Book Review: Kniphofia: the complete guide by Christopher Whitehouse

by Eric Hsu

One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.

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A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.

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Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer.  I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project,  may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.

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Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.

Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.

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The range of colors from the Kniphofia cultivars at the 2007-2009 RHS Trial (Photo Credit: Tim Sandall from Kniphofia)

The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.

Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.

The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.

Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm.  A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value.  Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.

“Nothing great in…”


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“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German philosopher


Over the course of the next few weeks we will start sharing a new series we call Foreign Gardeners. This series focuses on six talented people who span the globe, from a Spaniard in California all the way to an American in Jordan, each one connected through their work to the horticulture world. They share the challenges and benefits of being a gardener abroad, the beauty of strange new landscapes and plants and some misconceptions about their new living environments. Their insightful answers and  stunning photos just proves to us that life coupled with working with plants can take you just about anywhere you would like on the world stage. – Plinth et al.

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5-10-5: Claire Takacs, Garden Photographer

A seasoned traveler (it must be an Australian imperative to have a passport and see the world!), Claire has the enviable position of photographing beautiful places, namely gardens, throughout the world when she is not home in Victoria, Australia.  I met her when she was in the East Coast US photographing gardens from New England to the Mid-Atlantic region.


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Please introduce yourself.

I’m an Australian freelance garden photographer who travels 6-7 months of the year based out of England when not in Australia and to the US and Europe. I work mainly for magazines such as Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design and contribute to books.


The arts or horticulture?

It would have to be a fairly equal combination of both.

I studied art at school, with a keen interest in landscape painting and then completed a bachelor degree in Environmental Science.

I often see gardens as works of art and feel compelled to capture their beauty and I find light brings it all to life.

I have a great appreciation of nature and are always seeing plants I have never seen before. However,  I am not driven by knowing all of the details of plant names etc. It’s more about the bigger picture and feelings that gardens evoke when skilfully planted and created by expert and passionate gardeners and garden designers.


How did you first become interested in photography, especially garden and landscape photography?

Upon completing my science degree, I left Australia with a one way ticket to London.  This flight was the first time I really had freedom and time to explore the world and I became really interested in photography and constantly wanted to capture what I saw along my travels. I was often disappointed at how my images turned out when they came back from the lab, and really wanted to learn how to take better pictures that represented what I saw.

When I returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to do garden design or photography. Science was never really in the picture, but rather it was always a love of nature and wanting to work outdoors from the beginning.

I chose photography, and completed a two year full time course, beginning at 26. Initially I was really drawn to photographing landscapes and capturing light, which was about beauty in nature.

During the course, one of my projects resulted in photographing a garden, Cloudehill. Cloudehill is one of Australia’s best gardens by owner Jeremy Francis who inspired by the famous Arts and Crafts gardens of the UK. It just happened to be ten minutes down the road from where I’d grown up, but I’d never seen it until now. Francis’s garden reminded me of the great gardens I’d seen in the UK.

It was an absolute revelation having this garden all to myself at sunrise one morning and photographing it as I would for a landscape. There was just such beauty in this garden and I couldn’t believe how no one else was there capturing the moments. Cloudehill then became my initial inspiration for garden photography and the beginning of it all for me. It was the first garden I got published in Gardens Illustrated and it was the front cover image on the inaugural International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, which I won in 2008.

Garden photography has been the focus for my life and travels ever since and it has taken me on such an interesting path to endless beautiful and amazing gardens and people throughout the world. I still love landscapes, but often I prefer just to enjoy them and concentrate my work on gardens. I find it’s so interesting to see what people at a really high level in horticulture are doing all around the world. I’m constantly surprised by the gardens I see. I too have a great love of gardening myself and I understand what it is to be totally swept away and consumed by gardening.

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When the first morning rays meet the mist: the Peacock Garden at Great Dixter, West Sussex, England.

Some photographers prefer the morning light for producing the best images, others the evening light. The majority of your images appear to be taken during early morning when the first rays of light breaks apart the horizon or the mist. Has your experience naturally steered you towards mornings?

