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

Backyard Medicinals Workshop, April 26th

Join me from 10 am to 4 pm at Fire Om Earth, 872 Mill Hollow Rd., Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for a one-day work: Backyard Medicinals: Into the Wild with Steven Foster. This is the only Arkansas event I have scheduled for 2014!

For details go to Fire Om Earth’s workshop page.

Early bird registration deadline extended until April 15th. $75.00. After April 15th, $95.00.

Also checkout Melissa Clare’s Plant Spirit Communications event, and Lorna Trigg’s Creating a Medicine Wheel Garden at Fire Om Earth, April 27th. Make a weekend of it.

What to look for and where to find it

The Ozarks have nearly 3,000 species of plants, which includes about 25% that are edible and medicinal, perhaps 500 species. It is helpful to understand that different plants occur in different habitats. We will look at which plants you might find in a specific habitat. Spring is our best season for wild edibles and medicinal plants, the time when we get dandelion greens, wild onions, pepper grass, plantain, pokeweed, and purslane, among others and a good time of year to enjoy edible flowers such as violets and elderflowers. Come prepared to learn, enjoy, and ask questions.

Weed or Herb?

Japanese honeysuckle, to some a weed, to me a medicinal plant.
Japanese honeysuckle, to some a weed, to me a medicinal plant.

In segments of the conservation community the question has arisen as to whether the possibility exists that some plants considered weeds in the United States may have some kind of economic value in terms of medicinal or food use that could translate into a commercial harvest, and hence an opportunity to control the weeds.
Japanese honeysuckle produces two major ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The flowers are known as jin yin hua which consists of the dried, unopened buds of Japanese honeysuckle. Another product is the dried stems with leaves attached known as ren dong teng. The Chinese name jin yin hua means gold and silver flower. This refers to the fact that the white flowers turn golden yellow one or two days after blooming. The Chinese name, referring to the stems with the leaves attached, ren dong, means “stand in winter” in reference to the fact that the leaves are evergreen.
more info…….well come to the workshop!!!!

Breaking News: You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

I think it’s great that the Eureka Springs City Council is proposing Ordinance No. 2201, which aims to “update and expand City beautification and to eliminate health and safety issues.” Citizens asked the Council to update the current code so as to “keep privately owned areas clean and safe. . . .”  Good idea?

The proposed ordinance includes item “A” of Section 1, which involves my specialty “plant vegetation.” When human nature is compelled to legislate Mother Nature, I think God puts his hands on his hips, raises an eyebrow, frowns and shakes his head in disbelief.  “How am I going to explain this to Mother Nature?” God muses. “She’s not going to like it.”

The ordinance contains well-meaning and ambitiously ambiguous definitions of broad categories of vegetation that grow where you live (property ownership not required!)—“owner(s) or occupants(s) of property” within Eureka Springs will be required to “maintain, cut, and/or remove weeds, grass and/or any other non-cultivated plant(s) (flowers, shrubs, vegetable plants etc.), which exceed the height of eight (8) inches. Bamboo may be cultivated with in the city limits, but should not encroach upon another citizens/city property or become an obstacle to vision while driving.”

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, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.

I have to cut “any non-cultivated plants to a height under 8 inches?” Is the Council aware that trees are plants? I am thoroughly confused about the bamboo provision. Bamboo is a grass—a member of the Graminae or Poaceae—the very clearly defined grass family. But grasses are already covered elsewhere in the ordinance. Does the  bamboo provision in the absence of a definition pertain to plants to which the common name “bamboo” is applied, such as Nandina domestica, commonly grown in Eureka Springs and known as “heavenly bamboo”? It’s not technically a bamboo therefore not a grass; it’s just called “heavenly bamboo.” Maybe the Council really meant hellish bamboo for purposes of the ordinance. Heavenly bamboo like hellish bamboo is an “obstacle to vision while driving.” What’s with the blatant discrimination against bamboo as “an obstacle to vision?” What about all of the other plants that are obstacles to vision while driving?

In the Building Inspector’s job description, I ask is he or she qualified or competent to distinguish grass from bamboo, heavenly bamboo from hellish bamboo,  non-cultivated plants from cultivated plants, weeds from weed?

Thank you City Council for providing my comedic introduction for a summer lecture tour on how humans relate to plants.

You can find the draft of the proposed ordinance at the official City of Eureka Springs website. Just click on the “Ordinances” menu tab, then click on “Proposed Ordinances.” Whoops—that link doesn’t work — “sorry for any inconvenience.” Seems like updating the website has gone the way of updating the street sweeper.

As Mother Nature said to God, “You created this human problem. Please fix it.”

Poppies and People

by Steven Foster |

Opium poppy, Papaver sominferum in bloom
Opium poppy, Papaver sominferum in bloom

Last week a bar conversation switched from the politics of medical marijuana to opium poppies, with someone asking lead question, “has anyone of you here ever seen an opium poppy?” “All of you have,” I replied. “They are a very common garden ornamental in Eureka Springs, in fact in every small town in America. The plant, an annual, Papaver somniferum self-sows and grows on it’s own. When I first met Dr. James A. Duke in 1978, (with whom I coauthored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America, 3rd ed. in press, due April 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), he had spent several years working on opium poppy germplasm collections for USDA in pre-revolutionary Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan; the region of the world where the genus Papaver  is native and has the greatest genetic diversity. Opium derivatives are used in every hospital in the world (assuming they have economic access).

