Mad About Magenta

I haven’t finished weeding my back garden. No one really sees it much at this time of year, and even I am away from it for long periods of time in late summer.  But I’m happy to be here right now because my new phloxes are in flower.  The plants are young yet, but putting on a nice August show in the weedy pond garden.  And guess what?  They’re that rich shade of magenta that “experts” used to warn new gardeners about: the much-maligned hue to which Phlox paniculata would “revert”, given half a chance.

Magenta phlox in my back garden

Well, I declare here and now that I am head-over-heels about the colour magenta. I wear it, throw it around my neck, and pull it down over my head in snowy winter.  To me, it is the colour of the jewel I would want to find in buried treasure.  And I dearly love all magenta flowers, neon-bright though they may be.

Row 1:  Triumph Tulip ‘Passionale’ (Tulipa), Armenian Cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon), Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), ‘Robert Poore’ Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)  Row 2:  Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), ‘Soprano Light Purple’ African Daisy (Osteospermum), Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius), ‘Scorpion’ Beebalm (Monarda didyma) Row 3:  Persian Cornflower (Centaurea dealbata), Hardy Gladiolus (Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus), Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), ‘Purple Dome’ Aster (Aster novae-angliae)

Row 1: Triumph Tulip ‘Passionale’ (Tulipa), Armenian Cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon), Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), ‘Robert Poore’ Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)
Row 2: Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata), ‘Soprano Light Purple’ African Daisy (Osteospermum), Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius), ‘Scorpion’ Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Row 3: Persian Cornflower (Centaurea dealbata), Hardy Gladiolus (Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus), Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), ‘Purple Dome’ Aster (Aster novae-angliae)

As colour names go, it’s a rather strange one, and not part of the traditional artist’s colour wheel by which we classify primary, secondary and tertiary colours.  Industrially, magenta was one of the first synthetic aniline dyes, from coal tar, and described in this 1868 book titled On Aniline and its Derivatives, A Treatise Upon the Manufacture of Aniline and Aniline Colours,by M. Reimann:  “Magenta was first known under the name fuchsine, which name is still general in France and Germany. The name is taken from the name of a flower having a colour very similar to magenta, the fuchsia codinea. From it fuchsiasine was first formed, which was then soon abbreviated to fuchsine.  The colour was introduced into commerce about the same time as the battles of Magenta and Solferino; hence the name now most generally used to denote this bright bluish red colouring matter.”

Magenta can arrive in the garden in early spring, courtesy of the ultra-hardy small-flowered rhododendron, ‘PJM’, whose blossoms can admittedly be a little jarring when sited near equally strident yellow forsythia.  Much better to give ‘PJM’ a carpet of deep blue scilla or grape hyacinths.

Rhododendron  'PJM'


As the spring season goes on, you can paint with magenta tulips, such as the Triumph variety ‘Don Quichotte’, shown below in a stunning ménage-a-trois at the Montreal Botanical Garden with red ‘Cherry Delight‘ and salmon-orange ‘Temple of Beauty‘ tulips.

Tulipa 'Don Quichotte'

Another excellent magenta tulip is the lily-flowered ‘Purple Dream’. (See, they wouldn’t call it ‘Magenta Dream’ for fear of turning many gardeners off).

And it’s the assertive hue of the Armenian cranesbill, Geranium psilostemon, which always seems happiest to me nestled in luxuriant green foliage, as it is here at the Toronto Botanical Garden, with just a little lavender G. ‘Brookside’ geranium to keep it company.

TBG-G. psilostemon & G. 'Brookside'

There are many magenta-toned roses, especially those derived from R. rugosa and R. gallica parentage.  Most, like the rugosa hybrid ‘Hansa’ below, emit a strong perfume.  The magenta centaureas make good companions for these early-season roses.

Rosa rugosa 'Hansa'

And yes, there is the majestic magenta of summer phlox, like this spectacular and mildew-resistant ‘Robert Poore’ variety at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Phlox paniculata 'Robert Poore'1

If you want an explosion of fireworks in your summer garden, look no further than the zingy magenta flowers of Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’, shown here with Verbena bonariensis.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks' with Verbena bonariensis

With late summer comes the rather disobedient (or should I say merely aggressive?) obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, with its trumpet-shaped flowers, a lovely magenta companion for purple asters and goldenrod.

