Sunday, January 17, 2021

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker.


A new visitor showed up yesterday at my feeder on the cherry tree in front. This beautiful red-bellied woodpecker and his mate have often been spotted on the old oaks in the back yard--I suspect they may have a nest in one of the trees. He came to the feeder yesterday afternoon, and had a banquet with the left-over seed ornament. 

Interesting to watch his stance--feet grasping the seed ornament, balancing on the ground with his tail. He came back this afternoon. So did another three downy woodpeckers. I guess it's time to put more food out for the birds.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

My Feathered Friends

Downy woodpecker with dark-eyed junco behind


A couple of years ago a friend gave me a finch sock filled with Njer seed late in the winter, and I hung it from one of the branches of the cherry tree in front of my house. It took the local finches almost a week to realize there was food there and start coming regularly, but once they discovered it, the birds kept coming back. When the seed was all gone, I bought more and replenished it until spring.

I enjoy bird watching, and feel fortunate to live in an area where we have such a large variety of species that live here year-round, with many more that migrate through every spring and fall. The large oaks in back of our house provide perches for so many birds, it's like having my own living nature show. But having a feeder has made it more fun because now I can see them at closer ranges. 


Downy woodpecker


I decided to expand my bird watching opportunities this winter by adding a bird seed Christmas ornament. I hung it up this week, and it's attracted more birds than I could ever have imagined! This downy woodpecker, which I see regularly on the big oaks in back through my binoculars, was so starved that he stayed at the seed stocking for a long time, while smaller birds congregated around him.

Titmouse at feeder

The moment the downy woodpecker left, one of the titmice from a group of four that had been on nearby branches waiting, descended upon the stocking, and they all took their turn. Our resident cardinals showed up too, but the other birds were so aggressive, they didn't stand a chance. Eventually they got tired of waiting and left.


Male house finch

Meanwhile, groups of finches perched on the finch sock, taking turns. You can see how much the sock has been depleted in just the past week. I've had as many as three at one time perched on the sock, but didn't manage to get a good shot of them--both gold finches and house finches. The dark-eyed juncos congregated, too, on the tree but mostly on the ground, looking for any seeds that the finches may have dropped.

I set up my camera with the telephoto lens on a tripod by the front door, taking these photos through the glass storm door. Unfortunately, the glass fogs up after a while and makes it difficult to get a clear shot. I have to close the door and wait for a while until the glass clears up again.

Black-capped chickadee

The black-capped chickadees were the last to show up--they came in the afternoon. The downy woodpecker returned the following day and stripped most of the remaining sunflower seeds, and the titmice and chickadees have been making the most of the remaining seeds on the tree ornament. It will probably be completely stripped by this evening, but no sweat, I have two more replacements. My cherry tree has become a beacon for the local birds!

Friday, January 1, 2021

2021 Plant of the Year

Wisteria frutescens, watercolor on paper, 12"h x 10"w.


It was an honor to be asked to illustrate the Virginia Native Plant Society's Plant of the Year for 2021. Each year VNPS designates a Plant of the Year as the focus of their mission to educate and promote native plants. It was late in November when they contacted me, and the illustration needed to be finished before Christmas so that the brochure could be produced on schedule for the new year.

I worked from several excellent photographs provided by VNPS, and since I had to work fast, I traced the outline from the photographs to get the proper size and proportions of the flowers and leaves. The inflorescence of this plant is a very complicated raceme consisting of lots of small, pea-like flowers, which needed to be carefully articulated in the drawing. I later refined my drawing as much as possible directly from the photos.


Pencil drawing from the photo.


The entire drawing seemed a bit larger than the actual flowers should be, though it is hard to determine the actual scale when you don't have the real object in front of you. I reduced my drawing by scanning it and printing it slightly smaller. I then traced this drawing in ink in order to transfer it onto the watercolor paper, re-arranging the leaflets a bit to give a better sense of the compound pinnate leaves.

Ink drawing for tracing

Next, it was time to start on the watercolor. Being right-handed, I generally start with the upper left corner. In this case, the upper left raceme of flowers and buds. Using Schminke's Brilliant Blue Violet, I laid down very pale blue-violet washes and gradually built up the deeper violet shades. The outer parts of the flowers are of a contrasting brownish red-purple shade, mixed from Perylene Maroon and Quinacridone Gold.

Starting the watercolor.

Continuing on the flowers.

The small raceme of flowers between the two larger ones was left lighter and in softer focus to suggest that it is located behind the other two. 

Adding the stems and leaves

After the flowers were almost finished, I started painting the leaves with yellow-green washes. The  yellow-green leaves are a close complementary color for the blue-violet flowers, but a little unnatural looking.

Working on the leaves.

Some toning down was needed with deeper shades of green to give a sense of the different planes of the leaves, of light and shadow. I'm very curious to see how the finished work will look reproduced for the VNPS Plant of the Year brochure.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

'Tis the Season

Decorated for Christmas


On December 16 we had a some very wet snow that brought about nine inches. It would probably have amounted to more, but in the afternoon the temperature rose and the snow turned to rain for a few hours before turning back to snow. I had just finished putting up the outdoor Christmas lights a day or two before, and the fresh snow gave our house the perfect look for a White Christmas. At dusk, I just I had to run out and take some photos!

