Friday, September 30, 2005

Unkown Sprout

Unknown Sprout, April 11, 2005
Here is a perfect example of what got me started doing wildflower photography back in the mid 1980s. I was getting ready to start working on a project in which I would be studying the pollination of spring beauty or Claytonia virginica. But everything was so new to me and I had no idea how to begin. So I started walking through the woods during early spring 1987 and tried to remember as much as I could about which plants were growing in which locations. But there was too much to learn and it was overwhelming, so I started taking snapshots of sprouts beside hand-written labels. Of course the photographs were horrible, but the strategy worked.
Little by little, I became more and more picky about how my photographs should look. The first thing I realized is that I needed to get CLOSER to the subject to fill the frame a little more. I also realized that the hand-written notes did not belong within the frame! I got some diopters (screw-on close-up lens attachments) that helped bring me closer to the subject, though they also made it hard to focus and reduced the clarity of the image. Eventually, I switched to a Cannon AE-1 body and got some better lenses, like a Cannon 50 mm macro lens, and later a Sigma 200 mm macro lens. The 200 mm lens really helped a lot. Then, nearly 5 years ago, prior to my first Rod Planck Photography workshop, I switched to the Nikon N-80 body and got some awesome Nikon lenses. The best lens for me was and remains the Nikon 200 mm micro. As long as I focus it correctly (ha ha) it gives a razor sharp image that can be really close. Eventually, I tried a Tamron 1.4 teleconverter to get even closer!!
Ayway, I believe the plant featured here as the "unknown sprout" is baneberry, but I want to check it one more year before I say for sure. See, baneberry looks a lot like another plant that often grows beside it. When the plants are mature, I can tell the difference pretty easily because one plant has arromatic leaves and the other does not. (I forget which is which, but I think the baneberry is the aromatic one.) See, I rub a leaflet gently between my index finger and thumb, and then I sniff my finger tips. One of the plants leaves behind an interesting aroma that I cannot yet describe. The other plant leaves no aroma at all.
This is part of the process I use when learning about new plants. I use my eyes, fingers, and nose. I can FEEL the texture of a plant when I touch it--like whether it is rubbery, or sticky, or fuzzy, or smooth. Of course, it's lucky that I already know how to identify poison ivy with my eyes! That is one of the few plants, aside from stinging nettle, that I prefer NOT TO TOUCH!!!

Woodland Phlox Sprout

Woodland Phlox, April 11, 2005
This was a somewhat cloudy day, and I like the way the diffused sunlight highlights the texture of the fuzzy leaves. This phlox plant has about 2 weeks to go until its pale purple 5-petaled flowers begin to bloom.
One of the things I love most about spring is getting to know the wildflowers in every stage, not just when they bloom. Each year, I love to find unknown sprouts and then return to the same location day after day and week after week, to keep track of each plant's development. It is so exciting for me to watch as each "unknown sprout" is transformed into a familiar plant.
Over a period of several spring seasons, I have gotten rather good at identifying the common wildflowers (and also ferns) even when just a 1/2 inch (1 cm) of the plant has broken through the dirt of the forest floor. I guess everyone has to find something in life to excite them, right? And at least my love of wildflowers gets me out in the woods and helps keep me healthy.
Knowing wildflowers is also a great way to meet interesting people people because I am able to lead nature walks and give slide presentations--to share with others what I have learned. Speaking of learning, I would like to share my enormous appreciation for Dr. Henry F. Howe (professor at University of Illinois) who was my graduate advisor back at the University of Iowa in the late 1980s. Without Hank's guidance and encouragement, I might have never found these wonderful woodland wildflowers that I love so much. THANKS Hank.

