Macro photography: a closer look around the cottage

Here are some of the most exciting images (click a photo to view larger images in a carousel) so far showing off what kind of nature photography the new macro lens can do. I shot all of them within a few steps of the cottage door.

My partner and I returned from another short stay at the lake, our third trip to look after spring maintenance including staining the deck and dock and laying additional flagstones around the wood stove for insurance purposes. The water lines sprung several new leaks so I’ve decided to replace the ones under the cottage, a project that will have to wait until July when bug season eases off. As well, this past weekend I ran my annual route for the international Breeding Bird Survey.

The mosquitoes have been fierce this spring. There are so many that even when we wear mesh jackets, enough insects manage to bite through the neck fold that insanity quickly sets in. We had enough of them while spreading stain, and consequently spent little additional time outdoors. I took my camera on both previous trips but didn’t use it because I didn’t feel like rambling in the woods.

But Saturday was a glorious day so we tried walking along the road. I managed to get some shots of a spider in a flowerpot and a clump of orange hawkweed blooming on the shoulder. The road crosses a swampy area. There the mosquitoes soon became unbearable and we had to turn back.

But when I pulled the images up on my laptop, a warm feeling came over me. I bought the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens in March using pocket money I’d saved for almost a year. It’s a mid-price lens, the best I could afford.

It lacks image stabilization so a tripod is essential for clear close-up shots. I have a good Manfrotto tripod with enough weight to reduce the risk of tipping my expensive camera equipment. The legs fold outward to allow shooting from ground level.

The reason I wanted a good macro lens was to explore the world of small, another layer of the environment revealing things we encounter every day but can’t see with the unaided eye. I’d love to explore Canada’s far north or a coral sea, but until I have the opportunity, unseen complex environments lie close at hand – or at foot, as the case may be.

Saturday provided glowing light conditions. Using the tripod I was able to get close as possible and control depth of field to highlight fine details like the hawkweed stamens. Other cameras and lenses have done macro magic for me, but never like this. An old dream is becoming a reality.

The first two images inspired me to brave the mosquitoes another day.

The exquisite little common woodsorrel (honestly, is there anything common about the perfection of this wildflower?) grows in clumps on our property. I’ve tried to photograph Oxalis montana over the years, but never satisfactorily until now. It’s an important herb of climax forest, common in the understory of trees like our red maples, yellow birches and balsam firs. Often cohabiting with wildflowers such as goldthread, woodsorrel provides forage for deer and chipmunks.

I’m also a fan of clubmosses like Lycopodium dendroideum shown here. It’s one of at least three species that grow on or near our cottage property, spreading across shady, leafy ground. Botanists speculate that clubmosses resembles the first vascular plants that colonized the land. To me it seems similar to Norfolk Island pine, but that comes from an ancient family of conifers, not closely related. This species’ common name is ground-pine, and dendroideum is Latin, meaning tree-like.

It’s a thrill using macro photography to see these familiar neighbours closer than ever.

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market rises like a phoenix

The new barn at St. Jacobs Farmers Market

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has not only recovered from disaster, but seems stronger than ever. Less than two years ago fire leveled the main barn, but the place hardly skipped a heartbeat. The flea market and outdoor produce vendors remained open, while a permanent tent was shortly installed to house food, largely butchers and cheese sellers. Last week the new barn opened, pictured above.

At the time of the fire it was identified as the largest year-round farmers’ market in Canada, surpassing even the likes of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It combines with artisans in the village itself and local Mennonite culture to make St. Jacobs a significant Ontario tourism destination.

St. Jacobs lies on the outskirts of Waterloo, a city of approximately 135,000 twinned with its larger sister, adjoining Kitchener. My partner and I moved to Waterloo in March. The farmers’ market lies a seven-minute drive from our door and has become an essential stop our our weekly grocery round. We’ve started going Thursday mornings, when the place hums like a hive but not as madly as Saturdays.

The new barn, though shaped differently, evokes the same style as the old building. The main floor has three wide aisles offering not only meat and cheese but also local honey, specialty teas, bakeries and more. The upstairs gallery opens onto spacious stalls for craftspeople and boutique goods.

