Leaving Leu ….but surely it´s just “au revoir”

I went down to the Gardens to say goodbye.

Goodbye to my best friends, the leafy, the creeping, the upright, the flowering, the dormant, the majestic and the minuscule, all the plants and animals who have been my steadfast companions in these last few years.

They have been my joy, my solace, my confidantes and my mentors. Their wonderful stories have taught me so much, about history, extraordinary exploration, ingenious natural design, medicine, myth and magic, and sheer dogged survival.
I walked the paths I have walked so many times. I know every inch of this place. I have recorded some 400 of its inhabitants, but many more have slipped me by.

Some are no longer there, my darling Lipstick Tree, my favourite woody podded Silky Hakea, the pretty Pima Cotton.. all victims of the severe frost.

But the twisted branches of the huge oaks still criss cross the paths, providing squirrel highways and welcome shade.

Some humans have gone too, retired or moved away. I will never forget Joel who tended the butterfly garden and its inhabitants and taught me the wonders of metamorphosis, who put a newly hatched butterfly on my hand where it stretched its beautiful wings then took its first flight.

I went to say “hi “to the Tea bush, the very first plant that, on discovering I was English, Pedro introduced me to.
I hugged my little Soapberry Tree, checked that the Midnight Horror Tree was doing Ok.
Smiled at the Sausage Tree and knocked on the Bull’s Horn Acacia thorns to see if dear “Ant” or his relations were home.
I lingered by my favourite, ancient, Cycads wondering at their history and idled along the avenue of majestic Camphors.
I buried my nose in a heady scented flower of the White Champaca, I ran my fingers over velvety leaves, rough bark and needle tipped thorns and listened to the crickets, the cicadas, the birds and the wind sighing in the bamboo.
I chewed a leaf of Yaupon Holly for a caffeine hit and crushed Sweet Basil between my fingers.

There is everything to please the senses here. I am finding it hard to leave.

But to the plants and the trees I am nothing, just a transitory little speck of a human thing, just another collection of cells and molecules, passing through.
I paused for a while on the benches dedicated to dear departed ones, Garden ghosts and I contemplating the scene together, their quiet company just right for this occasion.

I shared some time with Ben, Dora, Chad, and Jeannie, with Mildred, John and Dr Shao. The dedications are varied, fond, funny and sentimental by turn. But here is Myra´s bench. Myra who were you? You and I would have got along well. We share a particular view of life. Myra who “lived for the journey” and who “believed the true joy of life is the trip” .. right on the button Myra!

With a lump in my throat I had to say goodbye to Pedro my dearest friend, my garden mentor.
He said look for the leaves that flutter in the wind .. they are waving to you, waving goodbye.. but also hello! .. that’s Filipino wisdom for you. Meanwhile “the trip” continues, we are leaving Orlando, but, Pedro, I will be looking for those fluttering leaves wherever I go…and I will be back soon.

Cockspur Coral Tree Sketches

We are on serious countdown now, 12 days to go before we leave, 8 days before the boxes have to go and I have been reluctantly throwing away much that I have collected over almost three years.
So the nature table is no more.  All my beloved pods and seeds and bits of twigs, bugs, fungi, dried leaves are gone.
A few things are lingering, things which I can’t quite say goodbye to yet,  the potter wasp nest, some red seeds, a large bug and a little lizard skeleton.
I have also been wistfully looking through my photos and remembered my  very first day at the Leu Gardens. I had taken a picture of the Cockspur Coral Tree Erythrina crista-galli in the Arid Garden.

I had not drawn the tree itself before, just a single flower head but I did write about it here,  its somber legend and its “Cry Baby” name, given because of the abundant nectar which drips from its spur shaped flowers.
Humming birds love them.


My photo in December 2007

Today I went back to have a look at it again. I am wondering if, in-between the commissions and the packing, I have time for a small painting so I made a couple of quick sketches from different viewpoints.
I didn’t stop for long as it was midday by the time I arrived and blisteringly hot…typical mad dog! Two black and white

coral sm       coral tree sm

and one with some colour

coral col sm

For me very quick initial sketches are a real help. They get rid of the “Oh-my-God-I-cant-possibly-do-this” fear factor and they begin to show me what really interests me in the subject.

