Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Developing a New Deluxe Sunflower Design

Deluxe Sunflower Test
 Basketweave Tip 48
One of my greatest challenges as an artist is keeping my work fresh, especially in terms of developing new product lines or new designs within existing product lines. I had started (unsuspectingly) developing the concept for my Deluxe Sunflower Series over 15 years ago but it was only in the past few years ago that I finally pulled them together into a coherent series of their own with consistent design and glaze parameters, finally putting together a collection of 15 different designs. These were pieces characterized by applied centers, either in the form of clay cut-outs, extruded clay or slip applied using a typical pastry bag and decorating tips.

Deluxe Sunflower Test
Chrysanthemum Tip 352
For 2015, I set myself the challenge of coming up with a new Deluxe Sunflower design and decided to focus on experimenting on some of the cake decorating tips I hadn't used. I had used a typical "Star" tip (including numbers 30, 31 and 32) for my very first experiment with this process, creating my "Cake" design for the series. (See post dated March 22, 2012.) I found I can use the same tip regardless of the sunflower's size (ranging from "Mini" to "Ginormous") by managing how much slip I squeeze out of the bag for each "star". Subsequently, I started working with "Round" tips (including numbers 5, 10 and 12) to create my "Bubbles" design. (See post dated April 28, 2011.) For these, I did find that working with smaller to larger tips for smaller to larger sunflowers was helpful. Finally, I created my "Ribbon" design using a "Basketweave" tip (number 48) for most of the design, finishing off the center using a Star tip. (See post dated September 4, 2012.)
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Ripple Tip 70

I had become fairly adept with the process (getting the slip consistency right, especially in terms of eliminating lumps; figuring out how to manage the bag - how full, tightening it as I went, etc.) but wanted to come up with some new ideas. I sorted through the box of tips I had collected and experimented a bit but felt I need more options - I wanted to have six new designs to compare and contrast. I researched decorating tips on-line and, finally, took myself off to the nearest Jo-Ann Fabric Shop to peruse their selection. I found a few additional tips based on my research, enough to develop six different designs.

Deluxe Sunflower Test
Rose Tip 104
In the interest of being as "scientific" as I could, I decided I would do all of the samples in the same size - Tiny - so they would be large enough to give a really good idea of how the finished texture would look for larger-sized sunflowers without investing an excessive amount of time, energy and materials in something that might not really turn out particularly well and I could make a one-to one comparison. I also used the same glaze for the petals on all of the samples - Amaco's Potter's Choice Frosted Melon - to "even the playing field". (The centers of all the Deluxe Sunflowers are done using the same glaze, Amaco's Potter's Choice Temmoku.) Firing them together - both bisque and glaze firings - would further ensure the pieces would be as consistent in every way other than the center motifs.
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Rosette Tip 107

All of the sunflowers were fabricated in the same way: A slab of clay is "humped" over the center mold, cut so it has about a half inch of "selvage" and the entire top surface scored; then I apply two rows of petals - one larger than the other, the larger first and the smaller on top, around the perimeter of the sunflower. After slipping the center, I filed in the decorative design using thick slip and a pastry bag with the appropriate tip.
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Ruffle Tip 67

I completed the six sunflowers, as seen here. (I've included both the names I used to distinguish the designs from one another as well as the numbers used for each tip by the manufacturer in each caption.)

"Chrysanthemum" was - by far - the most tedious design, as each petal was very small, requiring much more repetition. I used the same tip for "Basket" as I had used for "Ribbon" but wasn't particularly happy with its relative sloppiness - which made it more difficult to decipher visually. "Ruffle" and "Ripple" seemed pretty similar to me and neither was particularly interesting. I didn't feel "Rosette" adequately filled the center space - but I might return to it to see if I can do better in the future. I personally felt "Rose" was the most successful of the bunch. Once they were finished, I did an informal survey of folks in my circle, seeing what they felt worked best of the designs without conveying my assessments. Most folks agreed with me that the "Rose" design would be the best addition to the series.

Now I had to decide which glaze to use for the petals for the "Rose" design. Although I will use any glaze with any sunflower design (Deluxe or Fancy), for the purposes of "spec" production, I have developed a "recipe" for each design which includes the center motif and the glaze for the petals. (As stated before, the same glaze is always used for the centers - a dark brown that, when fired correctly, highlights the texture while maintaining a relatively neutral foil for the different petal glazes.) I had done some tests with some Coyote glazes and decided that Leopard Shino would be a great addition to the Deluxe Sunflower series. (I also, being a cat person, liked the name!) So, now we have a new addition to the Deluxe Sunflower Series - Rose!

