"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Leaf of the Day: Seeds, Peppers and the Pepper Lady

There can be few things more exciting to a gardener that seeing first seeds sprouting. Over the last few days I have been talking to Samantha who has a blog here and likes very much to grow things from seed. Seeing her blog reminded me of my attempt two years ago to grow 27 different species of peppers on our windy sea salty balcony in Spain.
The whole pepper interest, and a taste for hot pepper sauce on everything, started as a result of coming into contact with Jean Andrews, sadly not personally, but through working at Casem at Monteverde in Costa Rica.



Jean Andrews, also known as the Pepper Lady, has written about peppers, grown peppers and drawn and painted peppers. She is one of life's wonderful, tireless, philanthropic people and I will return to her and Casem another time. But if you want to know a little more about her and her pepper interest go here. I had two of her books (currently in storage in Spain...sigh..) one The Pepper Trail", and the other just called "Peppers". They both have her writings, recipes, pepper history and paintings.



Peppers are completely fascinating, the flowers, colour and shapes are wonderful and they come in every degree of heat from mild and sweet to a mouth searing, scorching Habanero, which will rate 100,000 - 300,000 units on the Scoville scale

The names are equally attractive, my particular favourite was Satan's Kiss, which you stuff with mozzarella and anchovies, grill and drizzle with olive oil and herbs. Delicious.
Also, I grew Purple Tiger, Whippets Tail, Hot Purple Prince, White Habanero, Marbles, Bolivian Rainbow, Aurora which was beautiful , the classics Guajillo and Malagueta, and more. They change colour and shape and come in different sizes and leaf shapes, you can eat them and then there are all the delicious things you can make with them!
The plants did not much like their windy, salt burnt, high rise location but it definitely had the beginnings of an obsession and if we had stayed I had plans to find a small plot of land to really get going.
Probably the most exciting part was germinating the seeds. It's so much better to leave them alone but sometimes you just can't resist lifting the lid off the seed trays to see what is happening, can you?
These were my just-planted and labelled trays.. how satisfying it was to see them all neat and ready to go.


A couple of weeks later...and the first seedlings were growing. I was fascinated how they all grew slightly differently. Some waving the empty seed head aloft until second leaves had grown. I even kept a record of which grew first, fastest etc....Hmmmmm obsessive....



I particularly liked the brown peat pots ..as you can see. I made a few sketches of them and their new little seedlings






These were some of the later results:
Lemon drop.



Bolivian Rainbow



and Balloon...



So thank you Samantha for reminding me of the joys of seeds and now I want to grow peppers again. I need a garden!!...

The drawing is of my Cherry Pepper from 2006. __________________________________________________

Cherry Pepper


Monday, 29 September 2008

Leaf of the Day: Some Growing Success and Star Anise

There is some very good nature news from Killarney Bay today. Chris's delightful carambola tree (here) under his TLC has managed to produce some flowers and tiny star fruit. At the moment they are about as big as a fingernail but we live in hope.



Some of the tiny seeds I planted are growing (most excitingly, the Jatpoha, Buddha Belly seeds here) and the last year's loofah, which Susan gave me and has been sitting on the floor of the shower for a few days, is sprouting.





It looks like some strange animal...just about anything will grow here!
I have no idea what to do with it now, it's disconcerting to have a shower with a living plant. Growing a loofah wasn't part of my plan as I really don't have the space. I may have to indulge in some guerrilla gardening and go and plant it somewhere else. My tiny balcony, about 3ft square, is all I have, so plants need to be small. However it is so rewarding when things grow and I can't resist trying a few seeds here and there. Most of the random cuttings which I stick in any available pot are doing well and I have hopes for some Desert Rose seedlings