St. Jacobs Farmers' Market inside new food building

The flea market and outdoor vendors are so numerous and varied, you can find almost anything. It’s a good place to shop for antiques, cheap clothes and plastic junk, but there’s a lot of good-quality craftsmanship to be found.

The produce mostly strings along one of the outdoor avenues, shrinking to almost nothing during the coldest winter weather. But shoppers beware: many of these vendors resell goods, largely imported. There’s no way of knowing the quality or provenance. I’ve bought bags of good-looking sweet peppers only to find they’re bad on the insides. The “Ontario strawberries” we brought home last week, surprisingly early for our season, were beautiful but bland and started rotting two days later. I’m learning that for quality local produce I must get to know the vendors and whom to avoid.

Any Ontario potatoes or mushrooms we’ve ever bought there have been worthwhile. So many local Mennonites offer tables covered with jugs of maple syrup, you’d have to be an idiot to try selling an imitation.

On the extreme west side of the seasonal vendors, closest to Weber Street, there’s a short row with a distinctly local quality. This week it offered local asparagus (still slender), leaf lettuce, kale, rhubarb, the first field strawberries of the season and mushrooms grown outdoors. These people act and dress like proud farmers instead of street vendors trying to up-sell cheap goods. Watch for them.

One of our favourite stops is Little B’s Gluten Free Bakery. They’ve newly relocated to outside the front wall of the main food building, offering all kinds of baked sweets from spring to fall. Our favourites are the fruit tarts and butter tarts. You can find other gluten-free items around the market, but Little B’s are the best.

Of course it’s hard to resist The Fritter Co. After the fire destroyed all their equipment, they reopened a few months later in one of the flea market barns. The main food barn appears to have some food court stalls still under construction, so maybe the fritters will be moving there; I don’t know.

Take a sliced apple disc, dip it in batter, deep-fry it and this is what you get. Scale it up with ice cream, or not.

The Fritter Co.

Of course these are not gluten free. I hadn’t touched one in years, but when I started the gluten challenge in April I made a bee-line for The Fritter Co. It was my first stop.

Since I don’t seem to be experiencing any symptoms after eight wheat-filled weeks, who knows? That’s another whole story. Maybe I won’t be following a gluten-free diet any longer, but the jury is out until I go for a biopsy in July. I’ve found gluten-free food can be nutritious and delicious, so the outcome is unlikely to drastically change my eating habits. For treats I can still go both ways.

Another thing: if you want to buy a traditional quilt, St. Jacobs is the place to shop. I know of three locations, but there are probably more. Quilted Heirlooms occupies a log cabin at the south end of the market, on Farmers Market Road. The store also sells quilting supplies. Esther Weber Quilts is one of the artisan shops in the upper level of the main barn. But the largest selection can be found at Grey Fort Quilts in St. Jacobs village. These are hand-stitched by local Mennonite women.

Happily, St. Jacobs is busy as ever, with temptations lying around every corner.

Balancing simplicity with responsibility

Scarlet runner beans

It isn’t professional achievements or income that make us happy; this is an old idea eloquently reiterated in Caitlin Kelly’s recent blog post, A small, happy life. She refers to a moral recorded elsewhere: “We do not all have to shine.” I agree: it’s not worth spending our lives in constant pursuit of higher achievement. But if happiness is the true glint in the ore, how do we refine it?

Caitlin points to the level of anxiety imposed on us as we strive for status, financial security and, in the case of women, the perfect body. This last pressure also applies to gay men, I’ve found, though I’ve stopped letting it bother me.

In recovering from a history of depression and anxiety, I’ve found it hard to strike a balance between happiness and success. A year or so into my sixth decade I’m still struggling to succeed enough as a writer to make a sustainable income at the thing I do best. Yet without question I’ve only come so far by lowering my expectations and dismissing the burdens other people would place on me. Still, you get nothing from doing nothing. Achievement matters, and it’s only getting harder to carve out a niche.