Ginormous Deluxe Sunflower "Rose" with our Spokesmodel and Sales Manager, Doni.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Good-bye, 2015; Hello, 2016!

I had a goal at one time, to post to my blog on a weekly basis. There have been times I've come close - I posted 51 times in 2012 - and even exceeded my goal (57 posts in 2011). I fell pretty far short in 2013 but 2014 and 2015 were not banner years - there were a lot of challenges (I could tell you all about the "Rolling Catastrophe" of 2014's last four months but I won't) and a lot of things fell by the wayside. But this is 2016. So, I'm going to set some modest goals (I'm not telling) and see if I can do a bit better this time around.

Management Team Updates

We had a lot of changes in the past two years - we added two cats in 2014 (Magnus, trapped in my garage in March, and Rufus, trapped on the front porch in
August) and lost one (Princess Nur, just before Christmas). We added another cat - Sekhmet Zephyr - in August of last year, bringing us back up to full Management Team strength after some time of management shortfalls. Most importantly in this context, Magnus took on the Feline Supervisor in Charge position vacated by Gus's passing in 2009. We have a policy of promoting from within the organization but no one wanted the job. It took us over five years to secure the perfect candidate - and we're so glad we waited for him to come along! There are still occasional differences of opinion within management's ranks but having a strong, steadfast individual at helm has had a tremendous impact.

New Platform/New Look

With changes to the e-mail platform I had been using for many years - especially in terms of limits on numbers of e-mails, etc., I decided to change over to MailChimp to communicate with our supporters. I rolled out the first newsletter - complete with Iconic Sunflower banner - earlier this month and have already scheduled the next newsletter for February 1. I will be (hopefully) sending these out on a monthly basis, not only highlighting Black Cat Pottery events but other programs that might be of interest, including film series, conferences and tours in the metro-Detroit area and beyond. If you'd like to receive our newsletter, please e-mail with your first and last names at Also, visit and "Like" our Facebook page (see the link to the left) for more up-to-the-minute developments.

Black Cat Pottery on the Road - and Beyond

Silver Maple Serving Suite
Our biggest challenge so far this year is the upcoming ACRE show in Philadelphia - Black Cat Pottery's first ever wholesale show. I've had the help of my amazing mentor Nora, as well as so many member of my family of choice - Theresa, Catherine, Don, Dylan, Glenda - I can't hope to name all of them here. (Suffice to say, this would not be happening without their varied assistance.) We'll be featuring selections of Black Cat Pottery's Applied Leaf Serving Pieces as well a sampling of Deluxe Sunflowers at this massive event.

Black Cat Pottery is currently available at a number of locations in Michigan - and beyond; check the listing to the left. Our newest retailer is Dove Tail Arts in Galesburg, IL. Bernie Hamilton has been a delight to work with and I'm looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with this top-notch business. Look for availability updates in blog posts, on Facebook, in the newsletter -  and be sure to look at the list to the left to see who else has joined the family.

New Programs

Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) with
Bumble bee
I'm always looking for new program ideas, whether new speaking topics, new pottery workshop projects or new hands-on programs for our garden tours. I just rolled out my new talk on gardening for pollinators - "Pollinator Preservation Strategies for the Home Garden: Native Plants and their Unique Relationships with Beneficial Insects" - at the January meeting of the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association. I'll be rolling out a talk on Spring Wildflowers at the February meeting of the Meadowbrook Garden Club. If you'd like information regarding my programs, drop me an e-mail and I'll get that to you.

I also hold a number of pottery workshop in the studio, suitable for everyone from the novice to the experienced potter. I'm planning a Fancy Sunflower Workshop for March - stay tuned for dates. If you and a group of your friends are interested in a workshop, just drop me a line and I'll do my best to work with you to put together a program. I'm also thinking of doing some other workshops - a Mason Bee House and maybe a Bird and Bug Box program. Again, stay tuned to the blog, Facebook and our newsletter for more information

So, there's a lot going on - I hope to see you this year to share in the excitement!