Christmas decorations

The following week was cold enough that the snow lingered on the ground, but alas, the day before Christmas Eve, another storm brought over an inch of rain and melted all the snow! Indoors, my Christmas cactus put forth its first flower-- a lovely pink and white bird-like creature. I thought that all three buds would open at roughly the same time, but the first flower has now faded and the other two buds will be a while before they are ready to open.


Christmas cactus flower

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Fabled Franklinia

Franklinia alatamaha, watercolor and graphite, 13.5"h x 10.5"w


My painting of the fabled Ben Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is finally finished. When I started this painting based on my field sketch last summer, I had been thinking of writing a post illustrating the process of painting it step-by-step, but as often happens, I forgot to take photos and ended up with only one intermediate photo, so that was not practical.

It's taken me a while to figure out exactly how to go about finishing this piece. I started experimenting, adding a few branches in the background to give a better idea of the tree's growth pattern using graphite pencil, so as not to detract from the one lovely flowering branch in color. I think this treatment works; the graphite fills in the background with a soft, silvery look that gives a better idea of the tree's habit.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

November Dawn

My back yard at dawn.


The fall color this year has been outstanding: the oak trees in back have never been so red as they are at the moment. I took this photo just before sunrise from my studio window a few days ago. It's been unseasonably warm since the beginning of November, but earlier in October, the overnight lows were near or just below freezing, which brought out the colors.


Red 'Simplicity' rose


With this weather, it's a joy to work in my garden digging up spring-flowering bulbs that were overcrowded, and replanting them in newly expanded flower beds. And adding a few new bulbs too, of course. I bought two Imperial Fritillaries (Fritillaria imperialis)--a red and a yellow--and some pink-cupped daffodils. I'm looking forward to seeing my handiwork when it all begins to emerge next spring.


A vase of my roses


It's so rare to have this many roses still blooming in November, that I picked one of each of the varieties in my garden for this bouquet: Molineux (yellow), red Simplicity, pink Petal Pushers (in back), New Dawn (pale pink), and red Double Knockout.


The east yard

The Viburnum 'Brandywine' on the east side of the house is still sporting some leaves along with its now blue-black berries, and the Japanese maples had some leaves when I took this photo, but after yesterday's rain, I doubt many will persist.

Oak trees in back yard

Fothergilla with purple asters.

The woods in back have been really glorious all week. Many other unexpected and stunning color combinations crop up in my garden at this time of the year--the orange leaves of the Fothergilla against the lavender of the purple asters and the silvery stems of the Caryopteris, with the Diervilla... everything takes on particularly lovely hues in the late afternoon as the sun is setting.


Re-blooming iris 'Blatant'


The re-blooming iris 'Blatant' has produced several flowers, and there are more blooming spikes. If the weather keeps up, it should continue to bloom for another week or more. It's also time to fence off the most susceptible plants, like this double-flowering quince, one of the deer's favorite snacks--there really is no other way to keep hungry deer away from some plants. I've also enclosed the hybrid witch-hazel 'Diane' that I planted this spring, as well as the Azaleas, Rhododendron and Hellebores on the east bed. Thus I hope to minimize the deer damage, though every year some of my plants get nearly wiped out.


Re-blooming iris and mums.

I'd been wanting to have an autumn flowering crocus that deer wouldn't eat, so when this Colchicum 'Waterlily' went on sale at Wayside Gardens, I bought one bulb to try out. Colchicums are very poisonous to both humans and animals, and this one with lovely mauve flowers is a hybrid of two different species: C. autumnale 'Alboplenum' with C. speciosus 'Album'. It will be interesting to see how it fares.

Colchicum 'Waterlily'

Monday, November 2, 2020

A Visit to Brookgreen Gardens

Entering Brookgreen Gardens.

Recently I went down to Myrtle Beach, SC, with my husband Herb for a conference of the Dragon Society that Herb was interested in writing about. I went to keep him company and help with the seven-hour plus drive. But, I was looking for something to do to amuse myself while Herb was at the conference. Searching on-line, I found out about a wonderful botanic garden just a few miles south of Myrtle Beach--Brookgreen Gardens.

Brookgreen Plantation was founded in the 1760's, and was once the largest rice plantation in the U.S. Today, it's famous as a lovely sculpture garden with the largest collection of figurative art in the U.S., and for its wonderful botanic garden adorned with hundreds of  250-year old live oaks dripping with resurrection ferns and Spanish moss.

Lake at Brookgreen

I 'd brought my watercolor kit and sketchbook, intending to spend the day there painting. I arrived late in the morning and after parking by the Welcome Center, decided to walk around and explore a bit before settling on a spot for painting. I took the path around Jessamine Pond, where a white heron was scouting by the shore. 


Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora)

As I looked down underneath the pines, among the fallen pine needles I came across one of my favorite flowers--Indian Pipes (Montropa uniflora) right at my feet. I examined the pine needles, which were quite long, and counting bundles of three, I guessed these were from long-leaf pines (Pinus palustris) which are native to the southeastern coastal area.