For a long time I was absorbed in learning to care for myself. But we aren’t islands, none of us. Recently I’ve begun thinking more about giving back to the community that has supported my healing and development. For instance, I recently joined Toastmasters with the aim of becoming a more effective communicator for both my own sake and so that my research, experience and storytelling might benefit more people. I want to become a more ready participant.

Happiness and simplicity must be balanced with responsibility.

Recent psychological research from Stanford University found a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness in people’s lives. Happiness comes from getting what we want and need. But personal satisfaction has nothing to do with meaning. Happiness is rooted in the present while meaningfulness engages with past, present and future. People with meaningful lives have deeper relationships, experience more stress and are more concerned with expressing identity.

This seems to bring us back to the point: “We do not all need to shine.” Maybe not everyone needs a meaningful life. But I wonder.

Obviously, if we always place happiness above responsibility to others, someone will feel the cost. But it’s no more healthy to put others ahead of our own needs and well-being all the time.

I agree with Caitlin that it’s better to derive happiness from simple living than a constant striving to prove ourselves. But I admire the intelligence of scarlet runner beans, their tendrils reaching for the simple achievement of light, photosynthesis and procreation. The best part of my day is often the simple morning ritual of spending time in the garden, doing some yoga and making a pot of tea. I care for my body and mind. It takes some initiative.

But in reality, happiness is not enough. After breakfast I go to my desk. I’ve had to learn how to motivate myself by reshaping stress into a useful tool. As a freelance journalist I build bridges with clients and savour the responsibility of doing a good job. Interacting with others in a useful way, I pursue meaning.

This is responsibility. I’m still working it all out. It’s an essential ingredient.

Gardening in a smaller space

Raised bed fully planted

I’m surprised to note I’ve posted only a little about my new vegetable garden. Granted, we’ve had a lot going on since we moved to Waterloo in March, so it’s easy for things to slip by. One of my challenges was to figure out how to grow food in limited space, and I’m pleased to report things are going swimmingly. Here’s a more in depth post about what’s happening outside our living room window.

The above photo of my square-foot garden was taken two weeks ago. I learned how to set it up from some online videos. The frame is untreated cedar. I filled it with commercial potting soil enriched with compost from the worm composter. Here it is when newly established in early April.

Square foot garden 1

The ideal size for a square foot garden is four by four. This one is four squares deep and eight wide, with a keyhole for the basement window well. I’ve also filled two squares with stepping stones allowing easier access to the back rows.

I covered the newly sown seeds with cardboard to maintain even moisture and warm the soil. This strategy is useful for the cabbage family (kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kohlrabi) that requires even moisture to germinate well. However, it didn’t work for everything, as I would soon learn.

We received a cold snap with persistent snow in late April. This had no negative impact on kale, spinach or arugula.

Germination was poorer for lettuce, carrots, calendulas and magenta spreen. I don’t know whether they objected to the cold, but I think lettuce and spreen seeds may be light activated so the cardboard would have inhibited them. Later I added more seeds without covering and now they’re coming along fine.

I’m growing additional crops in containers. The barrels contain bush beans, zucchini and acorn squash. Pots provide room for extra tomatoes, peppers and a variety of herbs. Having them in containers also allows an earlier start for frost-tender vegetables (beans, tomatoes, peppers and squash, among others) because they can move indoors in case of a cold night. Here they are May 12. Our official last frost date is May 17.

Square foot garden 2

Warm weather in May brought things along quickly. Unfortunately it has been interspersed with surprise late frost, with a fairly hard frost on May 26, which may have spelled disaster for nut and fruit crops. The bush beans in the barrel took a little bronzing on their leaves one night when I was careless, but they were indoors on May 26 and have quickly recovered. Tomatoes and beans planted early against the foundation of the house came through the cold weather unscathed.

I first grew an herb called rocket when I was a kid. I’d read about it in British gardening books, but it was unfamiliar to my family’s palette. Apparently most North Americans responded the same way because it never gained popularity here. Someone renamed it arugula and reintroduced it a few years later. Now it’s popular. Maybe people are more receptive to healthy salad greens now than in the ’70s.

