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misty rain builds large raindropsHuge raindrops develop on a snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) flower in light misty rain

As a child, every February I eagerly awaited a parcel from Suffolk. Inside would be our annual snowdrop delivery, picked by my grandmother from her farm and carefully packed in moss. Over half a century later, I still marvel every time I see how small white flowers eventually multiply into spectacular snowdrop drifts.

Snowdrops popular winter flowers Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) carpet a deciduous woodland long before the trees leaf out

When to see snowdrops

Snowdrops, however, are not native to Britain; they occur in the wild from Spain across to the Caucasus, with most species found in Turkey. Galanthus nivalis has been cultivated in British gardens since the late sixteenth century but was not recorded in the wild until almost two centuries later.

The BSBI Atlas produced by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland shows how this snowdrop has spread over most of England and Wales, chiefly in eastern Scotland and into localised spots in Ireland.

One snowdrop bulb multiplies to form a clumpSnowdrop clumps develop from offsets that form around parent bulbs, here at Painswick Rococo Garden

In the 1990s, as new cultivars were discovered and bred, snowdrop enthusiasts – known as galanthophiles – flourished. Now there are over 20 snowdrop species listed in the Plant List and over 1500 varieties and cultivars, Most snowdrops – including G. nivalis have green ovaries and green marks on the inner short tepals. The latter are visible only when the outer tepals open on warmer days. The mark varies in size, shape and position among wild species and cultivars; a few prized ones have yellows ovaries and yellow marks. Sadly, a few rare variants have been stolen from gardens and shows.

Snowdrop marks only show in warm weather when outer tepals openGreen marks on snowdrop flowers. Left: Galanthus elwesii (an X) Right: Galanthus nivalis (inverted V)

One of the earliest snowdrops to flower is Galanthus reginae-olgae in October–November and G. elwesii usually flowers before Christmas. But February is the month to see spectacular snowdrop carpets; whether in deciduous woodlands, beside rivers, in churchyards, parks or larger gardens. The opening of the outer tepals is temperature dependent, so it varies from one year to another.

A snowdrop clump enhanced by backlighting Galanthus elwesii is an early snowdrop that flowers in autumn

Snowdrop gardens

Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire is ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’ according to Country Life (1999). It is renowned for the range of species and cultivars originating from plantings of Henry John Elwes (1846–1922).

Both Painswick Rococo Garden (Gloucestershire) and Welford Park (Berkshire) are famed for their expansive snowdrop drifts amongst trees and they look particularly attractive with the river backdrop at Welford.

Mosses and snowdrops thrive beside a riverSnowdrops with River Lambourn backdrop in Welford Park

For other snowdrop gardens see the Great British Gardens list and the National Trust lists

In more rural areas, naturalised snowdrops appear in many deciduous woodlands, some of which can be spotted whilst driving along country lanes. If you belong to a Wildlife Trust, you may know of a local woodland with snowdrops that they manage.

How snowdrops reproduce

Regardless of the weather, snowdrops reproduce asexually by producing small offset bulbs, which take two to four years before they flower. This is how singletons gradually increase to a sizable clump.

Insects pollinate snowdropsInsect pollinators forage on snowdrops in a Surrey garden: drone fly (Eristalis tenax) and honeybee with copious pollen loads on undersides

Seed set is poor in snowdrops because the activity of insect pollinators is weather dependent. On warmer days (7–10ºC) with little wind, I have seen honeybees, bumblebees and hoverflies visit single snowdrops for nectar and pollen in February. Insects are most active in southern Britain when the sun is out and the wind is negligible, when they effectively pollinate single flowers. Double snowdrops such as ‘Flore Pleno’ are sterile, so cannot set seed.

Bees eye view as approaches open snowdropEnlarged view inside inner snowdrop tepals shows six anthers with central green stigma

After a honeybee or a drone fly lands on top of a flower, it crawls down to the opening.  If the longer outer tepals are removed from a single flower, the inner structure of the shorter tepals is seen. Green ridges help insect leg tips to gain a better grip. In the centre are six orange stamens, each with a terminal pore.  When an insect touches any anther tips with the proboscis or a leg, this results in pollen release that falls onto the underside of the insect.

