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. Ă— 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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Lady Tulips (and Plant Humanities)

From “Rock Garden Plants for the Mid-South” in A Garden of One’s Own by Elizabeth Lawrence:

T. clusiana, the lady tulip, blooms the first of April and lasts for a long time. It is one of the most permanent things in the garden if it is left undisturbed. The slender buds, striped red and white like peppermint candy, never open until late in the day and not at all on cloudy days, but this does not make them less charming.”

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

“Tulips have traditionally featured in Persian and Turkish poetry, often as a token or symbol of love. They frequently appear in the visual arts of these cultures too, such as in miniature paintings and tiles….

“The single flower, on top of its straight stem was seen, in the Ottoman world, to represent the letter alif (for ‘Allah’) and therefore the unity and uniqueness of the monotheistic god….

Beyond decoration, there is little herbal or other use for tulips, apart from being eaten, for example as a famine food by the Dutch in World War II. Today, the tulip has become very much a Dutch symbol — indeed, along with the windmill and wooden clogs, something of a clichĂ©. The country is a major exporter of both bulbs and cut flowers; visiting the tulips fields in the Haarlem area is an important part of the Netherlands’ tourism industry.”

From The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam:

“Each yellow tulip … has a dark brown pupil at the base of the cup, and to look into it is to feel that the flower is returning the gift of attention — strengthening one’s existence that way.”


I had seen these Lady Tulips at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens earlier this year, noticing them late one morning under full sun and having trouble getting decent photos because there was so much light reflecting off the bright yellow flower petals that I threw out all the photos I took. On a subsequent trip, though, I took another crack at a photoshoot, waiting for the sun to dip behind some fast moving clouds to help my exposures.

In the first two shots below, you can see how the unopened buds are deep red with yellow stripes, yet the opened flower displays very little red (except at the base of a few petals) as its highly saturated yellow takes over.

You might gather from the three quotes I opened this post with that I did some tulip research, and found myself in gardening books, history books, and novels for tulip references. Tulips have quite a long and complex environmental and cultural history — extending from tenth century Persia, to Western Europe in the 1600s, to the present day.

I also spent some time with a new resource I recently learned about — an amazing compendium of information about plants and their impact on human societies. The site — Plant Humanities Lab — was recently launched (in March, 2021) and features “plant narratives” on its homepage that provide original research into the cultural significance of plants or plant families through multimedia presentations. If you are interested in interdisciplinary work on plants, history, and culture, please take a look at the site, treat yourself to the story of how boxwoods took over the world, and check back with the site often. There’s an introduction to the project here: Introducing the Plant Humanities Lab; and you can use the search tool on the lab’s homepage to find an enormous amount of information, media, and imagery about plants and their histories.

Like most tulips — so often photographed as fields full of flowers — these Lady Tulips grow very close together, substantial masses of flowers that seem to be competing for the light. They also seemed to compete for the attentions of The Photographer by waving back and forth in the breeze, and I did manage to find a few I could isolate for some decent closeups. I couldn’t help but think that the height variations you see in the photographs below were arranged by the plant on purpose, as if some blooms deferred to other blooms for the good of the whole field. In the last photo below, you may get the sense I had of all the blooms: perfectly formed flowers atop long stems, nearly floating above the grass and leaves filling the region I photographed.

Select any image if you would like to see larger versions in a slideshow; and here’s a link to the full-sized version of the last image (my favorite) where you can get a good look at the range of color and detail.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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