Yes, generally I much prefer morning light. My favorite morning is a cool morning which is a little misty and then the sun breaks through the mist. I love photographing in autumn and cool climates when the light is softer. In Australia our light is often so harsh that you have to be very quick to photograph before the window of nice light passes. I find the gardens quieter in the morning and I am fresher, which really allows me to focus on the photography only. Generally the light is more atmospheric in the mornings; however, it does depend on the garden’s orientation, as some gardens have nicer evening light and the time of year can change it as well. If possible, I generally try to get both sunrise and sunset lights in the garden.


At times, weather can be uncooperative for photography, necessitating repeat visits until it is optimal. Given scheduling constraints, how do you circumvent the frustration of inclement weather?

Weather is probably the most difficult thing I have to deal with. Almost everywhere I go, I seem to get unseasonal conditions, or so gardeners tell me. Climate seems to be noticeably changing around the world and affecting flowering times in gardens.

For some gardens, I just don’t seem to be lucky with the weather and I will have three or four goes at it. However, it really depends on where I am and how flexible the owners and I can be. Often I am working freelance, sourcing gardens myself and working with writers remotely, so I have to weigh up how long I can afford to wait. Sometimes I will have to work with the conditions as they are, such as having two shoots – an evening followed by a sunrise shoot, which may might give five minutes of nice light, but sometimes that is enough for a double page opener for a feature. More often than not, it’s not plausible to get the whole shoot with good light, which is frustrating. There are certain conditions though, such as dark grey clouds and high winds that make it impossible to get good shots. I have photographed for hours in the rain underneath an umbrella for a couple of gardens yet this patience has resulted in published features. My winning IGPOTY shot was photographed in snow underneath an umbrella.

Generally I keep an eye on the weather closer to the date and ask for a little flexibility with owners if possible. If I really feel a garden is worth capturing in good light and the weather is just not cooperative, I will go out of my way to return to a garden and shoot in good light. I have been know to get up at 2am and drive 3 hours for a fourth attempt at photographing the one garden. I often also have 14 + hour days when traveling in summer, with a shoot in the morning, some scouting during the day, driving and then another shoot at night. It can get pretty exhausting, but it’s worth it if the gardens and light are good.


Do you have a preliminary session or discussion with the garden owners as part of your ‘screening’ process? I have heard that understanding the owner(s)’ philosophy and approach towards gardening can help the photographer hone on specific details that reflect the garden’s personality.

Yes, if possible I always have a preliminary visit and walk around the garden with the owner or designer.  It is important to have this time and get some understanding of the garden and the thought process and person behind it. There is much detail in gardens, thus it is helpful to have some special plants or specific garden areas pointed out. Then I like to take another walk around the garden by myself without my camera, look at it, and walk around it from different angles, so you can plan a bit mentally as to what you need to capture and some good spots to shoot from. I always make sure I know which direction the sun will be coming up and moving through the garden.


 

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Bryan’s Ground, David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell’s garden in Wales, United Kingdom.

Any photographic tips you wish to share with your readers?

Light – this aspect is the most important thing apart from timing. It is crucial to time the photography for a peak time in the garden, whether that be spring flowering or autumn color if possible. Once you have the visit’s timing right, light then is critical because it completely changes the mood or feeling of the images and captures the beauty of the garden. I like to follow the light around the garden as it moves throughout the morning or evening. It essentially dictates the shots I take. When the light is at its best early in the mornings, I focus on the wider landscape shots. As  it then moves around the garden, I use it to highlight certain parts or plants on the garden for closer, more detailed shots. Finally once it is too bright, you often can’t achieve those overall shots without too much contrast between shadows and highlights.

Composition – good light is great, but you need to pair it with good composition.  Look for a shot that is balanced, and for the wider shots to have detail in the foreground, mid ground and distance.

Tripod  – As  personal preference, I still always use a tripod with a shutter release for low light conditions to ensure my pictures are sharp and I find it helpful for careful framing of images.

Ladder – lately I’ve been really enjoying the perspective of gardens while shooting from ladders. Particularly with gardens with tall perennials it really helps to capture the scene.