When a fully open flower is shaken, pollen is released and falls out from the apical pores.

simulation of buzz pollination Simulation of buzz pollination shows pollen release from apical pores in snowdrop anthers

Whether encountered on their own in the wild or planted in gardens alongside enhanced colour from winter aconites or bare stems of Cornus or Salix, snowdrops never fail to uplift our spirits on the coldest of days. Snowdrop flowers last much longer during cold periods, when insect visitors are inactive.

Winter plants snowdrops and winter aconitiesSnowdrops and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are good winter companions

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ornamental cabbages add winter colour

Ornamental cabbages in formal kitchen garden give winter colour at Villandry in France

The first time I saw ornamental cabbages used extensively as a formal winter bedding plant was one autumn at the Château de Villandry in 1989. At once, I appreciated how robust brassicas are in the winter, looking equally good on a sunny day or after a severe frost. Sprouts are, of course, a traditional element of Christmas dinner and are at their prime leading up to the festive period.

ornamental cabbage textured leaf

Attractive textured leaf margins of an ornamental cabbage

Ornamental cabbages are not plants I buy for the garden. Yet, I make my annual pilgrimage to garden centres before the Christmas poinsettias arrive to select the most photogenic cabbages. For me, those with pink or mauve leaves with a hint of green are the most attractive. Once home, they are placed in shallow trays on the ground and on small plastic tables in the most exposed parts of the garden. Then we await sub zero weather to bedeck the crinkled leaf margins with sparkling ice.

frosted ornamental cabbage

An ornamental cabbage bedecked with huge ice crystals from a heavy air frost

Cabbages bejewelled with ephemeral gemstones

This year, on the day I bought them, we had a severe air frost. To my delight, I awoke to find the rigid cabbage leaves decorated with huge ice crystals, out-sizing any ground frost encrustations. By varying the camera angles and magnification, a gallery of images captured this rare delight in soft natural light.

Huge ice crystals on ornamental cabbage leaf

Detail of a leaf with outsized ice crystals grown from a heavy air frost

Suddenly everything changed when the sun began to rise and the first beam shone onto a single cabbage leaf. At once, the glowing leaf stood out from the surrounding unlit leaves and became a natural focus point. All too soon, warmth from the sun’s rays began to melt the ephemeral gemstones – every bit as attractive as real ones.

Rising sun backlights a cabbage leaf with ice crystals formed by an air frost

Rising sun backlights a cabbage leaf with ice crystals formed by an air frost

Silver raindrops decorate leaves

Some days later, the night temperatures remained well above freezing with mist creating magical silver raindrops on the cabbage leaves, when viewed against the light. Since these are much more likely to be lost by moving plants around, it pays to put some in an accessible place with all round even lighting so they don’t have to be moved for photography.

water drops on ornamental cabbage leaves

Mist and light rain builds up water drops on ornamental cabbage leaves

I appreciate not everyone is a fan of ornamental cabbages; but just a few plants add colour and texture to a winter garden, as do the leaves to a Christmas wreath.

Added 18 April 2017

Names of cultivars of ornamental cabbage and kale illustrated with colour images here

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Blue tit feeding Cornus fruit

Blue tits love feeding on ripe Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa) fruits; this one has extracted a seed.

Instead of ambling out and photographing whatever turns up, I prefer to have a project with target species to aim for each time I venture out into the field. In this way, I can weave a story around unrelated species by their behaviour or a biological topic. For this blog, I have chosen to write about seed dispersal.

Seeds are dispersed by water, wind and animals.


Iris seeds float on water

Japanese iris (Iris ensata) seeds float hanging from the surface, lit by sun late in the day.

Several aquatic and marginal plants, including aquatic irises, produce seeds that float and get carried away from the parent plant by water currents. On a much bigger scale, the coco de mer from the Seychelles and the coconut are two tropical palms, which produce large fruits that are dispersed by floating in the sea.

Coconut washed ashore in sea

A coconut carried in the sea is washed ashore on a sandy beach in the Seychelles.


Any plant that produces many wind-born seeds, each with a hairy pappus, can be taken as the wind plucks them from the dry fruit casing. This is most effective when shot against the light. Both milkweed and rosebay willow herb make good subjects here.

Milkweed seed pod splits to release hairy seeds

Milkweed (Asclepias) pod splits to release parachute seeds dispersed by wind.

