Leaf of the Day: Felt Plant Leaf

This is the last leaf for the submission (hurrah!) , a small top leaf of one of the strange “felt”plants a variety of Kalanchoe. The largest variety Kalanchoe beherensis can grow to 6 meters. I took a photo of a small one in Sarasota in the Marie Selby Garden a couple of months ago and there is another one at Leu.

The leaf I have painted is from a smaller variety which, as well as the furry leaves, has strange soft bumps on the back of the new leaves. I wanted to try painting something furry.. (pubescent) and this one certainly is. I have not used white body colour in the other leaves, trying to keep to the rule of the purist watercolourist of using white paper for highlights, but to achieve the furryness I used white gouache, mixed with some of the leaf colour and drybrushed the texture over the painted surface.
It was very time consuming, one leaf was fine but I am not sure about a whole plant. However the leaves of the larger kalanchoes are very beautiful and I hope to be able to paint one when I get on to larger subjects.

I am glad to have completed these leaves. There are many areas that are less than satisfactory, it is a steep learning curve to go from loose to very detailed watercolour, and I have to probably do less drawing now and more painting to really improve.
One of the most daunting thing for me is that sheet of pristine white paper. I am very impressed with myself for having managed to keep this sheet fairly splash free.. very good for a messy watercolourist who quite likes blots and runs!

Felt Plant

Leaf of the Day:Encepalartos Horridus and Yoga

Today I have spent most of the day out and about..this morning I went down to Leu Gardens early as temperatures are beginning to heat up now and by the afternoon we have spectacular thunderstorms preceded by intense humidity. I am wondering how I will survive the summer?
Arriving early is good because you have the Gardens almost to yourself….almost. I don’t know if it’s just me but my steps seem to be dogged at the moment by yoga or tai chi practitioners who commandeer a bit of public space (usually the very best bit ) with a mat which immediately transforms itself into a private 50 ft radius “DO NOT DISTURB ” zone. She was on the jetty by the lake, cool elegant and composed in her simple leotard. I somehow don’t think she had a burger for breakfast or had arrived on a bike, I was disheveled and sweaty from my dicing-with-death bike ride. The bad person in me wanted to toss her over the rails to the alligators.. The good person was considering a cheery “hello” but she was deeply involved in that pose that looks like a dog being sick so I though better of it and moved along to find the friendlier Cycads.

After reading so much about the Cycads I wanted to go and see them again but a drawback of arriving early to the Gardens is that you may have to trail blaze the paths which are criss crossed with webs, I am not good with spiders. The cone I had taken a photo of 2 weeks ago was bigger and better but the path was guarded by a very large web and it was too early in the day for spider trauma. To be fair I haven’t seen that many here. The ones I did see today were tiny little jeweled little things… but, believe me, I don’t look hard.
However I did find the cycad encepalartos horridus so I have a drawing of a truly horrid leaflet today(actually one I had picked up at Marie Selby last week) and I did meet up with my friend Pedro the gardener, who showed me some more strange and wonderful things in the garden which I will hopefully get round to drawing in the next few days. In the butterfly garden many big beautiful butterflies are languidly flapping from flower to flower and there is a small glass fronted box displaying the most exquisite chrysalises ( chrysalides) of the monarch butterfly. They are like little drops of jade with gold specs… My photo below does not quite capture the colours.

Probably the most spectacular butterflies are the Giant Swallowtails that look like humming birds as they hover amongst the flowers.

photo from the North American Butterfly Association

The full leaf of the ferocious Horridus can be 18-24″ They are long stiff recurving leaves that have many intertwined, needle sharp, leaflets. The spines twist away from the plane of the leaf so it can sink its spines into your flesh however you try to approach it. Its native habitat is on exposed slopes provinces of South Africa. .

Here is my photo from Marie Selby Gardens


Encephalartos Horridus

Leaf of the Day: Dinosaur Food, Visualising Pre History (& some old tricks with perfume)

Here, as promised from my previous post Cycad Seeds, is just a little information about these amazing, ancient, Permian era plants that are little changed in 250 million years. Standing amongst the huge primeval creatures on a steamy, close day in Leu Gardens, and understanding some of their history, you could be forgiven for mistaking the air’s damp humidity for the the hot breath of a passing Brontosaurus. They are a glimpse into a strange and wonderful past time.

Quiet, stately plants with leaves shooting straight up from the ground or from long thick trunks, the Cycads are gymnosperms and include zamiaceae, encephalartos, and macrozamia. Some are like palms, some more like ferns and some more shrubby. One I saw at Marie Selby Gardens has long fierce thorns and has the enviable name of encephalartos horridus. These below are the cycus revolta, the confusingly named Sago Palm as it is not a palm but it does produce a type of sago.
photo Dave’s Garden again

A native cycad to Florida is the coontie, Zamia pumila. Coontie” is a Seminole word which approximates to ‘flour root’ and the Seminole people used it despite its poisonous properties.as a very important food source. The stems and roots had to be pounded to a pulp and washed to remove the poisons and then the paste was dried and used as a flour for baking bread. It was known as Florida “Arrow Root” and there was a sizeable industry in Florida producing the starch until about 1925, but overproduction decimated the local plants as is often the case.
I do wonder how, and at what cost people discovered methods of getting rid of the poisonous parts of plants, or that it would be worth the obvious risk in the end. Captain Cook’s pigs, on his Australian expedition, fell foul of the poison and died. His crew only suffered a ‘hearty fit of vomiting and purging’.

