Life on the Elegant Ivy.

Yesterday on a beautiful sunny Sunday I spent a good hour just watching the comings and goings on one of the ivy bushes which grow on waste ground near the railway tracks. These scrubby bits of land are a tangle of brambles and ivy and both yesterday and today the ivy was alive with happy insects. Here are a few: Ivy bee sunning itself,

Honey bee and ladybird,

Bombus lucorum I think,


Drone hoverfly I think and lucorum..

beefly and luc

A very sleepy and slow B terrestris. I wondered if this lovely big bee was getting close to the end of its days?


As well as bees, wasps, flies and ladybirds, the bushes were covered with butterflies but just the one species, the pretty Red Admirals and so many of them. All were so intent on feeding that I could get quite close.


There was one huge hoverfly. I think the biggest in the UK and another insect mostly found in the South. Sometimes called the hornet mimic hoverfly, (you can see why), this is the splendid Volucella zonaria.


There were many other little hoverflies, and two sorts of wasps, this one was having a brush up.


and on some nearby brambles, what I think is a ruby tiger moth caterpillar

which will, with a bit of luck, turn into one of these,

Wonderful picture by Ben Sale of the Ruby Tiger moth Phragmatobia fulginosa from the

*Update…I found one in my garden in Grafham in 2016…beautiful

Everything seems to like this ivy bush much more than other varieties in the town. I wonder why? Perhaps the nectar is different. But this particular bush was covered with life whereas other were largely unvisited.

This one has very elegant deeply lobed leaves. I put a leaf on the windowsill to sketch it (the dead fly has now gone..). This is my only available surface at the moment so I sit with my sketchbook on my knee, but the shadows are lovely.

Elegant Ivy Leaf….

ivyb ivybg

Pencil sketch 6”

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..


Acacia Holsericea Leaves

Leaf of the Day: Beginning Big Leaf #1

I have only 6 weeks to go before I have to put up the exhibition at Leu and, as I habitually do, I make a chart of the time I have left, put it up on the wall and then forget about it. It’s just a little ritual which reassures me that, because I have made a chart, I have things under control. This is self delusion of the first order of course but is comforting. Deadline angst will kick in by about week 5.

I promised myself that I would try to get a few large pieces done for the show so today I have been planning those. I want to paint some more leaves from the garden and this is a chance to tackle some of the larger ones.
I have a beautiful big leaf in the fridge which has been there for a while. Unfortunately I am not quite sure what it is. It came from Leu but the tree has no label, which I am not going to worry about for now .

I haven’t recorded a piece of work from idea to finished piece before so it will be interesting for me to see where it goes and at what point I probably should have stopped.. .. but didn’t!
So first the some tiny quick design sketches, in a 4″x 6″ sketchbook, of some ideas I have been thinking about.

I do so wish I could keep exquisite sketchbooks. I have said before that I so admire the sketchbooks that some artists manage to keep. They are often beautifully laid out, carefully and methodically annotated, all the same size and colour, or in matching sets, becoming works of art in themselves.
Sadly I am not one of those artists, I have tried but just can’t do it. My sketch books are a mishmash of shopping lists, phone numbers, written notes, ideas, and scribbles and would not be valued by anyone except me. I write on anything to hand to work out an idea. I do try to keep all the bits and pieces though and sometimes find an idea that, at the time had nowhere to go but seems much more promising second time around.

I did manage to get the sketch book out for these prelim sketches…

I next started a pencil drawing which was supposed to be a detailed drawing but I abandoned it, because for some reason, I had decided to try the Bristol Board again .. Very Bad Decision. I really don’t like the surface at all, it’s slippery and any bit of grit from the pencils makes nasty scratchy marks. So I converted it into a sketch which is still useful and at least worked out the cast shadows that I like so much.
I also had to scale the drawing down to one third of the leaf’s size, that too was unsatisfactory, as it is partly the size of this leaf that makes it so impressive.

This small drawing made it seem nondescript, so that made me decide on a bigger canvas size too, a nice big 3ft x2ft
I bought a canvas and primed it a warm dark grey and sketched out the basic design and blocked in a bit. That’s it for the painting today.

However I needed to make a more detailed drawing of some parts of the leaf just to understand it better, especially the centre area.. so here is a drawing of a small section which will hopefully help with the painting.

