Nature in Blue & White

A week ago, we were immobilized in the freezing clutches of a four-day ice storm, during which we received every form of precipitation imaginable. Naturally, now that the sun has come out and we’re finally enjoying milder temperatures, I have been laid low by a vicious virus, making me a miserable and wilted little gillyflower indeed. To offset all that dreary drizzle, ghastly graupel, stinging sleet – and foul phlegm – here is a collection of images from a kinder version of Mother Nature, in the most serene shades of blue and white, plus some fun facts!

Clockwise from top left:

Forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides): The Greek name for this plant means “mouse’s ears” (for the leaf). Folk legends tell us that, when all the plants were being named and assigned their colours, a tiny flower whispered, “Forget me not!” and so it was named. The only colour left was a bit of pale blue, but the little plant happily assumed such a demure shade. In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the forget-me-not symbolizes faithfulness and enduring love, and it is often used to remember those who have died in war. ∗∗∗ Let us not forget those who were killed or injured in the senseless and tragic van attack in Toronto yesterday. ∗∗∗

Blue Jay feather: Did you know that blue birds aren’t actually blue? The colour we see isn’t the result of pigmentation but a phenomenon called structural colour. The feathers of “blue” birds are colourless, three-dimensional structures of keratin protein interspersed with air pockets. Light waves enter the feather and bounce back at different rates, colliding with each other. Red and yellow waves cancel each other out, but blue waves are reinforced and amplified, and this is the colour, often iridescent, that is reflected back to our eyes. The different shapes and sizes of keratin and air pockets produce the varying shades of blue that we see.

Northern Blue (Plebejus idas): Butterfly scales (and beetle shells) also use structural colour to produce blue, like the upper surface of this female Northern Blue butterfly’s wings. This species and its cousins (Spring and Summer Azures) tend to keep their wings closed when at rest, showing only greyish-white undersides, so it was a treat to see this cooperative specimen’s gorgeous colour.

Striped Squill (Puschkinia scilloides): A spring-flowering garden plant here, the Striped Squill is native to Western Asia (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran) and the Caucasus. This perennial bulb was discovered in 1805 by a Russian biologist, Count Mussim-Puschkin. It is low-growing, naturalizes well and has a clean, spicy fragrance.

Larger Blue Flag iris (Iris versicolor): We were delighted to find this stunning iris growing at the lake’s edge at the cottage a few years ago, perhaps washed ashore by the waves or deposited by a bird or other animal.

Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis): Also known as Yellow Clintonia, this woodland plant produces glossy, dark blue fruits after the yellow flowers fade. Our 2.4 hectare island is home to an abundant colony, along with quite a few other native (and several non-native) North American wildflower species.

Violet Cort (Cortinarius iodes): In addition to documenting all the ferns, trees and wildflowers found on the island, we also keep a record of any fungi we can identify. I was excited to find this blue-violet species in a couple of locations about 10 years ago. The mushroom is blue-purple with a white stem when young and fades to pale lavender with cream spots as it ages.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata): Reviled by some for its loud, raucous call and bold behaviour (in southern U.S. folklore, it was thought to be the Devil’s servant), the blue jay is a member of the crow family, known for its sassy intelligence. Like squirrels, blue jays will often eat shelled or broken peanuts on the spot but will bury intact shells, which keep safely over winter. (Check your window boxes and flower pots in the spring for such food caches.) They are also curious thieves attracted to brightly-coloured or shiny objects. Blue jays can mimic the calls of hawks and even human speech; another vocalization, a squeaky “wheedle-eedle” used to communicate with each other, always sounds to me like a rusty gate. And, of course, my hometown major league baseball team is named for them, so what’s not to love? Go, Jays!


A Blue and White Love Affair

A little granite island on Lake Muskoka, home to tall pines, majestic oaks and maple, aromatic cedar, scrubby juniper and an active population of pixies, has been in my family since my great-grandfather purchased it in 1911. His son, my mother’s dad, built the sturdy wooden cottage a couple of years later, and other than the addition of a screened-in porch, the house has stood unchanged and resolute throughout the decades. My mother has spent every summer of her life there, as have her three children. Other branches of the family have also enjoyed it, and we all have rich and long-lasting memories of such a magickal place.

Over the years, for example, there have been three marriages performed at the cottage; one of those brides carried fragrant white water-lilies, plucked from a local bay, as her bouquet. I chose to be married in the nearby town of Gravenhurst and have our reception on the (now) 131-year-old Royal Mail Ship Segwun, an elegant and graceful steamer that’s been plying the lakes since the logging days. My sister held her wedding and reception on the same ship, which cruises past our island on every voyage. The cottage has also been the perfect location for honeymoons; on warm summer nights when the moon spreads her silvery splendour across silent waters while loons call out emphatic yet rather haunting encouragement, what could be more idyllic?

