In northern Wisconsin we still get frost and freezing overnight temps well into May. What’s a demure beauty to do? Get tough. Spring beauty is one of the most hardy wildflowers we have and though it’s quite small and looks fragile, it survives almost anything Mother Nature can throw at it.
In addition to frigid temperatures, spring beauty can, and does, flourish in nutrient-depleted areas like housing developments and deforested areas like farms. It’s pretty undemanding.
Here in the yard though, there’s no skimping on soil nutrients, they grow in the lawn as well as in the woods where they have to push up through some very deep leaf litter.
They’re still blooming and I think I’ll have to go pick some because in addition to being adorable, they’re edible! The roots are actually tuberous, like potatoes, and it’s said they taste very similar, albeit sweeter and kind of chestnut-y so far as I could tell from info online. They can be eaten raw or cooked so I’ll have to get out there and get some while they’re at the peak of ripeness.
Taken together, early spring wildflowers are often called ephemerals. This refers to their short life cycles, but strictly speaking means flowers that die back completely leaving no trace of their presence above ground. It’s a trait that allows them to be very successful, emerging after the most harsh winters, before bud break when the trees hog most of the sunlight.
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is a true ephemeral; its leaves quickly break down and disappear after the flowers wither. It is the leaves that give this flower its common name; the mottling resembles the fish.
Like many early widlflowers, trout lily closes completely when it’s cold, overcast or rainy. As an evolutionary strategy I think it works. Flowers that lose petals to wind and weather stand a lower chance of being pollinated versus those that keep their petals. Flower structures and petals help guide pollinators to them.
Pollination is especially important to trout lily because so few of the pollinated flowers actually seed – approximately 10% only which is a pretty small percentage. To make matters worse, it takes 7 years for the flowers to mature and none bloom during that time. Despite those odds, some botanists believe that large, undisturbed groves of trout lily to be 300 years old.
Pretty amazing for a ubiquitous little wildflower that hardly shows its face for more than a few weeks a year.
When I lived in NH I could spend a lot of time out in my yard photographing all kinds of small things. I had barely 1/4 of an acre or something and it was pretty anemic being basically a giant sand pile. But for a person like me who can see beauty in just about anything, it was adequate. Now I live in Wisconsin I have a bigger yard plus many vacant lots nearby and so the camera fodder is exponentially expanded. I could get lost out there for hours at a time and the other day I did just that when the hepatica first started blooming.
In NH I had to drive about 45 minutes to reach a location with these flowers and did so because of their delicate beauty. Now I just have to walk outside. Funny.
Their presentation is a bit different than where I used to shoot them. The leaf litter here is really, really deep because we only have deciduous trees in our yard (the conifers were harvested over a decade ago by the original land owner). This means very few of the plants have a lot of leaves and most of them are buried. So it was a challenge to find them at first, but boy, they are everywhere.
I went out when the sun was still low and I love the different aspects it produces, like this backlit group that I converted to black and white. It really picks up the fuzzy stems which I love. With a bit of cloud cover, the light softened a bit and for this really big group next to my driveway, it was a perfect way to emphasize their soft beauty. They’re kind of an ethereal flower; nothing at all aggressive or bold about them.
They open with the sun and on cloudy days most remain closed, which I have photographed before and had great results, but on this day it was sun, sun, sun.
Yes, they really are that color. Intense, slightly bluish purple; the deepest shade I’ve ever seen. From what I’ve observed, the purple ones are closer to the water than the white ones. I have no idea if that is random or not, but it seems to be consistent. I went across the street (away from the water) and there were no purples, only white.
I did my best to isolate some of the blossoms against the backdrop of last year’s leaves. I just love how it makes them really pop. Not all of them are purple or white, we have this lovely group of pink ones just next to the lawn. I only spotted one other plant with pink flowers. Puzzling.
All were shot with the legacy Olympus 90mm macro at f8 or wider.
They’re still blooming and so there will be more shots coming, but the bloodroot is also coming into season and so are the trout lily, of which we have thousands in the yard. Behind them, trillium in equal numbers. It’s going to be a busy spring!
The time between seasons can be frustrating for the nature or outdoors photographer. Many complain of “stick season”, that time after the colorful foliage falls and before the snow flies. Mud season is similar in that nothing is leafed out or blooming yet, and the trails are running with water and slush. I still get the urge to be outside though and I always bring a camera. I almost typed the words “just in case” at the end of that sentence, but it isn’t true. There is always something beautiful if you take the time to look. Something that just isn’t there any other season. I try to enjoy my time outdoors no matter what.
