I have just returned from a nearly 3,000-mile road trip up and down the East Coast and through New England. I visited three arboretums, a fabulous botanical garden and two very special private gardens, and taught a weeklong botanical photography workshop in Maine.
Despite what sounds like a great shooting trip, I rarely pulled my camera out of the bag. It was a grab-as-you-go-with-the-cell-phone kind of trip instead. I thoroughly enjoyed my arboretum stops, but they were typically in harsh, mid-day light and I knew I needed to get back on the road as soon as possible. The leaves in Maine looked about like the leaves in Georgia; fall is running at least two weeks behind schedule (if there is such a thing). Also, teaching requires being in a different kind of creative zone; I was not there to take photographs.
Even without significant leaf color, it was clearly fall, and that means it is time for gathering. While one should never collect in a botanical garden or arboretum without permission, I decided the Kentucky coffee tree pods scattered about the parking lot waiting to be crushed by cars were fair game. At one arboretum, I asked to look through some things headed to the compost pile. The gardener was so amused, she went out and gathered dried seedpods from the perennial garden and shared a few unusually small, reddish, Magnolia pods (possibly M. virginiana, though she wasn't sure). I also left with dried umbrella magnolia leaves that had fallen to the ground. In Connecticut, I walked through fields with a friend, gathering dried mullein, corn stalks, grasses and just a few milkweed pods (from seas of the same). Then we gathered hickory nuts from the ground, some of which we cracked and ate after returning to her house. Along the edge of a gas station parking lot, I snatched a few teasel seed heads. (Did you know that these were once used to card wool?) I also found a wonderful farm stand with all sorts of produce, heirloom peas and oddly shaped gourds for sale—all for my students to photograph in the studio. Now that I'm back in my own studio, I'm beginning to photograph them as well.
Gathering and collecting, of course, must be done judiciously. One should not gather from national parks, national forests, botanical gardens or private land without permission. And one should never take more than a few seedpods, even from established stands. Caution should also be used regarding any plants considered invasive; it is best to avoid them altogether.
Here in Georgia, the gathering season has just begun. A nursery owner has offered to let me wander her property, as has a friend who lives on a farm. I find all sorts of things—especially nuts and cones—when I go on walks around the neighborhood. And, of course, I gather seedpods, dried leaves, pecans and more from my own garden. All will be enjoyed through the winter and photographed in the studio.
Whether or not you gather anything, take time to notice the pods, cones, seeds and leaves you find on your own walks this fall. If you come across some interesting finds you'd be willing to share, please let me know. I'm always looking for new subjects to photograph in the studio.