Physostegia & Aster

And of course there are the many magenta-hued dahlias, which I’ve enjoyed using in fall arrangements, especially paired with the rich orange hues of autumn.


Finally, as the gardening season draws to its frosty conclusion, magenta bestows a true treasure, in the shimmering fruit of the various beautyberry species, including the lovely North American native Callicarpa americana, below.  Magenta the magnificent may have its critics, but I cannot imagine a more beautiful way to dress a garden with jewels for its final scene.

Callicarpa americana 1







The Torrance Barrens – My Sacred Place

I would like to take you on a midsummer hike with me.  We’re going to my sacred place — I hope that’s okay with you. Don’t worry: there are no pews or altars or holy water fonts.  But there is holy water, lots of it.  It seeps from underground springs and is cleansed by the roots of innumerable wetland plants, until it shimmers blue and crystal-clear under the sun. We’re at the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve about 12 kilometers (8 miles) from my cottage on Lake Muskoka in central Ontario. If you’re a red-tailed hawk flying overhead (or me in the little old yellow Cessna I hitched a ride in a few autumns back), this is what the ‘parking lot’ looks like from the air. It’s a magical expanse of ancient Precambrian Shield that comprises the bedrock or basement layer of the North American craton.

Aerial view-Torrance Barrens

Have a little read of the sign so I can skip the long explanation, okay?

Torrance Barrens - sign

Oh, and here’s the other sign. They tacked on a warning for the city folks, bottom left.  As usual, I forgot the bear bells today, but I’ve never seen one in here.  Just a very big pawprint in a mud puddle once…….

Torrance Barrens-bear country

I walk in along my normal route, always beginning near the pyramidal rock overlooking Highland Pond.  It’s on the flat granite south of the pond where, of a dark mid-August evening, you can see (or not see, rather, it’s so dark) hundreds of people lying back to watch the Perseid meteor showers.  I’ve come out on a few of those evenings (usually the anniversary of the great power blackout of August 2003), when the big telescopes and amateur and pro astronomers are trying to out-Hubble each other.

Rock & Sumacs at Torrance Barrens

As defined in its conservation plan, Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve is “a large area of low relief, sparsely forested bedrock barrens interspersed with numerous lakes and wetlands.” Highland Pond, one of the largest bodies of water in the Barrens is a shallow, linear leftover of the glacial lakes that once overlay the granite here.  Between it and the rock on which I am standing are floating fens – though most people refer to them as bogs, of various sedge and fern meadows growing up through peat. Fens are defined as “peat-forming wetlands that receive nutrients from sources other than precipitation: usually from upslope sources through drainage from surrounding mineral soils and from groundwater movement. Fens differ from bogs because they are less acidic and have higher nutrient levels. They are therefore able to support a much more diverse plant and animal community.”  (EPA) Fens can be herbaceous or woody, and there is a mix in the Barrens.

Balsam firs & cotton grass-Highland Pond

The beavers have been active here recently, killing the tamaracks (Larix laricina) I used to photograph in all their golden glory in autumn.

Beaver damage

Circling around the south end of the bog at the pond edge, I see in the distance what I’m sure is a hawk, but it’s only a beaver-felled tree stump, its “feathers” are fungi.  It’s surrounded by typical fen and bog plants: leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) being the most common, with Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica), upper left, growing in vast fern meadows.

Leatherleaf & Chain fern meadow

And there’s an abundance of our native fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata) in the standing water.

Nymphaea odorata - fragrant water lily

You can be in the Torrance Barrens for a fast 20-minute turnaround or follow a number of elliptical trails through the 4,707 acres.   Plan on three hours if you hike the Pine Ridge Loop (I accidentally took some out-of-town visitors on the long loop, and they really doubted me when I said I was sure we’d be back by evening.)  I’ve brought a picnic lunch with me today, so we can get a taste of the place in an hour or so.

Trail Map I try to make at least one trip to the Barrens each season, often coming with the family in autumn and winter as well.  The photo below was December 28, 2011 – a bitterly cold afternoon with a fierce west wind and my long afternoon shadow stretching towards the family as they walked very quickly to keep warm.

Hiking the barrens in winter We didn’t last long that day, but it was utterly spectacular after a fresh snowfall, and completely empty of people. Contrast that with the hordes of crazed shoppers searching out bargains in the shopping malls between Christmas and New Years.