My latest seed pod, complete with seeds, is from the star anise. I knew of the spice, but I don't think I have ever held one of these little stars in my hand until I found this plant, or even considered how it grows. It's a glossy shrubby thing, which grows by the lake at Leu, but I can't find the label so I am unsure of the variety. This is not good, as it could be Illicium verum, the real edible and delicious spice, star anise, or possibly Illicium parviflorum, the yellow anise, which is toxic! I do know it is not Illicium floridanum whose pretty leaf I drew before here, and allegedly smells like fresh fish. ..
Whatever variety it is, its leaves are delightfully fragrant and do smell very much like aniseed when crushed. The real star anise is widely used in Indonesian and Indian cuisine where it is a major component of garam masala and, along with fennel, cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns (not actually pepper at all), and cloves is an ingredient of the traditional Five-Spice powder of Chinese cooking. This combination of spices was prepared to incorporate the 5 elements of the Chi, and create a harmonious balance of bitter, sour, sweet, salty and pungent, the yin and yang kept nicely in order. Originally it was used as a medicine and ingredients do differ, sometimes prepared with ginger and nutmeg or cardamom.
Sensible Chinese proverb; "He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician."

Botanically this is an ancient group of plants, closely related to Magnolias but now with their own genus Illicium whose Latin name translates as, "allurement" no doubt referring to the enticing fragrances produced by most of the species, except the fishy one! Real star anise was in the news, a few years ago now, as the base for "Tamiflu" a treatment for the deadly bird flu virus, sadly it's not as easy as just including a star anise pod in the weekly curry.

It's not a very elegant pod when it is green, as I have drawn it. It grows on the end of stout stems and is quite hard to see in amongst the leaves. Once it starts to dry out, which it seems to do section by section, the pod turns back on itself and the ripening seeds push out, splitting the top surface of each section of the pod with some force. I had a small, nearly ripe pod on the table last week which pinged its seeds round the room.

I don't often do this but as I teach occasionally it's nice to have a step by step drawing example. These stars can look complicated, but are really a series of circles and points, joined together. I counted 13 points on each of the pods I have. Luckily they are not perfectly symmetrical, but in botanical terms it is important to get the right number if nothing else. This might be how the plant is identified.
I work in a simple 8 x 8inch cartridge sketchbook for smallish leaves with HB to 4B pencils. I have tried smoother papers but like something with a bit of tooth, it's more forgiving. I have a scalpel for sharpening the pencils and a putty rubber. The sprig was put in some Oasis in a glass of water
to hold it steady.



1. A few ellipses sketched in, to establish the shape and perspective.



2. The thirteen points plotted around the circles and basic leaf position.



3. Getting rid of the unwanted pencil lines with a putty rubber.



4. Some initial tone for modelling.



5. More tone still



6. Final sharpening up of tones and some leaf detail.



About 2 hours ... quite a lot of that time is just spent in looking and thinking.
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Star Anise, Leaves and Green Pod


Saturday, 27 September 2008

Leaf of the Day: Triumphant Nature, Ruins and some Plein Air painters.

There has been quite a lot of dominion over nature taking place here in the apartment complex this week. There has been much lopping and hacking, trimming and tidying , grinding and chipping. The tree tidiers, who are in constant work here, come in the shape of burly men, hydraulic lifts, an armoury of power saws and a chipping machine. The elegantly drooping palms have been trimmed to leave only a cheery top knot of leaves. Over enthusiastic shrubs have been chopped down and chipped and creepers stopped in their tracks. Phew... man has regained control of this unruly bit of Winter Park..it was a close shave.
Just keeping nature at bay here is a full time and noisy occupation. A particularly miserable job I think is the be in charge of the leaf blowing machine. In 90 degree temperatures it can be no fun to carry a heavy, noisy and hot machine on your back and trudge the streets chasing leaves. But it has to be done, we can't have leaves choking up the drains, or creepers taking over pylons or tree roots splitting the pavements.



