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

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!

Zinnia Elegance (3 of 4)

From “Zinnias” in Flowers and Their Histories by Alice M. Coats:

“The majority of the zinnias are natives of Mexico, where they were cultivated at a very early date. The horticultural art of the Aztecs was highly developed, and at the time of the Spanish invasion of 1520, the gardens of Montezuma equalled, if not surpassed, anything that was to be seen in Europe. Besides the zinnia, his flowers included the dahlia, tigridia, sunflower, and morning-glory; and he sent his gardeners to all parts of his realm to collect and introduce new plants and trees….

“When planting a shrub or flower newly imported from a distance, Montezuma’s gardeners were accustomed to prick their ears and sprinkle the leaves of the plant with blood. The new chrysanthemum-flowered zinnias, which have quite lost the neat French-millinery elegance of the older kinds, look as though they had been reared with the aid of some such ceremony.

“The plant was named in honour of J. G. Zinn, Professor of Physics and Botany at Gottingen University, who died in 1758 at the early age of thirty-two…. It is sometimes called Youth and Age; a name for which I can find no explanation.”

From “Summer / It Is Enough” in Reborn: Selected Poems by Louise Morgan Runyon: 

It isn’t always,
but at this moment, today,
it is enough

Enough, to stand in the sunlight of my garden,
to peel off the dead heads
of the yellow flowers
of the huge and glorious bush,
to bend down and examine
the brownish furry moth,
with its tiny pale iridescent
salmon-colored dots, as it pauses
on the pale, salmon-colored


This is the third of four posts with photos of zinnias that I took over the past few weeks. The first post is Zinnia Elegance (1 of 4) and the second post is Zinnia Elegance (2 of 4).

Here we have some in lavender, purple, or pink — followed by a return to some of the red and orange ones that, perhaps, are descendants of those sprinkled with blood by the Aztecs as described in Flowers and Their Histories above. This may or may not be true, of course, but it can be fascinating to consider how generations of these plants made their way from Mexico in the 1500s, then to Europe, then eventually to the United States to land in a garden a mile from my house — transitions through time I had never really thought about until I started photographing flowers like this (obsessively!) and digging into their genesis and history.

Thanks for taking a look!

Zinnia Elegance (2 of 4)

From “Zinnias” in Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West:

“[The] original zinnia, or Zinnia elegans, was introduced into European countries in 1796, and since then has been ‘improved’ into the garden varieties we now know and grow. Many flowers lose by this so-called improvement; the zinnia has gained….

“Some people call it artificial-looking, and so in a way it is. It looks as though it had been cut out of bits of cardboard ingeniously glued together into the semblance of a flower. It is prim and stiff and arranged and precise, almost geometrically precise, so that many people who prefer the more romantic, lavish flowers reject it just on account of its stiffness and regularity….

“[There] are few flowers more brilliant without being crude, and since they are sun-lovers the hot dry spot where we plant them will shower the maximum of light on the formal heads and array of colours. Whether we grow them in a mixture (sold, I regret to say, under the description ‘art shades’) or separate the pink from the orange, the red from the magenta, is a matter of taste. Personally I like them higgledy-piggledy, when they look like those pats of paint squeezed out upon the palette, and I like them all by themselves, not associated with anything else.

“As cut flowers they are invaluable: they never flop, and they last I was going to say for weeks.”

From “There is No Straight Line” in Listen With the Eye by Samuel Hazo:

Everything is circles:
the spun top
of the world,
the night, the day,
the night again —
the corn
from seed
to stalk
to corn
to seed….

There is spring
in snow,
and summer
in April,
and autumn
in the first zinnia,
and January
in the last….


This is the second of four posts with photos of zinnias that I took over the past few weeks. The first post is Zinnia Elegance (1 of 4).

Here I show some additional zinnia colors. I would like the white ones a lot, I think, but I could only find two zinnias in white so have posted some in pink and yellow-orange shades that were more plentiful.

