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

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!

Winter Shapes: Big Trees and Little Grasses

From The Architecture of Trees by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi:

“We often think of trees as things, as objects. We perhaps see them as providers of shade, but mostly we think of them as things we can use, shape, and force into restricted spaces….

“Trees are victims of their own immobility — they are anchored in place. We forget that they live with us on this planet and that the planet, indeed, was theirs for tens of thousands of years before it was ours. They grab on to the planet… unshakeable and strong and able to regenerate, to begin again from the beginning, leaf after leaf….

“We forget that they breathe every day, leaf by leaf. We forget about their unique and extraordinary ability to draw food and energy from light. We overlook their constant and vital contribution to the life of the planet as they produce oxygen and supply it to other creatures. The fact that trees provide oxygen is such an acknowledged and accepted fact that it loses all meaning. It is an obvious notion — something we learned in school as kids — so we forget it….

“Knowing trees means rediscovering this.”

From “The Serenade” in Poems by William Cullen Bryant:

I saw from this fair region,
   The smile of summer pass,
And myriad frost-stars glitter
    Among the russet grass.

While winter seized the streamlets
   That fled along the ground,
And fast in chains of crystal
   The truant murmurers bound.

I saw that to the forest
   The nightingales had flown,
And every sweet-voiced fountain
   Had hushed its silver tone.


Here’s something a bit different; or at least partially a bit different. We had very few sunny days in January, but I did slink out into the neighborhood on one of them, and in addition to aiming my camera toward the little things I usually photograph, I took these pictures of some of the giant trees that populate the grounds at Oakland Cemetery. With the trees still sporting their winter leaflessness, the views of them and beyond them were quite fantastic. As is often the case with wide-angle-zoom images, it can be difficult to interpret the scale of what is shown; but for comparison, I will say that the cluster of pointy pine trees is thirty to forty feet high.

The two buildings I zoomed in on (in images nine and ten) are about two miles from the grounds, if a straight-flying crow headed in their direction. The silver cylinder on the left is the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, known for its glass facade and its 360-degree view of the city from a restaurant on one of the top floors. The building to its right is 191 Peachtree Tower — an office tower with matching art-deco structures at its top, with an overall design that somewhat mirrors a building it replaced, the Majestic Hotel.

The grassy photos were experimental — or whatever! — because I was aiming 300mm of zooming at a few blades near a fence, from six feet away. The wisps kept moving in the breeze — as wisps do — but I got a few I was satisfied with, and their backgrounds are somewhat pleasant.

Thanks for taking a look!

Winter Shapes: Corkscrew Hazel

From “Last Week of February, 1890” in The Poetical Works of Robert Bridges by Robert Bridges:

Hark to the merry birds, hark how they sing!
Although ’tis not yet spring
And keen the air;
Hale Winter, half resigning ere he go,
Doth to his heiress shew
His kingdom fair.

In patient russet is his forest spread,
All bright with bramble red,
With beechen moss
And holly sheen: the oak silver and stark
Sunneth his aged bark
And wrinkled boss.

But neath the ruin of the withered brake
Primroses now awake
From nursing shades:
The crumpled carpet of the dry leaves brown
Avails not to keep down
The hyacinth blades.

The hazel hath put forth his tassels ruffed;
The willow’s flossy tuft
Hath slipped him free:
The rose amid her ransacked orange hips
Braggeth the tender tips
Of bowers to be….


I’ve passed by the fascinating plant featured in the images below many times at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, but never photographed it before. It stands about five feet high and stretches perhaps fifteen feet laterally, producing delightfully twisty branches and clusters of catkins as it’s winter garb. On a trip to the gardens a couple of weeks ago, I decided to give it some attention, then learn more about it.

The shrub is a Corkscrew Hazel, and, like many plants, its name has a history of its own. It’s named after Hazel Corkscrew (born “Hazel Culpepper” with a similarly botanical surname), who was a Victorian Burlesque performer well-known in the late 19th century for her unusual contortionist abilities. Ms. Corkscrew would appear in jester’s slippers shaped like the plant’s catkins and, while dancing, was able to stretch and bend her arms and legs into curves that looked a lot like the plant’s branches. Several British botanists — having observed the plant in nature and the performer whilst out pubbing — couldn’t resist informally naming the shrub after Ms. Corkscrew, and after a while, the name stuck. Ms. Corkscrew lived well into her 90s — those stretching routines really paid off! — and in addition to being a botanical inspiration, she worked as a labor relations advocate in retirement, successfully unionizing many younger burlesque performers, who became known as — you guessed it — The Corkscrew Girls.

