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

Fresh Spring Spirea

From “Spirea” in The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines: Eastern and Central North America by Donald W. Stokes:

“At first glance, the Spireas look more like wildflowers than shrubs. Their thin stems, only two to three feet tall, are topped with clusters of small blossoms…. They grow alongside many of our common wildflowers, such as Milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Loosestrife, and when winter comes, all remain standing with attractive dried flowerheads. But if you went to collect these plants for an arrangement of ‘winter weeds,’ you would notice one significant difference in Spirea. While the stems of the wildflowers have all died, leaving only live roots to start next year’s growth, the stem of Spirea remains alive, as you can tell by scraping the bark and seeing green beneath….

“One winter, as I examined a few Spirea that were sticking up through the snow, I noticed that although their main stems were alive, the dried flowerheads at their tips were dead. I wondered how the plant would continue its growth next year. Would the flowerheads drop off? Where would new stems grow? The following spring, I returned to the Spirea and got my answer. The living buds just beneath the dead flowerhead were growing into new branches. The weight of these branches was making the original stem bend to a horizontal position, with its old flowerhead still at its tip. On older plants I found that this process repeated for several years, creating a jumble of horizontal stems with dead flowerheads at their tips, and young vertical branches growing from them….

“There are four common native species of Spirea in the East. Three of them — Meadowsweet, Broadleaved Meadowsweet, and Corymbed Spirea — usually have white flowers in either a flat or a cone-shaped cluster. The name Meadowsweet is given to these plants collectively because of the pleasant sweet smell of their blossoms and their habit of growing in moist, sunny places, especially old meadows….

“The fourth species of Spirea, Hardhack or Steeplebush, is quite different in appearance from the others. It has a thin spike of bright magenta flowers shaped like the spire of a church steeple. The name ‘hardhack’ refers to the difficulty early farmers had with cutting them in meadows. The plants were very persistent too, for even after they were cut, they could send up new stems from their spreading roots.”

From “Late March” in A Slender Volume of Poems, Essays and Stories by Sara Margaret and Mitchell Rhodes:

It’s just a little chilly. April’s promise fills the air.
For anyone who’s looking signs of spring are everywhere.

Sunshine brightly glinting on new magnolia leaves.
Irrepressible forsythia bounding forth in golden wreaths.

Pointed spears of green attending yellow daffodils.
Poeticus narcissus preening beside the prim jonquils.

Miniature grape hyacinths growing low in clumps of blue.
Vermillion quince in flower with a mockingbird or two.

On slender branches circlets of white spirea beguiles.
Periwinkle twinkles in shy lavender smiles….


Having photographed this collection of spirea in previous springs (see, for example, Bridal Wreath Spirea from last year), I can see how the growth of these shrubs matches the pattern described in the quotation from The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines above. Where there were just a few spindly stems with sparse blooms last year or the year before, the plant has expanded to split off new branches and create clusters of flowers running their length.

The overall pattern of the plant’s growth reminds me of how spirea variants are often used in vases of flower arrangements to create contrasting lines and colors with other flowers. Yet I can also see that a vase full of long stems of spirea would be quite striking and stand on it’s own — with contrast provided by its dark red woody stems and tiny green leaves. The Photographer imagines snipping some of these stems and smuggling them home under his coat — but, alas, he behaves himself and is content with the photographs instead. Thieving has never been one of his skills, anyway; he would most likely get caught.

Thanks for taking a look!

Bridal Wreath Spirea

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

“Spireas grow worldwide and were imported to Europe from America, Japan, China, and elsewhere in Asia. The Chinese reputedly used the flexible branches to make whips. Alice Coats observes that one Chinese name for spirea means ‘driving horse whip.’ They were well known in ancient Greece, where their whippy branches were used to make wreaths and garlands. The name ‘spirea’ comes from the Greek speiraia, which was a plant used in garlands, presumably named from the Greek word speira (a spiral).

“The Greeks had a pleasant interest in garlands and used them on sad, happy, and triumphant occasions. Dionysus is supposed to have made the first wreath out of ivy, and the use of wreaths spread to sacrificial animals, to priests, and to the people. In spring Athenians garlanded children who had passed the perilous period of infancy and reached their third year. Brides and grooms wore wreaths of flowers and heroes were crowned with them. Different flowers and evergreens were used for different occasions, depending on convention and availability.