Hepatica During Mid-Spring

Hepatica, April 11, 2005
I found this hepatica in the same general location as the plant shown from March 22, 2005. (See post from Sept 27.) Three weeks earlier, this same plant might have been producing fuzzy flower buds, which would have bloomed a few days later, and stayed in bloom for a few more days. As recently as two weeks prior to this photograph, this plant probably started losing its flower petals, as seeds began to develop where the flowers used to be. Meanwhile, the new leaves were also developing and getting ready to emerge through the dirt.
Here you can see the new leaves for the current year. Note how the sunight "highlights" the hairs along the stem, especially in the bottom right corner of the frame. Those two taller structures are also leaves, and I am not sure why they are so much taller and look different from the rest. At first glance, I would have second-guessed myself and suggested that those taller stems contained the developing fruits, but a closer look reveals that they do not. They really are just leaves! This is a typical appearance for hepatica during mid-spring. Though the flowering season is already over for hepatica, many other wildflowers are in peak bloom!

Large-Flowered Trillium

Large-Flowered Trillium, April 11, 2005
Though nowadays I shoot using a Nikon D-70 digital camera, which imitates the format of 35mm film camera, I still sometimes like to shoot a SQUARE image. Well, thanks to photo editing, I can compose my "square image" inside the camera's rectangular view finder, and then later I can modify the shape of the frame. This photo started as a horizontal rectangle (wider than high), with a lot of wasted space on either side. However, if I were to shoot this flower again, I think I would try a vertical rectangle, just to see whether I could include more of the stem, and maybe even the soil where the flower stands.
A lush woodland forest has many types of trilliums, all of whom have a similar design. One flower rises from the middle of whorl of three leaves. The plant can be just a few inches (10 cm) tall, as with snow trillium, or it can 12 inches or more (1/3 + meter), as with large-flowered trillium, shown here. Trillium flowers can be white, maroon-red, or even yellow! The white-flowered trilliums start off with snowy white petals, but the petals become deeper and deeper pink as the days go by. After several days, the petals begin to turn brown and old, and eventually they drop off.

Dutchman's Breeches in Eastern Iowa

Dutchman's breeches, mid-April
Yes, eastern Iowa DOES have wonderful woodland wildflowers. You just have to find a hilly or rocky place that has not yet been paved or plowed or heavily grazed! Along the rivers, like the Cedar River and Iowa River, there are some really nice patches of forest in which the understory still resembles (approximately) its native form.
I made this photograph using KODACHROME SLIDE FILM back in the early 1990s. Still, it remains one of my favorites. Despite the relatively poor quality of the off-brand lens (and dipoters) I was using at the time, I like the way this photograph shows the texture and shape of this interesting flower, which is about the size of a nickel. Unfortunately, the leaves cannot be seen in this view.
Over the years, I have had difficulty getting good photos of Dutchman's breeches because there is lots of contrast between the flowers and the forest floor. The white flowers often get "blown out" or overexposed. That's why it's important to do the photography on a cloudy or overcast day, when the sunlight is more even, or to use a diffuser to soften the light that hits the plant. Another problem is the wind. The flowers dangle on the stem like little pants on a tiny clothes line. The best time to catch these flowers motionless is during the early morning when when the air is calm.
For me, MID SPRING is the best time of year to do woodland photography. The bugs are rare, and the earth feels warm and dry. "Warm and dry" is important, because much of my time is spent on my knees or my belly, while checking out the plants and looking through the view finder of my camera!

Mid April Forest in Southern Virginia

Jefferson National Forest, April 11, 2005
As much as I love the springtime wildflowers, I also love the forests in which they live. However, it is very difficult for me to capture a good image of a forest landscape. But, still, I must try. That's why I was so excited when I found this stream. The stream adds an interesting element to this photograph, and also provides some distance between me and the closest trees.
Spring provides a brief window of opportunity for the plants on the forest floor. Many wildflowers begin their growth before the winter's snow has melted, and end their growth when the leaves on the trees fill in overhead, producing a blanket of shade. Spring's schedule varies from place to place with lattitudue and altitude, and with annual variations in temperature and rainfall, but the pattern is much the same.
The emergence of green begins on the forest floor with the wildflower sprouts and fern fiddleheads. These small green plants are "fed" by the sunshine, which provides the energy for their growth and reproduction. Since most of these plants are perennial (come back year after year) they use this time to store up energy in roots, tubers, and similar structures, for the following year. Eventually, the leaves on the trees fill in overhead, blocking the sun and its energy, which slows the growth of the understory and triggers senescence (dormancy) in some. For this reason, some spring-blooming wildflowers are called "ephemeral" (short lived).
This photograph shows the condition of the forest during peak wildflower blooming. The snow is gone and the sun shines brightly, providing lots energy for the small sprouts to grow. The shade of summer has not yet arrived. Not only that, the mosquitoes are generally rare at this time too!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Interupted Fern, Showing Spores