Haha! I just made all that up, pulling out my special Authoritative Tone of Voice to try and convince you. Yet it’s not that farfetched, given that the plant does have a connection to the 19th century entertainment industry. It’s known by multiple common names (such as twisted hazel and winter hazel, with its twisted branches so much more visible during leafless winters), including “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick” — a name linked to Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder, whose performances included the use of a contorted cane or walking stick that resembled the plant’s branches. Lauder made and accumulated a large number of such walking sticks throughout his career; and some, it has been said, may have been made from a Corkscrew Hazel’s branches.

I dug in for a while trying to find the genesis of “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick” as its common name, but my research only led to a lot of assumptions that it “came to be known” that way, without uncovering a source or even a reasonably precise time frame. In Elizabeth Lawrence’s Beautiful At All Seasons, for example, Lawrence mentions the common name, but skips over its origins. She does, however, point toward the plant’s emergence in British gardens, which is an interesting story in itself:

“The original plant was found by Lord Ducie in a Gloucestershire hedgerow. He gave a plant to Canon Ellacombe, who passed it on to E. A. Bowles, and now, one hundred years later, it is in the trade and anyone can have it….

“I remembered some notes on the twisted hazel in an old issue of the Royal Horticultural Society Journal, and looking back I found a photograph of Mr. Bowles’s shrub, taken in early spring when the bare branches were hung with silken tassels. It really is beautiful…. In the picture the catkins are perfectly straight, but the branches twist and turn as wildly as ever, so that the whole bush is ‘a collection of various curves and spirals, a tangle of crooks and corkscrews from root to tip.’ The reason for these contortions is that the outer bark of one of the parent plants was slow growing, and the inner bark of the other grew fast. The wood of the offspring never has a chance to straighten out, but is always being pulled in the opposite direction.

“Perhaps the popular name needs some explanation to the present generation, which may not know about Harry Lauder’s crooked cane. The twisted hazel was the first and the most interesting inmate of the part of Mr. Bowles’s garden that he called the ‘Lunatic Asylum,’ a home for demented plants. Freaks of nature interested and amused him. He collected all that he could find or hear of, and gave them the greatest care.”

The “E. A. Bowles” that Lawrence refers to is Edward Augustus Bowles, a British horticulturalist, whose book My Garden in Spring contains a chapter called “The Lunatic Asylum” — where he elaborates on his home for wayward plants:

“[A] home was needed for some trees and shrubs of abnormal characteristics that I had been collecting, and the Lunatic Asylum sprang into existence.

”The twisted Hazel was the first crazy occupant, and is perhaps the maddest of all even now. It was first found in a hedge by Lord Ducie, near Tortworth, who moved it into the garden, increased it by layering, and so distributed it to a few friends, my plant being a sucker given me by Canon Ellacombe from his fine specimen….

“It is a most remarkable form, for it never produces a bit of straight wood; the stem between each leaf is curved as though one side had grown much faster than the other, and alternating lengths are generally curved in opposite directions; frequently they are twisted spirally as well, so that the whole bush is a collection of various curves and spirals, a tangle of crooks and corkscrews from root to tip. They do not straighten out with age and thickening, and in winter, when leafless, the interlacing twigs are beautiful as well as curious… I have not seen catkins or nuts on it, and wonder whether the former would be curly lambs’ tails, and the latter coiled like rams’ horns.”

It’s hard to say why his corkscrew hazel hadn’t produced catkins — though he does refer to their presence in a subsequent book, My Garden in Autumn and Winter — and his speculation that they might look curly like lambs’ tails is certainly correct. And though he never refers to the plant by the name “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick”, his description of the mechanism by which the plant’s branches twist is quite compelling — and fits my photos really well! — even if he’s not the source of its delightful popular name. We may not know how the “walking stick” name actually came about — but we can still get a kick out of the plant with a history in his Lunatic Asylum, and enjoy the photos!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (2 of 2)

From “A Winter Piece” in Poems by William Cullen Bryant:

The time has been that these wild solitudes,
Yet beautiful as wild, were trod by me
Oftener than now; and when the ills of life
Had chafed my spirit — when the unsteady pulse
Beat with strange flutterings — I would wander forth
And seek the woods. The sunshine on my path
Was to me as a friend. The swelling hills,
The quiet dells retiring far between,
With gentle invitation to explore….

But Winter has yet brighter scenes, — he boasts
Splendours beyond what gorgeous Summer knows;
Or Autumn with his many fruits, and woods
All flushed with many hues. Come when the rains
Have glazed the snow, and clothed the trees with ice;
While the slant sun of February pours
Into the bowers a flood of light….

