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

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: Gorgeous Gardenia Pod

I was going to concentrate on some landscape sketches this week but then last week I found this gorgeous little seed pod and just had to draw it. Sadly, I had missed the flowers on this little, low growing Gardenia, Gardenia jasminoides.

Carl Linnaeus named the genus after the very interesting Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791), the Scottish-born American naturalist, who was a doctor in South Carolina. His greatest enthusiasm however was studying natural history, but finding no like minded neighbours; "there is not a living soul who knows the least iota of Natural History," he parcelled up his findings of plant and animal species and sent them to John Ellis, a zoologist in London, and to Linnaeus in Sweden. For his general services to botany and medicine he was honoured by the naming of the gardenia.

Gardenia is native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, southern Asia, Australasia and Oceania, and was originally known as the Cape Jasmine. John Ellis describes the shrub in a letter to Phillip Carteret in 1760.
"The Cape Jasmine is the most rare and beautiful shrub that has been introduced into the European gardens, as well for the refreshing smell of its double milk-white flowers as the perpetual verdure of its leaves, which are like those of the lemon tree. We are indebted to Capt. Hutchinson of the Godolphin Indiaman for this curious discovery, who about six years ago found it growing near the Cape of Good Hope"


Text and image from the Royal Society Publishing "Philosophical Transactions" here


Ehret's Gardenia , from "Plantae et Papilliones Rariores" (London, 1748-1759) from Donald Heald here.

The beautiful Gardenia was already well known in Asia, where it was revered for over 2000 years for its heavy scent and medicinal properties. In Japan it is called kuchinashi where a reddish yellow dye was made from the chopped and boiled seeds which contain crocin, the same colouring that is derived from the saffron crocus. Boiled in water, the end product required no mordant, and textiles, when dyed with a combination of safflower and kuchinashi, became a beautiful deep yellow colour, the designated colour for the robes of a crown prince.
Although superseded now, it was also used as a printmaking colour and Roger Keyes writing about Japanese colourants notes that " the dyeing of cloth was a fine art when the first prints were made and, hence, the colorants used in treating cloth were likely to have been employed initially in printmaking..."


Bolts of drying cloth from One Hundred Views of Edo by Ando Hiroshige
from Japanese prints of London
here

If you like the scent you can make your own Gardenia tea by adding a flower to a tin of loose tea leaves and sealing it for a few days, similarly with rice or oats to make flavoured desserts. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the gardenia to treat many aliments, including to "drain fire" and treat fevers. The kernel of the gardenia berry is used for herbal poultices to treat sprains, pulled muscles, or inflammation and there was some recent evidence that it may help in controlling diabetes.

I am sure the health food shop across the road will have many remedies containing gardenia in some form, but my fondest memory is of the "Gardenia" perfume which you could buy in small cheap bottles from the now defunct Woolworths. The contents I am sure never saw a gardenia in any way shape or form and but the sickly smelling perfume along with a bunch or two of flowers was of course enthusiastically and gracefully accepted by my mother on Mother's day. Gardenia is now one of the Elizabeth Taylor perfumes, "Launched in 2003, it has fragrance notes of gardenia, jasmine, lily of the valley, orchid, rose, white peony, carnation, and musk ", and I am sure is far superior to the Woolies version.
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Gardenia Pod and Leaves





Monday, 30 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: Busy Bees, Big Paintings and Blog Interview

Me and the bees have been very busy this weekend. I have been working on the big paintings and the bees have just been working. I think the bees are making more progress.

I have taken a few photos recently where the bees are slightly better than just a blur.

Here, approaching the Toothache Tree.



Here, with Lemon Blossom.



Here, on a Banana flower.



Here, high in the sky, with the strange Grevillia flower, which I would love to draw but all are way out of normal human reach.



Here with the Lemon Bottle Brush...where the mocking birds were also helping themselves to the nectar.



Here approaching the stunning, huge Shaving Brush Flower, which I will hopefully paint as one of my white flower series, all those stamens are a bit daunting though.



and lastly on the Sweet Almond..