When seeds of trees or vines with large bracts or wings are released from their fruits, they descend more slowly in a zigzag motion, which helps to ensure they drop down away from the parent plant. Capturing these seeds in mid-flight in the field is  not impossible, but can be time consuming.  The flying gourd seeds were taken in the studio using a light trip beam and high speed flash.

Giant winged seeds dispersed by windThe flying gourd or Javan cucumber (Alsomitra macrocarpa) from Malay Archipelago has giant winged seeds.

Dispersal of poppy seeds takes place when the capsule dries out and pores open in a circle near the top. When the wind blows the stem back and forth, seeds are thrown out like a hand shaking a pepper pot.

Mechanicl dispersal poppy seeds from capsule

Seed scattered from Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) capsule by stalk shaken in wind.


Many animals disperse seeds by gorging on ripe fruits and passing seeds out through their gut. When acorns and chestnuts are ripe, squirrels busily collect them from beneath trees, carrying them away to bury in the ground as a cache for later retrieval. Some are never unearthed and this is how oak and chestnuts seedlings appear in lawns or verges far removed from the parent tree.

Squirrel carries chesnut to cache

A grey squirrel carries sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) fruit in mouth to cache in ground.

Any animals that feast on seeds within attractive fruits still on the tree, reduce the number of intact seeds for germination. However, in the process some are loosened and drop to the ground. At Kew Gardens, squirrels and ravens have learnt to wait beneath sweet chestnut trees when parakeets are feeding above for an easy bounty to fall.

Dormouse feeds at night on blackberry

Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) feeds on blackberries in autumn.

Animals eating fruit makes a much more interesting image than fruit alone and in this case longer lenses will be needed. In places where wildlife is habituated to humans, a 300mm lens maybe enough; elsewhere at least 400mm or even a 500mm lens will be better for achieving successful shots without animals being spooked.

Blackbird eats red yew aril

Blackbird (Turdus merula) with gelatinous red yew aril that contains a single seed.

Animals, as well as and humans, also aid dispersal of  hooked seeds and fruits that become attached to their fur, feathers or clothing.  These include small round cleavers (also known as clinging sweethearts), burdock and wood avens. When turn-ups were once fashionable on men’s trousers, many seeds ended up in turn-ups not tucked into boots.

Hooked seeds picked up by passing animals

Hooked achenes of wood avens (Geum urbanum) are readily picked up in the fur of passing mammals.

Some seeds have large hooks that become impaled in hooves or fetlocks of ungulates where they can result in injury or infection. Eventually the seed is released – often at some distance from where it was picked up.

Devils claw largest hitchhiking fruit

The world’s largest hitchhiking fruit is devil’s claw (Proboscidea parviflora) from North America.

Here are just a few examples of seed dispersal and autumn is a good time to look around for others, especially on trees and shrubs.

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Bee fly feeds on honesty

A bee-fly (Bombylius major) withdraws its pollen-coated proboscis from an honesty flower (Lunaria annua).

Observing and photographing pollinators can be very rewarding and sometimes most frustrating! Digital capture of stills or video, aids pollination studies by providing instant feedback. Also, the date and time of capture and on some cameras – the GPS – are all retained with the metadata that travels with digital files.

Aztec parakeet eats mother of cocoa flower Mexico

An Aztec parakeet is an anti-pollinator when it eats mother of cocoa flowers, Mexico. Nikon 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter.

A photograph of any organism visiting a flower does not necessarily prove pollination has taken place; nonetheless, it may reveal whereabouts on the body pollen gets picked up. If that visitor is seen moving onto another flower, it may be possible to capture the moment when the pollen load makes contact with the stigma.

A hoverfly carries pollen on feet to lily

A marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) carries pollen on feet approaching a Sargent’s lily (Lilium sargentiae) with pollen load on stigma.

During the last six years, virtually all my fieldwork has been spent observing and photographing pollinators both in Britain and abroad. Insects are more often disturbed if you approach when they first alight on the flower. Once they have switched from flight mode to feeding mode, they are less likely to take evasive action.