As far as I know, no children (human, anyway) have ever been born on the island, but a passel of kids has certainly grown up there. Along its wave-lapped shores, we learned how to swim, paddle canoes, ply oars and run the motorboat. We picked up frogs, crayfish and snapping turtles with naïve hands and caught our first pike in its waters. We ran willy-nilly down the sloping dock path at unstoppable speed, skinning our knees, and we swung to and fro and twirled around on the old rope swing, then got sick all over the dinner table. Clad only in wet bathing suits, we raced through the woods on scavenger hunts and spent idle afternoons in the hammock or perched on a favourite rock, devouring ripe blueberries, juicy blackberries and oh! so many novels. At night we fell, sunburnt and exhausted, into creaky wrought iron beds with lumpy mattresses and were lulled to sleep by the cries of distant gulls.

The cottage’s furnishings haven’t changed much since the old days, except the occasional coat of white paint (the porch rafters were given a distinct marine feel with the addition of lake-blue stripes). When the kids got older, however, we converted a no-longer-needed “bedroom” – a corner of the porch – into a quiet reading nook, complete with white wicker chairs, blue cushions and a view of the lake. From this north-facing aspect, the water is sometimes cobalt, calmly reflecting a sparkling summer sky, and sometimes it’s a dark, moody slate, with a whipped topping of whitecaps foreshadowing an approaching storm.

Like most summer places, the cottage has been the repository of household items the thriftier generations thought “too good” to throw away. Drawers and cupboards are jammed with all sorts of utilitarian bits and pieces such as dented pots, an ancient egg beater, a rusty ladle, heavy stoneware jugs, a chipped enamelware colander and umpteen different patterns of silverware. There’s even a 19th century zinc washboard hanging around, and each bedroom still has its original chamber pot – or “thunder mug”, as we’ve always called them.

All of these things carry their own memories and rustic charm. But there’s one group of items that has graced the kitchen cabinets for as long as anyone can remember: a mismatched collection of blue and white china. Among this classic transferware crockery, the nearest and dearest to my heart has to be Blue Willow.

The story of Blue Willow (or just “Willow”, as it’s properly known) is a popular and romantic fable involving runaway lovers, a secluded island and, sad to say, their doomed end. Despite this melancholy tale, I’ve always found it a cheerful experience drinking my morning tea and eating light summer meals from such classic and fresh blue and white ware. The fact that some of our pieces are at least 100 years old and still in use (we’ve only had to retire one cracked dish) attests to the family’s fondness for the “cottage china”. (There’s good reason this pattern is often used on-screen to evoke old-time hominess and domesticity.)

When I married, I chose the Blue Willow pattern as my own household dinnerware, and for years I scoured antique fairs for rarer, more unique pieces to add to a growing collection. To me, this pattern will forever speak of that little white house on that wooded island in that deep, blue lake – and I will always love them both.


Once again getting in just under the wire, this is my submission for the Photographic Monthly Meet-Up hosted by Wild Daffodil. This month’s prompt is Scale.

My interpretation is a chainmaille pattern called Dragonscale. I’d never tried it before, probably because it’s a rather daunting-looking weave that’s classified as intermediate in terms of difficulty. However, despite a slow start and some frustration, I did eventually get the hang of it, coming up with this sample piece made of green and silver anodized aluminum rings:

For this Dragonscale piece I used 14 gauge 3/8″ ID (9.9 mm) green anodized aluminum rings (A.R. 4.9) and 18 gauge 1/4″ ID (6.7 mm) silver anodized aluminum rings (A.R. 5.5) which worked perfectly for this weave. Gauge is SWG; supplies from The Ring Lord.

Dragonscale is a relative of the original European 4-in-1 weave used to make medieval chainmaille armour. Two sizes of rings are used to produce a dense yet flexible weave; I chose to go big for my first couple of pieces, just to see how they’d turn out. Some clever maillers make awesome accessories such as pouches and bracelets from Dragonscale, even reenactment clothing and armour. Inspired by some lovely Fairy Dragon Eggs crafted by Mrs. Cobs over at Cobweborium Emporium, I wanted to use this pattern to make my own version of dragon’s eggs. There are examples of egg-shaped Dragonscale pendants online, but there aren’t any tutorials to be found, so I had to fiddle a bit to figure out how many rings and rows I needed. I was able to make this blue “egg”:

Using the same ring sizes as the green sample, the egg is 4 large rings across and 12 rows high, with a few extra rings added at the top to create a more oval shape, plus a large ring as a hanging loop.