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A big thank you to Karrita at mymothersgardens.blogspot.com who was also busy getting my images onto blogger. She was kind enough to ask for a short online interview for her interesting series "Artists in the Garden", which you can read here.
I was delighted to oblige.
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I have been wrestling all weekend with the big tree pattern paintings which have taken on lives of their own (as paintings often do). They are not really as I had planned and were not as simple as I had hoped. The twisting live oak branches are just about finished and the lone pine three quarters finished. Just before I had to stop for the night I added some lightning. The paintings really reflect my experiences of my time here, what I have noticed and what makes an impression on me. The summer storms are spectacular and something I will always remember. Although the paintings are not finished I put them on the wall to get away from them both physically and mentally for a while, but with only a week to go to the exhibition and much to do, they may just stay there.
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Two Trees


Saturday, 28 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: The Loquats are Ripe

I know I have been here over a year now because everywhere the Loquat trees are full of delicious and ripening fruit. This was my first free food discovery here in America and, having tasted them, I could not believe that so many local trees were left un harvested. There are many ways of serving these little fruits, I like the idea of preserves eaten on hot buttered toast, but they are delicious eaten, just picked, from the tree. There are at 2 trees at Leu Gardens which are bearing fruit and another one the Bronze Loquat, Eriobotrya deflexa which is only a small immature tree but is already very handsome with beautiful big serrated leaves. This variety will only have small fruit but the leaves are magnificent.

The Loquat I have drawn is Eriobotrya japonica also known as the Japanese medlar, or in Spain as the Nispero. The name is derived from "erion" which is Greek for wool and "botrus" for grape, which quite neatly describes the fuzziness of the stems, leaves and sometimes the fruit too. I wrote about it last year here so I won't repeat myself, only to say that if you haven't tried them you really must!




I picked a few fruit a couple of days ago but when I went back many had been eaten or picked, here is one of the culprits.



Loquats are very delicate and pulling them off the stem bruises the fruit. You have to eat them, (or draw them) quickly, as they don't last. The one I cut open was beautifully juicy but browned quickly as I was drawing it. The thin skin of the fruit is yellow or orange, sometimes tinged with red and there are the remains of some flowers on the slightly fuzzy stem. Inside are up to 5 large brown seeds that have a golden sheen to them.

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The Loquat or Nispero




Friday, 27 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: A Mickey Mouse Plant

What could be more appropriate for an Orlando Botanical Garden than the Mickey Mouse Plant, although the label at Leu Gardens more conservatively calls this the Bird's Eye Bush. It caught my eye with its colourful little yellow flowers and strange little fruits.



This is Ochna serrulata, the Mickey Mouse Plant, or Bird's Eye Bush,
Originally from Southern Africa this little bush has fragrant yellow flowers in spring and very attractive fruits. These start green and become shiny black and berry-like, suspended below the original bright-red sepals. The birds enjoy them and the flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. It's a very nice little novelty plant.





So why Mickey Mouse? Well, its because of the black seeds. One of mine just did happen to have 3 black seeds so how could I resist it??? ...and yes, there a million other things I should be doing right now :).



I think he is more Steamboat Willie than modern Mickey.
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Birds Eye Plant




Thursday, 26 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: Of Myth and Monkey Tea

From Sweet Osmanthus tea yesterday, to Monkey Picked Tea today. It sounds so exotic doesn't it, and thinking of the dexterity of a monkey, perfectly possible? This particular tea plant at Leu Gardens is Camellia sinensis var assamica . It's the wild or long leaf tea which grows taller and has longer leaves then the regular tea camellia, camellia sinensis. It can achieve 30 to 50 ft, so more a tree than a bush which accounts for the legend and handy marketing story of the monkey picking.


lovely packaging, but not sure from where as image was sent to me

There are different versions of the myth, one says a villager went to pick tea leaves in a mountain, and finding the most beautifully scented ones growing out of reach high on cliffs persuaded a monkey to pick the tea for him. Others say Monks in Anxi trained the monkeys to climb to the top of the tall wild tea bushes to pick the very finest upper leaves and buds.

This, from Kasora.com’s World of Tea tells more here


In 1793, writer Aeneaus Anderson, in the company of British ambassador Earl George Macartney, travelled to China in order, to find out, amongst other things, more about tea growing. The Chinese were guarded in giving out information.

"According to historian John C. Evans’ Tea in China: The History of China’s National Drink:
'Questions not meant to be answered were met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Tea plantations spread out to the horizon on each side of the Imperial Canal but tea harvesting, processing, and even transportation were purposely kept from view. When information was volunteered, it had to be treated circumspectly.
Once a Chinese man spontaneously offered to explain how tea was picked. He told Anderson ‘Tea growers anger the monkeys living in the branches of the tea trees. Out of revenge, the monkeys tear off branches and throw them on the ground. In this way, tea harvesters only have to pick them up.‘”
Anderson truthfully admitted he had not witnessed the monkey-harvest himself although he nevertheless accepted the story as fact. All of Europe read Anderson’s book and the monkey tea-picking legend found its way to the West. This story had a particular appeal and fascination for the Victorians, no doubt due to the furor raised by Darwin’s theory of evolution.
For over a century, children’s schoolbooks contained the story, and several generations of adults were convinced that tea was actually picked by monkeys.

Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, specialty tea experts and writers of Teatrekker's blog explore other possible reasons for the myth in their post Tieguanyin Anxi Monkey-Picked Tea as well as providing this lovely tea cup photo, complete with monkey



The involvement of the monkeys is still used to market teas. One supplier of Taiping Houkui Tea conjours up this analogy
"When brewed, the tea leaves, suspended or sunken, free themselves in the clear tender green water, like many a monkey vigorously stretching their neck and tails."

Another supplier even goes as far as claiming that, despite the practice all but dying out, there is
"one small remote village where they still continue this remarkable tradition. No monkeys are harmed or mistreated in order for us to bring this rare brew to you!"

Well, it's up to you if you believe it or not.. but why is there not one photograph or at least a well trodden tourist route to this remote village to see this wonder.. I can't help but feel that if there were such a place, the dedicated tea enthusiasts would definitely have sought it out before now.
..its a shame in a way.



Empty Wild Tea pods, which would have held 3 seeds. Leu gardens March 2009


I am thinking of making a botanical plate of either tea or soapberries for the next course submission so this is a sketchbook page and a study of some pods of the Monkey Tea, in various stages of disintegration. I particularly like the tiny black filigree shard of the pod. It's a mysterious little object in its own right and deserves a better and bigger painting.
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Wild Tea




Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: The Sweetly Scented Garden

"Sweet" is such a pretty word, applied to so many pleasing things, from flavours and scents to the very nature of things and even sometimes to us humans. Just now, as you walk though Leu Gardens, sweet scents follow you everywhere you go. Around every corner there is another subtle fragrance, different but so delightful, and the citrus garden is heavenly with the Valencia Orange and the Pink Lemon in full bloom. But sometimes the source of the scent is hard to track down. Hiding away, tucked in between leaves or carried high above your head are many pretty and sweet smelling little flowers, often with "sweet" in their name. My sketch today is of the Sweet Osmanthus but there are also:

The Sweet Almond Bush, Aloysia virgata,



the Sweet Viburnum, viburnum odoratissimum,



the Sweet Acacia, Acacia farnesiana,



and, cut back this year but still with enough perfume to scent the lakeside path is the Chinese Glory Bower Clerodendrum chinense.



Perhaps most surprising of all, is the exquisite scent of the Chinese Perfume Plant, Chinese Rice Flower, Mock Lemon, Aglaia odorata. It is really hard to believe that this tiny flower and quite nondescript little shrub can produce such strong scent. You would probably walk past it, looking for something much showier that would merit this heady perfume. It carries on blooming all year round and if I were to have just one scented shrub in my imaginary garden it would be this one. It's evergreen too and would make a divine perfumed hedge.





But today I have sketched the Sweet Osmanthus, Osmanthus fragrans also known as Sweet Olive, Tea Olive or Fragrant Olive.
I grew the wonderful Winter Sweet Chimonanthus fragrans, in a sheltered spot in my little garden in England. I loved it most for the strange small flowers that appeared early in the year on bare stems. The little Osmanthus here reminds me of it, with its groups of tiny pretty scented flowers sometimes growing from the main stems.

The Sweet Osmanthus was introduced into Europe from China in the middle of 19th century by a French botanist Jean Marie Delavay. The word Osmanthus being derived from the Greek osma, meaning "fragrant", and anthos, meaning "flower".



It is so pretty and dainty and is native to China where it is the 'city flower' of Hangzhou.
This is from Top Tropicals here

Chinese monks planted these trees around Buddhist temples in the Manjuelong Valley which lies in the mountainous area. As time went on, the blossoming Osmanthus trees in the valley became an autumnal allure to Hangzhou residents. The valley is flanked by hills where springs are abundant and trees flourish naturally. The geographic advantages and monk's heritage has made the valley a paradise of osmanthus trees. Now all households in the valley without exception have their own osmanthus groves. When dew is heavy at dawn, flowers will fall floating like a rain in a breeze.

Valued for its delicate aroma, some say like peaches or apricots, it is used as an additive to flavour teas and desserts. The flowers of Osmanthus range from white to orange to reddish, the very expensive perfume extract, Osmanthus absolute, is usually prepared from the gold-orange flowers.