This year one single square foot of garden produced almost more arugula than I knew what to do with. I’ve never been particularly fond of bitter greens, but like anything plucked fresh from the garden, this arugula is different altogether, succulent and delectable. A little lemon juice, lemon zest and olive oil dresses it up nicely.

Here’s that abundance of arugula threatening to crowd out the calendulas and rhubarb chard, with healthy peas climbing in the background.

Arugula in the corner

We’ve also had plenty of spinach from two squares planted several weeks apart, but the second batch maturing in May’s heat was less productive. The moral: plant your spinach as soon as the ground can be worked (for best results, soak seeds for 24 hours first). I had a head start because I was establishing a new garden and planting directly into a purchased mix. I prefer to nurture my own soil, but this was a one-time investment. Here’s the second crop surrounded by thyme, tarragon, lovage, sage and onions.

Spinach in the square foot garden

With warm weather, the spinach and arugula were beginning to bolt, so I cut all the remaining plants yesterday. Succession crops of kale and bush beans went into the vacant squares.

Next up to the plate is this gorgeous selection of leaf lettuce. I haven’t even touched it yet, we’ve had so many other salad greens available this spring. I have more lettuce seedlings coming along in a pot, which I can move to shade to keep it nice through the inevitable hot weather ahead.

Square foot garden 4

This square foot garden is a delight to the eye as well as the palate. I can’t count the number of times new neighbours have complimented it while I’m working there first thing in the morning.

The Potters’ Market

The Potters' Market 2015 fox pot

[Update: The Potters’ Market has been cancelled for May 31, 2015, due to a forecast of strong wind gusts, cold and more rain. But please peruse my photos of the previous day.]

It’s indicative of Guelph’s fertile character that one of the cultural events most anticipated (at least among people I know) is a pottery festival. This is not to say that there aren’t many more exciting things to do, more important and more widely attended: Hillside Music Festival, Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, the jazz festival, the film festival, the studio tour, Art on the Street, Fair November, Faery Fest Inc.’s Enchanted Ground and Guelph Pride, to name a few.

What’s surprising about The Potters’ Market is its quality. The website lists 55 vendors this year, and every single one of them creates works of art. Everyone seems to be talking about it. Everyone goes, if they can.

I’ve collected pottery all my life, not on a large scale, but I still have several small spice pots acquired during my teens and twenties. These were beautiful in themselves. But the tools available to potters must have increased exponentially in the past three decades, considering the diaphanous splendour of contemporary ceramics.

Click any of the thumbnails below to view the larger images in a carousel.

One of the things I love about pottery is how, even with such diverse colour and technique, it inevitably expresses the earth from which it emerges. This might be naive because I’ve hardly ever made any pottery myself, but I think you must be inherently grounded in something to make good pots. Everywhere I look I see colours and textures of lava, foliage, sea foam, fungi. These are the kinds of images I like to collect for inspiration.

My partner and I are gradually adding to a small collection of gorgeous, handmade coffee mugs.

The Potters’ Market continues tomorrow, May 31, 2015, from 10 to 5 if you’re lucky to be within driving distance from Guelph. It takes place at the historic Goldie Mill Park. Otherwise, I believe it always happens the last weekend of May. I hope you don’t get drenched as we did, but it’s a warm summer rain and pottery doesn’t dissolve like people do.

Amy Tyler: the creative process

Polyporus squamosus Dryad's Saddle 1

Amy Tyler’s talk on Sunday at Ontario Handweavers and Spinners biennial conference gave me pause to reassess my creative process. For a brief introduction to Amy, read the previous post.

The term “creative process” has a pompous air about it. Amy, to her credit, didn’t use it. It can give the misguided impression that creative people have an esoteric method for conjuring things of beauty and meaning.

In fact my process is more like a brittle piece of metal that needs to be gingerly hammered into shape. When it frequently falls apart, I must carefully, patiently reassemble it. The shape evolves. Each reworking teaches me more about the nature of the mind.