Trading Sex for Pollen
Cycads have a novel way of reproducing themselves which may account for their longevity. I am not going to plumb the murky depths of plant sex to any great degree but this is very interesting
Cycads producemale and female cones on different plants. The male cone produces a scent which attracts thrips, little insects, who enter the gaps in the cone and, in doing so, cover themselves in the pollen they have been seeking. The cone then heats up which changes the attractive scent into something that the thrips don’t like at all.. they flee.. only to find that a nearby female cone is producing the weaker scent they like .. Same scent …different strength. Off they go carrying their precious load of fertilizing pollen with them.
Two scientists Irene Terry and husband Robert Roemer have been studying this behavior at the University of Utah.

“They [cycads] are trading food for sex. Pollen is the only thing these thrips eat, so they totally rely on the plants. And the thrips are the only animals that pollinate the plants.”
“These cycads heat up, and associated with that heating is a huge increase in volatile fragrances emitted by the cone” Terry says. “It takes your breath away. It’s a harsh, overwhelming odor like nothing you ever smelled before”
“Think of a guy with too much after shave” Roemer says.

Apparently this is called push-pull pollination.. a nice conversation stopper for that tedious dinner party, especially if you happen to be sitting next to an overscented lothario whose “volatile fragrance” is clashing with your prawn cocktail.

Painting Prehistory

No article about art and prehistory would be complete without mentioning the great and influential painter /illustrator/sculptor Charles R Knight. In the 1890’s and early 19oo’s he brought the prehistoric world to life for us through his careful and meticulously researched paintings.
His love of nature and quest for accuracy took him at the age of 19 to the American Museum of Natural History in New York .

Visiting the museum on an almost daily basis, he spent hours in the taxidermy department, studying the carcasses of many creatures, familiarizing himself with their musculature and skeletal structure

He became well known and worked extensively with the leading paleontologists of the day to produce models and paintings showing what the world must have looked like in those extraordinary times.
The Florida link is also here :
He frequently visited friends and patrons in Palm Beach, Florida. They were delighted to entertain the renowned artist, and Knight used the Floridian foliage, particularly the palm trees, in his large prehistoric paintings.
(spot the cycads in the painting above)
Here is the lovely tribute site to Knight maintained by his daughter with acknowledgements to his influence on film makers and other artists.. Willis O’Brien, animator of the classic and tragic King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s epic monsters owed him much.
DO go and have a look at the wonderful work at Charles Knight Gallery.
Like Normal Rockwell you could say he was a commercial artist but don’t they just brighten your day?

Dino Bugs

Synchronicity is still in the air (blame Jung) as yesterday I heard about the new Xray technique (over a hundred years after Knight) that Paul Tafforeau in France has been using to reveal insects from within ancient pieces of opaque rock. The images are quite magical. Not only does this reveal their presence and detail but the information obtained from the rotating scan can then be used to create an exquisite 3D specimen. DO go and watch the short video from the BBC site here Secret Dino Bugs Revealed .
How very excited Knight would surely have been if he could have seen this.

My drawing today is a sketch of the small Cycad about 4ft ( now I know what it is! ) which grows just across the car park at the apartment. I can see it from the top of our steps. On the north side of the trunk a little colony of Resurrection Fern is growing.. and that’s another curious plant for another post.

Killarney Bay Cycad

Leaf of the Day: Cycad Seeds

Todays drawing is a coloured pencil version of yesterdays seeds. To just draw 2 seeds doesn’t really do these magnificent ancient plants justice but to tackle a full leaf or cone requires much more time.
I am always fascinated by the design and mechanics of seed pods. The ways that seeds develop and are then dispersed shows natural design at its most ingenious. Anyone who has studied design in any discipline sees structures in nature that are repeated by engineers and architects.
The cycads produce seed cones which have a similar visual design to pine cones and pineapples with arcs and spiral patterns.

Here are cones from Marie Selby Gardens and Leu Gardens.

this photo and more from Dave’s Garden

These patterns are formed by the way the individual scales are arranged. The spirals follow patterns depending on the size of the cones There may be 3 spirals running to the left and 5 spirals moving oppositely, or vice versa. In larger ones, a combination of 5 and 8 spirals, or 8 and 13 spirals and giant cones may have a combination of 13 and 21.

The sharp knives in the box will have realised that these numbers are the Fibonacci sequence…. but that is a whole other post or two. Here it is demonstrated with a strawberry.. same principal.

My two seeds here were both attached to one cone scale by their tips and hang either side of a central “stem”. ..one since came away.

Its shape reminded me of the old fairground ride the Paratrooper and, come to think of it, fairground ride design in general must owe something to the design of seed pods.
The principals are similar although it is preferable that the occupants of these various pods, capsules and containers, whilst being twisted and twirled, are not literally scattered to the winds…

Link for the spiral and other great food/design stuff is at http://www.foodfordesign.blogspot.com/
For more photos and some fairground nostalgia go to the University of Sheffield’s wonderful National Fairground Archive

I am writing a separate post on the wonderful prehistoric cycads.. they are fascinating both in their antiquity and their bizarre pollination methods which involve some over-heated insects and perfumes good and bad…coming next.

Cycad Seeds