For some reason I like the white planter at the front which has some little upright cacti in it.
Two and a half years on from my initial photo, the planting around the tree has changed and it has been pruned a bit more here and there, but it is still a lovely twisty shape.. maybe I will get a painting done.

The Gentle Giant of the Bee World, The Carpenter Bee

So I have a new love, he is big, black and hairy.
Yes, today I had a real  “Ahhh” moment with a Carpenter Bee. On a beautiful sunny morning at Leu the Carpenter Bees were busy,very busy, all over this red flower (which I think is Egyptian Star Cluster, Pentas lanceolata).

The flowers are slight, the bees are heavy, so seeing one struggling to keep its feet, holding out a steadying finger seemed only natural. I thought it would fly away at such an intrusion but this lovely bee was happy to clamber aboard this firmer platform and continue collecting nectar, 4 feet resting on me and 2 on the flower.

They are so busy nectar gathering that they scarcely notice you.  I should also add that they do not sting. You see the problem, big bee, small flower.

and three more of these big chaps, trundling across the flower heads.

My bee photos are more luck than anything else. I take a lot, then it’s rather like those “find the hidden animals in the tree” outline drawings in kids puzzle books.. sometimes there is a bee in them and sometimes there is nothing.

This gorgeous handsome bee is Xylocopa virginica, the Common Eastern Carpenter Bee.
It’s the biggest bee in the USA and can be up to a sizeable one inch long.
This one is the all black female taken again at Leu but last week.

carpenter female

Professor Stephen Buchmann writes about bees.
Chris bought me his “Letters from the Hive” and I have found it hard to drag myself away.
Here is a snippet from his very nice article about Carpenter Bees, for the US Forestry Commission’s “Pollinator of the Month” series here.

 “These gentle giants get their name from their life history habits of excavating precisely rounded galleries inside wood. Using their broad, strong mandibles (jaws), they chew into dead but non-decayed limbs or trunks of standing dead trees.
Some species, like the eastern Xylocopa virginica, occasionally take up residence in fence posts or structural timbers, especially redwood, and become a minor nuisance.
Inside their rounded branched galleries, they form pollen/nectar loaves upon which they lay their giant eggs (up to 15 mm long). The female forms partitions between each egg cell by mixing sawdust and her saliva together.
These partition walls are very similar to particle board!”


Diagram from”animals how stuff works . here and a photo of their extraordinarily accomplished woodwork

abeille-apidae-xylocopinae-carpenter bee busy

Photo Stephen Buchmann Also  accompanying the article is Prof Buchmann’s wonderful photo, demonstrating the huge difference in sizes between the bee species


The smallest and the largest: a Perdita minima on a female carpenter bee’s head. Photo by Stephen Buchmann.

Anna, from Anna’s Bee World, who also very kindly helped me identify my Blue Wasp has this photo on her blog and explains how it was achieved.

This photo was taken by one of my graduate advisors, Stephen Buchmann, who is a renowned bee expert. He has this amazing amazing microscope, and an artful eye.
These two bees are real, but obviously dead. He took a Carpenter bee, which are known as some of the largest bees (gentle giants) and he took the smallest bee in the world (Perdita minima) and glued the small bee onto the antennae of the carpenter bee. He thought it would bee (sorry, had to throw that in) cool to show people the size difference between the largest bee and smallest bee.

It’s the photo you would see in the bee version of the Guinness World Records.
There is a scale bar at the bottom of the photo, but I am not sure what the scale is (1mm?). I couldn’t find that. I assume it is 1mm since Perdita minima usually measures about 2mm in size  (0.078 inches).

See Anna’s Bee World here. Two millimeters for the tiny Perdita minima!!!.

I will not be attempting to paint that one. Its rather a shame to see how many sites are dedicated to the eradication of this “nuisance” bee. It seems they don’t actually do too much harm and are so very beautiful and although quite territorial they are not really aggressive (the male bees cannot sting).

I did read that if you want to “move” a Carpenter Bee, you throw a small pebble just past him. He will think it is another bee and go chasing after it. He may not be the sharpest bee in the box then, but his looks are enough to fall in love with.

