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Cosmos: A heavenly universe of pink and white

It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when your route is flanked with billowing fields of candy-floss pinks and icing-sugar white blooms. Heralding Easter holidays, road trips and the start of my favourite season, the fields of cosmos bring a final brilliant splash of colour to the South African landscape that will soon turn to less flamboyant winter shades of camel and wheat.

During late Summer and early Autumn each year, the roadside and fields of the Highveld, South-western Mpumalanga and the Free State, come alive with these elegant flowers that grow tall on stems framed by feathery green leaves. They transform the landscape with their prolific blooms and the flowering usually continues until the first frosts.

A perfunctory google reveals that apparently these alien plants originate from Mexico.  Many years ago, Spanish priests grew cosmos in their mission gardens in Mexico, and it was their perfect, evenly placed (eight) petals which led them to christen the flower “Cosmos,” the Greek word for harmony or ordered universe. The flower species, commonly called “Mexican Aster” (Cosmos bipinnatus) naturalised itself, growing abundantly beside roads, and in unploughed fields all the way up the Americas to Canada.

Cosmos was inadvertently brought into South Africa around 1900, in the form of seeds stowing away in the feed imported from Argentina for the English horses used during the Anglo-Boer war. Not only were the Cosmos seeds lying dormant in the feed, but their close friends, the khaki-bos, with their persistent, sticky thorns, were also on board for the trip. 

As a photographer I am drawn to the midst of the fields, sometimes lying below the plants to capture that possibly unusual perspective, wading into the thickest clusters, only to emerge with blackjacks embedded in my socks and sweaters and occasionally even more uncomfortable places. Our dogs delight in these photographic exploits. They disappear into the fields and the only way you can spot them is when you see a patch of cosmos, waving fiercly in protest. The dogs eventually emerge, thoroughly happy but covered in resistant clumps of blackjacks. 

Photography usually relies on the golden or blue hour to achieve the best results. Although this does yield some interesting shots, the cosmos is really only shown to its best colour advantage under full sunlight conditions, usually too harsh for other landscape photography.

Another challenge I found is the quest for a focal point. So while fields of endless candy floss and marshmallow colours are enthralling, looking for that point of distinction that will allow the rule of thirds, the golden spiral, the leading lines etc., is always tricky.

I noticed that the sugar-pink blooms are the most prolific, followed by the white flowers. Far more rarely, there is a claret-coloured flower that seems to appear only sporadically and it’s always my mission to try and find these illusive beauties.

At the risk of sounding flowery (did you see what I did there) I don’t think I will ever get tired of the vivacity of cosmos season. Driving through the South African highveld, it’s easy to trace the routes that the horses must have traversed across the battlefields. A favourite viewing spot is Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, close to the battlefields of Majuba Hill. From Standerton to Wakkerstroom, there is barely a break in the flow of the flowers. It’s amazing that they still produce these beautiful flowers every year and it’s not surprising that they have become a tourist attraction and a lure for artists and photographers alike.

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