Human Flower Project
Monday, September 27, 2004
Nose-Gays, They’re Not
Stories from Malaysia and Australia disagree on “the world’s biggest flower,” except how it smells.
Put a handkerchief over your nose and send up a muffled cheer.
Titum Arum, the world’s biggest flower, has bloomed for only the second time in Australia. Officials at Sydney’s Botanic Garden Trust are thrilled and choking. “It has the smell of rotting fish,” says executive director Tim Entwhistle.
Amorphophallus titanum looks like its Latin name, an excited giant, and can grow as large as 2.9 metres. It blossoms slowly and should climax about October 7. Check out the United States Botanic Garden’s specimen that bloomed in July.
The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) reports today on a different flower, Rafflesia, claiming it’s “the world’s biggest.”
“The flower has been used for centuries by the Orang Asli as a remedy for internal injuries, and is especially prescribed for women after they give birth.” The expanding interest in herbal remedies has set off a collecting spree, so that now some local healers worry that the plant may become endangered. Law permits the Orang Asli to harvest the rafflesia buds even in protected areas, but with prices for the plants ascending, some tribespeople are selling to middlemen.
Rafflesia blooms look like the flower babies in the Land of Oz. Only a metre in diameter, they can’t hold a candle, as it were, to Titum Arum. Except they smell like dead meat, too. Eau de Carrion, anyone?
Sunday, September 26, 2004
And a Pink Carnation
The boutonniere that made Marty Robbins’s blues bluer is a show of adolescent daring in Robert Graves’s autobiography. In other words, “The Language of Flowers” doesn’t translate well.
Occasionally today you’ll hear mentioned “The Language of Flowers,” a system of symbolic reference that was popularized, but without much success, in 19th century Europe. In this language, for example, the lily “means” purity and mallow “means” forgiveness—so that, presumably, sending someone a bouquet of lily and mallow would mean, er, “Thank you for having the purity of heart to forgive me” or perhaps “I forgive you for being a puritan.”
Today’s florists sometimes reach for this system of significances, almost as a marketing technique. But they always fumble trying to connect each flower with the right virtue. Symbols can’t be decreed this way. Such associations must build over time and persist only because people continue to use and understand them. When you see a pansy, honestly, is the first—or the 80th—thing you think of “The Holy Trinity”?
Flowers communicate so powerfully not because they embody particular concepts or principles but because they are ambiguous. They invite us actually to look, smell, touch, wonder, reflect.
In his autobiography Good-Bye to All That , poet Robert Graves describes the vicious antagonism between the “Bloods” (jocks) and the scholars (“nerds”) at his English boarding school circa 1910.
These two gangs of boys clashed during Graves’s years at Charterhouse, a school whose strict social hierarchy had always permitted the athletes unmercifully to bully the rest of the student body. The nerds finally stood up to the Bloods in what Graves calls “the bravest deed ever done at Charterhouse.” They broke with a longstanding Sunday custom, where the “First Eleven” jocks had always asserted their power by daring to arrive for chapel after the rest of the students had sheepishly filed in.
With delight, Graves describes his scholar-friends’ historic entrance: “On this Sunday, then, when the Bloods had entered with their usual swaggering assurance, an extraordinary thing happened.
“The three sixth-formers slowly walked up the aisle, magnificant in grey flannel trousers, slit jackets, butterfly collars, and each wore a pink carnation in his lapel. Astonished and horrified by this spectacle, everyone turned to gaze at the Captain of the First Eleven; he had gone quite white.”
The Language of Flowers calls the carnation a symbol of “bravery, love and friendship.” Maybe the English school boys of 1910 really DID know and use this floral code, but a pink carnation? I translate this as “Effrontery,” “In-Your-Face-Sensitive.” Or how about just “Take That!”?
Though many an American florist has a mini-glossary taped to the front counter, “The Language of Flowers” never caught on in the United States. If it had Marty Robbins could never have written “A White Sport Coat, and a Pink Carnation.” No bravery here. Just a dope in a rented tux. He’s been stood up for the prom. Pink carnation ~ sucker.
Saturday, September 25, 2004
Red Stars in the Morning
Cardinal Vine Seed, while it lasts….
My father claims that flowers have wills of their own. “Some years they decide they’ll bloom, and other years they say, ‘Nope. I don’t believe I will.’”
I’ve found this to be true. This summer, for example, I spotted what looked like cardinal vine, its telling feathery leaves, sprouting in one of my flower beds. I coaxed it along and now have about twenty feet of vine woven through an iron railing. It’s managed to survive the Texas summer and is putting on a fine show.
Cardinal vine (ipomea X multifida) is an annual. I bought one plant three years ago that barely bloomed. So explain why this vigorous plant—just one of them—emerged in June of 2004. Cardinal vine resolve is as good an explanation as any.
It looks as if I’ll have seed to give away. Send a comment here with your address and I’ll mail out as many mini-seed packets as I can. That is, if you can stand a strong-willed, unpredictable addition to your garden, star-shaped and bright red as the button in Pasha’s hat.
Friday, September 24, 2004
How can Philly’s flower judges go gaga over an invasive plant?
Philadelphia’s flower arbiters are ivy league. Their garden clubs and flower shows, some of the oldest in the nation, set floral trends for generations. But recent Gold Medal winners named by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society cast doubt on the sanity and—dare I say it?—the taste of this grande olde organization.
For, along with Korean fir and an orange variety of winterberry, the PHS chose Gelsemium sempervirens"Margarita” (Carolina jasmine) as a 2005 winner. We call it Carolina jessamine here in Central Texas. I think of it as cowboy forsythia, garish enough to survive our drought and alkaline soil. It’s everywhere.
This spring it was I who deserved the gold medal, for having hacked out a thicket of the stuff six feet high and twenty feet long. Already new clumps are fighting back.
So how could a plant that kindly Austin nurseryman Scott Thurman calls “a workhorse” captivate Philadelphia’s garden connoisseurs? Greg Grant, one of my favorite flower scholars, nailed it: “Gardeners want what they don’t have.” So while Carolina jessamine may deserve excitement and a little nursing in Zone 6, here in Texas, most of us can’t love it—it won’t go away.