36" x 24"
Southern Ontario, Canada
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 it’s not a good idea to set up an easel on a kayak. I made a mental note to return with a camera. Later 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, two very beautiful plants. No wonder it grabbed my attention.
At the end of the summer when I finally had a chance to return to that same spot, the flower heads were gone. The creamy white globes had morphed into brilliant red seed heads. I was delighted but also surprised because my guidebook had described the fruit as “…a spherical head of numerous, brown, cone-shaped nutlets...” Brown? Could it be that the red phase is ephemeral and that the authors of the book saw them only after they had turned brown? I checked other writers who allowed that the seed heads are sometimes white or red. I probably don’t need to tell you why a painter is making such a fuss about the red color. 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, after wiping off the knife, I kept tapping 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 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 see it in the red phase. Whatever the color, the seeds must be very nutritious. They are eaten eight species of waterfowl and the twigs by three species of mammals, but don’t be tempted. It contains the poison cephalathin, which induces vomiting, paralysis, and convulsions if ingested.