The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is the source of several alkaloids used chiefly to relieve pain, the most important of which are morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine and thebaine, all extracted from crude opium, the dried white latex produced by the plant to make legal, pain-relieving drugs. Morphine was first isolated in 1806. Since ancient times, with origins lost in pre-history, opium and it’s derivatives have been a blessing and curse for humankind; a blessing in relief of severe pain, and a curse given physical addiction and potential for abuse. Opium use has brought down civilizations. Invented in 1898, heroin a more bioavailable form of morphine in which acetyl chains were added to the molecule, was routinely used in minute amounts for treatment of coughs (in place of codeine), during the first years of the 20th century. It was available in pharmacies as an over-the-counter cough remedy into the nineteen teens!  Around 1910 reports in medical journals began to associate heroin with  abuse and addiction. Finally, in 1924 it was banned from manufacture in the United States.

Currently over half of the world’s legal opium supply comes from the Australian island state of Tasmania, where about 500 farmers grow opium poppies on 49,420 acres of land. Today, we fight a war in Afghanistan where the opponent (the Taliban) is funded by sale of crude opium and opiate derivatives such as heroin. So I ask, since we have spent at least 700 billion dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, why don’t we just take a meager half-billion, and simply buy Afghan’s opium crop each year. That would cut funding to the Taliban, dramatically cut the world’s illicit heroin supply, and provide raw material for manufacturing legitimate opiate drugs used in EVERY HOSPITAL IN THE WORLD.  Or, we could just destroy it—a cheap remedy. No, political stupidity is too entrenched to follow a logical approach.

“Science” as Fiction Update

By Steven Foster.

Flamingo meets Swan
All is not as it seems . . .

Nature is clean. Nature is pure. Nature is unspoiled. And if you believe that, I would like to sell you beach front property on the Moon. When we buy something labeled natural or labeled organic, that product or food category, whatever it may be, comes with an underlying expectation of integrity, honesty, truthfulness and reliability. The same expectations holds true for scientific literature, in which a process of peer review, critique of theory, vigilance of methodology and veracity of conclusions assumes that the published findings are upheld at least by the reputations of researcher(s), editor(s), and publisher(s). These are general, if naive expectations and beliefs that we hold that things are what they seem to be. Yes, it’s true. I’m a happy curmudgeon and skeptic.

Early in my career, I became intrigued by concepts related to quality, identity, and labeling of herb products. At the time I worked at the Herb Department of the Sabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Community, whose history dated back to the late eighteenth century. When I was there direct expertise in herb production no longer existed. During that time from 1974-1978, I learned by trial and error. We had a catnip tea product. The catnip I grew had a strong, aromatic fragrance, typical of catnip rich in essential oil. We sold more than we were able to grow. We had to buy bulk catnip that turned out to be left over stem and stubble from seed production. No self-respecting cat would respond to a cat toy filled with these floor sweepings.  In the company of cats, my homegrown catnip turned me into a feline pied piper. Both samples were catnip, but the quality was dramatically different. I find the same is true of published science—some is high quality. Some science is floor sweepings, created by “experts” in a narrow scientific specialty who think that they can magically transform their methods into areas of other scientific disciplines of which they are clueless, then draw conclusions, in which they prove their lack of knowledge as evidenced by their sloppy work. Would you send an entomologist in space to repair the Hubble Telescope? Of course, pride and reputation machismo prevent the authors and journals from retracting their errors.

If there’s a buck to be made, someone is going to find away to make that buck. If you don’t know what it is that you’re buying, the possibility of not getting what you expect increases. With the pressure for academics to publish or perish, I promise you, if your study is rejected by one journal, no problem, as you can always finds a journal happy to take your scientific paper no matter what the quality of the science might be. The bottom line is that you can’t always believe what you read whether it’s at website, words on a product label, “science” in a scientific paper, or reporting on a scientific paper, even if it part of “all the news that is NOT fit to print.” My next post will have the details.

I have come to believe that the only published word that is what it seems to be is fiction.

Adapted from my “Eureka Nature” column in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper for 6 November 2013. This entry is also an opinion piece sparked by this response to a scientific paper.

Ginkgo Leaves Falling

By Steven Foster.

The brilliant golden yellow leaves of the Ginkgo trees flanking the back entrance of our local post office, once they are ready to fall, will  drop in a few hours time, raining from the thick branches like small fans twirling from the sky. After our first hard killing freeze last night, the Ginkgo leaves fell today.

Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.