I believe the creative process is itself as much a work of art as any painting or poem. It’s a process in process, sometimes frustrating but mostly rewarding. Many creative people like to talk about it; others don’t. Sometimes it’s easier if you don’t study it directly; like trying to see in the dark by looking to the side. Some disciplined people religiously follow a routine; these individuals are often highly productive. I imagine many of them became well-grounded early in life in their modus operandi. That wasn’t the case for me.

When someone like Amy talks about how she works and finds inspiration, I sit up and listen. Everyone’s creative process is unique as a work of inspired fiction. No novelist ever succeeded without reading great literature, so I learn from others.

Find your medium

Amy’s experience as a dancer inspired her to look for rhythms. Like the beat or the line of melody in a piece of music, patterns also appear in physical objects, giving rise to texture. She looks for inspiration from patterns in nature, not only the obvious ones like the disks on a Petoskey stone, but from the microscopic and analytical delving of science. For instance, she showed us a sweater she had made in which all the features had to do with the structure of muscles.

As an example of an intriguing pattern from my own photography, see the image above, looking down on the mushroom cap of Polyporus squamosus, more poetically known as dryad’s saddle. Apparently it’s edible, though I’ve yet to sample one.

Texture is Amy’s thing. Colour isn’t, she says, but it’s definitely mine.

I suppose colour is akin to the mood of music, which may explain why I’m so drawn to 19th Century Romantic composers: Tchaikovsky’s deep melancholy purples, Schubert’s beaming yellows, Dvořák’s boisterous oranges, Sibelius’s edgy silvers. But I digress.

Here’s the thing: a creative person needs to find the medium that gives him or her the most ideas, according to Amy. This can be hard because some creative types want everything. Amy was a dancer fascinated with science, but ultimately didn’t have original ideas in those realms as she did for textile design, she says.

This question still puzzles me at times. I considered a career as an architect or landscape designer. I studied wildlife biology. Nothing else inspires me quite as much as ecology: the way communities of diverse organisms cohabit, communicate and intersect. My favourite geekery is the taxonomy of plants. I’m so profoundly drawn to images and sound, sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t have made a better painter or composer. I need the visual creative outlet of spinning and making colourful yarn things. Nevertheless, I’ve been more prolific as a writer than anything else and this is the path that makes sense for me now. I’m intrigued by the metaphorical link between yarn, storytelling, imagery and language.

Amy spoke at length about an essential part of the creative process: inspiration.

Sources of inspiration

Inspiration isn’t a thing we can make happen. As Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I cannot cause light. The most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

We need to give ourselves time viewing, reading or simply being in places fertile with ideas. I make myself go for walks, otherwise I’ll miss the spring bloom of forest ephemerals and never discover anything unfamiliar, like a dryad’s saddle.

Polyporus squamosus Dryad's Saddle 2

Amy recommended various sources of inspiration, but two particularly intrigue me as having excellent applications for writers as well as any kind of artist: deadlines and constraints.

Inspiration can come at any time, but it isn’t necessarily tied to motivation. Even the most fascinating dream will soon fade to oblivion unless you tell someone or write it down. Unless we do something about our great ideas, logic and cynicism soon drown them in  a sea of practicality.

Pitching a story idea to an editor is, for me, one way of turning a glint of inspiration into reality. If my proposal gets accepted, I have to do the work.

A deadline is a writer’s fertile ally because it forces him to make phone calls, put fingers to the keyboard and clack out some words. Awkward, foolish, transient and brilliant, language mashes together. One way or another, we have to make sense of these words in a limited amount of time. Nothing forces me to work better than a deadline, and this is most often when the rough outline of a story comes to life. Deadlines call all our faculties especially courage into play. Inspiration follows inspiration.

I’d say a deadline is one kind of constraint but there are many others — imposed limitations.

For example, Amy has knitted numerous boot socks over the years. She always follows the same pattern, which forces her to experiment with different colours. Constraints can be unavoidable, as for farm wives a few generations ago who had only worn out clothes to turn into quilts, making beauty out of rags.

But constraints are often chosen. A journalist must choose whether to write a first-person narrative including personal experience and knowledge, or a third-person account obtaining all information from other sources. One approach has an intimate appeal, but the other may be more authoritative; they’re persuasive in different ways.