Big Leaf Detail

Leaf of the Day: Porcupine Tomato and other Prickly Customers

As I walked past this little plant yesterday I had a feeling I had seen it somewhere before and today realised it was a few days ago on “Outofdoors” blog, mentioned in the post “C’mon now Touch me, babe” about the importance of considering the texture of plants for the landscape, here . It is strange how things creep into your subconscious and then suddenly there they are in front of you.
I noticed some time ago how few visitors to garden I see touching the plants. Is this because we are taught not to touch when we are children or have we become so separated from nature that we regard it as alien.. well I suppose it is sometimes. It is a shame though, because experiencing the feel of plants is one of the very great joys of gardening. I can’t resist it and am constantly surprised because things do not always feel as you expect them to!
But this little plant is not doing too well at the garden and so I only brought 2 very small leaves back to draw which by no means do it justice. This is the Solanum pyracanthum, a plant from Madagascar and a member of the huge and diverse solanum family. What makes this so attractive is the beautiful red orange stems, and the bright orange and ferocious thorns which track the leaf veins on both the top and bottom surface of the leaves.

image from here

The leaves themselves are a really beautiful blue-green and soft, apart from the spines of course. The pretty, typical solanum flowers are a lavender blue. It gets quite an enthusiastic press except from one grower who finds it self-seeds a bit too readily and each seedling arrives with fully formed skin piercing thorns.
There are over 1400 species in this solanum genus and they share some uncomfortable characteristics, all being toxic to some degree, and hairy or prickly. They all have the five lobed flowers and their fruits are berries. They range from some of the poisonous nightshades to the tomato, eggplant and the potato. There are some spectacular varieties with some wonderfully descriptive names to accompany them too, Cockroach berry, Apple of Sodom, Devil’s tomato, Nipple fruit, Bluewitch nightshade, Hairy Fruited eggplant, Buffalo burr and many others.
Here for example is the the Five Minute Plant ( why?) Solanum atropurpureum with its wonderful dark purple thorny stems and green and white striped berries, looking like the little Thai eggplants I have seen at the farmer’s market.

image from Wiki

and Solanum quitoense the “naranjilla” from Quito in Ecuador,

Image from Tom Clothiers very interesting general gardening site here

..which has these beautiful orange fruit.

Great photo from Botany Photo of the Day which always has something stunning to look at. here

I rather liked this robust illustration of the Porcupine Tomato from Curtis’ Botanical Magazine 1894. It has a brief and factual description and says that the plant arrived at its new chilly home in Kew Gardens via Paris in 1789, sent over by Andre Thouin, where ” it is cultivated with us in the stove , where it sometimes produces ripe seeds“. Mr Thouin was the head gardener at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the “stove” would possibly be Kew’s Great Stove hot house built in 1792.

The text also explains that some of these plants are more thorny than others and parts of this specimin are “unarmed”. Not much though I think.. They are a thoroughly fascinating group of plants and I have spent far too long reading about them, the stove houses and the interesting ailments I can apparently cure with nightshade…more spells for the book!

Porcupine tomato

Leaf of the Day: Southern Live Oak and What is a Leaf?

After all the fanciful myth and superstition of the last couple of days it is time for some facts. I have now been looking at leaves for almost 6 months, admittedly in a rather haphazard way, just picking up bits of information and understanding here and there. Having been a side line observer before, I am now constantly amazed by the diversity, beauty and structure of my backroom boys, so what is a leaf and what does it do? I have been trying to get things clear in my head so may as well post it all too.

What is a leaf.
In botany a leaf is an above-ground plant organ specialized for photosynthesis. For this purpose, a leaf is typically flat (laminar) and thin, to expose the cells containing chloroplast to light over a broad area, and to allow light to penetrate fully into the tissues. Leaves are also the sites in most plants where transpiration and guttation ( moisture loss) take place. Leaves can store food and water and are modified in some plants for other purposes. The comparable structures of ferns are normally referred to as fronds.
A typical leaf has a broad, expanded blade (lamina), attached to the stem by a stalk like petiole. Veins transport materials to and from the leaf tissues, radiating from the petiole through the blade. They are arranged in a netlike pattern in dicot leaves and are parallel in monocot leaves.In conifers, evergreen needles, which are a type of leaf, persist for two or three years.

There seem to be many different types of bract to me and often they look like part of the flower.
A bract is a modified or specialized leaf. They are often reduced in size relative to foliage leaves, or of a different color or texture, or both. Some bracts are brightly colored and serve the function of attracting pollinators and an excellent example of this occurs in the poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima), dogwoods and bougainvillea.

A spathe is a large bract that forms a sheath to enclose the flower cluster of certain plants such as palms and arums. In many arums, the spathe is petal-like, attracting pollinators to the flowers which arranged on a type of spike called a spadix.

Scale leaf : a reduced leaf, often dry, non-photosynthetic, and protective, e.g. surrounding a dormant bud, a budscale.

Scales can refer to a number of things. Typically, they refer to the small opaque but generally not green structures that cover the terminal buds during the winter…and piano practice.

Scale-like leaves are very small and green. They may be overlapping and clothe the twig of plants like junipers, and cedars.