All photos by Don Schulte except image of Magnus, Rufus and Dora.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

6th Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House

We're getting down to the wire getting ready for the 6th Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House. We'll be getting the studio (which is unbelievably dusty - unless you're a potter) cleaned up and prepped for the event tomorrow with the help of my good friend and Official Left Hand Theresa tomorrow and many of the vendors will be setting up Friday afternoon and evening. I'll be heading out to secure the ingredients for our traditional mulled cider and any other odds and ends so we'll be ready to welcome you all at 10:00am, Saturday, December 12. In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment to remind you of the great vendors we'll be featuring for 2015.

We are always delighted and privileged to open our studio to Don Schulte of Notable Greetings. Don and I met eight years ago; since then, we have become the best of friends and ongoing collaborators. Don, who is a graduate of the College of Creative Studies, has his own photography business, providing services for corporate clients as well as local and regional publications. He also shoots frequently in my garden, including images of butterflies, traditional garden favorites and, most especially, Michigan wildflowers. Don will once again feature his lovely notecards and fine art prints, including the debut of his newest set of Michigan Wildflower Notecards, Spring 9, including images of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus septentrionalis), Wild White Indigo (Baptisia alba), Rattlesnake Weed (Hieracium venosum), Early Virgin's Bower (Clematis occidentalis), Red Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica) and Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum).

2007 was a very good year: I not only met Don; I also met Chris Hopp of Farmbrook Designs, another "best of" friend and collaborator. Chris - who is self-taught - takes humble bags of Portland Cement, Peat Moss, Vermiculate and Perlite and turns them into amazing garden and home decor. From candleholders and block letters (you can spell out all sorts of cool things with these!) to gorgeous, one-of-a-kind fountains and troughs. His garden pieces - including lanterns and planters - are frost proof and designed to withstand our severe seasonal fluctuations with aplomb. I particularly like one of his more recent designs - his columnar candleholders - which work beautifully in both formal and informal settings.

Returning for her second year, Eve Hyde of E.H. Knits brings her lovely knit creations. I met Eve less two years ago at an artists market and immediately connected with her - at least partially because of her delightful Catnip Mice. Eve's talents with needles and yarn yield warm and wonderful results, from whimsical children's hats and sweaters to daring fashion statements for us grown-ups. Eve uses the finest materials in her work, guaranteeing years of enjoyment: Hers are definitely "Happy Knits for Happy Humans". But my favorites are those mice - one for each kitty, please. Being a cat lover myself, I have a lot of cat loving friends; so, get to the Open House early if you want to bring one of these lovelies home for your resident fur person!

Also returning for the second year, Green Mitten Jam specializes in locally-sourced ingredients for their unique take on toast toppings. Focusing on small batches using the very best seasonal ingredients, Megan and Josh have created a delectable new take on preserves. I can personally vouch for the Peach Melba, Red Haven Peach and Mango Cardamom but don't take my word for it: stop on in and sample everything to decide which are your favorites to take home or gift (buy extras just in case). Due to seasonal availability of local produce, we're never really sure what exactly Megan and Josh will be bringing - it's always a treat, though!

Joining us for the first time, Debbie Groat of Saverine Creek Heirlooms has been my host on my travels to Midland more times than I can count, opening her home and feeding me the best meatloaf and chicken and biscuits I've had since I left home. Really. Debbie makes beautiful jewelry using heirloom and exotic seeds, many of which she grows herself, as well as semi-precious stone beads. (She's also a champion home-canner who has introduced me to the delights of Corn Relish and Dilly Beans, among other yumminess.) Debbie's attention to detail is expressed in every one of her designs, from a spare pair of earrings to a complex multi-strand necklace. Each piece is hand-made, from selecting and drilling each seed to mounting, resulting in one-of-a-kind conversation pieces to complement jeans or an evening ensemble.

Since 2011, we have featured a local author at our Holiday Open House. This year, we are pleased to welcome Anita Pinson, who will be sharing her new children's publication, Voices Across the Lakes: Great Lakes Stories and Songs. Anita - a music teacher as well as an author - combines original stories with genuine songs, creating a narrative that defines the Great Lakes States. Anita will be signing her book - the perfect gift for that favorite child or grandchild - during the open house.

And, of course, we'll have Black Cat Pottery products as well, including our new Winterberry Serving Suite - bowls, trays and other designs perfect for entertaining all year long.