Interupted Fern, June 7, 2005
This photograph shows how interupted fern got its name. The frond (leaf) of the mature plant is interupted by dark brown structures that produce the spores. Both above and below the spores, you can see the pinnules (leaflets) that give the frond its feathery appearance. Cinnamon fern is a close relative of the interupted fern, but the cinnamon fern spores develop on a separate stalk that resembles a cinnamon stick.

Interupted Fern, Closeup of Fronds

Interupted Fern, June 7, 2005
I really enjoy "close-up" photography, especially when using my 200 mm Micro lens. I like to find and isolate patterns that I discover in nature, like the fronds (leaves) of a fern. And I like to show the texture. Of course, I would also like to make a photograph of the entire plant, but sometimes a "wider" view can also look chaotic. To get a "portrait" of a plant, it is important to also find a background that works well. And in nature, the background is already provided. The challenge is trying to "see" a shot that has good potential and getting there on a day when the conditions are right. To make a good portrait of a woodland fern, it is important to find a calm and overcast day. Bursts of wind will cause the fronds to blur in the frame. Bright sunlight will cause uneven lighting due to the combination of shade and sun reaching the the forest floor.
Interupted fern gets its name from the arrangement of spores along the frond. The frond is composed of many pinnules (leaflets) all lined up along the stipe (central leaf stem). The brown spores "interupt" the pinnules about halfway, creating a gap. A close relative of this fern is the cinnamon fern. Its leaves look very much the same as interupted fern, but its spores grow on a separate stalk--which resembles a cinnamon stick, hence its name. Both the interupted fern and cinnamon fern can reach a height of 3 feet (1 meter).

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Closeup of Mountain Laurel Flower

Mountain Laurel, June 7, 2005
This is NOT my favorite photograph of Mountain Laurel, but I include it here to show the interesting geometrical pattern and colorful design of the flower. The wide open flower (left) is about the size of a nickel. Five petals appear to join together to form a pentagon. For each petal, there are two bright red stamen. I think it's interesting, the way the buds (right) are darker pink near their tips.

Mountain Laurel on Blue Ridge Parkway

Mountain Laurel, June 7, 2005
I found this huge and impressive mountain laurel shrub in the wooded picnic area near mile 170 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The plant was about 12 feet (4 meters) tall and was pressed against a budding rhododendron that was just as big. I was excited as I filled my frame with these clusters of pink blossoms. I had been trying to get a good picture of Mountain Laurel for several years--including back in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in the mid 1990s. I have tried lots of closeups, featuring one or two flowers, but the final photographs have been disappointing. What I like most about this photo is how these clusters fill the frame nicely and form an interesting pattern on top of that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hepatica Leaf from the Previous Year

Hepatica Leaf, March 22, 2005
This may not be the most "beautiful" picture I have ever made, but it certainly does a good job of showing off the shape and texture of a hepatica leaf from the previous year. In the sunlight, the leaf appears somewhat shiny and leathery. This same photograph looks terribly flat and boring in the shade.
Whenever I walk through a forest during late winter or early spring, I look for hepatica leaves along the leaf litter of the forest floor. This tells me where the hepatica flowers will eventually bloom. Hepatica is the only wildflower that has a leathery leaf with three lobes, so it is pretty easy to spot. Also, hepatica is not extremely common, so don't be surprised if it is absent. But once you find one plant, chances are you will find several more!
There are actually two species of hepatica in the eastern forests of the United States. Hepatica acutiloba, shown above, has somewhat pointed tips at the end of each lobe. While the lobes of Hepatica americana are more rounded, somewhat like the shape of a clover.