The incrusted surface shall upbear thy steps,
And the broad arching portals of the grove
Welcome thy entering.


This is the second of two posts featuring hydrangeas and their winter shapes. Unlike the previous post (see Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (1 of 2)), I took these on a dark and cloudy day, so there was no backlighting to make their little parts appear to glow. Yet these can be delightful to look at anyway (in my own humble opinion) because the softer light shows off some of the fine, lacy (and sometimes silver) textures in individual stems and flower petals.

I snipped the quotation above from the poem “A Winter Piece” by William Cullen Bryant. The poem is much longer than those excerpts, and is a vibrant ode to wandering the woods in the winter, with vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds one might encounter on an extended woodland walk. If you’d like to read the whole poem — or just skim it for some of the charming details — here’s a link to the full version:

A Winter Piece

Thanks for taking a look!

Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (1 of 2)

From “Learn to See the World Around You” in Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“If you pay attention to the world around you, you can’t help but fall in love with nature. The rhythms, the beauty on a vast and a minute scale, the triumphs of life: It’s all laid out around us, and if we choose to be in touch with all this richness on a deeper basis, we’ll be better photographers. Learning to see is, after all, about learning more about yourself as you connect with the natural world around you.”

From “The Nature of Sunlight” in Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“Natural light exists in two forms: as strong, direct sunlight, known as specular light, and, if softened by clouds, diffused light. Both types of light are sourced from the sun. With nothing standing between your subject and the sun, the light is direct and produces sharply defined edges. Emotionally, this direct light expresses vitality, hope, and joy. People go out to sit in the sunshine because being bathed by the light of the sun can bring a feeling of happiness. Our existence depends on the sun, and emotionally we know that, so sunlight inherently expresses life. Sunlight is bold and aggressive. It can be wonderful for dramatic landscapes, and for times when you want to create strong contrast in a photograph. Yet sunlight is not appropriate for every subject. You wouldn’t express the peacefulness of a forest in the high contrast of full-on sunlight, but you could use that light on a landscape of sand dunes, or to capture the intense glow of backlit flowers or leaves….

“Working with light, it’s important to recognize some differences between how we see light and how the camera sees it. Our eyes can read a greater range of contrast than the sensor in our camera can. As we scan a scene, our pupils are constantly opening and closing to adjust for the amount of light so that we can see detail in everything. We are looking here, then there, and the eye is constantly adjusting to the light and shadow present. The camera can’t do that. It simply grabs a moment in time, the one you’ve chosen, and tries to capture as much range of light as it can, but that can be a big compromise. Because of this, a scene might look good to our eyes, yet the results may be a disappointment. The more you realize this difference, the better you’ll become at analyzing the contrast of light in any situation and deciding how you’ll manage it.”

From Hydrangeas by Naomi Slade:

“In the garden, hydrangeas are handsome and versatile shrubs. They excel in a woodland setting, particularly if you choose cultivars with lighter-coloured flowers, and they can make a spectacular specimen in a mixed border….

“Hydrangeas work well with complementary herbaceous plants… and also with evergreen shrubs that have an opposing season of interest, such as azaleas or sweet box…. And, while in full floral spate the hydrangea will steal the show, in the depths of winter, the denuded shrub, with its charming, skeletal flowers, adds useful structure and interest to the garden.”


Continuing with a “Winter Shapes” theme (see Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (1 of 2) and Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (2 of 2)), I assembled some closeup photographs of hydrangea “skeletons” from two recent photoshoots. As with the Japanese Maple photographs, this first of two posts features those from a sunny day with sparkly backlighting, the kind of lighting I often seek out when photographing flowers and plants.

It can be especially effective to work with backlighting that’s filtered through nearby shrubs or trees, so that background brightness doesn’t swallow the subject entirely while it creates interest through blends of blurred light and shadow. I usually take multiple shots of scenes like this from different positions and camera settings, since — as Tharp describes in “The Nature of Sunlight” above — the camera tries to gather as much light as it can, which may be too much for subjects as small as these hydrangea remnants. It’s also true that since I’m facing the light source when taking photos like this, the camera’s viewfinder is awash with light and it may be difficult to see the viewfinder’s rendering — so I have to rely more heavily on what the camera is telling me about the exposure than I do with more direct lighting. It took me a while to get used to that — largely ignoring the viewfinder image but paying attention to the aperture, shutter speed, and histogram instead — but once it became a habit, it gave me more creative control over what I was trying to accomplish.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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