There are certainly quite a few round here and, having a subversive streak myself, I rather like the idea of them infiltrating the neat timber porches and verandahs of Baldwin Park and setting up some little families there.  Their chewing can apparently be heard several feet away. 🙂


A preliminary sketch: What distinguishes them from Bumble Bees is their glossy hairless abdomen .. and their size!

3 carpenters sm jpg

Staring at Weeds

I took some time this week to go and and watch the few bees that are still flying. It’s completely fascinating, I have never before really observed bees with anything but a passing curiosity.
I circle the lake on the bike and screech to a halt at any patch of flowers that might yield up a few bees.
The joggers and dog walkers give me a wide berth and look away, not wanting to make eye contact with a mad woman who is standing transfixed, staring at weeds.
I have my obvious camera with me which helps but you have to be patient, stand still, watch and wait.

But I have been rewarded with sightings of a million more green and stripy Agapostemons and another beautiful blue/green metallic bee which I think is an Augochlora from the same Halictid family.
I have seen tiny Mining bees with yellow pollen laden legs on matching Indian Blanket flowers and the huge Carpenter bees who ponderously drift from flower to flower, making them easier to photograph than many

. carp

At Leu Gardens, it is more acceptable to stop and stare.
I have seen a honey bee taking time out to clean itself from an overload of sticky pollen. I have watched bees of different species disputing the nectar of the big hisbiscus flowers.

Here two fighting Agapostemon bees tumble out in a tangle of legs the metallic Augochlora in the background.

I spent a good hour in front of the Michaelmas daisies, watching bees and flies and beautiful thread waisted wasps.

miner bee sm

I sat in the butterfly garden mesmerised as I saw this lizard leap from its lookout post onto a nearby flower and devour one of my little stripy friends..but that’s life..

You can just see the body of the bee in the lizard’s mouth.

….and I did get some initial sketches done of my elegant little model from earlier in the week .. I hope he has not suffered the same fate.

Halictid bee: Agapostemon splendens

sketch sm

Waking up after chilling in the cooler..


col sketch small

Leaf of the Day: 80% Crown Flower and the Optimistic Gap

I am almost finished but have also run out of time. Tomorrow I leave to go home to the UK for almost a month, to do some very tedious things including renewing visa and passport all of which require a mountain of absolutely 100% correct paperwork, undamaged fingertips (it’s a good job I am not gardening at the moment) and enormous patience.

The crown flower has been very slow, particularly this time because it had to be correctly detailed for identification purposes rather than artistic ones, so everything I did had to be measured and very careful. I don’t really enjoy the measuring but can see its importance, and at times like this, a microscope would have come in handy.
I have also had some more ant problems, not of course from “Ant” who remains my faithful companion, but from an army of tiny ants who career about the drawing and smudge themselves into the surface of the paper. They appear from nowhere, love the milkweeds and lodge in every nook and cranny of my desk. At the slightest movement they employ scatter tactics and fan out across everything. Fatalities have occurred, mainly it seems on pristine parts of my white paper. My greatest aim, so far on the course, is to finish a submission with unmarked paper… some hope…

Super photo of the pod ( do I really need my own real, live one??) by Ram Thakur from Trek Nature here

The pods are typical of the other milkweeds and, to me, are one of the more interesting parts of this curious plant.

I am beginning to understand a little more about the paint handling for this very exacting style of work and am very keen to get onto some subjects of my own choosing and design. I hope to get to Kew while I am in the UK as there is an exhibition of botanical work referencing plants that have an economic value.. that’s my kind of plant! Beautiful and useful.
I have had to leave this unfinished as, despite having returned to the plant 5 times over two weeks there are still no seed pods.. and so there remains an “optimistic gap” for the pod.

“Optimistic gaps” are very useful things generally in life and some of my very favourite things. They hold the promise of perfection and are generally much better left as gaps than filled.
The next 3 weeks are definitely an Optimistic Gap, as I am still not quite sure what I will be doing or exactly where. After working so hard this year for the exhibition, freelance work and assignments I do feel in need of some input time. Time to just look at the world that exists beyond the 4 corners of my drawing board to which I feel I have been somewhat unwillingly chained recently.

I am optimistically taking my sketch book which I hope won’t remain an empty gap.


