Botanical Photo Workshop with Steven Foster

| By Steven Foster |

I will be conducting a day-long photo workshop at the American Botanical Council’s Case Mill Homestead headquarters in Austin on December 6th. See this link for more information.

_DSC8029We admire them, we love them, we use them. Do we really know them? A great way to consciously spend more time with plants is to photograph them. With photography, what you see is not necessarily what you get. There’s a few things to know about what makes a good photograph, and how to capture it. It doesn’t matter if you are using an iPhone or hauling around 20 pounds of camera equipment. How do we see plants in a way that helps us to better understand them? There’s plenty of information to learn from books, but spending time with plants is a great way to gain more knowledge and understanding of plants and how to see them. Photography is only a tool that allows us to slow down to spend time with plants. Ultimately you photograph what you feel, not just what you see.The great American photographer, Ansel Adams wrote, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” The objective of this workshop is to give you confidence with your ability to see the plant world through the eye of the camera to produce good photographs.

In shading a 14mm/f2.8 lens, I discovered that I had help.
In shading a 14mm/f2.8 lens, I discovered that I had help.

Photography is about understanding simple concepts such as light and timing—being in the right place at the right time, and patience. Like anything worth doing, photographing plants requires practice, and that gives us the opportunity to learn more about plants at the same time. Learning to keep your photography simple and understanding the equipment you have will enhance the quality of photography and the intrinsic value of your time with plants.

Daniel and Zora Vincek, are keepers of Botanicka Basta in Kolasin, Montenegro, a botanical garden featuring over 400 species of Montenegrin native plants The botanical garden was founded in 1981, and covers an area of 646 sq m, at an elevation of 1,018 m. Photo Workshop in Montenegro, 2011.
Daniel and Zora Vincek, are keepers of Botanicka Basta in Kolasin, Montenegro, a botanical garden featuring over 400 species of Montenegrin native plants The botanical garden was founded in 1981, and covers an area of 646 sq m, at an elevation of 1,018 m. Photo Workshop in Montenegro, 2011.
Shooting Gentiana lutea in Montenegro
Shooting Gentiana lutea in Montenegro

Topics Covered: The focus will be on techniques and ideas for improving photographic skills with practical hands-on fieldwork. It’s more about understanding simple concepts—lighting, being in the right place at the right time, and patience. And like anything worth doing, practice, practice, practice. We will explore working with ambient natural light and making the most of the equipment you have. Nature presents special conditions for photographing in the environment.

Shooting plants at Jim Duke's Herbal Vineyard.
Shooting plants at Jim Duke’s Herbal Vineyard.

Foster-Kansas-PrairieOne key to successfully capturing images is to know and understand your equipment. I’m an equipment geek, so I would recommend a decent digital camera body, close-up lens (macro lens or a diopter for a fixed lens). When people ask me what “my secret” is to getting great plant photographs, I can attribute it to one piece of equipment my a tripod. Photographing plants may require relatively long exposures, so besides the camera itself, a decent sturdy tripod and cable release is very helpful for plant photography. One other very essential piece of equipment is the camera manual. Read, re-read it and read it again until you begin to understand all of the features available and understand your camera’s basic operation. If you don’t have an array of equipment, don’t worry. You can take great photographs with your mobile phone.

Photographing lichens at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Photographing lichens at Rocky Mountain National Park.

As George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak put it, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

We will cover essentials helping to understand photographic
concepts such as depth of field, focus, exposure, composition, making the most of ambient light, and macro techniques. This is a hand-on experience.

An Amazon outing with Rosemary Gladstar and Mindy Green
An Amazon outing with Rosemary Gladstar and Mindy Green

White Snakeroot—History Blooming

By Steven Foster |

The autumn of 1818 was a difficult period for families in the small Indiana settlement of Little Pigeon Creek. Dennis Friend Hanks, a 19-year old, lived with his maternal grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrows who died that fall from the milk sickness. The Sparrows lived on the homestead of their young niece whom they had raised, Nancy Hanks Lincoln along with her husband Thomas,  and their children 11-year-old, Sarah, and 9-year-old Abraham. On October 5, 1818, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, also died from the “milk sickness” a disease that had only been described in 1810 by Daniel Drake as a brief notice of a “new disease” in Cincinnati. The “milk sickness” was a perplexing fatal disease that took the lives of thousands in the Western frontier in the nineteenth century. It often affected entire families and destroyed communities. The only way to contract the disease was by drinking milk or eating butter. The cause of the disease confounded science into the 1920s.