Torrance Barrens in winter

Crossing the rocks now in August, I smell the familiar fragrance of sweet fern (Comptonia perigrina), which is a low shrub, not a fern.  I give the leaves a rub to release the aromatic oils.

Sweet fern-Comptonia peregrina

The path circles the pond under white pines and red oaks, typical of our part of Muskoka. All around the pond is the fen mat with its different sedges and special plants.  I’ve photographed various orchids and iris (I. versicolor) on these mats.

Torrance Barrens-fen in summer

It’s beautiful in autumn too.  This was November 17, 2012.

Torrance Barrens-fen in autumn

This is the point where I like to check the boggy edges of the fen for pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea).  I’m not disappointed, as just a few strides out is a lovely specimen waiting for its insect lunch.

Sarracenia purpurea

Bogs and fen mats are incredibly complex ecosystems with dozens of different species vying for space.  As such, they are extremely sensitive to being downtrodden by people, but I need to move in just a little to photograph the pitcher plant  So I take my flip-flops off and step as lightly as possible.  It’s an impossibly delicious sensation, the cool water of the sphagnum sponge soaking the sole of my foot.  As soon as I have my shot, I back out onto the granite. But I won’t forget the feeling.

Barefoot in the bog

Out on the hot rock, wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) grows in a bit of shade.  Naturally, I pluck the ripest berry.  It’s quite delicious, for a seedy little thing that I ignore when it grows by the weedy hundreds in filtered sunlight on my own sandy hillside.

Blackberry-Rubus allegheniensis

Dragonflies and damselflies are plentiful near the wetland. This is the common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) resting on a fern.

Blue damselfly- Enallagma cyathigerum

Nearby is the big paper birch (Betula papyrifera) that I greet each time I visit.  I photographed it just after rosy dawn one autumn more than ten years ago and the canvas print (right) graces one of the walls of my cottage.  I would say this birch is living on borrowed time, given the beaver population in the Barrens.

Paper Birch

Whoops. This is the old path…… Water finds its own way in nature, always, and we’ve had lots of rain this year.  The reality is that wetlands are ever-shifting in terms of the ratio of water and terra firma.  Best to find another way, however…..

Path under water

After searching around a bit, I find the familiar white-painted trail markers on bedrock.  I know this part of the Barrens like the back of my hand, but there’s nothing scarier than running out of trail markers deep inside 4,707 acres.

Path marker

Sometimes, where’s there’s just a bit of water to negotiate, the path features a rustic little plank bridge.

Plank bridge

A few minutes later and I’ve arrived at my favourite place, a curving wood bridge over a small pond, nestled under the granite ridge that forms the high backbone of the Barrens.

Torrance Barrens-wetland pond This bridge always figures in our seasonal walks here (except winter, when the deep snow prevents us getting in this far).  But autumn is lovely, too.

November in the barrens2

It’s a good spot to sit down and have a little solitary picnic and listen to the bullfrogs…..

Bridge lounging-Torrance Barrens

…gaze at the water lilies and get a closeup view of some of the more unusual wetland plants, like the arching swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus), shown here with the fluffy flowers of cotton grass (Eriophorum virginicum).

Swamp Loosestrife-Decodon verticillatus

I’m thrilled to see a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) ovipositing on a willow shrub nearby.

Viceroy ovipositing on willow

And what’s this? Another native carnivorous plant: the spatulate-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) busy digesting another tasty fly meal.

Drosera intermedia - Torrance Barrens

But my time is running out, so it’s just a short climb up the granite ridge to get the high view before I go.  Throughout the Torrance Barrens, your feet tread on granite estimated to be 1.4 billion years old (from Nick Culshaw, Dalhousie University geology prof.and specialist in the Grenville Province geological region.)  Along the way is a lot of wonderfully kinetic hair grass (Askelia flexuosa).

Hair grass-Deschampsia flexuosa Here’s a little video I made in the Barrens to describe the sound and effect of this lovely native grass, which grows on the rocky hillside behind my own cottage – and in every nook and cranny in the area.  (Thanks to botanist Sue Meades for updating the name of hair grass to Askelia flexuosa from Deschampsia – sadly too late for the video!) 

Tiime to go.  I head out to the parking lot and drive a bit down Southwood Road.  The road features a different type of flora than the plants inside the Barrens. It’s where you find the tall pink fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), buzzing with bees.