Crown Flower 80%

Leaf of the Day: Crown Flower, First Sketches

There is no getting away from the fact that I am late with this next submission, but yesterday I did get 25 illustrations sent off to the book designer. But now I have to get down to it and with no procrastination time left I decided to make a study of the Crown Flower, Calotropis gigantea, or Giant Milkweed. It’s a strange season here, I remember well from last year how things are between flowering and seeding and, while I didn’t want to repeat myself, this curious plant has enough of a challenge to keep me interested. I drew its intriguing flower here last year. It is an odd one and so rigid in its structure as to be quite unflower like.

Because this assignment has to include some dissection I have spent most of the day cutting up a couple of flowers and trying to see the complicated pollination structures. Surprisingly I did find the TINY pollinarium, just 2 mm long, and put it on the scanner to enlarge it. The whole pollination process is very complicated .. more tomorrow.
Today just sketchbook work, thoughts about layout and some colour notes.

Giant Milkweed Sketches

Leaf of the Day:Champaka pod and about Drawing.

On my second visit to Leu this week I was still trying to find inspiration for the next assignment, the botanical study, but keeping me on the straight and narrow when I get to the gardens is just hopeless. I looked at many things, walked for miles and looked again at the soapberry and the tea camellia and am considering the crown flower again, but there are no flowers on the tea at the moment and the soapberry flowers are the tiniest things you can imagine.

So I came to no conclusion but did find these odd little immature Champaca pods. Long ago Pedro gave me an old gnarled spent seed case from this beautiful tree, since when I have been patiently waiting for a new one… for over a year. I think I now know why I can’t find a mature one ..it’s squirrels.. It has to be the squirrels again, they eat all the pods of the other magnolias too. I can never find one with all those lovely red seeds.

I wrote about the glorious scented Champacas last year here and the beautiful big Michaelia alba near the avenue of Camphor trees has just started blooming. The scent is sheer heaven ! I brought one of the little flowers back with me and its perfume has filled the room.
The pods are actually from the Michaelia champaca, the original “Joy Perfume” tree and develop from the cone shaped central receptacle of the flower. This photograph is from the excellent Wayne’s Word site here and shows the flower and the mature seed pod.

If only I could find one. I think I may ask Pedro to put a bag over one for me while it matures. I am sure I read this advice somewhere, given to someone also trying to find an intact un-squirreled magnolia pod.

These are curious things, green with white spots at the moment. The mature ones will blacken and then split. I cut one large pod open and inside were 6 seeds snugly wedged up against each other, completely filling the cavity, again, beautifully designed. As I took them apart, there were the fine white strings that attach the seeds to the case, just like the magnolia.


Champaca Pods

Leaf of the Day: A Beautiful Abutilon

How very pretty and dainty is the lovely old fashioned “Parlour Maple”, the Flowering Maple, the Abutilon striatum. At Leu Gardens there is one little unnamed tree growing in the shade by the path to the lake. The little bell shaped flowers hang like folded butterfly wings, they catch the morning sun and glow a brilliant orange, their deep red veins like the leading of tiny glass lampshades…so it’s not surprising it is sometimes called a Japanese Lantern flower .
For over a year I have been meaning to do some drawings, always prompted by seeing them on one of the first paths I take, lit by an early morning sun, but then always getting sidetracked. However today I had a tiny sketch book and watercolours and jotted it down. It’s interesting how much better this is for me than a photograph .. more of that later.

This delicate little tree which is native to Brazil is not related to the Maple at all but belongs to the Mallow family along with cotton, hibiscus and the rose of Sharon etc. The misnomer of Maple arises from the similarity of the leaf shape,
Abutilon striatum arrived in Europe and North America early in the 19th Century where it soon became a darling of the parlour, companion I am sure to the redoubtable aspidistra. I remember trying to grow one in England many years ago. I remember especially because it had mottled leaves, the result, it seems, of the Abutilon Mosaic Virus. This virus was introduced into London from the West Indies in 1898 by the garden suppliers Veitch and Sons. They had discovered a seedling with mottled yellowed leaves and quickly bred an ornamental variety which soon became a fashionable must-have plant for the dresser.