Ageratina altissima,  Eupatorium rugosum,  Ageratum altissimum, White Snakeroot, Milk Poison Plant

Attempting to secure milk for his party camped north of St. Louis in 1827, T. L. M’Kenny, Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was told by a settler that after early spring, people stopped using milk. M’Kenny was among the first to speculate that the milk must be tainted from the cows eating a poisonous weed.  By the late nineteenth century one plant, a wildflower, with white, button-like flowerheads less than a 1/2-inch across emerged as a suspect—White Snakeroot. Blooming now, this native weedy wildflower once called Eupatorium rugosum is now known as Ageratina altissima.

In 1908 a USDA researcher, A. C. Crawford authored a U.S.D.A Bulletin “The supposed relationship of white snakeroot to milksickness or trembles.” He had proven that the dried plant produced no symptoms of milk sickness. Science is not always as it seems. He missed an important clue. Milk sickness only occurred during the growing season before the first frost of autumn. He only tested dried plant material and only proved that the dried plant was inert.

In 1926, another USDA chemist, James F. Couch, showed that fresh—not dried—White Snakeroot caused milk sickness. The following year he isolated the chemical complex—tremetol—as the toxic component. The mystery of milk sickness which claimed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and countless thousands of other settlers had finally been solved.

A version of this story was published in my weekly “Eureka Nature” column in the October 17, 2013 edition of the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper. I visited friends in Missouri on October 20th. They homestead a rich 80-acre Ozark farm in in Douglas County, Missouri. They have goats. One died of what a vet determined was “probably a parasitic infection.” The mother of four children suffered neurological symptoms. The family consumes a gallon of goat’s milk per day. The husbandman stopped drinking milk. He thought he had an allergy to goat’s milk. It made him nauseous. Once he stopped drinking goat’s milk, his health problems were gone. The collection of symptoms of the family and their livestock, as well as the presence of white snakeroot around their farm made me wonder—is milk sickness still with us, confined to small homesteads of back-to-the-landers, with symptoms of both livestock and humans completely unrecognized in modern medicine or unreported?

Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraHere’s an update for 2014. Fayetteville, Arkansas’s KUAF Producer, Jacqueline Froelich aired a story on Surprise Lilies on 14 August 2014.   You can listen to the story here.  One of the alkaloids found in Lycoris squamigera is galanthamine, one of several toxic compounds in the plant. It is also  famously known from the related amaryllis family member Galanthus nivalis or snow-drops a common alpine species in mountains of Europe, which is grown as an ornamental in North America, and occasionally naturalized. First isolated in the 1950s, galanthamine, formerly extracted from Galanthus nivalis, is now produced synthetically on an industrial scale. It was used in some parts of the world in the 1950s to treat nerve pain associated with polio. Today, the compound is regarded as a long-acting, selective, reversible and competitive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor used in the systematic treatment of mild to moderate cognitive impairment in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraNaked ladies or Surprise lilies trumpet their pink splendor in mid to late summer. These beautiful ladies are part of our foreign diversity in Eureka Springs and the South generally, but alas they are just plants. Known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily or naked ladies, this pretender is laid bare not as a lily at all but a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). These late blooming beauties produce unnoticed leaves in the spring, which soon die back. Out of the hot bosom of steamy August air a whorl of large showy flowers atop a leafless (naked) stalk pops from the ground.

Amaryllis and it relatives cause plant name consternation. The genus Lycoris (to which our naked ladies belong) is native to eastern Asia, while Amaryllis is native to the Western Cape of South Africa. In 1753 Linnaeus named Amaryllis belladonna. Another closely related genus in the Amaryllis family is Hippeastrum from tropical America. The “amaryllis” that bloom around Christmas, available wherever bulbs are sold, are mostly hybrids of South American Hippeastrum species.