Shoot into the light – if you position the camera so it is protected from direct flare (although sometimes this tactic can work) either behind a tree or plants in the frame and shoot into the light, you can get some nice lighting effects when the light is low.


Please pick at least 5 of your favorite or best images and explain why they appeal to you the most.

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Kenrokuen, Japan. Winner of inaugural IGPOTY 2008

This is probably my most favorite image. One that I don’t tire of looking at. It feels timeless and a beautiful/magical moment captured. Reminds me of a painting. I saw this shot and framed it with the bridge, but then the couple crossing at the perfect moment definitely made the shot, for which I was very grateful.

Cloudehill Olinda Victoria Australia

Cloudehill, Victoria, Australia.

This garden is very special to me. My initial inspiration. I love the symmetry of this image. The beautiful planting and the soft light at sunrise. Your eye is really led to the seat in the distance and the path draws you into the scene.

Dan Hinkley Windcliff

Windcliff, Indianola, Washington State, USA (Dan Hinkley).

Hard to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a garden. I love the soft light at sunrise and the beautiful plants in Dan’s garden and how he frames the view of Mount Rainier. I love how the sunrise is capturing the tops of the trees on the top right of the image. I find it is a peaceful image, completely still and almost surreal.

Gravetye Manor Tom Coward

Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, United Kingdom.

I loved this garden and its setting. The planting by head gardener Tom Coward was spectacular. I find this image has a lot of depth to it as I tried to capture the many layers and paths in the garden and then the soft mist in the distance at sunrise. There is a lot going on in this garden, but with a beautiful subtlety that I tried to capture it here.

Blair garden Queenstown New Zealand

Blair garden, New Zealand.

I really loved this garden and its location. This was taken on the fourth consecutive day that I’d visited the garden and walked up the hill multiple times to get some nice light there, to show the setting of the garden surrounded by the majestic mountain backdrop. I waited until the light highlighted the grass in the foreground, which then leads your eye to the owners house and garden and then the distant landscape.


Thank you, Claire!  ~ Eric

Follow Claire on Instagram. Her photography can be reviewed on www.takacsphoto.com


Sunday Clippings

 

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Details of  beauty in Barcelona:  wood engraving ceiling detail (Gladiolus?) and Art Nouveau hand painted wallpaper featuring the different life stages of a tulip.


 


 

Sunday Clippings: Holiday Edition

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Maybe you got dressed up this weekend, maybe you didn’t, but this container planting, not wanting to be left out of the fun,   seemed to give off a spooky vibe.  Using ghoulish colored foliage and set off against dark ironwork, we wonder if this combination was done on purpose.  If so, hats off to it’s creator for taking Halloween decorations to the next level, because this could be the future for creative planting.  I can see a bed of orange and red celosia next, acting as the fiery base for a witches cauldron, do you see where we are going here?  The possibilities are out there… Any others? Hope you had a wonderful weekend and click on the links below to enjoy your Sunday Clippings…


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The Great Pumpkin Carve in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania

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Charlie Brown: Who are you writing to, Linus?

Linus: This is the time of the year to write to the Great Pumpkin. On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys for all the children.

Charlie Brown: You must be crazy. When are you going to stop believing in something that isn’t true?

Linus: When you stop believing in that fellow with the white beard and the red suit who goes “HO! HO! HO!”.

Charlie Brown: We are obviously separated by denominational differences.

Linus (writing): “You must get discouraged because more people believe in Santa Claus than you. Well, let’s face it. Santa Claus has had more publicity. But being number two, perhaps you try harder.”

~ ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’

Linus’s misguided, if not slightly adorable, belief in the Great Pumpkin as the harbinger of Halloween, may find sympathizers among the people who compete to carve the best looking pumpkin one hour outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each October, the Chadds Ford Historical Society and Concordville-Chadds Ford Rotary co-sponsors the Great Pumpkin Carve, which attracts hundreds of visitors to witness the artistic carving skills on giant pumpkins. A local farm grows and supplies the giant pumpkins, either ‘Prize-Winner’ or ‘Atlantic Giant’, which are sculptured endless ways. The pumpkins are shown for three consecutive days before they are carted away to oblivion. They range from the recognizable renditions of the traditional ‘jack-o-lantern’ to intricately-incised designs or insignias, i.e. the hoary pig transporting three jack-o-lanterns on its bristly back or a scythe-carrying skeleton on a macabre mission. Despite the crowds on the first evening, the festive fashion with which competition participants and visitors celebrate this Halloween tradition is a worthwhile experience for the first comer.

DSC_0982The pumpkin carving begins between 4:30 and 5 pm when competing individuals assess their pumpkins (they are each assigned one pumpkin randomly, and their ideas may or may not need to be modified). There is some tension as the contestants have until 8 pm to carve their designs before the competition is closed for judging. In the low evening light, the pumpkins glow large and full, and combined with the autumn foliage, it’s certainly a seasonal affair.

Pumpkin_CarvingThose who stuck with simple designs usually finish earlier than those who take on more ambitious, elaborate ones that require scraping, lacerating, and even shaving where translucent layers are required for emphasis. Some people come armed with specific candles or lights to illuminate best their pumpkins. As the nightfall comes, all eyes remain transfixed on wringing out every detail to distinguish their pumpkins from each other on the judging arena.

DSC_1033It takes a steady hand and eye to shave carefully and slowly the hard skin to create ‘engravings’ like the above scene of the Native American Indians rowing a canoe or the one below of a trio of jack-o-lanterns hitchhiking on the back of a pig or boar.

IMG_3679Notice the array of tools the contestants bring with them  –  having merely a knife and a large spoon is inadequate! A set of surgical tools are certainly required to etch out the wood flanks, the roof shingles, and the lit window panes of this house on the pumpkin below. DSC_1035

Pumpkin_facesAn accompanying friend complained about wanting a honest, traditional jack-o-lantern, but some contestants did aim simply for that look – the expressions were varied and fun.

Visit the Chadd Fords Historical Society’s webpage for more details on the Great Pumpkin Carve.

~ Eric

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin…”


Easy Pumpkin Ideas


“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself,

than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”- Henry David Thoreau


Easy pumpkin decorating ideas

Sunday Clippings

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The mornings have started to become more crisp, the foliage is beginning to change and we are enjoying the beauty that autumn has to offer.  It is a chance to slow down, pull out your favorite sweaters and catch up on some favorite reading.  We reach far and deep with this weeks edition of Sunday Clippings, sharing some really interesting stories this week from around the globe.  Click on the links below to enjoy. Have a wonderful Sunday..- James


Tuesday’s Terrace: Brooklyn revisited

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It’s been a long time since my last visit home to NYC, so this week’s image for Tuesday’s Terrace is a current photo of my old Brooklyn Garden (featured here before). I have been back in Madrid only a week now but 3 years ago was the last time I visited friends and family at home in New York.  Spending time in this garden of my creation was just as important to me, for a number of reasons.  When I created the garden there was no water source out there, the soil was poor and I wanted to choose tough plants that could handle their own once I got them established,  so I was very curious to see how my planning panned out.  Surprisingly everything had filled in beautifully, looked tough as nails, and had seemed as if it was growing there for a lot longer than it was, I first starting planting it about 6 years ago.  After moving away, my two good friends took over the apartment and garden. Between all of us, the garden has hosted many visitors and happy times, quiet times, parties, barbecues, dinners and most recently, a good friends wedding, with which we used some material from the garden for in our arrangements.  It was such a pleasure seeing it all come full circle.  Though the world works in a funny way though, where change is the only constant. Just a few days after returning to Madrid, my friend living there messaged me that the landlord has just put the building up for sale, its fate soon to be determined.  Hearing this news was like a punch in the stomach, what would happen to my old garden, would it disappear.  Only time will tell, but I do know that I will always remember that garden as one that taught me a lot and brought many smiles to many faces proving the powerful tonic of a green space full of wonderful plants.  – James


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