I recently saw some of the fascinating "Life after People" from the History Channel. It's a film about what would happen if Man was to suddenly disappear. As you would imagine, it's not long before nature begins to take over. Especially engaging is the fate of the skyscrapers which having eventually lost their glass become lattice of concrete engulfed by creepers and altitude loving plants. These new elevated ecosystems are full of birds and small rodents, ruled, of course by the great survivors, cats. Cats, who never really needing to come down from their high rise domains might, according to the particularly enthusiastic scientist, develop gliding techniques to get around, not unlike flying foxes. It's a wonderful image.
National Geographic have a similar film"Aftermath, Population Zero". You can go to the website for an interactive overview here. The films have mixed reviews but are worth a watch.

There is something that draws us to a ruin, isn't there, something about those qualities of impermanence and transience, all closely associated with melancholy and much loved by the Romantics.
Fragments of past events and lives can induce a contemplative state of mind, contemplative of our insignificance perhaps. It all reminds me of the great atmospheric etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi


Temple of Hercules, at Cori 1769


Arch of Titus 1748,...there must be some cats in there somewhere..

or Caspar David Friedrich's sombre paintings, like The Dreamer here.



I have to admit that I have thought some Florida landscapes can be like these. Just too artificially melancholy for my taste. A sunset painting of ancient moss draped trees with a solitary egret contemplating its reflection the black waters of a swamp does nothing much for me.

But today we did go and see a nice small exhibition at the City Hall Gallery Orlando. I quote from their publicity
“Far and Near Horizons” is an international art exhibit organized by two of the world’s foremost contemporary Landscape Painting groups – Landscape Artists International (LAI) and International Plein Air Painters (IPAP). IPAP members specialize in landscape paintings done entirely en plein air (outside), while LAI members paint landscapes in both plein air and studio settings. While the outlooks and temperaments are slightly different, the commonality of all the artists involved is a passion for painting nature’s landscape. It is a unique gathering of plein air and landscape artists using different painting mediums and representing five countries."
Their concerns for the landscape mirror David Attenborough's from yesterday's post.
Michael Chesley Johnson, past Director;
"Thankful for its inspiration, we are eager to see that it gets taken care of. And the best way to see that it gets taken care of is to put it on display for the entire world to see. Our hope is that our paintings will encourage others to become stewards of the land – just as we have become its promoters.”
There were not too many solitary egrets but some very accomplished and painterly works. To dispel any gloom that may have settled, here is a lovely bright pastel by Linda Richichi entitled Wetlands. This particular piece was not in the show but there were others, you can see more of her paintings here.




No time for a drawing today..it's Saturday...

Leaf of the Day: Nature, Creation, Us and the Lipstick Tree again

David Attenborough was on the radio today talking the most sense I have heard recently about nature and our responsibilities to it. He was speaking on the BBC4 Today Programme, (the link is here.) and if you have 5 minutes and care a little about the planet, go and listen to this intelligent and thoughtful man. It is a short interview which starts with his concern about our much loved European frogs who are threatened by some awful fungal disease (more from the Guardian here) but goes on to talk about overpopulation, education and the role of TV in informing, an increasingly insular and care-less population about the importance of keeping a balance in nature.
Here is a short extract:
"The UN now tells us now that over 50% of the human race is living in urban circumstances, and that to a greater or lesser degree they are cut off from the natural world.... being cut off from the natural world means that you don't understand about the natural world and if you don't understand about the natural world on which you depend, then you' re in trouble. So it is essential, I think that people should be aware of what goes on in the natural world..... but apart from all that, it's interesting! it's beautiful! it's unpredictable! it's astonishing! it's dramatic!

He does not preach, but just talks in a reasonable way about our moral responsibility to a planet that we share with creatures other than just Homo Sapiens. It's all so unlike some of the screeching I have heard here, coming from the terrifying "creationist" lobby. There has been much in the media recently about all this. Whatever myths or legends people want to personally hold dear, is fine, as long as they harm no one and indoctrinate no one but here some would have creationism taught as fact.