Our common naked ladies EW the Asian species Lycoris squamigera, an inelegant scientific name for an elegant plant. It superficially resembles the South African Amaryllis belladonna but differs in significant botanical characteristics as well as continent of origin. The first European illustration comes from a periodical famous for its unabashed Victorian paintings of reproductive organs (of plants)—Curtis’s Botanical Magazine volume 123, August 1, 1897 (as Amaryllis hallii). No doubt many gardeners, horticulturists and botanists have been confused by these relatives in the amaryllis family. It is no surprise that the that surprise lily itself has lived under three scientific names over the decades including Hippeastrum squamigerum and Amaryllis hallii as well as the name used for more than a century Lycoris squamigera.

Living plants were introduced from Japan to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island upon returning from Yokohama, in 1862. New England nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs in the late 1800s. Dr. Hall who co-founded a hospital in China in 1852, grew it in his Shanghai garden before 1860, and noted it was used by the Chinese to decorate cemeteries. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle. Protecting his good name, today we know it as Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.  The rest, as they say, is history. © 2013 & 2014

First published in  the 8 August 2013 issue of The Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, modified 7 August 2014.

All photos in this piece were taken at The Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas | 479-253-1836

Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

From Herb to Turf

By Steven Foster |

Greetings from the Southern Maine Coast, as I contemplate my personal and family history in a be-here-now moment. My parents, married in 1951, have lived in the same house since. They are both in their mid-80s and mentally-sharp. “Going home” is going home, to the house in which I was raised.

I turn to memories of vegetation as is my obsession. In the past week I’ve been scanning old family photos. Amongst the files was a long-forgotten newspaper interview with me from the Portland Press Herald published in 1990. The accompanying photo has me ankle-deep in dandelion blossoms on what we called the side lawn at my parent’s home. My dad, Herb, reminded me that my grandmother, Lena Foster, went out every spring and harvested dozens of dandelion crowns—the rosettes of leaves obvious before dandelion flowers. I fondly remember eating my grandmother’s boiled dandelion greens with a dash of vinegar. In his 65-years of maintaining, mowing and improving the side lawn, my dad has proudly managed to turn the entire lawn into a monoculture of neatly mowed grass. “All of the dandelions are gone!” I exclaimed. “Good,” my dad, Herb replied.

I see their absence as a symptom of a greater evil—our society’s insatiable appetite for mowing and mowing machines. The fields surrounding the property, less than 2 acres, are mowed a couple of times during the growing season. Grass takes over a field once thick with wildflowers, such as common milkweed food of monarch butterfly larvae. Oh that pesky word “weed.”

“Why did you have that field cut now?” I asked my mother. “Why? she replies as if I’m daft, “Because the grass was too tall.”

My childhood memory banks flash back to scenes of crouching amidst the un-mowed thicket of common milkweed, aflutter with monarch butterflies. The colors and movement were punctuated by the random symphony of  polyrythmic insect buzzes, hums, and chirps.

My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.
My son and his cousin. Now both in their late 20s.

When I was born in 1957, mowing was done with non-motorized push mowers. The cut was rough, but only a small area was mowed. Tractor-mounted mowers were used only to harvest hay. Now Americans are obsessed with every manner of hand-held, self-propelled, riding, and undoubtedly soon, robotic mowing machines. A Professor at the University of Massachusetts Plant Sciences Department, Lyle E. Craker, reminds me that the best high-paying jobs available for graduates in plant sciences is in the field of “turf management.” I haven’t mowed my yard this year. Interesting mix of grass species going to seed.

“Hey Dad, maybe you should change your name from Herb to “Turf.”

I'm not a weed! See, I'm cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.
I’m not a weed! See, I’m cultivated!

Ginseng’s Cross-Cultural Virility

By Steven Foster |

When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.

Asian ginseng, Korean Ginseng, Chinese Ginseng, Panax ginseng; 人参; Ren Shen; ren-shenVirginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.”  Oh, but the mistresses. . .

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots,  西洋参, xi yang shen Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”

Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; 西洋参; xi yang shenThe protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.

Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.

