Sunday, December 29, 2013

Orchid Hunting in Winter

It seems odd to be out looking for orchids at this time of the year, but yesterday was a nice winter day -- sunny with no wind, temperatures in the fifties -- a perfect day to get out to pursue my botanical interests after being cooped up indoors. Herb joined me on the hike.

After my find of the Puttyroot or Adam-and-Eve orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) growing on Wildcat Mountain last spring I learned that this orchid puts out its single leaf in the fall. The leaf persists through the winter to die back in early spring. I had been wanting to see these leaves for myself, and with no underbrush to obscure them, this seemed like a great time to look for them.

We left the house around eleven thirty and started climbing up the mountain around noon. A younger family moving at a faster pace soon overtook us on the trail and we let them pass. We took the left fork at the top and proceeded toward the area where I remembered seeing the orchids. Herb was lagging behind and called out to me as we were walking by one of the old stone walls. He had spotted something he thought might be what we were looking for and sure enough, here were two orchid leaves. One had an intact dried seed pod.

I had not seen any orchids in this part of the preserve last spring, and was surprised to see just how close to the trail they grew. The leaf is very distinctive with its pleated white veins.

Aplectrum leaf 
Another few leaves cropped up a bit farther along. Apparently there are quite a few more plants of this species here than I had been able to pick out last spring. When we finally reached the spot where I had sketched before, the place was rife with them!

There was more green on the ground than I had expected to see: Christmas ferns (covered with ice in the shadier places) and a club moss called ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum).

With our objective accomplished, we looped around the trail and back down the mountain in the warm afternoon sun. Next spring we'll look for more native orchids: Wister's coralroot and lily-leaved twayblade are known to be found here, and who knows, perhaps there could be others?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sketching in Big Cypress

White Heron in Big Cypress, 14" x 10" watercolor.

During my recent trip to Miami, my friend Raquel and I took a jaunt to Big Cypress. We wanted to paint a bit on location, something neither of us had had much time to do recently. The swamp surrounding the Gallery at Big Cypress is such a lovely spot--the ancient cypresses shade and provide shelter for so many birds and other wildlife.

As we approached the swamp a great white heron posed at the base of one of the cypresses. He lingered long enough for us to take a few photos before flying off. We entered the gallery to check out Clyde Butcher's latest work and I couldn't resist buying a calendar and a couple of cards with his fabulous photos of ghost orchid flowers. This rare orchid has two long appendages on the lip (labellum) that resemble legs, and the frontal view makes the flower look like a whimsical little creature dancing. I hope someday I may get to see and sketch this fascinating orchid in the wild.

We took a leisurely  walk out the gallery's back door into the surrounding swamp and marveled at the cypress knees--there were several groupings that looked like sculptures. We saw this one that, to me, evoked something of Rodin's Burghers of Calais.

 After our walk we set up our gear overlooking the water and ate our lunch while contemplating what we were going to paint. I felt a bit rusty, not having done any plein air work in almost a year. I decided to include the great white heron from the morning in my sketch, but I had to do this from memory. As you can see, when comparing my sketch to the photograph below, memory makes for a poor comparison with the real thing. In fact, my whole sketch lacks the wonderful luminosity of the scene. I'll have to try this painting again, to see if I can achieve the effect from photos.

 Raquel's unfinished painting looked much better than mine--the cypress roots she chose to focus on had a similar anthropomorphic quality to the photo of the cypress knees. I can't wait to see her finished painting!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Elena at the Fairchild Tropical  Botanic Garden

On a recent trip to Miami to retrieve some artwork, my friend Raquel invited me to visit the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.  I had visited this gorgeous garden on a previous trip to Miami about eight years ago when artworld megastar Dale Chihuly had an exhibit there--his amazing glass pieces blended so well with the setting, they seemed to be part of the weird blossoms of the flora in the place. The garden evidently bought a few of the pieces and here is one in the tropical greenhouse.

Standing in front of a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture.

 My friend wanted me to see the new Wings of the Tropics exhibit--part of the science village program. There is an entire greenhouse dedicated to showing lovely tropical butterflies and moths flying freely. Imported from various locations around the world while in the chrysalis stage, these butterflies are released shortly after they emerge. The greenhouse is fitted with double lock doors so that the creatures cannot escape into the garden. We were told they do not have a license from the FDA to breed the butterflies, so the plants in the greenhouse are carefully chosen to supply them with nectar, but are not host plants that any caterpillars could feed on to propagate.