Peter Wenzel's Adam and Eve, 1780.. a pre fall idyll

I once devoted some considerable time and study to all that allegedly went on in the Garden of Eden. It's a fine and diverting story, as are the Greek myths. I just cannot hold with any theory or agree with any position which starts from the idea that Man has or should "dominion over Nature". When this particular creation story was written we were already harnessing and exploiting nature for our own ends so it would hardly have been in anyone's interests, let alone the avaricious and controlling church, to write a story that gave Nature the starring role.
I personally don't understand why anyone wants dominion over anything or anyone and regard people who do as highly suspicious, but as for Nature, well we should just consider ourselves lucky that Nature has allowed us to survive so far. You just wonder how much more you can poke a stick at it before it really bites back. Attenborough talks of nature being "badly bruised" by us . I think that is an understatement. It all makes me as mad as ...... well ...Hell!
But here is Edmund Hicks' delightfully optimistic, post fall "Peaceable Kingdom" 1834 (one of about 60 versions, triumph of optimism over experience?) to give us hope..



However, thankfully, all back at the garden of Leu is peace and harmony at the moment, apart that is, from the normal life and death struggle of the natural world.
As I said yesterday some things are just coming into blossom at Leu and to my great delight one of them is the Lipstick tree Bixa orellana, one of my very first exciting finds, thanks to Pedro. This fascinating tree is the source of the dye annatto and I had written a little about it and drawn one of the spiky pods way back in April, see "The Lipstick Tree Pod and Fake Blood" here . I walk past it almost every time I go to the gardens, wondering when it will be in bloom. I was beginning to think it was having a year off but then miraculously yesterday it was covered with flowers. The flowers are big, pale pink, lovely and like a Rose of Sharon, with no hint yet of the rich scarlet dye to come. I have just a tiny sprig with a bud, a flower and a leaf as I don't want to rob the tree of any potential for the wonderful red and spiky pods to come. I can't wait. I only saw them when they were past their best and the dye from the seeds was dried up. I am hoping to make some ink! ...
Anyway here is a watercolour with a nice rich orangy red background in tribute to annato and delicious red Leicester cheese.
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Lipstick Tree, Leaf and Flower


Thursday, 25 September 2008

Leaf of the Day: The Silver Necklace Pod Plant and Poppits.

I have been to Leu all of this beautiful cool morning. I met so many people today, 2 artists painting plein air, the gardeners Pedro, Rudi, and Susan and other unnamed but friendly visitors. Many things are beginning to change and maybe I am imagining it but there seems to be a slight autumnal feel to things, certainly last night was cooler. There is just a sense of some plants closing down and beginning to retire but others are just blossoming. I suppose it makes sense in the plant world to stagger your flowering times, so that not all of you are competing for the same pollinators at one given moment.
I found, as I always do, some new things, including an unexpected birch tree and this delightful necklace pod plant Sophora tomentosa which is a member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae), the peas and beans family. Its flowering season is nearly over I think but still the pretty dark pods hang in decorative chains amongst the soft pretty pale green leaves. They are the sort of leaves you just have to brush over your cheek. They are like the softest velvet. This lovely photo from Florida nursery Plant Creations here shows very well the flower and the silvery leaves.



This photo from yesterday shows how the pods turn from yellowy green to dark brown. There are different varieties and this one at Leu does not have such sage green coloured leaves. These were definitely pale yellow green. I like the contrast of the dark brown necklaces against the pale leaves.



The pods contain small hard shiny brown seeds and the "necklaces" remind me so much of Poppits! Does anyone remember them, those colourful plastic beads which clipped together. Popping and unpopping meant hours of endless aimless fun, the child's version of worry beads I think. I loved them and seem to remember chewing them too and I even remember the smell of them. I can't believe any survived in an unscratched, unchewed state but I found a website which actually sells them ..the very dangerous and wonderful vintage jewellery and collectibles site, "Eclectica" here
So for bit of gaudy 1960's, plastic nostalgia....