References [to follow]

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius

The Beauty of Gardenia

By Steven Foster |

Gardenia-062214__DSC3554aAs our Louisiana refugees from Hurricane Katrina can attest, what’s not to like about gardenias except for the fact that you can’t overwinter them outdoors in Northwest Arkansas? Like many plants in American horticulture, gardenia originates from eastern Asia, particularly warm temperate regions of China, southward, where broad-leaf evergreens thrive. The genus name Gardenia fortunately also serves as the common name for this evergreen shrub with, creamy white, single or double-flowered blossoms whose beauty is surpassed only by their intoxicating, heavenly fragrance. The delightfully-scented flowers are offered by florists in table arrangements, corsages, and boutonnieres. For the better part of two decades, I’ve had gardenias as container plants, bringing them indoors for the winter, taking them out in spring after danger of frost has passed. Photo gallery of single-flowered Gardenia from a plant grown  from seed collected in the wild in mountains near Hong Kong.

Gardenia-062314_DSC3596There are 200 or more species of Gardenia found in tropics and subtropics of the Old World. That which we grow is called florist’s gardenia or cape gardenia Gardenia jasminoides. The cape jasmine arrived in England in the 1750s, and was named in 1761. The name “jasmine” as applied to this plant comes from a painting by one of the most famous of natural history illustrators, George Dionysius Ehret. Ehret, unsure of the plant’s identity, labeled his plate “jasminum” with a question mark next to the caption. Since gardenia flowers superficially resemble those of jasmines (trailing plants of the olive family) it was given the species name “jasminoides.” Gardenia is named for a Scottish physician and naturalist, Alexander Garden (1730–1791), who settled in South Carolina in 1755. During the American Revolution he sided with the British. In 1783, after the war was over, his property was confiscated and he returned to London.

The Chinese history of the plant dates back at least to the first Gardenia-062214_DSC3564crcentury B.C.E., mentioned in the in the oldest Chinese herbal, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, attributed to the Divine “Plowman Emperor,” Shen Nong. The Chinese name, zhi-zi, applies to the plant as well as the dried fruit, which used in prescriptions in traditional Chinese Medicine for the treatment of jaundice, a use confirmed by recent research, that has continued for more than 2000 years.

Chinese history reminds us that American history by comparison is merely “current affairs.”

Of Butterflies on Milkweed

By Steven Foster |

Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas
Butterflyweed Asclepias tuberosa in Lawrence, Kansas

It’s milkweed season in the Ozarks and elsewhere in North America. There are over 100 species of milkweeds, members of the genus Asclepias, named by Linnaeus in 1753 after the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Conspicuous among milkweeds now blooming is Asclepias tuberosa—butterflyweed, pleurisy root, or chiggerweed—with its brilliant showy orange flowers. I assume the name chiggerweed refers to the fact that our friendly little flesh-eating spider-relatives enjoy living on the plant. The larger tuberous root is used medicinally to treat inflammatory lung conditions, hence the name pleurisy root. If you spend time around one of the plants with camera in hand, inevitably one of the most beautiful of our native wildflowers attracts butterflies in addition to photo seekers.

Butterflyweed, and a couple dozen other North American species of milkweeds attracted widespread media attention last fall when monarch butterflies failed to show-up in the winter home of oyamel fir forests in Central Mexico. The spectacle of millions of monarchs

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

covering trees in their winter home in Mexico since time immemorial was replaced last year by a few thousand monarchs fluttering about trees. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweeds, sequestering bitter and potentially toxic cardenolides which deter predators from feeding on the butterflies as they make the journey south each winter. Monarch numbers declined by 59% from 2012 to 2013. One of the major factors relative to the decline is the dramatic loss of habitat for milkweeds, with 160 million acres consumed by agricultural or suburbia over the last 17 years alone.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_408Public awareness about the decline of monarch butterflies has translated into awareness of milkweeds — the food of monarch larvae. In 2014 various organizations have been distributing seed or plants of the dozen or more species of Asclepias found in our area and coaxing them to plant milkweeds. One of the main milkweeds found in the eastern U.S., is called appropriately common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. This species seems to be the favorite food of monarch larvae.

The analogy of chaos in nature as characterized by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon affecting weather elsewhere demonstrates the interconnectivity of all living things. Without habitat we have no milkweed. Without milkweeds we have no monarch butterflies. Without humans nature maintains balance. Pay attention to life on earth.

Asclepias-syriaca-61414_373

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