The finished piece is almost the size of a real chicken’s egg. To get the shape, I folded the squarish rectangle in on itself (the weave goes cone-shaped when you do this – and I almost did, too, trying to get this thing done). Then I “stitched” up the small gap at the back with a few extra rings wherever the existing weave allowed. The back isn’t as neat as I’d like, and the egg doesn’t quite taper to an oval at the top, but it’s a start.

The shape is perfect, however, for acorns and pinecones – all I need are the right colours, and I’m off to the races. I might carry on with the green sample, perhaps introducing other colours to make a small wall hanging.

And, just so I can weigh in on another type of scale for this challenge, here’s a photo of my brother – an avid fisherman – proving that holding a small fish up to the camera to make it appear bigger Just. Doesn’t. Work.

The April photo challenge starts tomorrow, and the prompt is Yellow.

Speaking of colours, my theme for this month is A Blue & White Love Affair. (I’m not so into yellow, just so you know, but I sure do love blue in all its beautiful hues, especially when it’s partnered with white.) Stay tuned!

A Dozen (or so) Dyed Eggs … the Natural Way

My mom is an expert designer and crafter of hooked rugs (the kind the pioneers made, not modern latch hooking), and she has often dyed the wool swatches herself with a variety of natural materials. I remember watching her stir steaming, sometimes evil-smelling pots of plant matter for hours, listening to her talk of onion skins and celandine, marigolds and mordants – which permanently set the colour.

Those experiences sparked my interest in using natural dyes for eggs. With fond childhood memories of sitting around the kitchen table painting Easter eggs – which we’d blown out until we thought our heads would explode – I adapted several natural dye methods found online and experimented over a couple of weeks, using only items from the grocery store and spice cupboard (and, okay, my husband’s wine rack) to get the results shown here.

These dyes produce muted, variegated, matte colour – like those seen in nature! Don’t believe those Pinterest photos showing “naturally” dyed eggs in hot pink, brilliant blue and emerald green – I suspect they’ve cheated and used commercial dyes or food colouring. Also, despite online recipes for green dyes using cabbage, beets or spinach on white or brown eggs with or without vinegar, the closest I could get was a very pale celadon green from spinach. I did, however, get a teal green-blue (not shown) from first dyeing with turmeric (#3, alternate method) then redyeing for less than an hour in red cabbage (#15).

General Tips:

I dyed my eggs uncooked because I wanted to blow them out later so they’ll last longer; if using raw, make sure they’re fresh so they’ll stay submerged in the dye liquid – older eggs will bob with one end sticking out • Use hardboiled eggs if you prefer • Before dyeing, clean eggs with a drop of dish soap and lots of water so the colour will adhere better • Dye eggs in a single layer in a non-metal container narrow and tall enough to ensure complete coverage • Turn eggs occasionally in the dye bath, touching them as little as possible, until desired shade is reached • Remove eggs very carefully with a slotted spoon – plastic if you have one – and set on a wire cooling rack; until it’s dry, the colour is very fragile and prone to rubbing or scratching off • Some dye matter such as turmeric or grape juice will leave a grainy or bubbly residue or “skin” which will eventually set • When most of the egg is dry, turn to let the underside dry, gently patting over the still-wet rack marks with your finger or a paper towel • Save the dye to use multiple times • Always soak and store eggs, whether raw or hardboiled, in the refrigerator.

Natural Dye Recipes:

These twelve materials and methods – with a few variations in soaking times – yielded the results shown in the photos. Generally, the longer the soak, the deeper the hue, especially for pinks, purples and blues. Colours 1 to 7 are a bit more vibrant in real life than in the photograph (it was hard to get the lighting right!).

(1) Celadon Green: Bring 4 cups (one 227 g/8 oz. bag) fresh spinach and 1 tsp baking soda to a boil in 3 to 4 cups water • Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, occasionally mashing spinach with back of spoon • Remove from heat and allow to cool • Strain spinach from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 24 hours. This is a very pale green that never got any darker, even after 24 hours.

(2) Ochre: Add 2 cups boiling water to 4 green tea bags • Allow to cool • Remove tea bags • Soak white egg for 8 hours. This colour is a slightly more muted version of the mustard yellow from turmeric (see #3), with no residue.

(3) Mustard Yellow: Add 1 cup boiling water to 2 tbsp ground turmeric and 1 tbsp white vinegar • Allow to cool • Soak white egg in mixture for 14 hours. This method left a grainy residue on the egg. Alternate Method: Bring 4 cups of water, 4 tbsp turmeric and 4 tbsp white vinegar to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes • Allow to cool • Strain turmeric from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 24+ hours. This will give a sunny yellow colour and a smoother surface to the egg.

(4) Tan: Add 2 cups boiling water to 2 tbsp ground coffee • Allow to cool • Strain coffee from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 24 hours.