Carpenter bee feeds on Tylosema fassoglensis in Tanzania

A female giant carpenter bee Xylocopa nigrita forages on a Tylosema fassoglensis flower Udzungwa Mountain Nat. Park, Tanzania

Regardless of the visitor’s size, I use a digital SLR camera. For smaller insects such as bees, flies and hoverflies I opt for a 105mm macro lens that allows me to get up to life size images of these insects together with the flower they are visiting. Moving in close, the whole insect will not appear sharply defined unless the lens is stopped down to a smaller aperture to enhance the depth of field. On dull days, this may mean increasing the ISO to gain an exposure with a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second (to arrest the motion of an active insect) and an aperture of  f/8 to f/16. I tend to use a pair of small macro flashes controlled by a wireless trigger, to boost the available light, which adds to the crispness of the final image.

Bumblebee forages on flowering rush

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) forages on flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) nectar. Pollen picked up on feet and wings is transferred to stigmas of next flower the bee visits.

For larger visitors – from bigger butterflies to birds – I use telephoto lenses.  My most versatile is the 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter, which gives me effectively a 70-400mm lens.

My aim is to capture a clear view of every visitor making contact with the anthers or depositing pollen on the stigma. A butterfly taken from overhead with spread-out wings hiding the proboscis could simply be sunbathing on the flower rather than feeding.

Porterweed attracts many visitors here a moth & a hummingbird

Visitors attracted to porterweed (Stachytarpheta frantzii) include hummingbirds, day-flying moths, butterflies and bees in Costa Rica.

Here are my top 10 tips for photographing pollinators

  • Observe how insects forage before you photograph, so you can seek the best camera angle.
  • Avoid a stop/start staccato approach; move towards flower continuously, stop only when close enough to lean slowly forwards.
  • When handholding a digital SLR camera, switch on Image Stabilisation (IS) or VR to reduce risk of camera shake.
  • Most insects rarely linger on flowers, so setting up a tripod is impractical, but a monopod reduces the strain of handholding a camera with a long lens for a long period.
Cape sugarbird reaches for nectar in pincushion protea

As a male Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer) reaches for nectar in pincushion protea (Leucospermum cordifolium) pollen presenters deposit pollen on the head.

  • Crouch down for insects feeding on low flowers. If kneeling on one knee, the other can support the elbow of the hand holding the weight of the camera, leaving a free hand for additional camera support and shutter release.
Anther deposits Nigella pollen on the topside of honeybee

A honeybee and bumblebee forage for nectar on love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) flower. Topside of honeybee picks up pollen from underside of anthers.

  • Use a long focus telephoto lens for larger butterflies and bird pollinators to increase the working distance thereby reducing the risk of spooking them.
  • A side view of honeybees and other bees that collect pollen on the hind legs will show the colour of the pollen load.
  • For butterflies, moths and bee-flies a head-on or side view will show the long proboscis inserted into the flower to reach the nectar.
  • The more time you invest in watching pollinators the more likely you are to gain a higher percentage of informative images.
  • Gain enhanced depth field by taking a focus stack of a static flower in constant lighting
Honeybee smothered in pollen from winter box in winter

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) covered in pollen as it feeds on sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) flowers, which emit a heady fragrance in winter.

One word of warning – watching and photographing pollinators can become very addictive!

More images here and in my book Pollination Power

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Killer whale silhouette Canada

Orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) male surfacing at dusk, showing large dorsal fin, British Columbia, Cananda

Dagger-like they emerged from the sea silhouetted after the sun had set. The dorsal fin of the killer whale is unmistakable – however it is lit. When a pod surfaces and is viewed from the side, the fins move like scimitars flashing through water.

One of the best locations in the world for observing killer whales or orcas lies between Canada’s British Columbia coastline and Vancouver Island. These whales have been extensively studied and lateral views of the dorsal fin and the saddle patch below are known to be unique for each individual. This means that the movement of individual orcas can be tracked using photo ID images.

Whale watching invariably involves long periods of staring at an apparently lifeless sea, interspersed by short periods of great activity. So it is essential not to waste time changing lenses. I work with two camera bodies, fitted with a 100 –300mm and a 200–400mm lens. Both these images were taken with film.

Guidelines for safe whale-watching recommend no vessel should approach closer than 100 metres. It’s a bonus when whales move in closer and the captain aligns the boat so that orcas swim past the setting sun for a magical dusk shoot.


Killer whales at dusk

Orcas at dusk : a pod killer whales (Orcinus orca) emerge from te sea in fading light, British Columbia, Canada

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