Hope you can join us!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Winterberry Serving Pieces

Set of four 4" Coasters
Although I am not particularly inclined to celebrate one winter/year-end holiday over another (except, perhaps, the Saturnalia), I do like to celebrate the seasons of the year. One of the most trying periods of my life was my nearly-two-year sojourn in Singapore - where the sun came up at 7:00am every single day and went down at 7:00pm every single day; and where the weather report inevitably consisted of "Temperatures will be in the low 30s (Celsius) with scattered showers throughout the island." One wondered why they even bothered. (Granted, in November the showers were less "scattered".)

Pair of Trivets (6" and 8")
I grew up in the northeastern and midwestern United States, where we have a full four glorious seasons. In Michigan, in fact - being part of the high midwest, we have some of the most extreme weather in North America, spanning sometimes 100º (Fahrenheit) in less than 12 months accompanied by epic snows, devastating droughts, punishing thunderstorms and the odd tornado or two. (As well as some earthquake aftershocks....) And, although I have my favorites, I appreciate the seasonal cycle. (My favorites - Spring and Fall - are rendered more favorite by the not-so-favorites - Winter and Summer.)

Tiny, Small, Medium and Large
Winterberry Bowls
So, Winter is not my favorite season. But I have learned to appreciate it as a time for stillness and quiet (snow is a great sound insulator), especially as opposed to the other three seasons of the year, burdened as they are by a race to get the garden ready, the struggle to keep the garden looking good and the race, once again, to put the garden to bed (among other things).

Winterberry Spoon Rest
Recently, a mentor strongly advised me to develop some seasonably-appropriate pieces for Winter and, despite my personal resistance to her admonition, I did so. I decided to use as an inspiration my Applied Leaf Bowls and Trays, as well as our own Michigan Holly (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous, heavily-fruiting holly also known as Winterberry. The results are as you see here.

Square Winterberry Tray
I've used the same molds for the bowls and trays as I use for my Applied Leaf Bowls and Trays. (I will be posting on the other pieces in that series over the next few weeks.) These initial samples utilize a plain, untextured coil for the branches; upon further research, I discovered that Winterberry twigs actually have visible lenticels, so I am now using a metal grid to create a more accurate texture for the twigs on the bowls and trays.

Square Winterberry Tray with
Tiny Winterberry Bowl
Probably the most demanding aspect of these pieces, as opposed to their "leaf" predecessors, are the berries, each of which is individually cut (I learned long ago that the key to making consistently-sized seeds or berries is using a half-inch round clay cutter and a thin slab), rolled, scored and slipped into place. Three coats of Scarlet Red Amaco HF-165 are required to get a good color to contrast successfully with the Amaco Potters Choice Vert Lustre glaze used for most of the piece (With 30 "berries" on each of the three largest trays and smaller quantities on the other pieces in the series, I go through a lot of berries....)

Winterberry Dessert Tray
Winterberry Dessert Tray with
Tiny Winterberry Bowl
All pieces are food safe as well as dishwasher safe. I'm willing to bet they're also oven safe, as they're fired to over 2200ºF. The pieces are modular, so bowls and trays can be used separately or in various combinations. The Tiny Winterberry Bowl works well with all four trays, converting them into highly-functional "chip-and-dip" servers without the burden of washing and storing an otherwise cumbersomely-designed, limited use serving piece. The Small Winterberry Bowl can used with similar ease with both the Oval and Rectangle Trays.

I'm hoping to come up with some figured trivets and coasters for next year, as well as, perhaps, a round tray, a wine-bottle coaster and, maybe, a toothpick holder. I'm definitely open to suggestions so as to develop a truly comprehensive range of serving pieces that are not only suitable for the holidays but for the entire Winter season.

I am pleased with them. I hope you like them as well.

Oval Winterberry Tray
Oval Winterberry Tray with
Tiny Winterberry Bowl

Oval Winterberry Tray with
Small Winterberry Bowl
Rectangle Winterberry Tray with
Tiny Winterberry Bowl

Rectangle Winterberry Tray

Rectangle Winterberry Tray with
Small Winterberry Bowl

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Leaf Serving Pieces II: Tiles/Trivets

Six-inch Silver Maple
Back when I first started making Spoon Rests, I also made complementary Tiles/Trivets to go with them. These were flat pieces with embossed leaves - like the Spoon Rests -  that could either be used flat to protect your table from a hot or damp dish or hung on the wall as a decoration. (As I've said for years, I grew up with a very rigid and controlling family; I'm still rebelling by being as versatile and flexible in my art as possible....) When I first started making these, since I had not yet taken a tile class and so had not learned how to make and use tile molds, I would work directly from a clay slab.