(5) Light Sienna: Add 2 cups boiling water to 4 tbsp ground paprika and 2 tbsp white vinegar • Allow to cool • Soak white egg in mixture for 24 hours. Unlike turmeric, the result (without straining) was a smoothly-dyed surface with no residue.

(6) Mushroom: Add 2 cups boiling water to 4 strawberry pomegranate (STASH™) tea bags • Allow to cool • Remove tea bags • Soak white egg for 24 hours. This looks just like the LBMs (little brown mushrooms) we find in our local woods – taupe with a hint of olive green!

(7) Umber: Add 1 cup boiling water to 4 orange pekoe tea bags • Allow to cool • Remove tea bags • Soak white egg for 7 hours. A wide range of shade intensity is possible, depending on soaking time.

(8) Baby Pink: Bring 4 cups peeled, sliced red beets (about 2 medium) and 4 tbsp white vinegar to a boil in 4 cups water • Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes • Remove from heat and allow to cool • Strain beets from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 10 minutes. Beets will give instant, lovely results ranging from pale pink to deep maroon, depending on soak time and whether you use white or brown eggs. See #9 and #12 for variations.

(9) Dusty Rose: Use same method as #8, soaking white egg for 2 hours.

(10) Lavender: Soak white egg in 2 cups of red wine for 5.5 hours.

(11) Mauve: Soak white egg in 2 cups concord grape juice for 14 hours. Intensity will vary depending on soak time.

(12) Maroon: Use same method as #8, soaking brown egg for 2 hours.

(13) Slate Blue: Add 2 cups boiling water to 4 tbsp loose hibiscus rosehip tea leaves • Allow to cool • Strain out tea leaves from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 2.5 hours. This tea was a no-name bulk food store purchase. Straight hibiscus tea will probably yield similar results. See #14 for a darker variation. This recipe, with vinegar added, is supposed to yield green, but it didn’t.

(14) Denim: Use same method as #13, soaking white egg for 7 hours.

(15) Sky Blue: Bring 4 cups shredded red cabbage (about half a large head) and 4 tbsp white vinegar to a boil in 4 cups water • Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool • Strain cabbage from liquid • Soak white egg in strained liquid for 45 minutes. See #16 for a variation.

(16) Deep Blue: Use same method as #15, soaking white egg for 3 hours. Not shown: a brown egg soaked for 4.5 hours produced a dark denim blue (not the dark green claimed by online recipes).


Awaiting Spring

The savéd day has lit our travels here!
sing wingéd friends who end their southern sojourn.
Gold, white and purple heads from bleak beds cheer,
a fragrant witness to Spring’s joyful earth-turn.

“Awaiting Spring” © 2018 V. Barrett

A few days of mixed-bag weather – snow tantrums, gentle flakefalls, freezing rain and graupel (one of my most favouritest words ever) – have prompted me to post some photos of a recent trip to a local plant nursery/garden shop.

This is a place I go at the change of every season, not so much for retail therapy but to reap the benefits of a delightful visual feast. (I do feel rather strange, skulking behind shelves, trying to hide all the price tags before furtively snapping photos with my phone; so far I haven’t been caught or asked to cease and desist. Ah, what I do for my art.)

Whoever puts these displays together knows what they’re doing, and the pastel-hued Spring and Easter vignettes this year didn’t disappoint. Plus, there’s plenty of green for St. Patrick’s Day. Enjoy!


The photo prompt for February’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up is Warm. Being a water and sky baby, I’m not usually one for “hot” colours – especially in flowers – but these sumptuous roses at a local market caught my eye!

Thanks to Wild Daffodil for running this challenge. The new prompt starts on the first Tuesday of the month, and for March, it is Scale. Hmm … will you weigh in on this one?

Riverwood in Midwinter

Although I took these photos at The Riverwood Conservancy, a local woodland and park, last month, I thought I’d share them before we get closer to spring! If you’ve read any of my previous posts about this place, you’ll know that Riverwood is set in Carolinian forest and boasts historical buildings, including traces of 19th century farm archaeology.

I was taken by the varying textures and muted colours of slate, soft blue, moss, cream, ochre, rust and burnt umber I found on that sunny day in January. Enjoy!

MacEwan Barn still has its original 1865 inner beams and once stabled the owner’s prized horses.

Moss and lichen add a welcome bit of green to a cold and snowy January.

The entrance arch to the MacEwan Terrace Garden is inset with panels of swirling marble.

Not sure which species this is, but the tree, possibly Honey Locust or Buckthorn, has long and lethal-looking thorns (not shown) projecting from its trunk and branches.

Old equipment left to slowly subside on this former farm.

Dried fruit and silvery plumes of Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana).

Warm brick contrasts with cool slate on steps at Chappell House, built 1919.

Lawn at Chappell House.

The sun sets over my favourite bit of woods at Riverwood.