Fireweed-Chamerion angustifolium

And the exotic weeds, pretty as they are, like the yellow evening primrose and the red clover mixed in with natives like goldenrod, fleabane and yarrow.  And the trucks, of course. And civilization. Southwood Road Wildflowers

A Balm for the Bees

By the first week in August, we are halfway through calendar summer in Ontario and the little meadows outside my Lake Muskoka cottage are buzzing with bees.  Nowhere is that more evident than on the pink blossoms of lovely wild beebalm or bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Bumble bee on wild beebalm

The brief flowering of the beebalm is a time I cherish, because it fills the meadows with soft colour and a real sense of environmental purpose, given the number of pollinating insects that seek nectar in the tube shaped flowers, or fistulae in Latin, that give the species its botanical name. Apart from the bumble bees, that roster includes the unusual hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe)….

Hummingbird clearwing on wild beebalm

…and butterflies of all kinds, such as the great spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), below,

Fritillary on beebalm

….the white admiral (Limenitis arthemis), below, and many more.

White Admiral on wild beebalm

From seed I planted several years ago, wild beebalm has made its way throughout the property.  It flowers well in the dry, sandy soil in my little east meadow, along with tall yellow cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) near the stairs,

Stairs to east meadow

and along the path in front of the house to the west meadow on the other side. Cool days and regular rainfall extend bloom time considerably.

Path and west meadow

Pink is not as common in prairie plants as yellow, of course, and its main companion in both meadows is false oxeye daisy (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Wild beebalm and heliopsis

But it looks pretty spectacular as a filler alongside the gorgeous, big blooms of the Orienpet lily ‘Concha d’Or’ in this little garden area.

Wild beebalm & 'Concha d'Or' Orienpet lilies

Have a look at this short narrated tour I made just after a morning rain, to see a few more plant partners for wild beebalm.  And since I was a little cavalier with the names, let me also offer a midsummer bouquet starring Monarda fistulosa and some of its beautiful meadow companions, including blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), single and double false oxeye daisy (Heliopsis helianthoides), brilliant orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), blue vervain at upper left (Verbena hastata), and lilac-purple ‘Fascination’ culver’s root (Veronicasstrum virginicum) at top.  Enjoy.

Beebalm in midsummer bouquet

One Lily, Three Lenses

The little quackgrass meadows at my cottage on Lake Muskoka, north of Toronto, are admittedly a tough, alien environment for prima donna lilies.  Nonetheless, several years ago I thought it would be fun (in a perverse way), to see how these highly-bred bulbs might fare when planted in my sandy, acidic soil alongside prairie wildflowers and grasses that have evolved to thrive in such conditions. A chance buy of an unnamed one (possibly ‘Northern Delight’?), below, at a local garden centre whetted my appetite for more.

Peach Orienpet lily

So in 2010, I ordered an assortment of Orienpet (Oriental x Trumpet) hybrid lilies from one of our great Canadian suppliers, Manitoba’s The Lily Nook.  They arrived that fall and I dug them in the same day as I planted the narcissus.  In 2011, I had a fine show of exotic lilies, and their perfume scented the path between the meadows and delighted people walking by. However, over the years, they’ve struggled with problems too numerous to mention, but viral diseases and chomping insects are top of the list.  Not to mention the vegetarian deer and groundhogs that like nothing better than an emerging lily.

Pesky deer and groundhogs

So when the lilies come into bloom in July, all fresh and happy in their peacock way, it’s a bit of a celebration.  This year, I thought I’d mark it by photographing my favourite, the beautiful pink ‘Robina’.  An Arie Peterse introduction in 2004, it was considered a seminal event in lily hybridizing, combining the beautiful, solid colours and fragrance of Orientals with the vigour and stature of Trumpets.  But for fun, rather than just do a few portraits, I decided to photograph my lily with all three of my lenses, to show the way each interprets the subject and the setting.  Because I often carry all three in one bag, I use two camera backs that are reasonably good quality but certainly not professional models: a Canon Rebel t2i and a Canon 60D, both of which have 18 megapixel sensors.  More important for me on 6-hour shooting days is manageable weight, plus flexibility of use, as I switch frequently from wide-angle to telephoto to closeup   But I am not a techie; my camera use is intuitive, rather than technical. And I do not shoot raw, but rely on the good engineers at Canon to give me a starting point in image quality, and then I edit as I wish in Photoshop.  Here are the lenses.