Poppits, the real thing, resplendent in thermoset, all-the-way-through, colour. You can almost see the little mould seam on the beads that I also remember.. ahh nostalgia..
Aren't they just fab..? I really wish I had not found this site ...

I had to draw the leaf very quickly as they are delicate and wilt fast. One very attractive feature but only if you look closely (and in colour) is that the petioles, the tiny leaf stalks coming from the main stem are yellow, very delicate and pretty. You would not really notice that just by looking at the plant.
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Necklace Plant Leaf and Pods


Leaf of the Day: Little Mushroom and Spanish Moss

This little mushroom was not part of my plan today but since the big rains of Hannah and subsequent late summer rains, and perhaps the time of year too, I have noticed even more lovely fungus growing out of old tree stumps and logs. I went to Kraft Gardens today but only briefly. It was gusty and threatening rain so I made for the library which is fatal. I am so easily seduced. All that knowledge just sitting quietly on the shelves waiting to be found, books just begging to be opened. There were few people, soft chairs and big low tables to spread your books on. In the hushed atmosphere of academic study, hours drift blissfully by. Fatal.

But I did eventually get back and had brought with me a little white fungus/mushroom which came draped with its own strand of Spanish moss and a slightly larger one of the same kind. They were growing on a piece of timber edging at Kraft. There were some even larger with the same beautiful glossy shiny tops.
This must be a fast growing fungus as the little one had, in parts, assimilated the moss into the very core of its being.


Top view shiny ....


...bottom view pale, and made up of tiny pinprick pores.

I am not sure exactly what they are but there were plenty of them so, I guess, not rare. I know nothing about fungi and tend to treat them all as if they are a potentially deadly poison so I rarely pick them. Maybe I am missing some delicious breakfast fry ups but this is one wild food that, without expert advice, I draw the line at, and even then I would need a royal taster to try the dish first.

From some rudimentary research on the net I think they might be the charmingly named, "Conks". Of course it makes us Brits laugh because a "conk" is slang for a nose in the UK. However here, Conks are bracket fungi and I read that there are large ones, Ganoderma applanatum, commonly called Artist's Conks...(giggle) whose white undersurface is used by craftspeople to draw and paint on. Apparently the bracket shape allows the item to be stood on a shelf. (There are examples on the Internet if you wish to find them.) If I had known I would certainly have looked for a larger one and tried my hand at this little known mycological craft!


This lovely photo of a good Artist's Conk specimen is from the Illinois Mycological Association newsletter 2000

I was hoping mine might be something rare and mystical such as this one recently found by a lady having her lunch in Malvern in the UK more from the Malvern Gazette here
"A rare and elusive fungus, believed by some to possess mysterious medicinal properties, has been spotted in Malvern by a local woman enjoying a leisurely afternoon stroll. "Ganoderma resinaceum, or the Lacquered Bracket, had not been seen in Worcestershire since 1987 before it was found in Malvern Wells two years ago.
This particular species usually grows on mature oak trees and is presently being studied by university researchers to determine its medicinal properties. Many fungi, including the Ganodermas which are large bracket fungi, have been used in the Far East for medicinal purposes for centuries and today work continues to see if this rare fungus can be propagated for use in our modern day medicines."

I had also hoped mine might be the wonder "reishi" medicinal mushroom, the "mushroom of immortality", but I don't think so, and I am certainly not going to try it. Anyway immortality does not really appeal to a person whose boredom threshold is on the minus scale.

The one I have drawn was only a couple of inches long and is obviously just starting out in life. I have read that they can reach 3ft across. Some canvas!

