grown hollyhocks, and all tall shows
That Autumn flaunteth in his bushy bowers;
Where tomtits, hanging from the drooping heads
Of giant sunflowers, peck the nutty seeds;
And in the feathery aster bees on wing
Seize and set free the honied flowers…

From “Three Songs at the End of Summer” in Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon:

Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod
brighten the margins of the woods.


Perhaps it’s because I’ve been trying to more accurately identify the plants and flowers I photograph — and also trying to learn about their history and distribution — but I just realized this year how so many plants in the Aster family (Asteraceae) mark the transition from summer to autumn. Here in the middle of Georgia and further south in the state, there’s very little fall color until well into November, the autumn reds and golds typically held at bay until temperatures remain low over several days or weeks.

The timing of Asters’ flowering seems quite intentional, as a result, with late coneflower, daisies, and Black-eyed Susans appearing in the last of August through early September; overlapped then followed by sunflowers and goldenrod; and those followed (with a few early exceptions) by legions of tiny asters that keep flowering into late November or even early December. For The Photographer, it’s an abundance of color that rivals spring and the early weeks of summer; and I’ve already accumulated several hundred photos of asters in purple, magenta, peach, white, and yellow colors that are patiently waiting their turn in Post-Processing.

From these collections, I pulled out the photos of sunflowers and goldenrod first, shown below and in the next post in this series of two. Many of the sunflowers were standing guard over large battalions of goldenrod, enabling me to produce some interesting combinations of foreground and background, with a single sunflower backgrounded by yellow-orange goldenrod. Much of the goldenrod seemed enormous to me, so I included a couple of photos showing it in front of an ancient Magnolia tree, where it stood as tall as five or six feet, with horizontal spans in the twenty- to thirty-foot range. For a plant that is often derided as a weed (how rude!) or as a wildflower — with its tendency to grow along roadsides or railroad tracks in expansive numbers — these cultivated batches of flowers and their thousands of dark green leaves are quite a sight to see.

I often find it challenging to develop an appropriate focal point for goldenrod photographs, simply because of the length and depth of their flowering stems and their voluminous leaves. To get larger sections of the flowering portions in front-to-back focus, I have to use aperture settings that also bring the backgrounds into focus, and I end out with somewhat flat-looking photos with too many distractions around the subject. Here, for example, is one of the images as it came out of the camera…

… where I imagine it’s apparent what I intend as the subject, but that subject is barely separated from the background. As a “first draft” for a photo like this, I’ll usually reduce shadows and increase contrast to try and pop out the subject; then reduce the saturation and brightness of the color green to create the appearance of greater distance in the background.

Together, those changes got me about halfway there with these images, but I followed them with two careful (very careful!) masks of both the background and the flowers so that I could adjust each separately, further darkening the background and adding color saturation and texture to the flowers in the foreground. I also removed a few visual distractions — like the yellow sprays in the lower left and upper right corners, as well as an intruder leaf toward the top left. Then I polished it off by using healing brushes to reconstruct a few of the goldenrod leaves that were bent or broken, disappeared some random rust spots or blurry pollinators, and ended out here, with the final version of this image…

… or here, where you can compare the two:

For all of the goldenrod and sunflower photos, I shifted the yellow color toward orange a little — partly because Lightroom detects orange in the flower petals but the bright yellow tends to hide it; and because — especially in lower light of a cloudy day — my eyes detect some warmer orange shades that seem to disappear when I adjust brightness and shadows. Or, in other words — I saw some orange so I’m showing you some orange too!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Zinnia Elegance (4 of 4)

From A History of Zinnias: Flower for the Ages by Eric Grissell:

“Garden zinnias, though among the most commonly grown annuals, are one of those flowers whose influences are greater than might easily be recognized. Originating as a lowly Mexican wildflower, they have held sway over subjects as far ranging as music, social customs, community design, larceny, art, battles at sea, and even outer space.

“[In] the early 1900s communities on the American side of the Atlantic recognized the importance of zinnias as they became more popular among designers. In 1913 zinnias were touted as elements of ‘Futurist designs’ harmonizing ‘with designs formed of cubes and triangles’ because of their rigidity and colors. The bright, clear colors of ‘this flower suggest those in the giddiest futurist silk,’ thus being used for fresh corsages and, in their artificial forms, as trimmings for hats and frocks. Zinnias were also being mentioned in the household decorations of society’s best….

“Most recently zinnias appear in yet another aspect of human endeavor, this time… in outer space. In January 2016 US astronaut Scott Kelly announced that a zinnia had bloomed on the International Space Station…. The purpose in specifically growing zinnias was as a testing phase for eventually more useful plants such as tomatoes because of the long growth periods and light conditions associated with both plants. It was also thought that flowering plants might raise the spirits of space station crew members.”

From “Garden in Progress” by Bertolt Brecht in Bertolt Brecht: Poems, edited by John Gillett and Ralph Manheim:

A lifetime
Was too little to think all this up in. But
As the garden grew with the plan
So does the plan with the garden.

The powerful oak trees on the lordly lawn
Are plainly creatures of the imagination. Each year
The lord of the garden takes a sharp saw and
Shapes the branches anew….

Around the vast tangle of wild roses.
Zinnias and bright anemones
Hang over the slope….


This is the last of four posts with photos of zinnias that I took in the last week of September and the first week of October. The previous three posts are: Zinnia Elegance (1 of 4), Zinnia Elegance (2 of 4), and Zinnia Elegance (3 of 4).

So we’ve come to the end of the zinnias for this year. Or, perhaps not: I went on an aster-hunting expedition yesterday and saw that the zinnias were still going strong, waving in the breeze as bees and fritillaries bounced around, bloom-to-bloom. Since this is the first autumn I’ve given zinnias attention, I’ll keep an eye out to see how long they last — and also see if some new colors (or shapes!) appear that I haven’t photographed yet. If so, they may be back — nobody knows for sure!

Thanks for taking a look!

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