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 cliché. 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!

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!

When an Iris is a Butterfly (Flower)

From “Natural and Informal Backgrounds” in Irises: Their Culture and Cultivation by Gwendolyn Anley:

“Given the ideal setting, no more lovely picture can be achieved than when what I might describe as a limitless background is utilised. I recall, and will not easily forget, such a picture. A low hedge, no more than 18 inches high, denoted, but did not emphasise, the confines of the garden. Beyond lay the open country, gently rolling pasture land intersected by hedges, the straight lines of which were interrupted here and there by the soft billowing masses of elm trees. In the far distance blue hills melted into a soft haze….

“In the foreground the irises set the colour scheme for the deep blue and purple shadows cast by the trees and the misty blues and greys of the hills beyond…. It is obvious that in a setting such as this there could not fail to be a certain dramatic beauty brought about by the clever utilisation of the stereoscopic effect of the irises silhouetted against the scenic ‘backcloth.’ Moreover, whichever way one turned, in the absence of a solid back ground the irises could be seen with light shining through and around them and this seemed to add an ethereal beauty to even the deep-toned flowers.”


The tiny irises in the galleries below are a variety called iris japonica — also known as the butterfly flower. This was the first time I’d seen them at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — possibly because there were scattered throughout shaded areas of the garden, nearly hidden among large swatches of English Ivy, and so small in size that they were easy to overlook. The third image below seems to demonstrate how they got their “butterfly flower” nickname, with the two pair of petals on each side suggestive of the shape of a butterfly’s wings.



Here are before-and-after versions of the photos showing how I transformed them in Lightroom. You can see from the before images how much the irises are embedded in the ivy, their flowers and buds snaking just above the ivy leaves and the iris leaves nearly flat on the ground.

For these photos, I enhanced detail and color, then reduced shadows and highlights to eliminate the filtered — but very bright — sunlight that made its way through the trees, a flower having appeared near every spot where the sun came through. I then used radial filters — as I often do — to leave only a tasteful amount of the messy background and emphasize the flowers themselves. While I often blacken the entire background surrounding a subject during post-processing, I used this approach instead to preserve the fine detail in the flowers’ filaments and keep the scalloped edges of the petals fully intact.

Select any image if you would like to compare the before and after versions in a slideshow.


Thanks for taking a look!

A Double-Dozen Daffodils

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

“The daffodil, for many, is spring itself….

Describing the daffodils she and her brother William saw on a walk, Dorothy Wordsworth said, ‘Some rested their heads on these stones as on a pillow.’ This is good to remember when looking at daffodils after a storm: they are simply resting their heads. Dorothy noted that the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, they looked so gay and glancing.’ One can’t help wondering if William read her diary before writing his famous poem and wandering lonely as a cloud.”

From “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth, edited by Mark Van Doren:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.


Today we have more flowers, and fewer words … Thanks for taking a look!








Dogwoods and Dog-Soccer

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

“How it became ‘dogwood‘ has to do with its edible and medicinal qualities….

Cornus sanguinea, or English dogwood, was called by John Parkinson ‘the Doggeberry tree, because the berries are not fit to be eaten, or to be given to a dogge.’ The Victorian garden writer John Loudon said that it was named because a decoction of its leaves was used to wash fleas from dogs, and L. H. Bailey said in 1922 that it was used to bathe ‘mangy dogs.’

“At different times, dogwood leaves, berries, and bark have been used to intoxicate fish, make gunpowder, soap, and dye (used to color the Turkish fez), make ink, and clean teeth…. Bark of the dogwood tree contains small amounts of quinine and ‘it is possible to ward off fevers by merely chewing the twigs’ (Bailey)….

“According to Peter Kalm, American settlers believed so strongly in the power of the dogwood that when cattle fell down for want of strength the settlers would ‘tie a branch of this tree on their neck, thinking it [would] help them.’ He does not comment on whether this helped or not, but he does say that ‘It is a pleasure to travel through the woods, so much are they beautified by the blossom of this tree.’ That, at least, is still true.”

From Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz:

“A simple game of fetch … is a dance of call and response. We enjoy the game because of the dog’s reactive readiness to respond to our actions…. Dogs participate in a kind of communion with their owners around the ball, with each responding at a conversational pace: in seconds, not hours. The dogs are acting like very cooperative humans…. As wolves hunt together collaboratively, this ability to act with others, matching their behavior, might come from their ancestry. To have your play-slap matched by a dog’s is to feel suddenly in communication with another species.