A composer sets the tone for a musical work by choosing constraints, such as the key signature and instrumental ensemble. A knitwear designer may set out to create an item based on a particular kind of yarn or technique such as entrelac, cabling, mitred squares or some novel combination of stitches.

The power, beauty or significance of a work often depends on rules the creator sets in creating it, or possibly how she breaks them. The constraint may be the theme at the heart of a novel or a series of paintings. Constraints narrow our focus from the whole universe to a small intersection. Inspiration often springs from this place.

Work strategies

But the creative process can’t complete anything without work strategies. As Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This is where popular impressions can misguide people aspiring to an artistic path, because it isn’t enough to sit with pen in hand gazing out the window. That beautiful yarn lying in the closet won’t magically decide what it wants to be, turning itself into a cowl.

Amy suggested some useful strategies for a textile designer, like keeping a bedside notebook, learning new skills, and making lots of samples and swatches.

“If asked to do something new, say yes,” she says. “If asked to do something old, say no.”

Freelancers or artists who struggle as I do with motivation may find strategy has a lot to do with time structures. I have a weekly calendar allotting adequate room for all the necessary activities such as marketing, assignment writing, exercise, tidying my office and different things I do for relaxation. When I’m focused on a project I work in 90-minute intervals with breaks between, otherwise concentration and productivity decline. I have alarms on my phone to remind me when to switch activities. I don’t follow my calendar religiously but when I do I’m usually happier and more satisfied with my work.

Periodically I tweak the calendar. I’m forever learning more about how to work more effectively. One idea I gleaned from Amy is that I’d like to make time in the morning for my sources of inspiration. This time of year I work a while in the garden every morning, but I’d also like to spend more time walking, reading and looking at images that feed me. While this might seem like an untimely distraction, I’m unusual in that my best creative time is 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.; everyone needs to find this out for themselves and plan accordingly.

I hope you’ll find some of these tips useful. What are your favourite sources of inspiration? What strategies do you use to get the work done you most enjoy?


Amy Tyler: connections through a Petoskey stone

Selfie with Gnarled Roots Cowl

A weekend conference has given me more fodder to contemplate the creative process. My partner and I attended Panoply 2015, the biennial conference of Ontario Handweavers and Spinners. Overall it was a fun and relaxing time. I dabbled in workshops, completing the Gnarled Roots cowl shown above with Cheryl Roberts from Fullin’ Woolens, visited friends and plodded through without much serious introspection until the final address, given by a fibre artist from Michigan.

After a career that touched on modern dance and science, Amy Tyler says she left academia to make hand-spun yarn, create knit designs and teach fibre arts. But the rhythm of dance and patterns of nature continue to influence her creations, as evidenced from some of the gallery images on her business website, Stone Sock Fibers.

Particularly striking are the wall-hanging, Petosegay, and afghan, Wool Into Stone. They’re inspired by Petoskey stones, a kind of fossilized coral, the best examples being found in Amy’s home state, Michigan. She fashioned large knitted disks then sewed them together to create a mesmerizing pattern.

Petoskey stone unpolished with cm scale

Where I grew up on the shore of Lake Erie, we found countless fossils on the beach, though none of this particular type. The first time I encountered it was more than 20 years ago in the poetry of Luci Shaw, who had a book of poems published under the title Polishing the Petoskey Stone. She tells of picking one up, spitting on it to reveal the pattern, then carrying it with her on a trip across the continent, polishing it against her denim jeans.

The second day it starts
to shine like glycerin soap. As I buff it
smooth, the print rises to the surface—
the silk stone honeycombed with
eyes opening from a long sleep

between lashes of fine spines. Born
eons ago in a warm sea over
Michigan, buried in a long, restless
dream, now the old coral wakes
to the waves of cloth.

I met Luci at a writing conference in about 1994. I credit her with inspiring me to begin writing poetry. Her use of nature as a subject and metaphor is mirrored by writers who have become even more important sources of inspiration: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez and Mark Doty, to name a few. Writing poetry became an important mode of expression and helped me work through a traumatic period of my life.