Six-inch Eastern Redbud
Rolling out a half-inch-thick slab of clay on the slab roller, I would scrape the canvas texture away with the flat side of a metal kidney (sometimes following this up with a quick roll with my rolling pin), place a leaf (vein side down on the clay - this is very important) on the smooth surface and roll the leaf into it. Using my six-inch tile cutter, I'd cut around the leaf to make the tile/trivet.
Six-inch Eastern Cottonwood

The difficulty was getting a good clean release from the tile cutter. All too often, the clay would stick on part of the device and release unevenly, warping the tile/trivet in the process. Since I hadn't learned about using scrap drywall to dry my flat pieces more evenly (even stacking dry wall with more tiles or other work on top, in a tower of tiles and other pottery), the warping might not be corrected as the piece dried and was bisque and glaze fired; clay has memory and, sometimes, it can be pretty tenacious. I sold quite a few of those pieces - both individually and in sets with a spoon rest - but I was never completely happy with them. I finally stopped making them.
Eight-inch Northern Catalpa

Fast forward a few years and my Hanging Bird Bowls have evolved into, among other things, Applied Leaf Bowls and, earlier this year, Applied Leaf Trays. (I'll be doing posts on those shortly.) On the advice of my mentor, I decided to put additional pieces to assemble a comprehensive series for serving use at the dining or buffet table. Reviving the Spoon Rests and Trivets seemed obvious.

Eight-inch Common Witch-hazel
In the interim, I had taken a tile-making class with David McGee at Pewabic Pottery. (David is an excellent instructor as well as a uniquely talented artist in his own right. I would encourage anyone interested in learning about pottery in general or in tile making specifically to take at least one class with him.) I learned how to design master tiles as well as how to make molds of those masters in order to take a design into production.

Eight-inch White Oak
The challenge with these sorts of leaf designs is that, if you were to make a mold of an embossed leaf tile, the design is so subtle and has so little relief that, in pounding out the tile, you get "echoes" of the leaf rather than a clear image, which doesn't make for a particularly satisfying design. So, I've made a blank master mold and place a leaf into the mold (in this case, vein side up so it will be against the clay surface) each time I make a piece. The down side is that, for some leaves, you can only get one impression; the up side is that, even if you can re-use the leaf, each piece is unique as recreating the exact placement is essentially impossible. I insert hanging divots in three places in the back of the Tile/Trivet so the leaf can hang either square (with the leaf's tip pointing to the upper right or the upper left) or as a diamond (with the leaf tip pointing upward).

Once dried, cleaned up and bisque fired, the pieces are finished in my typical fashion, using a water-based stain on the leaf and drawing the excess off with a damp sponge to bring up the veins. Wax resist is applied to the leaf (I also use it on the backs of my tiles - it's just easier for me to do that rather than clean off glaze) and allowed to cure. I then glaze the piece, wiping the edges so they don't drip. I fire to Cone 6 with a 40-minute hold. The Tiles/Trivets are food safe and heatproof.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Leaf Serving Pieces I: Spoon Rest

Silver Maple Spoon Rest
It's been almost a year-and-a-half since my last post. My apologies for my long-term absence; it's been a tough time but I'm starting to get back to my normal. So, I thought I'd just plunge back in and start with a blog post. Finally.

Northern Catalpa Spoon Rest
I've been working on a series of pieces for a wholesale website and, in the process, returning to some (very) old designs as well as taking some more recent ones to a new level. I've been developing a collection of serving pieces based on my Applied Leaf Bowls and, in that context, revisiting some pieces I had stopped producing, having realized they worked well with my new direction.