Wide angle-Telephoto-Macro lenses

1. Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4.5 DC Zoom Macro Lens. This is my go-to all-purpose lens.  It manages wide-angle to very good macro shots.

2. Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS Telephoto Zoom Lens.  This is my sweetheart lens, one I bought used to replace a much lower-quality 75-300 telephoto zoom lens.  Once you become accustomed to standing at least 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) away from your subject, you can do spectacular closeups of a quality that allows for cropping while retaining exceptional detail, e.g. bees and butterflies.  It’s also a wonderful lens for capturing plant combinations.  And though it’s my heaviest piece of equipment, it’s still considered a compact telephoto.

3. Canon Macro Lens EF 100 mm.  I’ve been doing macro photography since the mid 1990s, and this is my workhorse closeup lens.  It’s not digital, but adapts reasonably well to my digital cameras.  But I’ve left it at home frequently since acquiring the 70-200.  However, for this little exercise, I’m bringing it out.  And I’m using its sidekick, the EF25 extension tube, which gives me 1.4x magnification “on film”, as we used to say back in the day.

(And I photographed them all with my little spy/travel camera, Canon’s SX50, with the 50x optical zoom.)

So….. where is the lily growing?  Using my wide-angle lens #1 to show the landscape, it’s just a little up this granite hillside in very shallow, sandy, acidic soil, along with a dog’s breakfast of beebalm, heliopsis, lupines, rudbeckia, switch grass and quackgrass.  This is a transient meadow I seeded to the west of our 12-year old house, as we wait for the pine-red oak forest to regenerate on the thin soil over bedrock. Red maples are now seeding into this meadow and there’s a little Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) at rear, left.  I will be sad when my meadows are gone to bush, but that should mesh quite nicely with my advanced old age!

Wide angle meadow shot

Let’s walk a little further down the path and zoom that wide-angle lens up the hillside to see the young white pine (P. strobus) behind the lily and pick up its neighbours, orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and a little stand of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  And then there’s the quackgrass (Elymus repens) in front, a terrible invasive and enemy of prairie restorationists, which is in every plant portrait I make here at the lake. All in all, not a very compelling image.  Documentary, my dear Watson.

Wide angle vignette

Zoom the wide angle a little closer, but it’s still an essentially boring photo.  And I don’t like the pine in the background – it’s distracting.

Wide angle vignette-closer now

Still standing on the path below, I change to the telephoto 70-200.  Ah, that’s better, A small vignette now blurring the background and picking up another neighbour, grass-leafed goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) getting set to flower, at right.  The soft backaground is one of the advantages of the telephoto’s shallow depth of field.

Telephoto vignette

Now move the lily off centre and incorporate the neighbouring beebalm and  I can almost pick out the bumble bee on the flowers in the rear.  But here the shallow depth of field works against me, as the bee is slightly behind the lily and therefore not in focus.  And what’s that on the edge of the lily?  Hmm….must move closer.

Closer telephoto

Time to head up the path and change to my macro lens, so I can explore the reproductive parts of this beautiful flower and those little green legs on the edge.  Like all monocots, the lily has flower parts in 3s or multiples of 3  So we have six velvety brown anthers held atop slender green filaments and six silky pink tepals (in other plants these would be called three petals and three sepals, but in lilies they are so similar as to form and function that they earn the name tepal.)  And we see the sticky stigma at the tip of the style ready to accept the pollen. The raised papillae on the petals are visible too, but the macro lens also functions in a narrow depth of field so they’re unfocused.  Also out of focus is the little green guest in this lily.

Macro shot of reproductive parts

Time to screw on the extension tube and have a much closer look.  Here is the stigma again, but now you can clearly see its three fused carpels beneath the epidermal tissue.  It is from the stigma that pollen tubes will form when an insect brushes the flower with compatible pollen, which then travels to the ovary below where seed is formed.

Macro shot of stigma

And with my extension tube, I can now clearly see the little green grasshopper that will enjoy nibbling on my lily tepals in the week or so ahead as it grows into adulthood.

Juvenile grasshopper

Fortunately, the chewed bits won’t be visible in the distance, which is just fine as I’ll enjoy my beautiful, perfumed ‘Robina’ lily from my bedroom window here at the lake.