Thanks for taking a look!

Zinnia Elegance (1 of 4)

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

“[Zinnias] are members of the composite or Asteraceae family of plants — imagine a sunflower — that represents a cluster of hundreds of individual tiny flowers growing upon a single platform called the receptacle. Therefore, and speaking technically, a zinnia or composite is not a flower but instead is a cluster of flowers, as its name suggests. In presenting a single sunflower to a favorite person, for example, it is most correct to exclaim ‘I have brought you a bunch of sunflowers,’ but this most likely won’t catch on.

“The small flowers that compose the ‘flower’ of the Elegant Zinnia and all its relatives represent two basic types: ray flowers and disk flowers. Ray flowers each bear a single colorful petal and often a seed at its base; in single flowers these petals are lined around the rim of the receptacle, producing the ‘sunrays’ as in a sunflower. Disk flowers have no petals and form the central cone of a zinnia. Whereas ray flowers are either sterile or female, disk flowers are both male and female, frequently appearing yellow or orange due to pollen of the male parts (anther/stamens), giving the center of a single composite flower its additional smidgen of color.”

From “Visitation” in North of Eden: New & Collected Poems by Rennie McQuilkin:

I’ve been anxious all morning,
have come outside to sit by the fall flowers,
shaggy orange and pink and yellow zinnias
grown tall for the occasion
beside the rough-hewn slats of a barn-red barn.
The day is warming after a touch of frost.
The zinnias have made it through

and have a caller
on orange-red, black-veined wings
rimmed with white dots and yellow oblongs.
The wings go from flower head to
head, landing, shutting, opening slowly,
then folding together like supplicant hands
palm to palm for the long deep drawing in,
and rising for delighted swags of dizzy flight
up and down the length of the barn
before lighting on another zinnia….


As I mentioned in my most previous post (see Zinnias and Fritillaries), I’ve made several trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens just to spend time photographing flowers from several batches of zinnias that seem especially happy to be here this time of year. The extra attention I gave them got me wondering about the zinnia flower’s structure — especially after looking at flowers like this one, where the zinnia bloom has two little yellow flowers growing around the edges of its central disk…

… about which my first thought was that two additional flowers had seeded themselves (somehow!) onto the zinnia. As is often the case, this puzzling led me to Wikipedia, where zinnias are described as “composite flowers” — and composite flowers are then explained by the botanical term pseudanthium. While “composite flower” and “pseudanthium” are not precisely interchangeable, one can see why one might just be satisfied to use the former term rather than the latter.

Flowers in the aster — or Asteraceae — family are typically composite flowers, and zinnias like the one in the photograph above contain multiple composite parts. In addition to the up-top quotation from A History of Zinnias: Flower for the Ages (I can’t believe I found a book about zinnia history!), you can read a more elaborate description of these intricate structures — along with some diagrams of the different parts of a zinnia flower — at Zinnias: Flower Cycles and Parts. Despite their small size, the additional florets are highly visible in bright yellow or orange, evolving as a strong signal for pollinators (and photographers!) to zoom in for a visit.

I photographed many of these zinnias on a slightly overcast, breeze-free day — my favorite conditions for photographing flowers. Yet as I stood near the zinnias taking pictures, some of them kept swaying to the left or right, as if they were being tapped with a stick. They weren’t of course; but I soon found I had a photo-shoot companion: this bitty creature who, apparently, thought its job was to challenge my focusing skills by leaping from plant to plant and giving the stems a solid shake. I caught him in a nice freeze-frame just after he leapt from his last zinnia, his colors blending with the rock wall as he disappeared into the grass nearby. While I tried to get him to crawl on my hand — THAT didn’t work! — at least I got him to pose for these portraits.

Here’s the first collection of zinnia photos, starting with wide views of some of the red-orange varieties like those I posted previously, followed by closeups of a few other-colored variants with very interesting botanical elements.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!