External water storage in succulents

The great majority of succulents stores water in stems, leaves and/or roots. Some of them however, mainly members of the  vygie family (Aizoaceae) also make use of external storage. They  have an epidermis covered with extremely enlarged and swollen cells (so called bladder cells) that are able to store water. Amazingly up to over 50 % of the total amount of water stored by the leaves can be located in these cells.

The cells have another advantage too: they are so big, that they create windless spaces above the stomata (breathing pores) so that transpiration is reduced. When a plant start suffering from drought stress, the cells collapse. This obstructs the passage of air to the stomata, so that water loss is reduced even further

droscfbrev2010_09_09#189_lznres One of the best known examples is the genus Drosanthemum (“dew flower”)


Mesembryanthemum guerichianum

In this species (Mesembryanthemum guerichianum), the bladder cells are especially big on the calyx


Phyllobolus nitidus is named for its shining appearance (nitidus = glossy, polished or shining)

Exactly the same, but different; what post-production can do for your pictures.

A couple of months ago my wife and I were travelling to our farm near Matjiesfontein when we decided to have a short coffee break. As usual, I utilized this opportunity to quickly scan the area. Not far from the road I came across a plant of Cotyledon orbiculata (the beautiful form that used to be called undulata).

This picture shows my first attempt of photographing the plant.
It is not a bad photo, but neither does it convey the feeling I got when looking at the subject.

After cropping the picture this is what I got. Much better I thought, but too realistic.

Cropping in a slightly different way, combined with darkening the picture and enhancing the colours, resulted in this.
It seemed to me I was on the right track, but now the left side of the photo was too busy and distracting.

I had also made another picture, almost identical to the first one, but taken from a slightly different angle. When I closely compared the two, it became clear that the second one would be the best starting point for the picture I wanted.

I first treated the picture the same way as in number 3 and the lowered the contrast.
This is the end result, realistic enough to be of botanical value, but at the same time visually stimulating.

Water recycling in succulents

The editor of “Veld & Flora” ( http://www.botanicalsociety.org.za/)  invited me to write an article on succulents for the magazine. It is now ready and will be published in the March issue.
The article is called “Miniature succulents – masters of survival” and highlights some of the intriguing adaptations miniature succulents deploy in order to survive. The following snippet  will give you some idea of what to expect.

A peculiar adaptation is shown by many members of the mesemb family (Aizoaceae), especially the dwarf ones, which are able to recycle water from old leaves to new ones.
As the soil dries out towards the end of the growing period, the older leaves are gradually sacrificed and their water content is translocated to and stored in the younger ones. In this way, all available water reserves are concentrated in the last pair of leaves.
In the end, the dry remnants of the old leaves form a papery sheath acting as a protective layer of insulation for the new ones. When the next rainy period starts, the new pair reaches its final size and bursts through the old skin, ready for action.
It has been found that this adaptation enables plants to survive for about a year without any moisture supply from outside.

These three pictures of Antimima pygmaea were taken near Matjiesfontein in winter (mid August), spring (early October) and summer (end of January) respectively. At first, it would be hard to believe that it is all one species.

Tips for making better plant pictures

When one looks at the many plant pictures that can be found on the internet, it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot of room for improvement.

The two most common problems by far are:
–clutter (too many competing elements in the picture). The photographer seems to be saying: “Look, there is so much of interest here that I cannot choose. Please help yourself”
— a disturbing background (too dark or too light, too much in focus, wrong colour etc.)

Once you have become aware of these 2 problems you can take your first steps to better plant pictures.
Other problems one often sees, such as too much or too little contrast, may sometimes be (partly) remedied in post production. For the two main problems, that often is not possible  unfortunately.

Modern cameras can take most decisions on their own. In itself that is a wonderful thing, but we have now reached a stage where it may become counterproductive. In other words, the photographer is lured into thinking that he/she only has to point the camera at the subject and press the button to get a nice picture.
When you decide that maybe your pictures are not as good as you would like them to be, you have to take back some of the decision making into your own hands.
Once you have found a suitable subject, it is a good idea to first take a picture of the plant as a whole. After this you should try to describe to yourself what the subject is and what is so interesting about it. Then include in the picture only what fits this description. Doing all this will force you to slow down and that may sound like a bad thing. The opposite is true however, as a lot of less-than-perfect pictures come about because the photographer is in a hurry.

