Friday, November 3, 2017

Great Blue Lobelia

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) watercolor and graphite, 20"h x 14.5"w.

Here's my latest botanical art piece painted for our Botanic Artists Society of the National Capital Region (BASNCR) show at the Center for the Arts in Manassas. The exhibition "Nature's Pharmacy" opening on November1st will feature plants that were traditionally used for medicinal purposes throughout history.

As the new Exhibitions Chair I've been working hard to assemble this ensemble of artwork, media and techniques by twenty-two of us artist members of BASNCR. Starting with logging the entries, developing the list of works and arranging to get the artwork from artists who live farther away to facilitate delivery their pieces to the gallery, it's kept me really busy.

It's been difficult for me to carve out the time to finish the piece I had committed to painting for this show. I had originally planned for this composition to include a pencil drawing of a clump of Lobelias behind the flowering spike in color that is the focal point, but I didn't have time to add the drawing. I may yet put this in at a later date, since the piece seems a little bare to me without it, but there is no time to draw it for this show.

Lobelia growing in my garden

I bought this Great Blue Lobelia at last year's Arborfest at Blandy Farm from one of the local native plant vendors, and put it in the east bed last fall. It has grown into a handsome clump that I photographed over the summer at different stages of blossoming. I'm hoping it will spread more next spring so that I can take a few offshoots and plant them in other beds which I'm expanding this fall.

Close-up of the flowers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Garden Interlude

Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue' with marigolds

After a very dry June, July and August, usually our driest months, brought plenty of rain. My rain gauge recorded over eight inches in July and five in August. The plants responded gratefully. Above is one my new beds in the back, with Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue' and a dwarf Fothergilla to the right, surrounded by marigolds and a black cotton plant behind the Caryopteris.

Black cotton (Gossypium herbaceous 'Nigra')

Close-up of  black cotton flower

I grew the black cotton from seeds collected at the USBG last fall. I should have started the seeds indoors earlier, as the plants developed much too slowly after being set out in the beds, and didn't begin to bloom until late August. I haven't seen any seed pods yet, so I may not be able to continue the line unless I am lucky to collect more cottony seeds at USBG during our upcoming BASNCR fall meeting. The flowers are quite lovely with their intricate veining. I would love doing a painting of this plant, as well as the one in the photo below.

Cuban Raintree (Brunfelsia nitida)

One pleasant surprise was this single flower on my Cuban Raintree plant which I've been growing for the past year. I set it out on the porch this spring hoping it would bloom, to enjoy its heavenly scent, but only one flower appeared. This is supposed to be the Cuban "Galan de noche" fabled for its perfume--but it seems to be a fussy plant at these latitudes. Perhaps it may do better next summer, if I can keep it going during the winter...

East bed in the evening

All of the native plants I put in last fall are performing well--the hardy Ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) above, and the Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) have both grown lushly in the east bed among the Japanese maples. The Carolina Silverbell tree (Halesia carolinana) on the back left is growing into a respectable-sized shrub. Herb helped me plant a Sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) in front of it in late spring which unfortunately died back to the ground, and is regrowing from the roots; it's only 6" tall at the moment, and is a slow-growing tree, so it will be a while before it looks like much.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
The back yard in July

Despite the large, still-empty expanses, the backyard is gradually attracting more birds, butterflies and bees. We have a pair of nesting bluebirds nearby that have raised several broods in the past couple of years--the fledglings like to visit our deck and we enjoy watching their antics. The mockingbirds love the blackberry bushes in back, and some mornings I would see four or five of them perched in the bushes, gorging on the berries. One morning I was able to observe a male Ruby-throated hummingbird perched on my neighbor's tree, preening and stretching his neck to show the telling ruby spot on his throat.
Pink striped Oakworm moth

Another morning after a rainy night I found this moth clinging to the sliding door screen. An internet search revealed it was a female Pink Striped Oakwood Moth (Anisota virginensis pellucida), an insect I'd never seen before. It stayed there for a long time and appeared nearly dead, so I waited and eventually carefully gathered it for my insect collection. Adding pollinating insects or birds to botanical paintings has become very popular lately, and I've started collecting as many as come my way for future use.

White hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutus)

Here are more photos of the beautiful seasonal flowers from this year's summer garden. Every year is a revelation of color and form, of nature's perfection. This living canvas of plants is a challenging way to create beauty, and very humbling, but the successes are so rewarding.

Daylily hybrid

Daylily hybrid

Yellow rose 'Molineux' with catmint

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Painting the Sweet Pinesap

Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata), watercolor, 14"h x 10.5"w.

After the adventure of finding this rare plant in its habitat, creating a painting in the studio to convey its charm and beauty was equally challenging. It took a couple of months for me to to find the time to even start. I began by studying my photos, deciding which ones to use, how to stage the plant, and at what scale to paint it. The plant is so tiny it would need to be shown at three to four times its actual size in order to reveal the details.

Stage 1: pencil sketch

I chose the photo I had used for the opening image of the series, which shows a side view of one flowering stem on the left and another from the front with the colors appearing unusually vivid.