A moth enjoys a dessert of overripe bananas and papaya.

It was a very warm day and it was quite hot in the butterfly house, so eventually we drifted into the air-conditioned dining room for lunch. After lunch, we happened on a new museum building and found a wonderful exhibit of original botanical watercolors by artist Lee Adams.

Watercolor of palm by Lee Adams

I have been very intrigued by the discovery of this botanical artist, and the museum had little information on him other than he had been commissioned by Dr. Fairchild to do botanical illustrations of mangos in the Kampong (in Coconut Grove), Central America and later of the palms in the garden's extensive collection. Eighteen large illustrations comprised this exhibit. From the little I have been able to find, Lee Adams was from Jacksonville and died tragically in 1971 in a car accident. I am trying to find out more about him, and wonder where and how many of his other botanical works there are. If anyone reading this knows, I would be most grateful for any information.

After the museum, we wandered into the shady tropical forest, beckoned by the refreshing sound of running water through the area. We sat on a bench under an enormous tree that had dropped some very curious fruit which I picked up--we managed to photograph this specimen.

Pachira aquatica fruit

The tree itself is enormous, and it wasn't until I read the identifying tag I realized that it was the same species as my "money tree" houseplant, Pachira aquatica. What a difference! The "money tree" sold as houseplants are miniaturized like bonsai, and several plants are grown with trunks braided together to make decorative forms. The full-size tree here shows the buttress roots characteristic of many tropical trees .

Pachira aquatica tree
"Money tree" Pachira

A giant bird's nest fern perches by a shady stream in the tropical forest.
Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa)

There is such a wealth of exotic and strange specimens in these gardens! Orchids galore, palms, screw pine (Pandanus utilis) with ripening seeds, beautiful and unusual flowering trees. I could go on for pages and pages, adding lots more photos, but I'll leave it for now. Raquel is probably is the only other person I know who could have spent the entire day there enjoying every minute as much as I!

Vanda orchids in the tropical forest

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Art at the Mill

Herb at "Art at the Mill."

Three of my pieces were accepted into this fall's Art at the Mill show. Last Sunday there was a reception for the artists, and Herb accompanied me. The show is impressive--there were over a thousand pieces of art by three-hundred some artists drawn not just from the local area, but far and wide. That was at the start of the show two weeks ago, but since buyers take their purchases with them, by last weekend only about two-thirds of the art remained.

The setting for the show is also fascinating--the historic Burwell-Morgan Mill in the quaint village of Millwood is now owned and operated by the Clarke County Historic Society. Docents on site explain the inner workings of the mill: the water wheel with its wooden gears, the grindstone, and other related machinery of the period can be seen on the lower level.

Me standing next to my piece "Maryland Veldt"(below the portrait).
The exhibit encompassed a wide approach to style and subject matter, from abstract to realistic, still-life and plein air landscapes, as well as many very accomplished portraits, some of beautiful animals. The organizers have been putting on this show for the past 28 years. Art at the Mill is open over several weekends each fall and spring, and I am honored to be in such good company.

The entire weekend was rainy, a very welcome phenomenon after more than a month without any rain. This photo of my narrow-leaved sunflower in glorious bloom was taken just before the flowers were knocked down by the week's torrents. I bought this plant last year at the Virginia State Arboretum's Arborfest plant sale and it turned out to be a great choice--the flowers opened around the first of October. Hopefully the clump will continue to expand and I can subdivide it in a year or two.

Helianthus angustifolia

Earlier in the week the spring-flowering bulbs I'd ordered arrived, and now I'm ready for a frenzy of fall planting.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fall Equinox and New Plantings

Friday a week ago the weather changed after a front blew in, leaving no doubt that fall is on its way. With cooler temperatures, it's been perfect for work on the garden. Herb and I spent a week digging out and preparing a new bed for the pink bush roses I had ordered from Jackson & Perkins. I chose the site for maximum sun and scenic appeal from the street, but the soil in that patch was the worst I've seen so far: hard as concrete after the recent dry spell, we dug out eight buckets of large rocks before mixing lots of peat moss and composted manure. On a glorious Saturday afternoon I finally planted and mulched the new roses--voila!