For me the waiting earth has a humming vibrancy that can’t be seen just yet. You know there are frogs still dormant waiting to add their voices to the evening air. The bare branches of trees have tiny fists of leaf buds just waiting to break. Ducks and geese gather playfully before settling down to the serious business of raising chicks. The wind that touches your face no longer wants to freeze it off. The air smells different and the songbirds start tuning up each morning.
Because everything is new to me here in Wisconsin each outing is one of discovery. Also scouting to some degree. I’m still drawn to brooks and rivers, but finding a waterway that really lends itself to the type of photography I want to do has been tough. I keep looking though and the other day I went to check out the Plover River Scenic Natural Area. There was a specific part I wanted to see, one that recently got some snazzy wooden walkways, but I somehow missed it and ended up on another segment of the same trail. Ah well. At least I’ve narrowed it down.
Without the sheltering canopy, the forest light is a bit harsher than in summer, but it illuminates the green our eyes are so hungry for come March. This particular section of the Plover river trail is very wet and so the mosses practically glowed. Unfortunately I was lazy and while I brought my tripod, I left it in the car. Dumb. So many of these images could have been better. Still, I like what I saw, like this fallen giant and the little bit of snow on the shady side.
Ice formations can be a fun project once you start to look for them. I always do between the full-throttle seasons of summer and winter. Without snow, puddles and the edges of streams and rivers are great places to find these examples of nature’s abstract art. The air pockets, textures and objects trapped within are so different and changeable that you can make a lot of different images even on a short walk with enough water around.
Don’t forget your post processing options when it comes to abstracts. Even a sort of boring image can be improved if you play with the sliders a little. With this image of the bottom of the Plover River, I changed the white balance from how the camera shot it to a very cool setting. It brought out some odd colors that were there, but muted due to the white balance setting. It went from an image entirely in shades of brown and yellow to this –
Moving water is so unpredictable. There are similar images in my files to the one above, but they’re all too static – they don’t catch your attention. Like with capturing a water current, you sometimes have to find a composition you like and shoot a lot until you get just the right shape in the water. That convex water ripple turned into a sort of lens, enlarging the image of the rock beneath it so it looks like an alien eye staring at you. I loved it and knew I had to work the image until I had something more appealing. I worked the color sliders a little in addition to white balance and I think it’s interesting and odd.
Water can add texture, too, like this shot of the ice where my dock will be in summer. The wind was blowing pretty strong and kicked up the water’s surface (which is blue because of the reflection of the sky).
When I can tear my eyes from any water I find, I try to keep my eyes open. Because that usually means I’m looking down, this little arrangement appealed to me. The walkway, the shadows and my old boots.
Of course I don’t always keep my eyes so downcast. I do see the occasional landscape and do my best to find what appeals to me about it. With this one it’s the fresh, alive feeling that I get from the running water, the green of the moss and who doesn’t love a little rock hopping? Unlike a totally snowed under shot or one later in the season, that little scrim of snow adds depth and helps the green really stand out.
Another advantage to the season in between seasons is frost. This time of year brings temperatures warm enough to melt the snow and create the level of humidity needed to deck things out in gorgeous little crystals. Perfect for easing back into macro photography, something I don’t do much of in the winter months. It’s so easy to find these images, too, just head out on your lawn. It’s a nice little jolt of wonder at nature and creativity all in one go. And there’s more hot coffee just inside when you’re done.
Another that is not elusive in the sense that it’s rare, but that I’ve always had lousy timing with it and this year was no exception. I think given more time I’d have found lots of it blooming at once, but as it was I found one single flower among hundreds of plants. It was pretty funny actually and I endured the mosquitoes at Bradford Bog in order to capture its solitary loveliness.
Clintonia is also called bluebead lily (for the longest time I thought it was bluebeard lily and couldn’t figure out for the life of me why it would be called that, then I put on my glasses). Bluebead makes a lot more sense. Lilies produce seed pods after the flowers are pollinated and the ones this flower makes are apparently true blue; a relative rarity in the natural world. Its other name is in honor of DeWitt Clinton who was governor of New York from 1817 to 1822 and again from 1825 to 1828. The Erie canal was built during his terms. I’m not sure what he did to have a flower named for him, but there are worse things.
