Cephalanthus (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

Cephalanthus (sold)  |  Richard G. Tiberius

36 x 24 in | 91.4 x 61 cm

While kayaking in a slow moving river in Southern Ontario I noticed an attractive shrub growing right in the water that looked like a little Gardenia or Coffee tree. It had the same bright green glossy leaves as a gardenia or coffee but the flowers were unusual. They were arranged in perfectly round, creamy-white spheres, like little star bursts. I wanted to paint them but not from my kayak. When I identified the plant from “Shrubs of Ontario” I found that it was indeed in the same family as the coffee and the gardenia. It has some very beautiful relatives. No wonder it grabbed my attention.

While kayaking in a slow moving river in Southern Ontario I noticed an attractive shrub growing right in the water that looked like a little Gardenia or Coffee tree. It had the same bright green glossy leaves as a gardenia or coffee but the flowers were unusual. They were arranged in perfectly round, creamy-white spheres, like little star bursts. I wanted to paint them but not from my kayak. When I identified the plant from “Shrubs of Ontario” I found that it was indeed in the same family as the coffee and the gardenia. It has some very beautiful relatives. No wonder it grabbed my attention.

Click for detail

At the end of the summer, when I had a chance to return to that spot, the flower heads were gone. The creamy white globes had morphed into brilliant red seed heads. The fruit heads are often rusty brown but some varieties have white or red globes. I was delighted to find red ones.  They are the life of the painting. I painted the shrub from a close perspective so that its graceful structure and brilliant fruit could be appreciated. In the background I painted its natural neighbors—other aquatic plants like Pickerel Weed and Myrica gale—and even a beaver run. I used a heavy application of three colors, from the brightest red to the darkest to paint the spheres. Then, I tapped the soft paint on each sphere with the end of the blade to simulate its bumpy texture.

You don’t have to look hard to find this shrub. Cephalanthus occidentalis grows almost anywhere in North America from Nova Scotia to Ontario, south through Florida, and west to the eastern Great Plains. There are even scattered populations in the far West—New Mexico, Arizona, California, and northern Mexico. I hope you find the red type. Whatever the color, the seeds must be very nutritious. They are eaten by eight species of waterfowl and the twigs by three species of mammals, but don’t be tempted. They are poisonous to humans.

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