New rose bed.

After that was done, I moved on to finish digging out the circle around the base of the red maple tree. I had put in some yellow day-lilies during the summer, but I needed two more plants to fill out the circle. I selected some lovely hybrid varieties on sale from Wayside Gardens--one peach and one pink. The plants arrived bare root this past Thursday, and I planted them the next day. I can't wait to see what they will look like next summer.

I also began to dig holes in the back yard for the saplings I'd gotten from the Arbor Day Foundation last spring. I'd been keeping these in pots all summer so I could water them easily, but now they need to go into the ground. The soil back there, though rocky, was not as compacted and hard as where we put in the rose bed; a couple of evenings were enough for the first two holes--for a dogwood and a redbud tree.

Showers were in the forecast for yesterday afternoon. I went out right after lunch to plant the saplings before the rain. A light drizzle began before I was finished with the first one, but I kept on working--it was not enough rain to get wet. Later in the afternoon and into evening we finally got some real showers--the first good soaking in weeks. This morning, the garden is resplendent with droplets in the sunlight!

My new saplings in the back yard.

The front garden.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Orchid Pencil Sketches and Nature

Purple Fringed Orchid Flower details
Showy Orchis Flower detail

I've been working on refining the details of the orchid flowers for my botanical project, and trying to come up with the color palettes for these. I seem to have approach-avoidance towards the final project at this point.

In the meantime, the roses I had ordered for fall planting arrived, and the past two evenings have been spent digging up a new bed for them. It's such a rocky spot I've hauled away five or six buckets of rocks so far, and still have another 4 feet or so in length to dig. The weather is so lovely at this time of the year that even this back-breaking work is still enjoyable. Just being outside working on my garden is a pleasure. Looking forward to next spring's display keeps me at it.

Admiring the results of last year's plantings, some beautiful combinations like the one below seem noteworthy. The contrast of the magenta flowers of this aster against the yellow-green of the Sedum rupestre 'Angelina' and even yellower dwarf Hinoki cypress is a wonderful study in complementary colors and textures. If I could only be as perfect as nature when I paint!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

New Deck and Garden Musings

The new deck for our house is finally complete! The actual building stage only took the work crew a week, but preparing for the work--obtaining the approval of the homeowner's association and the building permit--had started back in early May.

We're waiting for delivery of  the new table and chairs sometime in the first week of September so that we can enjoy dinners outdoors. In the meantime, our next door neighbors were so kind as to loan us two Adirondack chairs so we could sit outside on summer evenings for that magical golden hour.

I look forward to furnishing the deck with some potted plants and benches next year, as well as adding  the stairs and a flagstone patio at the walkout basement door. In the meantime, work on the landscape continues. In June we added a large Japanese zelkova tree to the side yard which you can see here behind Herb.

Here's a two shots of the front of the house--the first one from last year, the one below this year--it shows a little bit of progress though not very dramatic.

Summer 2012

Summer 2013

Western side.

Eastern side.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sketching the Purple Fringed Orchid, Finally

Close-up of flower showing the pollinia.

 Two days after our hike on the Mill Prong Trail, I went back to sketch the purple fringed orchids we had found near one overlook. It looked as if showers were once again in the forecast, but my window of opportunity for this rare species was closing fast--the flowers would not last much longer. If I wanted to sketch them for my certificate project, now was the time.

I started out a bit later than I hoped and didn't stop at any overlooks, but a cloudburst came as I was approaching Thornton Gap. I pulled in at one of the overlooks and ate my sandwich in the car while it rained. Watching other people stopping at the overlook was entertaining: traditional families with children or grandparents with grandchildren taking photos, climbing over rocks, couples admiring the scenery, motor-bikers stopping to pull on rain gear, many of these folks international in origins, all this activity was reassuring... the human reactions to the natural spectacle seemed so predictable, regardless of the cultural origins.