Eastern Redbud Spoon Rest
Common Witch-hazel Spoon Rest
The spoon rests are one of my earliest leaf pieces, inspired by my friend Rebecca who asked for something she could use on her stovetop. I had been using leaves fired with a stain to bring up the texture of the veins but she wanted something with some glaze and a more consistent shape. I came up with a pie-piece (actually, about 120 degrees, or a third of a circle) that I formed it into one of my small bowl molds, embossed a leaf into it and added a small clay branch. The key is to make sure any canvas texture is smoothed away from the surface before embossing the leaf; emboss the leaf with a smooth stone rather than a sponge, which would pull clay away from the surface and not push the leaf into the clay surface consistently.
Eastern Cottonwood Spoon Rest

After drying, the piece is cleaned up (synthetic steel wool is great for this; I save the accumulated clay dust and recycle it with the rest of my waste clay) and bisque fired to Cone 04 or 06.

White Oak Spoon Rest
Glazing follows the same process I use for all of my leaf and branch pieces. I use burnt umber solution to stain the branch, pulling the excess away with a damp sponge. Then I stain the leaf (I have a "key" I've developed that tells me which stain and glaze combination is used with a given type of leaf) and, again, pull the excess away with a damp sponge to bring up the leaf's veins. Both surfaces are treated with wax resist and, after curing for several hours, dipped in the appropriate glaze. I fire on stilts to Cone 6 with a 40-minute hold.

Although designed as spoon rests, they also work as soap dishes, change stashes, jewelry dishes, tea-bag rests and candle holders. All are food safe and can go in the dishwasher.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Beauties of Belle Isle

A colony of White Trout Lily
(Erythronium albidum)
As a Detroiter, Belle Isle is probably one of the most underrated resources we have here in the city. Almost a resort in its heyday, the island has fallen into disrepair, a circumstance exacerbated by the city's own woes. Recently, it has come under the aegis of state government, which will, hopefully, herald the island's resurgence as a go-to destination - not just for city folk but for all Michigan residents and beyond.

Native Violet (Viola) species
I first really started to get to know the island when my Master Gardener organization (the now-defunct Master Gardeners of Greater Detroit, or "MGGD") used to have their monthly meetings at what used to be referred to as The Belle Isle Nature Center (now known as the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, affiliated with the Detroit Zoo). I also volunteered there for the annual Belle Isle "HUG" ("Help Uncover the Gem") with The Greening of Detroit, planting trees - many of them young saplings grown from seed gathered on the island by naturalist Suzan Campbell.

Cut-leaf Toothwort
(Dentaria laciniata)
Through MGGD, I went on my first Spring Wildflower Walk in a small part of the island near the racquet ball courts - led by Terry Light - in 2005. Nine years later, I led my first wildflower walk for the Detroit Garden Center, in an event the non-profit organization plans to sponsor on an annual basis - and perhaps more frequently, to see the changing of the seasons in this unique habitat. A few days later, I enticed my photographer friend, Don Schulte, for a visit; these photographs are the fruits of that excursion.

Amongst the islands' residents is a small herd of European Fallow Deer - members of an introduced exotic species who had, over time, adapted to the 985-acre park by mutating into a smaller animal. The deer roamed freely over the island, leading to over-browsing and a significant reduction floral species health. In 2004, the deer were penned up; horticulturalists, naturalists and native plant enthusiasts were amazed come 2005 to see the plethora of native plant species that had survived the deers' depredations.

White Trout Lily
(Erythronium albidum)
Singularly, the rare White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) was - and continues to be - one of the stars of the show. Less common than its cousin, Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), other common names include White Fawn Lily, Dog-tooth Violet and Adder's Tongue. The first two - "Trout Lily" and "Fawn Lily", refer to the speckled leaves, resembling the speckling on native trout or an immature deer. "Dog Tooth Violet" refers to the shape taken by the plant's bulb, which resembles a canine tooth. Finally, after the plant has gone to seed, the pistil still protrudes beyond the seed head, looking like a snake's head with the tongue sticking out.

The Trout Lilies are Spring ephemerals, as are our native Trillium (Trillium spp.), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria spp.), Shooting Star (Dodecatheon spp.) and other woodland natives. Like Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), only plants with two leaves will flower; plants with only one leaf do not have sufficient photosynthesis potential to survive the expense of flowering and fruiting. These plants also have a tendency to pull themselves deeper into the ground over time, reducing their flowering potential as greater and greater energy is expended in simply getting above ground; this behavior can be overcome by setting a flat piece of stone eight to twelve inches below grade and then planting above it.