I wouldn’t have even noticed it had I hadn’t gone off trail to photograph a painted trillium, which despite their ubiquity, I cannot resist. Lucky for me since this single flower was just yards away. Seriously it was the only one. I looked and looked. Nope. Just one early bloomer.
One of these days I hope to photograph a mass of them since that’s how they grow. The trouble is they bloom during the most intense part of mosquito season and the onslaught is really vicious. They have a quiet beauty though. The petals are pale yellow and rise gracefully from a pair, or sometimes a trio, of large, light green leaves which are similar to trout lily and sometimes people mistake them for lady slipper. Trout lily leaves are smaller and mottled with brown or tan, while lady slipper leaves are fuzzy and ribbed.
Despite the horde of bloodsuckers who tormented me all the while I shot, I enjoyed being there and like the results. Mostly it was from the changeable light and the fact that I was in an Atlantic White Cedar swamp, one of my favorite ecosystems and one I will probably not encounter again for a long time.
While out photographing ferns in their fiddlehead stage, I noticed that some trillium were up along the trail as well. No flowers yet, but I figured they were the usual purple or painted varieties that I’ve photographed before. Returning a week later I was a bit surprised to find they still weren’t blooming. Being the smarty pants I am, I went in for a closer look and wow, another elusive wildflower is elusive no more.
Nodding trillium gets its handle from its Latin name – Trillium Cernuum, the root cernuus means drooping or nodding. That’s the biggest challenge to photograph these beauties – getting low enough. The plants aren’t nearly as large as purple trillium so getting under them without digging a hole is hard. Lucky for me some of the flowers were growing on a slope leading down to a brook and I could get the camera well below them.
I first found them in the afternoon and while the light was ok, the breeze was a major pain. So I went back the following morning around 7. The sun had just crested the trees and the air was quite still as it usually is that early. I really should get into the woods early more often. It’s quieter than during the busy part of the day (apart from the heavy construction I could hear across the river in Merrimack) and the light is magical.
I keep meaning to put some friction tape on my beanbag and boy I really needed it for this session. The slope I was on was pretty steep and I had a hell of a time getting the camera still. It kept sliding and slipping off the plastic bag. With the aid of sticks (a great tool and always to hand in the woods) I managed to get the camera where I needed it, which was basically on the ground with only the lens propped up at an acute angle on the beanbag. My flippy-swively screen is my best friend in situations like this. A fixed screen would have been flat to the pine needles.
For most of the photos I used my trusty vintage Olympus 90mm macro, but when I found this tall plant with really great leaves I put the wide-zoom back on. I just love the perspective and the sheltering quality those leaves have. Plus there’s some sensitive fern in the lower left. Bonus!
Up from under isn’t the only angle though –
So that’s it, one of my last posts from NH. We close on our new house on June 1. Movers leave the current house on June 9. The funny thing is, my yard in Wisconsin is blanketed in white trillium so next year I’ll have another species for the trillium files!
Ferns are some of my favorite things in the world. They are one of the major reasons I love the forest so much. Their presence is sometimes lush and is always vivid and varied. They are some of the oldest plant life on our planet and some varieties, like sword fern in the Pacific Northwest and Christmas fern here in the east, lend a primordial feel to the landscape. Their shapes, heights and colors are so diverse because they’ve been around so long, filling different ecological niches through the millennia.
As a photographer I love them because they’re intensely photogenic. Especially when in the fiddlehead stage. Right down the road from me is a small nature preserve that has a dense concentration of ferns. I counted I think 6 varieties along a few yards of trail. I have photographed the same section of trail with the ferns fully leafed-out and standing tall. They’re amazing and literally stopped me in my tracks, but before I show you that, here they are when they’re just starting out, braving the frost and the devouring insects.
Just like in their adult state, the fiddleheads all have distinct features and characteristics. Look closely at this next one, can you spot the texture change at the heart of the spiral? Those are spores, the way ferns and other ancient plants reproduce and spread their genes. Only a few Christmas fern fronds carry the spores per plant (I love turning the fronds over to look for them, like Braille they are raised dots). I was just lucky that this gorgeous little fiddlehead was one of them.
Some ferns come in more than just green, like sensitive fern. Its leaves are green, but the stems are red.