The shriveling fruits, which look like half-sized wild persimmons, may persist for a few days after the leaves, then fall to the ground. Fruits are always a tempting curiosity. In fact, you can buy Ginkgo seeds as a food item in Chinese markets, but these have been prepared and processed to render them safe to eat. You should not be tempted to pick-up the freshly fallen fruits, which will cause contact dermatitis similar to the rash produced by poison ivy. The fruits have a fragrance that has been described as a blend between baby vomit and what a dog might leave on a sidewalk. That should be enough to entice you to leave them be.

I suspect that these trees were planted about the time the Eureka Springs Post Office building was completed in 1918, rather than in 1973 when the building was expanded and the service parking lot in the back was developed. The trees are of a fairly good size, plus for many decades most ginkgo trees available from nurseries in the United States have represented male branches grafted on to rootstocks. Within forty years after Ginkgos were widely planted as a street tree by the mid 1800s, female trees like those at Eureka Spring’s Post Office began to leave their bad smelling fruits on sidewalks. Female Ginkgos are simply not a neat and tidy street tree. Notwithstanding the beauty of the fall foliage, the fact that these two trees are females makes them a unique and interesting part of Eureka  Springs’ heritage.

Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013
Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013

Ginkgo was common 175 to 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  This primitive tree is considered the oldest living tree species on earth.  Ginkgo is monotypic. That is, in the ginkgo family there is only one species in one genus — the only surviving member of the ancient and primitive ginkgo family—Ginkgoaceae. Ginkgo has been cultivated in East Asia for hundreds of years. Numerous reports mention the existence of large specimens, some more than a thousand years old, at ancient temples in Japan and China. The tree was first introduced to North America in 1784 in the garden of William Hamilton at Woodlands near Philadelphia.  Mature ginkgos are said to reach over 100 feet in height.  Its longevity as individual trees and a species in general can in part be attributed to its exceptional resistance to pests and resiliency to destruction by fire. It is also extremely tolerant of air pollution thriving in the harshest urban environments.

Ginkgo leaf extracts are highly complex, highly concentrated preparations with an average  ratio of 50 parts ginkgo leaf to one part of the finished extract by weight. Numerous chemical constituents are found in the extract. Normally ginkgo leaf extracts are calibrated to contain 24 percent flavone glycosides (but may range from 22 to 25 percent) which are a relatively ubiquitous group of compounds found in numerous plant species.  Another important compound group in ginkgo leaf extracts are mostly unique to ginkgo — the ginkgolides — including ginkgolides A, B, and C (around 3 percent) and bilobalide (also about 3 percent). As the oldest living tree species on earth, it is no surprise that it would harbor chemical components rare in nature. Perhaps these extremely complex, large molecules have helped it survive for eons. In addition, during the manufacturing process another group of compounds, ginkgolic acids, which are perceived as potentially toxic, are reduced to below 5 parts per million. Given the specific chemical make-up of ginkgo leaf extracts, it  becomes clear why you can’t apply the results of studies with Ginkgo leaf extracts to a simple tea made from ginkgo leaves. Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leavesNumerous pharmacological and clinical studies on Ginkgo leaf extracts have demonstrated a positive effect in increasing vasodilation and peripheral blood flow rate in capillary vessels and end-arteries in various circulatory disorders, varicose conditions, post-thrombotic syndrome, chronic cerebral vascular insufficiency, short-term memory improvement, cognitive disorders secondary to depression, dementia, tinnitus, vertigo, antioxidant activity, among other effects.

Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leaves

Go Wild

By Steven Foster.

Basin Spring, Eureka Springs, ArkansasThe fading light of an earlier sunset glows pumpkin orange through the brilliant fall foliage. There’s something about the light at this time of year that portends winter’s comfort warmth. The harvest is in. The chorus of geese en masse cuts through cold clear nights. Chiggers and ticks are mostly gone. Solitary cold blooded reptiles slither toward their winter dens, where they will huddle together for the winter. Time to head back to the woods.

We all need a little more contact with nature.  In just one generation our collective kids have lost touch with nature in favor of electronic screens. Part of the problem is risk-adverse adults telling kids that nature is dirty and dangerous. This is the perfect time of year to encourage kids (of all ages, you included) to get out and spend 30 minutes a day romping or roaming—just being in nature.

Starting around 2004 scientific studies began to appear showing children are  spending less time in nature and how that impacts their health and psyche. A recent three-year study by the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) measured “connection to nature” in 8–12 year olds, finding that only 21 percent of children had any connection to nature. Surprisingly, urban children had a slightly higher rate of nature connection than rural kids; girls (27%) versus boys (16%) were engaged in nature. In 2005, in his book, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder.”

On Friday, 25 October 2013, a new documentary film premiered in London, Project Wild Thing, a feature-length documentary by David Bond,  self-appointed “marketing director for nature.” In conjunction with the film’s release, the Wild Network was launched with nearly 400 organizations in the UK, promoting the idea of urging children to swap 30 minutes of screen time per day for 30 minutes of outdoor activities.

I went to the Project Wild Thing website and signed this kid up to commit swapping 30 minutes of screen time for wild time.  Now which one of my four or more electronic screen on at any time shall I give up for 30 minutes? See: www.projectwildthing.com.