It was a coincidence to discover Amy, another creative person, connecting the Petoskey stone with cloth, but I also note some irony. My life and beliefs have changed radically since 1995. At the time I was trying to launch a freelance writing career, an ambition that only reached fruition recently. All the while and for the past 350 million years, Petoskey stones have been lying under the surface, waiting to catch my eye. Perhaps it’s a call to rouse from my own restless dream.

I’ll reflect in more detail on Amy’s lecture in my next post.

Goldthread, brief beauty in the woods


The charming wildflower, goldthread, is one of the earliest to appear in Central Ontario woodlands, even before trilliums. The ground around our cottage is covered with it, so I had a chance to take photographs when we visited for a few days to fix water pipes last week.

Goldthread gets its name from vivid, deep yellow rhizomes forming a fine network through the balsam fir and hemlock needles where it likes to grow. Another colloquial name, canker-root, indicates they’re useful for treating mouth cankers. First Nations Canadians utilized them so. As I seldom get these sores, I don’t plan to harvest any plants, preferring to appreciate their beauty as early spring ephemerals.

Historic dye use

The Cree used the rhizomes to provide a “beautiful and permanent yellow dye” for quills and leather, according to 18th Century references in The Use of Plants for the Past 500 Years (Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, 1979). European settlers used the plant to dye fibre. The research for  Dye Plants of Ontario (Nancy J. McGuffin, 1986) using leaves and roots extracted pale colours at 1:1 plant to wool ratio, suggesting higher proportions are required for good pigment; “It is also used as an herbal medicine, and we suggest it should be reserved for this use.” I hate to think how many plants would be sacrificed to dye a useful quantity of fibre.

Goldthread ecology

Goldthread is a member of Ranunculaceae or the buttercup family. It’s Latin name is Coptis trifolia, although I like the synonym C. groenlandica, indicating it ventures well into Arctic regions from Alaska to Greenland. I’ve never seen it in Southern Ontario, where few old growth forest remain, but its range extends through the cool Appalachians as far as the South Carolina.

The splendid jewel of a blossom, no bigger than one of my fingernails, isn’t primarily comprised of petals but sepals. In typical plants sepals protect and support the flower as it unfolds, but sometimes they evolve to do the work of showing off, attracting pollinators. Goldthread typically has five sepals, but I noticed a few with six or seven.

The petals in this case are the five short, gelatinous-looking clubs half-hidden under numerous, delicate pollen-producing stamens. This specimen has five gourd-shaped green pistils containing ovaries, but these might number from three to 10.

The plant produces a few low three-part, dark green, leathery leaves. One is visible in this photo. They’re evergreen, persisting under the snow. The star-like seed clusters can be used to propagate the plant, but must be planted when fresh.

Forest ecology

The genus Coptis has a few species, several in western North America and several in Asia, but C. trifolia is the only one in eastern North America. It’s throughout the 10 Canadian provinces, New England, Oregon and Alaska. Its status is endangered in Maryland and sensitive in Washington.

It won’t survive logging or intense forest fires. It needs trees with a canopy open enough to allow some light. It doesn’t handle temperatures much above 27°C (80°F), which explains its absence from Southern Ontario woodlands. At our cottage it shares bedroom space with wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), partridge-berry (Mitchella repens), red trillium (Trillium erectum), corn-lily (Clintonia borealis), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and pink lady’s slipper orchid (Cyprepdium acaule) among other wildflowers, all of which bloom a few days or weeks later.

Steward or citizen

I used to think of myself, a gardener and land owner, as a steward of nature. Now I realize nature is our steward that protects and nourishes every living thing. I’m grateful when it allows such graceful inhabitants to share the space where I live and take pleasure.

The vast majority of people residing across this huge country of Canada will never see goldthread, certainly not in flower, despite its abundance. It opens for a few days during the unpleasantness of black fly season, then quickly ends its show. But I’m happy to demonstrate its beauty here today.


