Obsession

– Posted in: Garden Travels

One of the most basic dichotomies in life may be between those things that we understand why we engage in and those that we do not. Further dissolution of this distinction leads to things we may understand but that many others do not. This is called obsession.

My most obvious obsession has always been plants. At 15 I knew all the signs of various micronutrient deficiencies. At 19 I was soaking in the thousands of plant species at one of the largest nurseries and plant collections in the country; at 26, managing another. By the time I was looking back at three decades of learning numerous dichotomies (from dichotomy key to divorce) it began to dawn on me that this one was not going away. I tested myself: climb the highest mountain in North Vietnam during a 50 year cold snap, collect and clean the seeds in various SE Asian hotels and navigate the USDA to import the resulting new introductions to the US. Check. Regularly drive for 18 hours a weekend exploring the most botanically rich areas of Western North America. Check. Attempt dating conversations about Trillium nomenclature. Check. This was no green thumb, this was green up to the elbows. But what to do with it? What use, this obsession? Starting a specialty nursery seemed too dicey; taxonomists are a dying breed. I needed a conduit.

It was almost an afterthought realizing that I had been collecting tens of thousands of photos of all these plants with which I interacted. That I had carefully recorded genus and species and cultivar and location. That it had gone from a purely documentary process to one which considered framing and balance and color relation and composition. Wow, was I coming to understand this obsession? Was I in fact creating something with it? Not only create but to create something which allows me to share my obsession with other? To proselytize, if you will?

Today, I am a botanical photographer. Today I live the dream of my obsession. I move between great gardens and gardeners and the too quickly disappearing natural world. I sit in front of my screen thousands of hours recording the details of these places, these plants. Their stories and my own intertwine. But it is important to remember the nexus of this: to understand those things we choose to engage in and how share it with others. With this prelude I’d like to introduce a small series of photographic expeditions, beginning today with…

Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Painted Hills_9454

Rivulets of Golden Bee Plant, Cleome platycarpa, run down the slope against the stunning red horizontal strata of Oligocene era deposits.

Painted Hills_9489

Still verdant from abundant spring rains, the rich color of millions of years of volcanic deposits from the forming Cascades is cloaked in green and gold.

Painted Hills_9521

Quoted from In Search of Ancient Oregon by Ellen Morris Bishop, “Red bands in the Painted hills record soils that developed in wetter Oligocene climates, and yellow bands, under drier conditions. Black dots and streaks are manganese nodules that may have been created by manganese-fixing plants.”

Sphaeralcea munroana_9520

Sphaeralcea munroana_9515

Orange globe mallow (Sphaeralcea munroana).

Paeonia brownii_9427

One of only two Peonies native to the Americas, Paeonia brownii is the more Northern and widespread. Though diminutive in size (no larger than a silver dollar) it more than makes up for it with lovely glaucous foliage and petals of rich chocolate red with yellow edges. Pictured here in habitat under pines in the Ochoco National Forest.

Fritillaria atropurpurea_9548

My favorite of the Spotted Fritillary here in the West, Fritillaria atropurpurea may be most easily distinguished from the others by glaucous foliage that comes only from the stem.

Wyethia helianthoides_9589

White Mule’s Ears (Wyethia helianthoides). Surprisingly large, pure white flowers rise from this uncommon inhabitant of moist meadows east of the Cascades.

Ribes lacustre_9595

I have always liked the large number of Gooseberries that inhabit the PNW and appreciate finding them in peak flower as it is rather more difficult to pull the species apart without them. Above, Ribes lacustre; Ochoco National Forest, OR.

Ribes aureum_9638

Golden Currant (R. aureum) is perhaps one of the more impressive flowering shrubs on the PNW. I especially like when the inner corolla gets an orange coloration against the bright gold (due to pollination or age?).

Triteleia grandiflora var. grandiflora_9619

Back in the good old days this was Brodiaea douglasii and as a fellow Scotsman I am sorry to see a such a fitting tribute taken away. Nonetheless, Triteleia grandiflora var. grandiflora is lovely to see on a warm summer evening studding the tawny grass. This blooms at least a full month later than T. grandiflora var. howellii.