Both the pink blotches at the bottom and the bright spot on the right draw attention away from the subject.

Simply by changing the camera position slightly, I was able to get this result. Well worth the extra bit of trouble, don;t you agree?

Each time you make a picture you make decisions even if one is not aware of it.
Mentally working through a check-list will make this decision making process easier. In the beginning it will seem like overkill and it may make you feel a bit silly (especially when others are around). But so what? Following these simple steps is bound to result in better pictures and that is what it is all about, isn’t it?

Your check-list could be something like this:
*Is the subject matter at hand the best I can find, or is there something better nearby?
*Will one picture be enough or do I need more to tell the story, maybe one of the whole plant in its environment and some of details?
*Is this a good time of the day/year to take the picture? Should I try to return later, when the flowers are open, the fruits are ripe, the leaves have unfolded etc.?
*Is the light all right or should I rather wait a while or come back later?
*Should the background be in focus, so that it adds information to the picture or out of focus so that the subject stands out more? Are there any unwanted objects/shadows/ highlights in the background? Do I need a different background or foreground?
*Will moving the camera give better results (forward or backward, tilted, raised or lowered)? What if I step or turn left or right?
*Will a different focal length (if available) or focus point create a better picture?
*What will happen if I change the aperture or the shutter speed?
*Are the contrasts in the picture space not too high? Should I use a diffuser or reflector?

After taking the picture, look at the display at the back of your camera to see how the picture has turned out: is the lighting even; is the exposure correct; is the depth of field enough (and in the right place)?

Of course there is much more to making good plant pictures than this, but it may be a good start.
If you want more information on the subject, have a look at my Ebook “Plant and flower photography”

An interesting site

A short while ago I stumbled upon a website that turned out to be very interesting.
Here is the link:  http://www.ispot.org.za,
and here is what they themselves say about the site:

“So what’s it all about?

iSpot is a website aimed at helping anyone identify anything in nature.

Once you’ve registered, you can add an observation to the website and suggest an identification yourself or see if anyone else can identify it for you.

You can also help others by adding an identification to an existing observation, which you may like to do as your knowledge grows. Your reputation on the site will grow as people agree with your identifications.

You may also like to visit our forums which offer lively debate around observations and other more general topics.”

Excerpt from my e-book on plant photography

A short picture story no 1

This is the type of picture that many people would take. One can see how the plants grow in their natural environment and how many flowers they produce, what shape and colour the flowers are etc.

This picture tells us that the same species may also grow in a different situation and it shows the leaves and the back of the flowers.

Here we see the relatively enormous size of the flower and the beautiful markings on it.

So between them, these three pictures are quite informative, and with some cropping their message would become even stronger.
But whatever you do to them, they will still be run-of-the-mill pictures and visually there is not much to return to once you have seen themNow look at the next picture!


Here we are still looking at the same species, but the picture is rather different!
This time we see no open flowers, but the back of an almost mature bud. The dark background makes the petals almost sparkle.

This is a small part of my e-book “Plant and flower photography; from theory to practice”.
For more information have a look at my website www.noltee.com

A matter of colour (Pelargonium tetragonum)

The first time a saw a plant of Pelargonium tetragonum in the wild was in the vicinity of Calitzdorp. Later on I found out that the species was rather plentiful in the area, both north and south of the village.
The plants cannot be confused with any other species, but what surprised me was the colour of the flowers.

Image Image Image

All the many plants I had seen in cultivation had pale pink flowers with deep red stripes on the upper two petals. All the plant I saw in the wild, not just around Calitzdorp but also elsewhere, had cream flowers (with the same red stripes as in the cultivated ones).

The more I thought about this phenomenon, the more I got the idea that the plants in cultivation originated from one or a few ancestors with an aberrant flower colour.
Last months I was in the Eastern Cape looking for plants with my wife and two Belgian plant friends. While trying to find my way into a dense thicket near Uitenhage, I suddenly came across several plants of this species with beautiful pink flowers.


So clearly the flower colour has to do with the area where the plants grow. According to J.J.A. van der Walt in “Pelargoniums of Southern Africa” (1977) the species occurs ” in a strip parallel with the coast from the Worcester-Caledon districts eastwards to Grahamstown. It has also been collected further inland near Graaff Reinet and Bedford”.
In their natural habitat the plants flower from September to December.