Red and Green at Christmas

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

I was photographing Quarryhill Botanical Garden for a magazine story last month and stumbled across these huge gorgeous red berries of Cornus kousa.  Why did I immediately think of Christmas?

holt_622_0376.CR2 Red Cornus kousa dogwood berries

Before I go into a bit of lore, let me explain about “stumbling across” the picture.  I was in the middle of the garden working every angle of an unusual Crepe myrtle tree, Lagerstroemia subcostata (below), when I suddenly noticed the Kousa dogwood.  I get tunnel vision sometimes when I work, getting so absorbed in one beautiful thing I don’t see others.

holt_622_0371.CR2 Crepe myrtle tree (Lagerstroemia subcostata)

As I worked to establish a bit of reference on the Crepe myrtle, I framed it beyond a large, out of focus shrub in the foreground.  A nice technique – playing off the light and dark areas, making the glowing autumn foliage all the more special as revealed in the garden beyond the shadows.

The shrub ? You guessed it – the Kousa dogwood.  Now, note the berry cluster in the upper part of the dark, out of focus shrub.  Think of that cluster while I reverse the technique of playing light and dark areas off of each other.  Instead of the dark area serving to frame the light area, I will focus on the cluster in the dark area, slow down my shutter speed, and let the light area go out of focus.

holt_622_0374.CR2 Red Cornus kousa dogwood berries

Suddenly I see what was there all along – Christmas-red berries in amongst green foliage.  (See the Crepe Myrtle beyond ?)   And I begin to work on a new subject, trying different compositions and exposures to bring out the red, to penetrate the shadows, thinking this should be a classic red and green holiday picture.  Some editor some day will need a photo just like this . . . or this .  . .

holt_622_0341.CR2 Red Cornus kousa dogwood berriesBut how did red and green become so ubiquitous at Christmas time?  There seem to be several different stories wrapped up in the origins of the Christmas tree.  The one that seems to make the most sense to me originates from the 13th century when early Christian churches performed Miracle Plays to illustrate Bible stories.  The Adam and Eve story, the Paradise Play, was performed on December 24th and the prop for the tree of paradise was a pine tree with apples tied on.

The tree tradition spread throughout northern Europe and eventually the red of the apple and the green of the pine tree came to be associated with all things Christmas.  I love that the symbols originated in a garden.

These sorts of symbols are the stuff I keep my crass commercial eye looking for – ways to sell pictures.  So I kept photographing, thinking just maybe I had stumbled across a useful and pretty picture.

holt_622_0378.CR2 Red Cornus kousa dogwood berries

The biggest trick about stumbling across pretty picture is – to go out and take pictures.  The beauty will reveal itself.

Happy holidays !

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Town Mouse December 27, 2009, 4:27 pm

Happy holidays, Saxon, and thanks for a year of inspiring lessons about photography. Isn’t it comforting how real green and real berries win over the plastic stuff any day?

… at least it does for gardeners. I worry a bit about the generations of kids who don’t get much nature in their lives and for whom there is no real appreciation of “real” – Saxon

Melissa Clark December 27, 2009, 4:33 pm

Loved the description of how you worked the setting and saw the picture within – or outside – the picture you were shooting first.

I’m happy to have discovered the Gardening Gone Wild site as I start my own blog on gardening and photography. Thanks for bringing such a great group of writers, photographers and gardeners together.

Glad you have found us Melissa. Be sure to watch for out Picture This photo contest when it resumes in the spring. It brings out some great garden photos. – Saxon

jodi (bloomingwriter) December 27, 2009, 6:36 pm

Very pretty, indeed. I’m a fair-weather picture taker right now, refusing to go out if it’s grey, windy and raining/snowing/fogging/sleeting. So there aren’t a lot of photos outdoors revealing themselves to me right now. But yours are always inspiring.

Rain, snow, fog, sleet ? Even the most hearty photographer would not subject their camera to such abuse; but if you getr a clear day the nakedness of bare trees can be quite wonderful. – Saxon

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