Iris missouriensis_9648

This is a rather color dull form of the wide ranging and highly variable Western Blue Flag (Iris missouriensis) but I liked the combination of previous years seed heads and peak bloom in the same frame.

Penstemon deustus_9785

Scorched penstemon (Penstemon deustus)!

Geum triflorum_9756

This image of Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) was from a roadside stop in the middle of mile upon mile of empty road between Fossil and Antelope, OR. The rare stillness and rolling hills and a glowing evening light such as you can only find in big sky country.

Blue Basin_9737

This area, Blue Basin, is also known as Turtle Cove for the abundance of fossilized… yep, turtles. Even the stream water was colored the same blue suede color of the strangely eroded silica rich volcanic ash hills.

Cleome platycarpa_9833

I’ll let this one speak for itself.

Josh McCullough

Josh McCullough

Josh McCullough

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fer November 14, 2010, 5:49 am

Very beautiful post and photos!
I wish I could live the dream of my obsessions as well

Ellen November 14, 2010, 9:31 am

I’m pretty much speechless. Thanks for some wonderful images and unusual perspectives.

Lori November 14, 2010, 9:41 am

Love love love the photos of native plants! Keep them coming!

Helen November 14, 2010, 3:12 pm

Thank you for sharing your background, it is fascinating to learn how people come to their vocation.

Loree / danger garden November 14, 2010, 3:20 pm

It goes without saying that the photos are gorgeous, and I particularly enjoyed the introduction. Thank you for the insight into your obsession.

Benjamin November 14, 2010, 6:03 pm

I wish your prelude had continued. For me, that was far more interesting than the pictures (which were also stunning, but I’m a writer first–yet that line between image and word is very very very thin). More prelude?

Josh November 14, 2010, 7:35 pm

Thank you all for your kind comments!
I do intend to continue this “prelude”, though it is more a demarkation of a starting point, a here and now in a constant stream of evolution. There is so much more to be blended together where intention and history (both personal and geologic) come together, as in the moment of a photograph in a time and place such this trip. If you missed it, you can see the previous here. I look forward to very soon bringing the next of this series to the pages of GGW.

Town Mouse November 14, 2010, 11:04 pm

Wow! It’s just wonderful and inspiring to see your photos. I hope that obsession never goes away.

Cat November 14, 2010, 11:51 pm

And speak for itself it does! Wow~what an amazing photograph.

Ryan Miller November 15, 2010, 1:20 pm

I won’t wax too much on the beauty of the plants or the location or the photography, previous commenters have that covered. those plants are amazing. why don’t we see them in our gardens more? a couple of really quick searches on google on a few of doesn’t turn up any retail sources. As someone obsessed with plants and as an Oregonian I’d be proud and tickled to have any of these in my garden.

Lana November 15, 2010, 2:54 pm

beautiful photos, and I’m glad the trillium nomenclature conversation worked!

Josh November 15, 2010, 3:47 pm

Ryan- A great question, worthy of a whole discussion in its own right! Responsibly sourcing rarer native plants, especially in the West, can be frustrating. Here are just a few of my favorites for the type of plants in this post- Annie’s Annuals, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, Cistus Nursery, Forest Farm, High Country Gardens, Northwest Native Seeds, Seedhunt, Rocky Mountain Rare Plant. Obsession!

Ryan Miller November 15, 2010, 8:23 pm

thanks Josh, I’m familiar with a few of those, I’ll be tracking down some of the plants from this post for my garden.

kate November 15, 2010, 8:50 pm

Gorgeous photos, Josh, and thanks for introducing me to Wyethia – a new-to-me genus and oh so lovely. And I’ve never seen that tiny Geum triflorum look quite so good as it does in your photo. Fantastic.

Jason Rathe November 19, 2010, 7:44 am

Love seeing plants in their habitat. Wish there was a better source for this. Would love to be able to pull up a picture(s) of common garden plants (or uncommon non-garden plants!) and see the habitats they are natural to and how they interact with surrounding plants. Very cool pics.

Josh November 19, 2010, 12:09 pm

Thanks, Jason. There are some great resources such as Calflora and CalPhotos for the West, though I do not know about your area. Here in Oregon I am very excited about the Oregon Flora Project- try out their Atlas feature, it does much of what you were wishing! Even the USDA Plants Database is sometimes helpful in this regard.