Victoria Day garden idyll

Raised bed fully planted

I just ate an omelet made with wild leeks foraged from the nearby woods, shiitake mushrooms grown locally and outdoors, and the first spinach from our garden. The seeds were sown April 13. This is probably the earliest I’ve ever harvested my own spinach, as our southern exposure collects heat against the wall of the house. It might not be such a blessing in July, but for now I’m pleased.

This morning I also enjoyed watching a tiny wild bee pollinate the tomatoes.

Our official last frost date is May 17, but the actual last, very light frost happened around May 6 and was not enough to harm the already-planted tomatoes and peppers. Everything is planted now.

In case you’re interested, here’s what’s planted in the raised bed: (back row, left to right) scarlet runner beans, Cosmonaut Volkov tomato, peas, (second row) lovage, dill, kale, amaranth, spinach, sweet pepper, Thai basil, brussels sprouts, (third row) tarragon, sage, magenta spreen, lavender, leek, chard, arugula, (front row) thyme, spinach, onions, onions, leaf lettuce, carrots and calendula. Peppermint is growing in shade behind the house.

Barrels and raised bed

Container gardening can stretch the abundance of a small space. The pots contain (front row, from left) wild bergamot, cayenne pepper, Tiny Tim tomato, bush beans, zucchini, chives and rosemary. Hiding are lemon balm, basil, parsley, oregano, lemongrass and a later crop of leaf lettuce. The two containers on the edge of the stoop contain lemon verbena and Table Ace acorn squash, which apparently is compact enough to grow in barrels. I planted the squash last weekend and it’s the only thing that hasn’t germinated yet.

Once spring greens have been harvested, more kale and beans can go into the ground, but I’m divinely tempted to replace the early spinach with another tomato; it’s not too late! This will be my best and most blessed experiment with succession planting. I’m amazed at the opportunity to plant a second crop before the end of May. A lot of food can come out of a little soil.

Discovering wild leeks

Wild leek

In the woods behind our house I was delighted to find wild leeks, also known as ramps or Allium tricoccum. I’ve never encountered them before. These native food plants are so delectable even Martha Stewart approves and suggests some ways to use them. But when foraging for any wild edible observe two important cautions.


First, be absolutely sure of identification. Don’t risk eating something poisonous. It’s best to start with an experienced wildcrafting mentor to learn the basics, especially what to avoid. Use a good field guide.

Lily-of-the-valley closely resembles the wild leek, and it’s deadly poisonous. However, break the foliage of a wild leek and it will give a distinctive garlic-like scent. It also has a diagnostic reddish-purple stem and onion-shaped bulb, unlike lily-of-the-valley.

Wild leeks like rich soil in deciduous woods throughout Eastern North America. The leaves can be harvested in early spring. The plants need to do all their photosynthesis and store energy for next growing season before tree leaves unfurl. Once the canopy closes, wild leeks die back. The flower stalk appears later.

Be a conservationist

Here’s the second important precaution: think like a conservationist. Anyone who doesn’t respect a valuable source of nutritious food and can’t be bothered to harvest it sustainably has no business foraging. Wild leeks have been so depleted in Quebec that they’re now protected. Help ensure that ramps and other wild edibles remain abundant for next year and the next generation of foragers.

Never take more than 10 percent of the plants. And select one or two other strategies to ensure a continuing source of wild leeks for everyone who wants to enjoy them:

  • Collect only from large beds of plants, leaving small colonies to grow.
  • Digging into the soil, use a pocket knife to cut the bulb above the base, leaving the roots to regenerate.
  • While the bulbs are delicious, the green leaves are also tender and packed with intense onion-garlic flavour. Each plant has two leaves, so take one and let the other nourish the root.
  • Start a new colony by transplanting one or two bulbs into a nearby, similar patch of ground that doesn’t have any plants.
  • Avoid trampling nearby wildflowers; they need protection, too.

This week I enjoyed cooking wild leeks in a mushroom and cheese omelet, and in crab and asparagus soup. I’m also eager to forage for stinging nettles to combine them with ramps in a zesty spring pesto.

Enjoy spring foraging and let us know how you like to use ramps for a culinary sensation.