Chinese stamps from an article by John C. Leffingwell. Ph.D about the perfume of osmanthus on the Leffingwell site



I have been thinking of all the other lovely sweet flowers in the UK too, meadow sweet, sweet violet, and the incomparable sweet pea. My father worked for a seed company in Lincolnshire and in the summer we would go to the trial grounds and pick armfuls of sweet peas that were growing in tall colour coded rows. I remember the colours shifting from yellows to creams to pinks to reds to dark crimsons and lilacs. They scented the house for days and days.

So here is a small watercolour sketch of a twiggy stem of the sweet little Sweet Osmanthus. The flowers survived in the fridge a couple of days, just long enough. I think this could be another to develop for the white flower series.
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Sweet Osmanthus


Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Leaf of the Day: Fishing with the Acacia

I found quite a few other acacias in the Gardens last week, including the String Acacia, Acacia stenophylla, the Sweet Acacia, Acacia farnesiana, the Umbrella Thorn, Acacia tortillis, the Fever Tree, Acacia xanthophloea and this tall and " leafy" Acacia holosericea.



This is a fascinating tree for so many reasons, not only does it (just like the soapberry) have fish stunning and soapy properties but parts of it are edible and it falls into the "when is a leaf not a leaf " catagory.
The big sickle shaped "leaves" which make this tree so beautiful and densely shady are just modified stems, i.e. phyllodes. When young these leaves have a silky texture earning it the additional name of the Velvet Wattle.

"This is an acacia of northern Australia. useful species for fuelwood, charcoal, windbreaks and soil conservation. The hard dark brown heartwood can be turned into small decorative items. It splits easily, dries rapidly and makes an excellent fuel. Northern Australian Aboriginal people used it for many purposes; different parts of the plant were used to make bush soap, medicines, fish poison and spear shafts. The seeds can be ground into flour and used in cooking."
from Grassland Species Website here

It's interesting that a fish poisoning tree also has edible parts...

"Bush Tucker: Trials have been conducted in Africa by Australian aid agencies that have shown that the seeds of Acacia holosericea are a very nutritious and popular food. They have a high protein content - 17-25%. It is hoped to use the plant widely in revegetation schemes.
The seeds were roasted, boiled like lentils, or steamed with vegetables. Children particularly liked the nutty flavour of the roasted seeds."

from 'The Society for Growing Australian Plants' here

The "soap" comes from the sticky green pods, which can be wetted and rubbed or crushed together produce a soapy lather.
There are pale yellow cylindrical flowers which appear in clusters, and give it yet another name the Candelabra Wattle


This photo was taken back in December, before I knew what this tree was. The flowers were nearly over so there should be pods developing very soon.




Until I started researching fish poisoning, I had no idea that it was so widespread or that so many plants could be utilised for fishing, but here is how to do it with the holosericea in Australia.
This is from the "Uw Oykangand and Uw Olkola Multimedia Dictionary" site here, all about the Australian Aboriginal languages spoken in the central Cape York Peninsula Australia. It's a fascinating site which describes the uses of natural resources as well as the language.

"With soapy tree, soapy wattle, Acacia holosericea, and the fish poison tree, Acacia ditricha and freshwater mangrove, gather the leaves and put them into a dilly bag. Rub the bag in the water until a soapy foam comes out. This stuns the fish in the waterhole and they float to the surface. They may then be collected and eaten.
There is a great deal of ritual surrounding this method of fish poisoning. For example, the men work and remain separated from the women and children. Also, since it may take several hours for the leaves to have their effect, it is usually left overnight or longer and the old men wait by the water in the morning. They sing out to signal that the waterhole is ready to be harvested, and go down to collect their fish first. Everyone else may go down after them.

An interviewee, Lofty Yam explains:
" They sing him, old paten. Watch everybody, not to catch any of them fish, they don't like. . ..That feller still singing, watch everybody, not to take them fish before time, you know. Take 'em right time."

The active ingredient in this acacia is "rotenone" an alkaloid toxin, luckily only toxic to cold-blooded creatures which stuns fish by impairing their oxygen consumption whereas the chemical in the soapberry fish poison is "saponin".

For even more about fishing this way around the world see an interesting article "Fishing with Poisons" by Chuck Kritzon here from Primativeways.
I don't really think I will be trying it in the lakes of Orlando. By the look of some of the waters I am surprised there any fish in there at all, but with all the city effluents and pollution they are probably immune to a bit of rotenone and who knows what effect it might have on the alligators.

The leaves may be silky when young but these recently fallen leaves are as tough as old boots with strong raised lateral veins. It was only when I had drawn them that I realised they looked rather like two washed up fish ..ahh..

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Acacia Holsericea Leaves