The sketch looked somewhat unbalanced and obviously needed another element on the right to complete the composition. I found another photo showing a stem with one single flower and added it on the right to complete the composition as a triangle. I pondered on the best way to tie the three flowering stalks together, and decided painting the leaf litter on the forest floor was ideal, as it would unify the disparate elements and show how well the plant was camouflaged. The dried pine needles offer clues about this plant's association with white pines and hardwood forests.

Stage 2: ink line drawing over the shade and shadow study.

After the shade and shadow pencil study, I was ready to trace the line work in ink and transfer the drawing onto watercolor paper (Fabriano Artistico extra white). Now I could finally begin the painting.

Early stage of the painting.

As usual, I get so involved in the doing that I forget to take photos of the process as I go along, but here's one intermediate shot I remembered to take. The finished painting is above.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Devil's Steps and the Eye of the Needle

The Devil's Steps Trail

After our visit to the site where the Sweet Pinesap grew, my friend Dr. Matt Klooster had to get back to his family, so he drove me back to the Hemlock Lodge. It was a bit late for lunch at this point, but I had the rest of the afternoon ahead, so I went back out to explore more of the Natural Bridge park trails. The most challenging trail led back up the ridge to a place called the Devil's Steps on the left, flanked by the Eye of the Needle on the right.

The Eye of the Needle

Although it had stopped raining during the night, as I climbed up the hill I noticed there was a good deal of run-off filtering down through the sheer limestone cliffs, making virtual waterfalls in some places. I reached the place where the trail forked and saw there were many steps going up either side. Upon closer examination, I decided it would be smarter to ascend up the Devil's Steps-- harder work, but since the trail seemed wetter, footing would be easier going up hill. Once on the ridge, I could walk around and descend from the Eye of the Needle, which seemed to have less run-off.

Going up the Devil's Steps
Looking down

It was hard work getting up all those steps, but the spectacular views and the pockmarked cliffsides were more than enough reward. I can't imagine what it must take to maintain a trail like this... There were quite a lot of folks on the trail, thought the trail was wide enough only to allow passage single file. I gave priority to those coming down, especially some who had young children with them.

Hikers descending the Devil's Steps

Last stage of the Devil's Steps

I held my breath as I saw this young couple going down those slick rock steps carrying their toddler...
They made it in one piece, whew! Then it was my turn to start up.  Looking down this chute from the top was incredible.

Looking down

Once on the ridge it was easy going. There was more Trailing Arbutus growing on the rocky ledges among the rhododendrons. The Eye of the Needle could not be seen while standing on the ridge, only the steps leading down showed the way.

Trailing Arbutus among Rhododendrons

Coming down from the Eye of the Needle

Eye of the Needle steps

After the Devil's Steps, these steps seemed tame by comparison, and I was glad these were much drier. I was all tuckered out by the time I got back to the lodge in the late afternoon, but happy to have accomplished my purpose. I only hoped my photos of the Sweet Pinesap had turned out well enough to be usable for my paintings.

Eye of the Needle steps

This would be my last hike here, as I would be leaving early tomorrow morning for the seven and a half hour drive back home. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and to have hiked such a beautiful site as Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky was an extra bonus. I hope to return some day, perhaps when the Rhododendron maximum is in bloom.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Finding the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pineseap (Monotropsis odorata).

I texted my on-line friend, Dr. Matthew Klooster, on Saturday morning to arrange the time we would meet, since Natural Bridge State Park was about an hour's drive from his home. He expected to arrive sometime around 10 AM and I agreed to wait for him in the lobby of the Lodge.

He was running a bit late, but since there weren't many guests at the lodge, we identified each other right away even though it was our first face-to-face meeting. He was a nice looking young man, sporting a fashionably trim beard and we chatted easily at the lodge for a short while before setting out to find the Fragrant Pinesap plants.

Dr. Matt explained that the site was in the Daniel Boone National Forest, about a ten minute drive from the lodge. He drove back towards the main road, but from there I couldn't tell the direction where we headed, nor what turns we made to get to the site. We reached the area and there were a lot of cars parked along the gravel road--apparently this is a popular hiking area, and despite the cloudy, chilly weather, there were lots of hikers here today. We had to circle around to find a suitable place to pull off and park his SUV.

We walked for a few minutes along a trail and as we were passing by a few scrubby young pine trees he looked into the underbrush and exclaimed "Here's some!" I looked but saw nothing there. He walked further into the woods behind some bushes and said, "Here's more, there's lots of them right here."

Dr. Matt Klooster photographing the Fragrant Pinesap

I leaned down close to the ground and he pointed to these tiny caps peeking out from the leaf litter--one could barely tell they were plants, much less flowers. I could have walked right on top of them and never known I was upon them! I got down on my knees to see better and started taking photos.

I marveled at how Matt had been able to spot these tiny flowers and he told me it had taken him some time to learn to see them, but after a number of years studying them for his dissertation, he had it down perfectly. Interestingly, the plants here seemed to prefer growing under young pine trees, rather than the more mature forest I would have expected. I wonder what species of mycorrhizal fungi they associate with?