Most people have heard of fiddleheads as something to eat. A seasonal item that shows up in some grocery stores. From my reading those are ostrich ferns and the only ones absolutely safe to eat. A friend of mine told me that par-boiling them before sauteing will leach out the bitterness and make them much more delicious. I keep meaning to mark a big grove of ostrich fern and collect some fiddleheads in the spring, but I always forget. They’re some of the earliest that fully unfurl and they are some of the most beautiful.
Interrupted fern gets its name from the specialized leaves that interrupt the pattern of the entire frond. Instead of tucking spores underneath the tips of some fronds, this species hosts them on all the stems and locates them in the middle instead. I love evolution.
Here’s the trail shot I promised. Cinnamon fern dominates, but now I’ve explored it in the early stages, I know they share with interrupted, evergreen, royal, sensitive, ostrich and wood fern.
For more ferny goodness, visit my gallery.
So this isn’t a wildflower, but I’m going to put it in my Elusive Wildflowers category because it’s got to go somewhere. There is also some irony in this little story, too, and that’s always fun.
As I said in my last post, this will most likely be my final spring in New Hampshire. When we move from Wisconsin in 10-15 years it will be to our retirement home which most likely won’t be anywhere east of the Mississippi. Funny that Wisconsin just squeaks by being east of it as its boundary with Minnesota is the river itself.
Springtime is wonderful for many things, but high on that list is the ferns. I love them in any season, but spring is especially great for photographing them. That fiddlehead stage is hard to beat. The unfurling is graceful and enigmatic. Especially when it’s a fern I’ve been hunting for years. In New England I’ve only ever found it under cultivation and in the wild only on the Pacific coast; northern California and Oregon. It’s maidenhair fern. One of the most ethereal and barely-there ferns I’ve ever encountered.
I went to the Plainfield Wildflower Sanctuary, a property owned by the New England Wildflower Society and while it’s not a traditional nature preserve (no trails) it has an abundance of ferns. Flowers, too, of course, but it was early yet (the hundreds of trout lily had all gone by though). While I was crouched down photographing a purple trillium and waiting for the endless breeze to cheese it for a second, I did a double take. Is that? Could it be?? OMG!!! A solitary maidenhair plant. Jaw dropped. You would have had a good laugh at my expression and how fast I abandoned the pedestrian flower.
Actually I was on my way out of the sanctuary. There wasn’t much blooming apart from some early saxifrage and the purple trillium, so I decided to head back home. That’s when I came upon my Moby Dick of the fern world. Then, like so many other plants in the under-story, once I saw one, others began materializing out of the landscape. Soon I found myself amid a very large swath of the plants. In more directly sunny patches, they were further along in their growth, but none were fully unfurled.
Patience is not my strong suit, but I exercised it to the best of my ability for these images. Even breathing stirs the delicate leaves of maidenhair fern. The spiral structure of the plant itself seems designed primarily to catch the least stirring in the air. It sets them fluttering, muttering in their own mysterious dance. Even low down amidst dozens of plants the ethereal, feathery quality lingers and they seem to slip sideways and disappear from view.
Hopefully they don’t continue to elude me in my new home. Ironic though that I finally find them and have to say goodbye so soon.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I just don’t finish processing stuff before posting. I’m a nut. These are from the Mt. Foss sunset session.
By now you know I have a fern habit and when I saw these I knew I had to try to work with them. I’m not 100% sold on this, but I was trying to work fast with the light that I had. I wanted them back-lit and I like the glowing aspect, but the sun isn’t in a great position. Moving though, gave me a lot of lens flare. It was too distracting, so I went with this offset sun instead. It’s handheld at ISO 500 and since I wanted those rays coming from the sun, it’s stopped down to f13. I wasn’t sure it would be enough, since this is a new lens, but I took a chance and it worked. In order to get those in your shots, that kind of star effect, you need to close the aperture down.
Usually the most color in a sunset happens after the sun sinks down past the horizon. I learned the hard way that sometimes the color takes a while to develop. The old adage “don’t pack until it’s black” is right on. If you have to hike back to your car in the dark, do it. Bring a headlamp or a flashlight and stay until you can’t see. It’s the only way to make sure you get the most out of the sunset. In the field I used an 8-stop graduated neutral density filter. I still use them because I think it helps me control the light better in-camera. In processing this one, I did notch the saturation up a bit (I think 15 on the sliders) and the luminance on the green and yellow channels, too, just to highlight that spectacular new foliage. I think it gives some much-needed depth in the foreground.
Anyway…sorry for the extra post. Sometimes I’m like a runaway train.