With Vita Sackville-West’s ‘Some Flowers’ still fresh in my mind, I have chosen some favourite flowers of my own to describe. These aren’t going to be painters’ flowers, for I know nothing about painting, nor are they necessarily the best flowers of their kind for the garden, though I can recommend them to any gardener who has the right space and conditions. Instead they are some of my favourite flowers to photograph, flowers that have some nameless photogenic quality, a certain poise or elegance, when seen on film or screen.
As I write this, four generous clumps of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ are decorating my front garden with their small, almost-white, downward nodding double heads. In fact, clumps is too indelicate and vulgar a word for such frail, elegant little ghosts. A glance down a dictionary of collective nouns for birds (there seems to be no such thing for flowers) gives me skein, flight, fling. None of these will quite do. I have some ‘Thalia’ in a vase above the fireplace, and I am standing before them, trying to work out what it is that makes them quite the most indescribably prettiest narcissus. I catch a faint scent coming from them that one might describe as the diluted scent of a florist’s shop. It is a dignified, subdued scent that seems fitting for an introverted flower that is so different from the others in its genus, the majority of which range from boisterous to cute. When photographing ‘Thalia’, I find it best to get a dark green background behind them so that the flower can stand out on its own. I like to capture the gentle waves of the petals, the intricacy of the veins, and a sense of fleeting time.
If everything you knew about tulips was related to the familiar, blowsy, colourful things bred in the vast fields of Holland that go by names like ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Belle Epoch’, you might be surprised to find out that a starry, delicate little flower about quarter of the size of a ‘regular’ tulip was in fact a tulip. But T. turkestanica is as genuinely tulipy as a tulip can be, and more so to a purist because it is a species tulip, one that grows wild on the sunny, stony slopes of Central Asia. If you search online you can see pictures of it doing just that, and very lovely it looks too among the scrubby grass and stones, for all the world like stars fallen ignominously to earth. In the garden it has certain charms that give it advantages over the more commonly grown tulips. It is perennial for a start, unlike most bred tulips, its numbers gradually increasing like a useful, proper bulb. In theory it should self-seed as well, if it likes you enough (it is not sure about me). As a photographer’s flower, its beauty lies in those pert cream petals, six of them, and the rich egg-yolk centre, which opens up when it sees the sun and closes gently in the shade. As they fade, the petals shrink and become papery paisley wisps, tinged with dusky pink. I grow it in window boxes mulched with grit and like to photograph it shining celestially against the dark window. I dodge about so that the drying laundry inside is no longer visible through the window, and try to capture the tulip’s repeating reflection in the glass.
Gardeners must develop a hard heart when visiting garden nurseries, a necessary thing if you don’t want your garden (and bank balance) governed by uncontrollable forces of desire. Chaos ensues when that happens, and chaos is not (usually) pleasing. But every so often, I see a plant and fall in love at first sight. The plant will have been skillfully brought into abundant flower by the scheming nursery workers and placed purposefully in my direct path as soon as they see me coming. Their tempting specimen is invariably too expensive, and completely unnecessary for my garden, and always lacks some essential quality like scent or hardiness. It won’t recompense its cost by self-seeding gently around; nor will it attract bees. But when I see it on the nursery shelf I give a little gasp of wonder, and clasp my hands, and look at the price label, and gasp again, and walk on two steps, and walk back, and place the prize in my trolley. Clematis ‘Filigree’ (PBR) is one such plant that came home with me through forces outwith my control. It is a clematis that is designed to tumble downwards out of a tall pot rather than twine up an arch or through a tree. Its large, crinkly, semi-double lilac flowers spill softly from the trailing vines, and glow in the soft light of a summer evening. The sight of it puts me in mind of a timeless, candle-lit terrace with gentle piano music, evening dresses and conversations in low voices between sips of champagne. For it is an elegant, almost aristocratic flower, staying just the right side of whimsical in its gown of silk and tulle. Of course it doesn’t smell of anything, the gorgeous, overbred thing. And I don’t recall ever seeing a bee come anywhere near it. But I forgive it over and over again, and have never regretted the loss of control that resulted in my taking it home with me.
Iris reticulata ‘Katherine Hodgkin’
It is hard to pick a favourite Iris reticulata or indeed I. histroides as I have never seen one I didn’t like. Among those I have grown and loved, ‘Clairette’ and ‘George’ have always pleased me, while ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ can often look like a piece of dirty litter that has blown into the garden. I have a patch of it that reappears every year about six yards from the bedroom window, and it always comes quietly when least expected, looking all the world like something blown in on the east wind. There it shivers, lost among the dead stalks and shrivelled leaves of seasons past, and unless you have a camera with you it is quite hard to see any merits at all. But take a look down a 50mm lens with a vast aperture, and suddenly this little speckled flower makes all the sense in the world. Did it creep out of a jungle with the leopards and tigers? What kind of crazy pollinating winter insect is it hoping to attract? What fictional flying creature searching for food in the bitter January wind could possibly be attracted by its wondrous blue guiding stripes and black spots on splashes of yellow? It’s a flower you just couldn’t make up. I ought to advise you to grow it in pots so as not to lose it among the dirt-splashed January garden; however, I don’t think it would visually fare any better, and would be much more bother and upkeep. May as well grow it in the ground and mulch around it with something very rich and dark, which you won’t remember to do anyway, and even if you did you’ll never remember at the appropriate time where the damn things are.