Fragrant Pinesap

I had a difficult time with my camera's automatic focus--the leaf litter competed with the inconspicuous flowers so well it couldn't decide where to focus. Fortunately I had my cell phone with me and Matt suggested I try using that. The phone's camera did the trick--it was much easier to zoom in and get exactly what I needed. I shot lots of different individuals, more than enough for my illustrations, in just this one small patch.

The range of color variation from plant to plant is considerable, some of the stems were a deep magenta-purple, with others a much more subdued reddish brown or nearly black. There wasn't much fragrance today, but if you got your nose down very close, a faint aroma of camphor, or maybe clove, could be detected. I figured this had to be due to the cold, since I've heard that many people locate the plant by scent before they can see it.

With such tiny flowers, I wondered what insect pollinated them. Presumably the scent attracted the pollinator. Matt explained that the flowers were buzz-pollinated by bumblebees. Buzz-pollination is accomplished by the bee beating its wings at a certain frequency that causes the pollen to be released from the pollen sacs. How exactly does the bee know to do this is a mystery worth pondering...

After this we walked a bit farther down the trail, where Matt pointed out some crested iris starting to open, and a few other spring flowers. The orange color of the fruiting bodies of  some lichens again caught my eye.

Orange-fruited lichen

These looked very like the Pink Bubblegum lichen I'd seen on Laurel Ridge the day before, but bright orange in color. It was growing alongside some Trailing Arbutus, just as on the ridge.

My friend Matt had to get back to his family soon, so shortly after this, we walked back to his car and he dropped me off at Hemlock Lodge. A brief, but amazing encounter with a fascinating gentleman and botanical subject! I had more than enough material to keep me busy painting for a good long time.

I started the painting several months later, recently. Here's a photo of my painting in progress (not very well-lit).

Monotropsis watercolor in progress.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Rock Garden Trail

The Red River by the Hemlock Lodge.

It poured again during lunch, and I was wondering if I'd have to spend the rest of the afternoon in my room, but fortunately, the rain stopped around 2 PM. I walked down the hundred or more steps to the river to explore the closed swimming pool area surroundings. There was a trail leading to the rental cottages on the other side, and a few spring flowers such as Rue Anemone, wild Phlox and a lovely wild violet with spurs that I'd never seen before.

Red River cottages
Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata)

It seemed the rain would hold off for a while, so I went back up the hill and decided to explore a new trail. Going back to the original trail, several other trails struck off to the right. After crossing a bridge over a small creek, the Rock Garden trail went off to the right, winding up around the hill behind Hemlock Lodge. That seemed like a promising trail for wildflowers...

The Rock Garden Trail

Just another forest trail lined with large Rhododendrons at first, after a while huge, moss-covered boulders began to show up along the path. As the terrain changed, plants grew more profusely at the base of the trees and boulders: a number of familiar  species such as Hepatica and Trillium, club mosses, and Star chickweed along with unfamiliar ones to me. Just at I reached this point, it started to drizzle again, hard enough to make everything soggy. I was just at about the point of no return, should I go on or not? Remembering my problems at Glacier last year, I'd just have to try to keep my camera dry. I slipped the camera inside my parka and hoped taking it out only now and then for photos would do the trick.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acultiloba)
Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)
Trillium (Trillium erectum or sulcatum?)

I had hoped to see the rare Nodding Trillium which is found in the park, and thought the ones pictured above might be some, but the Nodding Trillium is white and the flower of this one was already coloring deep red, so it may be the Wake Robin (Trillium erectum) or perhaps the Southern red Trillium (Trillium sulcatum)--beautiful in any case.

A clump of Club mosses
Close up: is its Lycopodium annotinum?

Farther on there were a number of club mosses--Ground Cedar and the one above, one new to me, and even some walking ferns. Even the tree lichens were blooming--this trail certainly lived up to its name!

Walking Fern (Asplenium rhyzophillum)
Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Trillium
Fruiting bodies of tree lichens.

After this culmination the vegetation on the trail gradually diminished to a more usual forest as the trail began to circle back towards the natural bridge, approaching it from the other side. I passed the chair lift that I'd seen from Laurel Ridge Trail in the morning, which originated on this side of the mountain.

Steps leading back to the Natural Bridge

The rain stopped again, and the sun actually broke through the clouds to cast its bright rays on the rock ledges. More sets of steep steps were carved into the rock, making it a strenuous climb. After passing a number of rock overhangs, I eventually reached the saddle under the natural bridge and started back down on the original trail towards the lodge. It was getting on towards evening now, and this side of the mountain was in shadow.

The original trail

Park sign

Tired of the food at Hemlock Lodge, I went out to Miguels' Pizza for dinner--it was just down the road and jam-packed (the pizza was evidently good). There were a number of picnic tables outside, but it was getting chilly and I was lucky to find a seat inside--very lucky as it turned out! It was a long wait to get my pizza, and it had started to pour again. Many outdoor diners had no choice but to get soaked or take refuge in their vehicles, while I was able to enjoy my dinner in crowded comfort.