Hepatica Bud Emerges

Hepatica Bud, March 22, 2005
Just a few days after the most recent snowfall, this hepatica bud prepares to bloom. This bud, smaller than a dime, appears very fuzzy. The fuzziness is one way to distinguish hepatica from spring beauty--because spring beauty flower buds are smooth. Hepatica flowers can appear white, pinkish, purplish, or even blueish. The number of "petals" per flower can vary from about 6 to 12. (Actually, for the botanist, the colorful part of the hepatica flower is made of sepals, not petals.) Each mature plant can produce several flowers, each flower on its own fuzzy stem. Toward the middle of the blooming season, some of the larger plants might have a cluster of 8 to 15 flowers all in bloom at the same time.
Hepatica produces a 3-lobed leaf. During early spring, it is common to see the mottled-purple leathery leaves left over from the previous year. After the flowers begin to pass their prime, a new set of new soft, green, fuzzy leaves begins to emerge.

Snow-Covered Branches

Snowfall on March 17, 2005
Spring might be just around the corner in southern Virginia, but that doesn't stop the snow from falling. Early spring woodland wildflowers are accustomed to these conditions. And though the snow might slow them down a little, you can be sure that the wildflowers are just waiting for their chance. As the snow cover melts on the forest floor, tiny sprouts continue to grow. Sometimes a late winter or early spring snow actually lands on flowers already in bloom.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Frosted White Oak Leaves

White Oak Leaves, March 18, 2005
For me, this photograph captures the beginning of spring. The nights are cool enough to leave frost on the ground, but it doesn't last long after sunrise. Nearby, young sprouts are emerging through the still-frozen soil. Early plants include skunk cabbage (which would likely start blooming in February) and hepatica (which blooms in March). I will include some early photographs of these plants soon.
I like the smooth curved lobes of the white oak leaf. It's one of my favorite trees. Due to tannins in the oak leaves, which serve as a preservative, the pervious-season's oak leaves remain leathery and intact as spring arrives. This is not the case with other fallen leaves, such as maples, which decompose relatively quickly and appear tissue-paper thin in the spring.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Highest Point on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway is found near mile marker 432. At 6053 ft above sea level, this spot is about half as "tall" as Pike's Peak just west of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Of course the Blue Ridge Mountain range is quite a bit older than those bare, sharp peaks out west. I stopped here while heading north, having spent a weekend at THE MOUNTAIN, a retreat in southern North Carolina, just a few miles west of Highland. I set up the tripod and got the infra red remote control device ready, but its range was a bit short to make this shot. So a friendly biker named Bob, who seemed amused at my efforts to docment this moment, kindly offered to snap the shutter for me. Thanks, Bob.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mabry Mill in mid September

Mabry Mill, Sept 15, 2005
I discovered Mabry Mill on June 7, 2005--toward the end of the woodland wildflower blooming season. It is located on the east side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, near mile marker 175. I have been there several times since then just to check things out, including one day when the rain was coming down like a waterfall! I like to look at how the light on the mill varies depending on the time of day and weather conditions. On this day, I caught some late morning light. Eventually I need to try and get there at dawn. I am planning to return to this part of the parkway in late winter to check on some of the earliest wildflowers that bloom. Skunk cabbage, which grows well in boggy and wet habitats, grows nearby and I am eager to find more opportunities to photograph it. In addition to skunk cabbages, there are several other species of wildflowers as well as several species of ferns. And though I love the spring woodland landscape, I also love the fall. You can expect to see a variety of "fall color" shots here on this website during the next couple months.

Bishop's Cap in late April

Bishop's Cap, April 26, 2005
Also known as "Mitterwort," this wildflower has delicate and detailed white flowers that are about 3/8 inch in diameter. The only way to get a good closeup of this flower is to have a very good MACRO lens. I used the NIKON 200mm micro lens with a tamron 1.7 teleconverter. This brought the image close enough to show the detail in the petals of the flower.