I am not sure if I could describe this David Austin rose any more skillfully than Vita Sackville-West described her velvet red Rosa gallica ‘Tuscany’, and if I did no doubt you would mock my attempts just as I very gently mocked hers (see Book Review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West). Perhaps I should let the photographs above speak for themselves as advertisements for Tess’s qualification as a good photographer’s rose. Like all flowers, these require a dark, quiet background, but a more gentle, glaucous or mushroom-coloured one. If you try photographing this flower in a vase against a pale wall, the primary effect of subdued luxuriance will be completely lost. Death becomes her, and it is worth not bothering to deadhead this rose’s final flowers. I grow her up a dark, damp wall beneath a dripping boiler outlet, and attempt to train her in to wires, a decryable position which she not only forgives but generously embraces.
How can one photograph Galanthus nivalis? Let me count the ways. One of my favourites is from above, with a huge aperture of f/2.8 or more, the closed white buds like falling snow against the black winter soil. There are many alternative angles I’ve found: in a windowbox against a black window, or in swathes across a dark woodland, or with the winter sun beaming through the translucent petals. One of my most loved photographs of a snowdrops is one that had a bee hanging out of it, taken on an unseasonably warm February day last year. Being one of a very few flowers that are out in January, and given that emerging snowdrops are one of my favourite floral sights of the year (perhaps the favourite), it is not surprising that snowdrops get a great deal of my camera’s attention. Although you can spend a lot of time and money collecting wonderful varieties, for the camera’s sake you cannot do much better than a single nivalis against a dark background. By single I mean not the double ‘Flore Pleno’, which for my simple tastes can be a bit too much of a good thing, although of course they too have their rightful place in a cheerful winter garden.
It is hard not to be smug when a flower that shares one’s name is so decidedly excellent. The story of ‘Joanna’ is a fun story that I have told elsewhere. Suffice to say that when I am a famous garden designer, I shall plant ‘Joanna’ as my signature plant underneath trees where no one is expecting it, rather as Miss Willmott used to scatter seeds of her ‘ghost’, Eryngium giganteum, in the gardens that she visited. Up it shall pop towards the end of March, with its lush, liver-spotted leaves, their waving margins catching the spring light as they drift outwards from the centre of the plant, whence presently will arise a small, unobtrusive but oh, so significant arrowhead flower bud on a slender stalk. This will open delicately to reveal petals, nervous, cream and yellow at first, then maturing to apricot as they upturn their ends like Turkish slippers, till they stand in a tiny glorious regiment of perfect poise. The verdant, smooth leaves provide the ideal backdrop to the pale flower. This is a plant that demands and rewards its close-up.
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love this flower. Could those big saucer daisies be any more useful as they trail about the garden in high summer and adorn countless vases with their impertinent faces? On they flower, on and on, until you think you’ll be sick of them (but you never are), quitting only with the second or third frost of autumn, and in a mild autumn looking quite unseasonal about the house as you start preparing for Christmas. One might think they’d be too ordinary to be included in a list of photographer’s flowers, but if you let the light shine through them and come up close to see the veins and ridges of those crisp white petals, you start to take them a bit more seriously. It’s like watching a comedian take on a grave role in a film: you suddenly see them in a new light. There is something Art Deco in the structure of those petals, which is counter-balanced by the tangle of feathery leaves behind. My seedlings were eaten by snails two years in a row, and I was quite bereft.
Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)
A recurring theme in my photography is the effect of hundreds of bright dots falling like the blur of snowflakes, taken with a huge aperture so the effect steeply softens and fades with just a few of the buds in focus. I love snow, and dots, and the abstract effect they cause; and the meadow rue, Thalictrum, perfectly fulfils the snowy, dotty role for me in summer. (Closed snowdrops and the seedheads of asters help out during other seasons). This particular meadow rue had self-seeded in an abandoned bucket of earth next to my mother’s potting shed. She didn’t know the variety; she doesn’t have a meadow rue growing anywhere in the garden. It doesn’t matter what variety, though. All small-flowered meadow rues will do the dotty thing well. Mine quite pointlessly grows to a hundred feet tall and then falls over sideways, so as a garden plant it’s pretty annoying. But as a photographer’s delight, I couldn’t be without it.
This is the only plant on this list that I do not grow myself. A British native, the dog rose grows wild among the plants and hedgerows of my grandmother’s Derbyshire garden, which is where I first came across it. But you can see it everywhere you look as it adorns the countryside and steep motorway verges in early summer. Goodness knows but they should rethink allowing this plant to grow along verges because catching sight of it flowering in a hedgerow is distraction enough to make me drive straight off the road and into the aforementioned hedge. There are lots of lovely ancient species roses, wild, native or otherwise, most of which are a bit grander and less common. But at this moment in my life, it is the pale pink Rosa canina that captures my heart the most completely. Those petals, which are poised like ballerinas en pointe and look as though they will blow off in the next breeze, the dotty spotty anthers on invisible filaments, the merest, shyest suggestion of pale pink, the transluscence of the petals when backlit by the summer sun… Nothing could be lovelier.
No doubt that if you asked me in a few years’ time for a list of some favourite plants to photograph the list will have changed considerably. Perhaps I will have worked out how to get the best out of skimmias, ferns and bergenias. No doubt there will be plants as yet undiscovered by me that find their way into my shopping trolley and heart, find new ways to provide me with my beloved dots, or surprise me with their unlooked-for elegance when photographed closely in a shadowed room. I do hope you enjoyed this list and would love to hear from you if there are any favourite flowers of yours that always do well in a photograph.