Modified stem leaves and spiny leaves.
Spines are leaves too…Cactus Spines are highly modified, non-photosynthetic leaves. Most Cacti produce minute photosynthetic leaves which are ephemeral and contribute virtually nothing to the overall photosynthesis of the plant. The cactus stem performs virtually all of the photosynthesis for the plant.
Cacti leaves or Pads are really modified stems and are referred to as cladodes.

I drew a cladode before when I was looking at butchers broom. Cladodes too are flattened stems. In the Ruscus hypoglossum the real leaves are around the little flower that appears to be growing out of a leaf!

Slender, twining modified leaf or stem used for clinging to objects for support. (Grape, Cucumber, Passionflower, Grape Ivy)
The tendrils of a piece of climbing Bauhinia I drew endearingly twined themselves around the handle of the cup I had put it in. This action is called circumnutation and was coined by Darwin in his work “On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants”

There are more, Catapylls, seem to be “The early leaf forms of a plant or shoot, as cotyledons, bud-scales, rhizom-scales, etc. I am not clear what a Phylloclade is yet.

I wish there was one really good book I could buy which would explain with diagrams and examples. I guess there is, but time to look is limited and it’s the sort of book you need to see before buying. Instead I am building up a small library of images of the different plant structures so that I can really get the hang of it… you will be relieved to know I won’t be posting them all…

For my leaf today, as I am having a bit of basic revision, I am revisiting my first leaf ..the Southern Live Oak, the first drawing I tentatively made in January. This tree is so important to Orlando and adds grace and leafy beauty to the lakeside streets. There is a huge oak tree close to the Art Museum, its branches elegantly resting on the ground decorated with dancing little Resurrection ferns.

I have been to Leu today and seen some really exciting things but on the way out this little sprig of leaves landed at my feet. I have drawn it, in its chewed and nibbled state. I don’t think there is one really perfect leaf there. I like it that way, just as it is.

Southern Live Oak

Leaf of the Day: Cabbage Palm Fern and Nature Printing

This little fern frond is from the Cabbage Palm Fern which grows in the ‘boots’ of the palm trees all over Orlando. The boots are where the leaves have joined the trunk, providing a cleft for the fern to take root in. It grows in crevices and cracks of walls, in nooks and crannies of oak trees and anywhere it can get a bit of nutrient, but is at its prettiest decorating the trunks of the palms. This is again from the border at the bottom of the steps here. There are many beautiful ferns in Florida and its is tempting to make February a Florida Fern month.. maybe I will, but some of them are very complicated to draw!

On Saturday I found a good shop nearby which sells all sort of antiquities from Egyptian shabtis to dinosaur eggs. I picked up this fossilised fern there, embedded and preserved in slate, 310-280 million years old. It¡s from Pennsylvania, an amazing little bit of history for just a few dollars.

Nature Printing
It reminded me of the beautiful fern illustrations in Thomas Moore’s “The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland” produced in London in 1855 by the difficult and laborious ‘nature printing’ process. Each engraving plate was made from an actual plant then hand coloured. Here is an example from the book and more examples in a article from the George Glazer Gallery here explaining the process. This would be fascinating to try.
I particularly like the way the stem has been just turned up in order to get the image to fit on the page. In a similar way Audubon had to arrange some of the larger birds like the flamingo in awkward poses to make them fit the ‘elephant ‘ format of the pages. Somehow there is a truthfulness here which is very engaging and has no artifice.


Cabbage Palm Fern

Leaf of the Day: Aloe Rivierei

This is only the top section of this fearsome leaf, again from Mead Gardens.
I am assuming this is the Rivierei because it was growing very close to the water and has very long slender leaves, rather than the shorter leaves with the fatter bases that the Aloe Vera plants have. Aloe Vera grows everywhere here and of course is very well know for its medicinal properties. There is large and dangerous one lurking at the bottom of the steps which accosts the skirts and trousers of unwary visitors.
The aloes are another huge group of plants with many different variations. The name means ‘bitter’ and, interestingly, the aloes were one of the plants used by the Egyptians in the embalming process. Their employment in the history in medicine is extensive and is something I will return to when I have another aloe to draw…as I surely will!

This drawing is 9 inches high and this small piece took up all of the sketch book page, so I think the whole leaf from top to bottom would be 25 to 30 inches long.
It’s very very tough, has thorns like saw teeth and did some damage to the inside of my handbag. The thorns themselves are red tipped.