Bishop's Cap Flowers and Leaves

Bishop's Cap, April 26, 2005
This view of Bishop's Cap shows several flowers and buds, as well as a pair of leaves. The flowers bloom in a predictable order, starting at the bottom of the stem and working toward the top. Within a week of this photograph, the buds at the top of the stem will also be in full bloom, while the lower flowers will begin to form seeds. The seeds will be as small as sesame seeds and will appear black and shiny. This is a difficult plant to photograph because the flowers are small and white, and the wind causes the stems to move back and forth rather easily. But on a calm morning with diffused sunlight, it is possible to get a good shot of this plant without too much blur and contrast. Though closeups of this flower can be impressive, it also helps to have a "bigger view" of the plant for the sake of identification. Usually, I find this plant in lush forests in low-lying areas with soil that is typically moist.

Claret Cup during May in Utah

Claret Cup, May 12 2005
Clearly, this is NOT a woodland wildflower, but claret cup does bloom during the spring. Though woodland wildflowers are my favorites, and the ones that I know best, I also like to explore new places too. I "found" this claret cup near Boulder, Utah, while attending a Rod Planck Photography Tour during May 2005. The tour lasted one week, but some friends and I stayed on for an additional 3 days. As luck would have it, 2005 was an especially good spring for wildflowers in Utah due to record amounts of rain earlier that year.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Mountain Laurel Landscape on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Mountain Laurel Landscape, June 7, 2005
I found this image while heading north on the Blue Ridge Parkway as storm clouds were filling the sky above me. I could hear thunder in the distance, but knew I had enough time to pull over, jump out of the car with camera and tripod, and get a few shots before the storm arrived. I was hoping for more texture in the sky, but this is the best I got.
I like to include landscape images as well as closeup shots to give people the "feel" of the habitat in which these plants grow. However this shrub was somewhat unusual. Instead of growing in the woods like most others, this one grows out in the open, right along the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway, near mile marker 165.

Mountain Laurel in the Woods along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Mountain Laurel, June 7, 2005
Here in Virginia, I have found one woodland "wildflower" that I had not seen much before in Michigan, New Jersey, or Iowa. Mountain Laurel does grow in New Jersey, and I have seen it there in the Pine Barrens, including my parents' backyard. But THIS mountain laurel shrub, found in the woody picnic area near mile 170 of the Blue Ridge Parkway was huge and impressive. I was able to fill the frame with a variety of blossoms, something I had never done before. Many mountain laurel shrubs grow in the somehwat shady wooded areas, especially along the edge of the forest (or clearings) where they get a little light from the sun.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Woodland Spring

"Woodland Spring" is the story of spring-blooming woodland wildflowers. I began learning about these widlflowers back in the mid 1980s as an ecology graduate student at the University of Iowa. Little by little, I learned to recognize the wildflowers, not just when they were in bloom, but at various stages in their growth. I became familiar with the types of habitats in which each wildflower tended to grow. I began to take pictures of the wildflowers, including closeups and portraits, and landsacapes. I wanted to SHOW the flowers to other people so they could see what I had learned. Eventually I began to lead weekly nature walks during the spring, and met lots of people who appreciated the wildflowers as much as I did, and were eager to learn more. This eventually led to the idea of "Woodland Spring," the story of wildflowers in a woodland during spring.
The pictures that I will include come from forests in various locations, including eastern Iowa, upper and lower peninsula Michigan, central New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and western Virginia. Each year, the list of locations expands.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells, May 18, 2005
Now that I'm living in Virginia, it seems appropriate to include this flower. I have seen it in many places, of course, incuding New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa. It is often grown as a cultivated flower in shaded gardens. It forms nice thick clumps. I have seen it in nature, in a restored forest at Bowmans Wildflower Center, north of Philadelphia. I like the way the flowers start of with a pinkish shade of purple that becomes more and more blue as the flowers develop. You can see the beginning of the color change here, in these rather young blossoms.