Spring Cress
(Cardamine bulbosa) flowers
Don and I weren't able to do the entire walk. In fact, all of these photos were taken within less than a 50-foot stretch of the entire walk. Other forbs (herbaceous plants that are neither grasses nor ferns) we found included Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) and what was, at the time, a mystery plant which turned out to be Spring Cress
(Cardamine bulbosa), two members of the cabbage family.

Spring Cress
(Cardamine bulbosa) in situ
Both have delicate, pink, four-petaled flowers - more usually white in both species. The foliage is very different, however, with the Toothwort characterized by strongly dissected leaves arranged around the stem while the Cress has shallowly-palmate leaves arranged oppositely along the stem.

Interestingly, the Toothwort seems more tolerant of drier conditions, finding a home in high, dry areas of the woods, while the Cress prefers low places with Spring inundation. Belle Isle is part of a threatened environment known as "Lake Plain Prairie" - low areas characterized Spring flooding, or "vernal pooling", which dries out with the onset of summer. Plants have evolved various strategies to cope with these circumstances, from heavily-buttressed tree roots to maintain stability in soft Spring soils to ephemerality to take advantage of early season moisture, followed by dry-season dormancy. Many are able to tolerate low-moisture conditions for long periods of time as well.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is particularly well suited to this environment, such that I often recommend it to clients who experience Spring flooding in their yards. This early season bloomer displays tiny yellow flowers. Like both native and exotic holly species, Spicebush is dioecious, meaning that there are female and male plants and both are required to obtain fruit. Unfortunately, as this plant is not as popular in the trade, it isn't always easy to tell which plants are which; your best bet is to shop in the fall and look for plants with fruit - as those are definitely female; as for those without fruit, you'll have a 50-50 chance it will be male. As with holly, you don't need a one-to-one ratio of male to female - one-to-four should be sufficient - but the plants cannot be too far from one another, so your pollinators can get the job done easily. Its common name derived from the plant's spicy scent (scratch a small area of the bark and take a breath), Spicebush is also one of the larval host plants of the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus), the other being Sassafras (Sassafras albidum).

American Black Currant
(Ribes americanum)
Other shrubs in the area include Drummond's Dogwood (Cornus drummondii), a small deciduous tree found on the Great Plains and along the Mississippi as well as the Midwest. Blooming in Summer with clusters of white flowers, similar to those found in the Spring-blooming Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea), it bears small white fruits that ripen August to October, fruits that are utilized by at leasts 40 native bird species. When we visited, this plant was just starting to leaf out but a visit later in the season may favor us with the floral display.

Another important fruit-bearing plant is the American Black Currant (Ribes americanum), which was blooming when we visited the island. Like Spicebush, the flowers are quite tiny and greenish yellow. A member of the gooseberry family, these are small shrubs - up to 4-1/2' in height. The fruits - which make outstanding jams and jellies - are also utilized by native avian species as a desirable food source.

Native Violet (Viola) species
Scattered along the walk were numerous colonies of native violets, similarly-hued but much more desirable than the spreading invasions of Periwinkle (Vinca minor) we saw. Although violets aren't particularly popular with many gardeners, this is generally due to the aggressive, large-leaved, purple-flowering violet despaired of by so many of us. But there are numerous, lovely native violets, including Downy Yellow Violet (Voila pubescens), Canadian White Violet (Viola canadensis), Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata) and Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia), which provided a cheerful highlight along - and even in - the asphalt walkway. Despite our mixed reactions to them, Violets are important host plants for native Fritillary butterflies, so their value in the native garden should not be minimized.

(Arisaema triphyllum)
Finally, our perennial favorite - Jack-in-the-Pulpit. This native member of the Aroid family - like Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) and Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium) has been in decline along this stretch of the island; whereas nine years ago we saw numerous colonies of many individuals, this year they were much fewer and farther between. It is certain that, as the years pass and effects of the deer continue to abate, the environment will evolve. What used to be primarily large trees and open spaces now has a great deal of shrub cover, mitigating the amount of sunlight reaching the ground and these woodland plants. The effects of the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) are also visible, with many more snags and downed trees, making passage through parts of the area difficult if not treacherous.

Each year, the environment continues to change, with the ebb and flow of the seasons and the continuing impact of human activity on the island.

All photos copyright to Don Schulte and Notable Greetings.