Aloe Rivierei

Leaf of the Day: Powder Puff Tree and Hammocks

The weather has been miserable and cold but there was a glimpse of sun yesterday, so Chris and I called in at Mead Gardens to make the most of it. Mead Gardens is a small public park about a mile away and is mostly a wild, wetland sort of park, with boardwalks above the swampy parts. It’s lovely for its very wildness. There are the normal dire warnings about feeding the alligators but, apart from that, it is a little oasis of green in the city.
It was while reading some information about Mead Gardens that I came across the word ‘hammock’. Here in Florida it as a word derived from early inhabitants to mean ‘a cool and shady place’.
There is an interesting article about hammocks here written by Rhonda Brewer which contains this lovely quote.
‘Thomas Barbour, naturalist at large, describes hammocks this way, “I love hammocks … in the early spring, when the yellow jasmine festoons the forest trees and when the redbud and giant dogwoods and the maples are putting forth their vivid crimson foliage, I do not know of lovelier spots to sit listening to birds and resting in the heat of the day” (Barbour 1944:165).’

This leaf is from a very pretty tree we saw at Mead Gardens, called either the Powder Puff tree, or the Blood Red Tassel tree. Its Latin name is Calliandra haematocephala which ominously translates as ‘with a blood red head’. There is a very similar one called the Fairy Duster but it has quite different leaves. For once I will include a photograph I took, as the flowers are quite beautiful.
This leaf is definitely furry and soft to touch…maybe floccose? A very delicate and dainty little tree all round.

After Mead Gardens we called in at Fiddler’s Green where an Irish piper was skirling a few airs on the bagpipes for a cameraman.

The Powder Puff Tree

Leaf of the Day: The Hairiness of Leaves and Gecko`s feet

I am returning to leaf morphology today so I have ten small drawings of various kinds of hairiness (pubescence to use the correct name) which also give me some more practice with pen and ink. Hairs in botanical terms are, by the way, referred to as trichomes.
You only have to think about leaves to realise that they do all feel different, we describe them as leathery, waxy, prickly, furry.. etc. However, the correct botanical language and names are wonderful, descriptive and Dickensian. I am sure somewhere a character must have been described as having “velutinous” hair. Some are very bizarre, some you can associate with the everyday. “Floccose” is easy for anyone who went to an UK Indian restaurant in the 1970`s to remember. Yes!…that obligatory deep red furry “flocked” wallpaper. Wallpaper is another favourite subject of mine and just out of interest, a flocked wallpaper was made a few years ago that reacted to ambient noise by changing colour, and now Jonas Samson has developed wallpaper that emits light.. very beautiful ..see here

Here are the 10 different types of hairiness from my drawing, there are more!

Echinate… beset with prickles.
Tuberculate… warty or with tubercules
Strigose… with bent over (appressed)spikes
Stellate… with star shaped hairs
Floccose… soft woolly tufts of hair
Velutionous… dense soft silky hair
Tomentose… matted soft woolly hair
Unicanate… hooked points
Scurfy… scale like particles
Hirsute… stiff bristly hairs

The often unnoticed surfaces of things are, of course, brought to our attention through a microscope. Here to illustrate the surface of a leaf is the beautiful image of a blade of grass from David Kunkel’s Microscopic World, at the website. The images show in wonderful colour and detail another fascinating, and to an artist, inspirational world. See more here. I especially like the “gecko foot/toe hairs”. I have a lovely little gecko who lives in my studio room. Apparently he gets around the ceiling by rolling and unrolling the hairs on his feet! I will regard him with heightened wonder and respect now!

Ten Leaf Surfaces

Leaf of the Day: Curly Croton

My second croton. (the earlier one is here.) This one I like better. Its not quite the corkscrew variety which twists the whole way up the stem but this one does have one full turn. To my mind the individual leaves are more attractive than the plant as a whole. Their beautiful shapes can get lost in all that exuberant colour…but then the colours and patterns are wonderful too.

The colour of this one is extraordinary. A red background with dark green patches bordered in a yellowy green. The back of the leaf is deep magenta. It’s very beautiful. I will certainly return to these when I start working in colour. They are also known as Joseph’s Coat and are definitely the Jackson Pollock of the plant world.
I have read that the name Croton comes from the Greek word “tick”, because of the similarities of the seeds to dog ticks.. to be honest lots of seeds look like ticks to me! Its Latin name is Codiaeum Variegatum and it is part of the extensive Euphorbiaceam family apparently over 2000 varieties. I blanch at the prospect of all those leaves from just one genus. Some more information about them, if you are interested, is here from Waynes Word .
This one came from the shrubby borders of Park Avenue where I saw the squirrel yesterday. The council have kindly labeled some of the lovely trees which are planted at the roadside. .. but not the shrubs.

I had been to the Creadle School of Art today for my second ceramics class. I love working in clay but there is so much to learn. I´m on week two of the lumpen ashtray. I wont be sharing the results with you just yet.


The Curly Croton