After the rain passed, I continued on to my site and parked at a pull-off. I put on my orange safety vest and backpack, and walked towards the orchids. I found six more flowering spikes I hadn't seen before very close to the pull-off. A couple of them were just at the perfect stage, the flowers pristine, but spring water pooled at their feet, and I would have to set my stool right in the middle of the flow to sketch them. I kept on toward the plant I had seen two days before--the lower flowers had been fertilized and were starting to form seeds, but the location was better--I could see the entire plant, including the lower leaves if I pushed the underbrush out of the way. I set my stool next to it.

Mosquitoes and bugs buzzed in the shade, and here I'd forgotten to spray myself with repellent (I'm so allergic to insect bites every sting turns into days of torture afterwards). I'd have no peace to concentrate on my art work, so it was better to leave my stuff there and go back to the car to spray myself.

Back at my task, the plant was not easy to sketch--or photograph. The individual flowers are less than one inch in length, and grow all around the spike in a spiral pattern. They have complex details, such as the long nectary spur at the back that is easy to confuse with the flower stem, and the showy lip split into three fringed lobes that has a spot of white at the base. I probed the flowers gently to better understand the arrangement of their parts and how they all fit together.

Platanthera grandiflora Sketch of the flowers.
Platanthera grandiflora Sketch of the leaves.

It took a while to do two sketches, which I split into upper and lower portions of the plant. After finishing, I took as many close-up photos as possible and headed home, happy to have accomplished my purpose. It took a lot of effort, but I finally got my sketches of the beautiful purple fringed orchid!

Purple Fringed Orchid, plant with leaves.
Flower spike.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Wealth of Unusual Plants on Skyline Drive

Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora).

On the Fourth of July David and Herb joined me for a hike at Shenandoah National Park. I wanted to explore the Mill Prong Trail to look for another orchid new to me: the round leaved orchid (Habenaria orbiculata). David didn't arrive until early afternoon, and storm clouds were gathering as we set out toward the park's north entrance. It began to pour just as we were starting to rise on Skyline Drive, but we soon drove out of that one cloudburst, only to drive through a few more. The air became fresher and cooler as we gained altitude and the sky began to clear.

By the time we reached the area where the purple fringed orchids grow the rain was over; I thought we might as well stop for a quick check on the orchids. I had brought the digital camera David loaned me and his telephoto lens, so the three of us walked along the road, and lo and behold, there were a few more orchids growing along the bank, in a more accessible place than the four plants on the rock ledge from my previous visit. This was great! I could come back in a day or two to do the sketches for my project.

We pushed on towards Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail, stopping at the Visitor center for directions to the trail head and a map. It was about five by the time we hit the trail. The trail through the forest was quite muddy from the recent rains, but that made it seem more promising. Shortly after, Herb spotted the first of a colony of Indian Pipe flowers (Monotropa uniflora) emerging from the forest floor.

Indian Pipe Flower (Monotropa uniflora)

There were lots of other mushrooms too. I recognized the poisonous Russula emetica, and saw others that looked as if they might make a wonderful meal, like the one below.

Russula emetica

We crossed the first of several streams, and on the other side of the stream I spotted a spike of greenish-white flowers. The rounded leaves at the base left no doubt that this was the orchid Habenaria orbiculata that I was looking for. The flowers seemed a bit past their prime, and I found only two other specimens nearby. The light was fading fast, making it difficult to photograph.

Round Leaved Orchid (Habenaria orbiculata)

Looking down among the orchid leaves I saw a few tiny, odd-looking yellowish clusters and recognized them as seeds of squaw root (Conopholis americana); I had not seen the plant at this interesting stage before.

Conopholis americana setting seed

I would have liked to continue hiking down to the Rapidan Camp but it was getting late--it would take another hour or more to drive back to Front Royal, so it seemed wiser to leave our explorations for another day.

On the drive back we saw a wild turkey with one chick walking at a bend of the road. The location was so close to where I'd seen what I thought was a pheasant a few weeks earlier, I wondered if what I'd seen could have been this wild turkey instead. If it was the same bird, her brood had been three of four then.

Further north, a furry black creature crossed the road just ahead of us, in a flash. Herb immediately said "dog" until I reminded him that unleashed dogs were not allowed in the park--and, it didn't run like a dog--it could only have been a bear cub. Where was mama bear? It was late in the day and with most visitors gone, the wildlife was making the most of the opportunity.

David and I at Old Rag Mountain overlook.