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Small Bracket Fungus with Spanish Moss


Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Leaf of the Day: A Fluffy Cliffrose and Nature's Colours

I am still immersed in colour and its complexities and Philip Ball's book 'Bright Earth'. Looking at how other artists have portrayed the natural world, especially at times of change in either taste, perception or available materials is particularly interesting. Those who dared to make the changes must be admired for their belief and vision. Turner, who I mentioned yesterday strove to portray the impression of nature through bold and daring use of the new colours. His work was criticised as "a specimen of colouring gone mad" but also grudgingly admired as if "done by a Rembrandt born in India" The Pre Raphaelites, following soon after, used pure, sparingly mixed colour in an attempt to portray the realities of their natural world. If Turner was reviled and ridiculed so were they.

Philip Ball writes
" The refusal of the Pre Raphaelites to mute nature's bright tones to conform with the strictures of good taste led the Times in 1851 to denounce their 'singular devotion to the minute accidents ....seeking out every excess of sharpness and deformity'
They derided the murky chiaroscuro of the Royal Academy and dubbed its head , Joshua Reynolds, 'Sir Sloshua Slosh.'

Millais' Ophelia 1851-2 is filled with new materials : cobalt blue, chromium oxide, zinc yellow, chrome yellow and the richest madder lake. The bright greens here are mixed from Prussian blue and chrome yellow, The Pre Rapaelites tried all manner of mixtures of the new blues and yellows to capture verdant nature...The results, said detractors were 'unripe enough to cause indigestion' "
But rather indigestion than constipation?....

Whether you like their subject matter or not is a personal thing but their colours, used straight from the tube, are sublime. Arthur Hughes' 'April Love' (1856) revelled in the new available purple, glows exquisitely and is completely gorgeous when you see the original.



John Ruskin, speaking of Holman Hunts "Our English Coasts" 1852, claimed this was "the first painting to truly capture the play of sunlight across the landscape. "


Both are at Tate Britian. my favourite UK Gallery. It seems such a long way away sometimes.
Nature in all its brilliance, even in England, so how do you paint Florida's colours?

But back to the plants...
If you are visiting the North Rim trails of the Grand Canyon you will surely visit Cape Royal. Here there are fabulous vistas on many sides and room to walk and view in relative peace. The trails are well marked and have interpretive signs too. This comical fluffy thing is the seed head of the Cliffrose, on the sign, the Latin name is Cowania stansburiana but it also seems to be called Purshia stansburiana.



The endearing little plumes are attached to the seeds. When they, plus seeds, are detached from the plant the hairs not only act as parachutes but also as a sort of auto seed drill. When the seed lands in the soil the wind rotates the plume via the curved hairs, twisting the seed and helping to embed it in the soil. Amazing.
The interpretive sign told me that the Hopi Indians made sandals, mats and rope from the stringy bark, arrows from the wood and medicine from the foliage.
Margaret Armstrong's "Field Guide to Western Wild Flowers" from 1915 places it perfectly in its Grand Canyon setting.

On the rocky rim of the Grand Canyon it is from 4 to 8 ft high, picturesquely gnarled and twisted but stunted looking, the grey bark hanging off the crooked branches and thick distorted trunk in untidy shreds. The flowers pale scanty but faintly scented. Halfway down Bright Angel trail it is a glorious thing, full of colour and fragrance, 12 foot high , luxuriant and healthy looking. When the wind sways the flowering branches to and fro they exhale an exquisite fragrance like orange flowers."



It makes you want to try that trail doesn't it, but do it in May when the Cliff Rose is in blossom. Before I leave the canyon and roses I want to share this gorgeous painting with you. It is called Canyon Rose and was painted by a great artist Susan Shatter. I have known about her work for many years now but there seems to be very little to view on the Internet which is a shame. This is an oil, painted in 1986 a big and beautiful 9ft 5 x 4ft 5.



But she is also the master of the huge watercolour. A thought that completely daunts me. Consider this, 'Crash' 2006, which is a staggering 3ft 6" x 9ft 8".


You can see more of her fabulous watercolours here at the DFN gallery

For my small drawing I had to reassemble the sprig from the dried up bits and pieces that survived the trip and my photo. Not ideal but a fair idea of this delighlful plant.
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Cliff Rose Sprig.