Flowers are popular subjects for stamps. This stamp is from Albania from the web site “Herbier Philatélique” by Pierre Guertin, a Philatelic Herbarium here.. very neat.

It seems such a shame that this pretty little tree has fallen out of favour. The flowers are a perfect shape, and quite exquisite with thick ribbed red veins on the orangy yellow petals and the little tassel of stamens. I should make a finer watercolour study one day.


Abutilon striatum, The Parlour Maple

Leaf of the Day: Squirrels and Tabebuia Pods

Here the relentlessness of growth never stops. When one thing is dormant another is bursting into life. Not to have those regular quiet, dormant times of northern regions sometimes seems exhausting. So, despite it being early in the year and to both my delight and frustration, there are lots of seed pods around. I can’t possibly keep up with them all. In a confusion of life cycles there are trees with flowers but no leaves, trees with new leaves but without flowers and then trees with flowers, leaves and fruit all at the same time.

The golden trumpet tree Handroanthus chrysotricha whose beautiful flowers were with us for only a few days, is one which gets to shows off its flowers before the distraction of leaves. The overwhelming yellow of this tree set against a clear blue Florida sky is breathtaking.

The flowers are gone now but just over a week ago when I went to the Gardens I stood under one of the many “Tabebuia’s” as they are known here, admiring these very nice furry pods which seem to have appeared from nowhere, instantaneously and in profusion.. amazing.

However I also realised I was being was showered with seeds and bits of debris because above my head 3 squirrels were busy methodically stripping the tree of its fruit. I watched as they grabbed the pods and then daintily nibbled all the flesh from the pod leaving ribbons of the outer skin and discarding the seeds. They were voracious and determined. Yesterday I went back and only ribbons of the stripped pods remain but the ground is carpeted with the silvery seeds.

I did save one pod because the little, flat, winged seeds are so attractive, but today I only have time for a quick pod sketch and a study of 3 seeds which are looking a bit like strange owls.
For the next submission we are required to make a proper botanical study and I am supposed to be using a magnifying glass for a bit of dissection and being more methodical about recording accurately what size things are drawn. The seeds are drawn at 3 x their original size so are a massive 2.75″ long, but I neglected to write that on the drawing..Hmm well it has been a long week.

Golden Trumpet Seed Pod and Seeds

Exhibition Images

Today I managed to get to the Gardens for a lovely relaxing walk in the sun and to take some photos of the exhibition in situ. There have already been so many really enthusiastic comments and the staff are saying they have never had an exhibition quite like this, (which can be taken in two ways I know, but I am thinking positive today!). The most encouraging aspect is that people are really stopping to read the blog posts which are printed out underneath each picture and that is the difference between a normal art exhibition and this blog exhibition. What they will make of some of the stories I just don’t know.
I met most of the gardeners today who were delighted to have been immortalised in print. Well without them none of this would have been possible and I have managed to mention Pedro, Susan, Joel, Tony and Eric, who in particular have helped me so much. They, and the plants, are really the stars of the show.

My snaps are not brilliant but do give an idea of how we laid it out with the images and their corresponding texts underneath, as here with some of the pod drawings.

I cut down the blog posts considerably which perhaps was not as necessary as I had thought but didn’t want to give people text overload.
The space is not very well lit and the first five photos are taken in a narrow entrance hall.

The first three groups are the Leu House drawing and intro, my favourite Soapberry, and the Yaupon Holly. (the text about the black tea drink is, I now realise, appropriately opposite the restrooms..:)

The hall then opens out into a larger space which gives the bigger pictures some breathing space too.

In addition I wanted to show some of the pods etc. so there is a small display in a glass case containing my models.

This whole area is not a dedicated exhibition space and is used for many different functions, so an “opening” was not possible and prices cannot be shown on the work. Instead there is a price list with the main desk and I have links to one with text only, and one with images, at the top of the blog too. I am delighted with how it looks and for the great help given to me by Paul Wenzel who really did all the hard work of measuring and hanging. It was a long job with 49 pictures and 43 text plates to hang. A big thank you also to director Robert Bowden for granting me the opportunity to show my work at the lovely Leu Gardens.
*****PDF price list with images is available HERE.

I will be updating exhibition progress from time to time.