“We experience the dog’s responsiveness as expressive of a mutual understanding: we’re on this walk together; we’re playing together. Researchers who have looked at the temporal pattern of interactions with our dogs find that it is similar to the timing patterns… among soccer players as they move down the field….

“There are hidden sequences of paired behaviors that repeat in interaction: a dog looking at the owner’s face before picking up a stick, a person pointing and a dog following the point to what it’s directed. The sequences are repeated, and they are reliable, so we begin to get the feeling, over time, that there is a shared covenant of interaction between us. None of the sequences is itself profound, but none is random, and together they have a cumulative result.”


My favorite thing about dogwoods is that they’re named after dogs.

Well, not named after dogs, exactly….

Until digging around this morning, I would have thought I made that up, then was surprised to learn that there’s a nexus to dogs in the history of the name “dogwood” — see the quote at the top of this post. Take that, cats!

I took the photos in the first gallery in late March, on a lovely overcast day that helped me capture some of the tiny detail in the flower petals without excess shadows or glare. The transition from the first to the last photo in this gallery mimics my movement around the tree, from its shadier side to the side that would normally get a lot of mid-day sun.

I went back a couple of weeks later and the dogwood blooms were even jazzier, so on this sunny day I decided to try a few backlit photos for practice.

Dealing with strong sun-lighting can be a challenge for nature photography, and backlighting takes that to another level because the sun is in your eyes, and the glare affects your ability to assess the image in the camera’s viewfinder — but it also encourages (!!) you to rely on what the camera is saying about exposure, focus, and depth of field. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance some images are seriously overexposed or contain blown-out whites that can’t be recovered in post-processing — and I throw out many more backlit experiments than I keep. But there are other photos, like these, that can be corrected by reducing highlights in Lightroom through the use of multiple graduated filters over the entire image, and then making adjustments to whites, shadows, and saturation to restore the color and detail in the main subject.

These pink and red dogwood blooms were plentiful on the same day, and I used similar techniques to get adequately exposed photos at the depth of field I wanted, so that some flowers and branches on each tree were isolated from the rest.

There were dozens of birds in the dogwood trees during both of my photoshoots — as there always are at the cemetery gardens, since it’s so dense with places for such creatures to hang their feathers. Yet there aren’t any birds in my photos because… because… I suck at taking pictures of birds! Well, humbly, I can do owls pretty well, but that’s possible since they’re not too bothered by the movements of humans and they tend to pose for their photoshoots. Robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches — I see them all when I’m at the gardens, but I’ve spent so much time taking pictures of stationary (or mostly stationary) plants and flowers that I barely know how to use my camera when the subject doesn’t sit still.

I was talking to my dog about this dilemma the other day and he correctly pointed out that, like birds, he doesn’t sit still much either … and he would be happy to help me out. So one morning — after he finished his tap-dancing lessons and helping me with the laundry — we designed an experiment so I could practice moving my camera into position as an object (the dog!) came running toward me, to get a feel for how the camera responded when using auto-focus and continuous shooting to capture things that are expressing themselves with speed.

For these shots, I sat on the floor in my office and threw Soccer (we call it “Soccer” because if we call it “Ball” he searches the house for the first ball he had and still remembers (from nearly three years ago!), that was so pierced with puppy-teeth holes I had to replace it) out of the office, across the hallway, and into the living room — a distance of about seventy feet. That gave me time to pick up the camera, aim at the charging beast, and hold the shutter button down until he made it back into the office and dropped the ball for the next throw. It took me about twenty minutes to get the hang of it and to get a feel for how to handle the camera when my subject was moving (fast!) — but this series does come from a single press-and-hold of the shutter, not from individually framed and focused stills.

The focus is not great on some of these (I need more practice) and I kept the fifth photo in the series because it made me laugh — but I was intrigued by how the camera handled his movement, and how well it exposed the variations in light and shadow from the bright but distant living room, through the darker hallway, to the sunlight in my office. I did make some adjustments in Lightroom (brightening shadows, a bit of straightening, and spot-removing some dust bunnies from the floor), but they didn’t require much more post-processing than that.

Now I’m ready to try birds! or maybe a safari!


Thanks for reading and taking a look!