“Spireas may have been used particularly for weddings as many are covered with small white flowers that seem appropriate to brides. [It] was called ‘bridewort’ early on in Britain and is called ‘bridal wreath’ today.”


The little white flowers on this bridal wreath spirea are no larger than a typical shirt button. The gallery below progresses through a series of photos starting with images of one fully opened flower, then two, then three, ending with some larger clusters that include the soft white shapes of other flowers in the background. From these photos you can see that the plant is early in its blooming life: there were hundreds of unopened flowers so I’m hoping that I’ll get a chance to photograph the plant again in full bloom soon.

Thanks for taking a look!

Winter Shapes: Salvia, Sagebrush, and Spirea

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

SALVIA (Lamiaceae): With a name derived from the Latin, salvare (“to heal”), it is clear that some of the sages have a significant medical history. All have a powerful aroma, very clearly that of Lamiaceae to any reasonably experienced gardener or botanist, but also very different from each other. Indeed, it would be fair to say that there is probably as much difference in aromatics from sage to sage as among the scents of any other genus. The range of colour is also unrivalled….”

From The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (Vol. 1) by Liberty Hyde Bailey:

ARTEMISIA: A large genus of aromatic and bitter herbs and small shrubs, mostly in the northern hemisphere, and most abundant in arid regions. Leaves alternate, often dissected: heads small and mostly inconspicuous, numerous and generally nodding, with yellow or whitish florets… In the West, many of the species, particularly A. tridentata, are known as sage brush.”

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

SPIRAEA (Rosaceae): Once upon time this was a large genus, but the splitters have had their way, so Spiraea is down to around 80 woody plants found across cool temperate North America and Eurasia…. Spireas are deciduous shrubs of woodland edge and open damp habitats. All are long-lived clonal competitive shrubs, and some are able to sucker strongly to form thickets…. [The] plants contain salicylates and so have analgesic qualities. The genus is named after the Greek word for a plant used in making garlands.”


Spring must be on its way: bits of color are starting to appear!

The salvia (in the first six photos) has begun making new leaves, shedding purplish winter ones for freshened up green. Spirea (in the last six photos) has popped out some of its tiny white blooms, while showing off their bright yellow collars. Sagebrush (in the middle) doesn’t really have much color, but I liked the fluffy silver look mixed with some shadowy blues — the closest we ever got to ice-on-plants this year.

Thanks for taking a look!

The Whites of March (1 of 2)

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

Some Asian pears, notably the Bradford pear, were cultivated in the West not for their fruit but as ornamentals. The Bradford pear was so popular it once threatened to dominate American streets, with its pyramid form, lovely fall foliage, and beautiful blossoms. It was planted everywhere, but the upright branches break easily, especially with snow on them, so it isn’t used as much now as it once was. It got the name Bradford from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director.

From Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram:

[Meaningful] speech cannot … be restricted to the audible dimension of sounds and sighs. The animate earth expresses itself in so many other ways. Last night while I lay sleeping [the old tree] in front of the house quietly broke into blossom, and so when, in the morning and still unaware, I stepped outside to stretch my limbs, I was stunned into silence by the sudden resplendence….

The old tree was speaking to the space around it…. The whole yard was listening, transformed by the satin eloquence of the petals.

From Through the Garden Gate by Elizabeth Lawrence:

It has been more than ten years since I stood there and looked down on those white flowers growing gently among the green leaves.

In the first gallery below, I’ve isolated a few individual Bradford Pear blossoms from the hundreds that the tree in front of my house produces each year. Like Elizabeth Lawrence says in the quote above, I, too, have watched this tree for over a decade as it grew from a ten foot spray of a dozen spindly branches to a behemoth that shades half of my front yard. Bradford Pear fragility, however, is noteworthy: on this one, an telephone-pole-sized section of the tree split and slid down the trunk, then jammed against a few branches last summer — and had to be extracted with a crane by city workers. But maybe that’s what it needed; now that new branches have grown in and the short-lived blossoms have been replaced by leaves, you can’t even tell that a chunk of the tree disappeared.

These delightful little creatures are a variety of spirea, featuring delicate white flowers about a quarter inch in diameter, waving on thin branches in a mid-morning breeze.

Select any image to see larger versions in a slideshow (then select View Full Size if you would like to see more detail).

Thanks for taking a look!