There were many young Camellia bushes under the tall trees surrounding the pond--they were full of buds, indicating that these were varieties of spring-blooming C. japonicas. I took in some of the sculptures artfully arranged at strategic points along the path, taking pictures with my phone.

The live oak Allee.

As the path around the pond straightened into a long vista of the live oak Allee, I spotted the first of many of the  fall-blooming Camellias along the way. Camellia sasanqua is the species that blooms in the fall, and there were many tree-sized ones here. I was able to read the metal tags of some, others didn't have any tags, but they were all covered with lovely white and pink flowers and buds. Ah, to be in a climate zone where one could grow these!

Camellia sasanqua with Spanish moss

Camellia sasanqua x 'Sweet October'

Camellia sasanqua

Sculpture in the gardens

I learned from Elaine Hawkinson, one of the very helpful and knowledgeable horticultural volunteers at the garden, that this part of South Carolina is considered to be USDA zone 8b, which the USDA map shows as having average low temperatures from 15 to 20 F degrees. Alas, my own zone 6b can average a low from -5 to 0 F degrees, and in some rare years, we've experienced as much as 10 degrees lower here!


Camellia sasanqua


Seems that South Carolina's coastal zone is the ideal climate for Camellias, as well as many other sub-tropical plants, both native and cultivated. The soils are probably ideal too, being swampy and acid.


Fountain and sculpture under the live oaks

Orchid with Resurrection ferns and Spanish moss on massive oak limb

The gardens are so large it was impossible to see more than a fraction in the short time I had, so I concentrated on the areas surrounding the Welcome Center. Here was a shady garden artistically planted with a mix of natives and exotics such as Euonymus americanus, also known as 'Hearts a' Busting,' and a pink Anemone japonica. There were fragrant clumps of white Ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium), a Salvia that was new to me, Salvia madrensis, and in a sunnier area, a spectacular Cuphea micropetala.


Strawberry tree (Euonymus americanus)

Anemone japonica

Hedychium coronarium

Salvia madrensis 'Red Neck Girl'

Cuphea micropetala

The kitchen garden had the sort of plants one would expect: herbs, salad greens, peppers, eggplant, okra, and a fountain with a marvelous sculpture of birds in flight at its center. Further along, there were more Camellia bushes, and a delightful sculpture of a Faun, or perhaps the ancient god Pan, in another of the garden "rooms."

Kitchen garden bird fountain

Sculpture of Pan

I came across a huge Brugmansia with gold trumpets, while another large thicket of Hedychium perfumed this part of the garden. This species of Hedychium coronaria was called "Mariposa" in my native Cuba, and considered our national flower, although it is a native of southeastern Asia rather than the Americas.

Angel trumpet (Brugmansia)

Deep in shade I found a familiar plant I'd never seen in bud--the large eight-pointed leaves indicated it was Fatsia japonica, which I knew only from indoor specimens. The buds look like miniature rounded corn cobs, but as the buds develop, the flowers will look more like the airy umbels characteristic of flowers like Queen Anne's lace.


Flower buds of Fatsia japonica

Hardy Gloxinia (Seemannia nematanthodes)
Candlebush tree (Senna alata)

Another subtropical plant that called for attention was a bright red Hardy Gloxinia (Seemannia nemantathodes)--these are natives of South America. A small tree with candlelabras of deep yellow flowers and distinctive pinnate leaves that close at night, Senna alata (formerly Cassia alata) decorated this section of the garden. Outside the Welcome Center I found a table displaying many of the plants flowering in the garden, labelled with their common and botanical names--a very useful reference!

Botanical education display

There was one intriguing plant that I wasn't able to identify, and Elaine was not familiar with it either. The flowers are unusual, and I'm hoping that perhaps one of my readers may be able to identify it, or give me some clues. Below are two photos of the mystery flower, showing the leaves with the  tall blooming spike, and a close-up of the flowers.

Mystery plant.

Mystery plant.

Under a green ash tree.

 In the last garden room I entered, there was a very large tree labeled as a green ash. This was an unusual sight for me, accustomed to seeing only dead or dying ash trees in our area--the emerald ash borer has destroyed thousands of ash trees in the Shenandoah Valley. To see so healthy and beautiful a specimen as this was memorable.

 After my walkabout around the gardens, I decided to skip lunch and went back to my car to get my painting gear. I set up right by the pond I'd first walked around. My first glimpse of the gardens seemed the most iconic view, and here I'd stay shady and cool during the hottest part of the afternoon.


Brookgreen Gardens watercolor, 10"h x 14"w.

 I spent the next few hours there, happily working away until about four in the afternoon. I wasn't completely finished with my painting, but my body was stiff from sitting, and I had enough down on paper to be able to finish it later with the aid of my photos. Here's the finished painting.


The plant data team at Brookgreen identified my mystery plant as Turk's Turban, Clerodendrum indicum, a native of  Southeast Asia, introduced into Hawaii and the southern states. It's also known as Tube Flower in the southern U.S.