Human Flower Project
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
The Dominican Republic’s native agave (maguey) wins the botanical decathalon—this plant can do anything.
Maguey in bloom
Blessed with mountains, rain forests, deserts and Caribbean coastline (all over a land area about twice the size of New Hampshire), the Dominican Republic is a botanical wonderland. Look closely at this photo of an indigenous maguey (agave) in flower, taken by Emile de Boyrie of Santo Domingo. You’ll see a hummingbird darting toward one of the puff-shaped blooms and another bird hanging out on a stem.
Most people associate the agave with Mexico. This basket of spikes comes in many varieties, including Mexico’s Weber blue, the source of tequila. Republica Dominicana has four agaves of its own, the most abundant, Agave brevispina.
The country’s indigenous Taino people discovered the medicinal value of maguey many centuries ago, and today in rural parts of the Dominican Republic the plant is still commonly used for “treatment against gall bladder cancer, ulcers, tumors, inflammations, high blood pressure, uterine fibroids, as well as an anti-tuberculotic agent.” Pharmaceutical companies got wise, and also use an extract of the plant in making steroids. (Here’s a Spanish language site about uses of maguey, courtesy of Dr. Boyrie.)
There’s majesty in the maguey, tragedy too. Most of the bigger agaves take ten, twenty, even fifty years to bloom, and once they do, the huge plants die. “When the plant is ready a quiote (stem or cane) grows, as high as thirty feet, and bears flowers carrying between three to five thousand fertile seeds.” Blossoms bright as mustard, thirty feet in the air—maguey makes the flower world’s grandest finale.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Lovers of St. Dwynwen’s Day
An obscure Welsh saint’s day has been revived in recent years, part retailing impatience, part regional pride.
January 25th is celebrated across much of Wales as the feast of St. Dwynwen, patroness of lovers. A good three weeks before St. Valentine gets his due, the Welsh people will be exchanging flowers and popping champagne corks. They’ll do it all over again February 14th.
Flower Shop in Llanrhystud, Wales
A British news story this week announces “Welsh Lovers Are Incurable Romantics.” According to one source, “The Welsh are probably the most misunderstood people in Britain but news that they are the most loved up and passionate should help present them in a new light.” That was a spokesperson for retailing dragon Tesco, which sells more Friday afternoon bouquets and bottles of champagne in Wales than in any of its other stores across Britain.
I hadn’t known that the Welsh people were “misunderstood,” but after reading a bit about their St. Dwynwen, I understand why someone might say that. Please read her story and tell me what you make of it.
She was one of 24 daughters of a 5th century king, Brychan of Brecknock. A prince named Maelon Dafodrill fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, but prefering to become a nun, she turned him down. In other versions of the tale, Dwynwen loved Dafodrill as well but the old king didn’t approve. In yet another version, Dafodrill rapes her—enough to inspire the nun idea perhaps.
In any case, the bards agree Dwynwen ran off into the forest and drank something sweet because an angel promised it would put an end to her love problems; it worked, but when Dafodrill drank the potion, he turned to ice.
Now Dwynwen prays and is granted three wishes: that Maelon thaw out, that she never contemplate marriage again, and that “God should answer all requests made by her on behalf of lovers.”
Fulfilling wish number two, she founds a church on Llanddwyn Island, on the western coast of Anglesey. Lovers still come to a well there called Ffynnon Dwynwen to make wishes of their own. “According to tradition,” heartsick pilgrims can learn whether they love in vain “by watching the movement of an eel in the spring.”
Whichever way the eel swerves is good for the Welsh flower sellers: two big winter sales events.
But to my mind the most fascinating aspect of St. Dwynwen’s Day isn’t magic beverages and wishing wells but the holiday’s revival in just the past few years. Why would 21st century Welsh people so suddenly be celebrating a 5th century nun?
“When one looks at the cultural life of Wales,” wrote scholar Prys Morgan, “one is struck by a paradox; on the one hand the decay and demise of an ancient way of life, and on the other an unprecedented outburst of interest in things Welsh and highly self-conscious activity to preserve or develop them.”
Morgan was writing about Wales of the 18th and 19th century, but his paradox endures in today’s popular cult of St. Dwynwen. As local cultures wear away, especially in times of rapid social change, “traditions” are self-consciously cultivated; people mine the past for all that is most picturesque, and those costumes (kilts) or myths (St. Dwynwen) become precious and popular emblems of identity.
A recent study of the British revealed that “People born in Wales were far more likely to describe their national identity as Welsh (87 per cent) compared with those born in England (15 per cent), in other UK countries (17 per cent) or outside the UK (13 per cent).” And in Wales, romance on January 25 is a love affair with that identity.
St. Dwynden watches over florists, and all those smitten with Welshness.
Monday, January 24, 2005
Skating’s Rain of Teddy Bears
The bouquets thrown to figure skaters can’t be replaced. But they have been displaced.
A figure skater drives to the close of a miraculous five minutes. Her body blurs in a final spin. Then she opens her arms wide, chest heaving under sequins. And from the stands flowers sail—pink, red, pink—down to the ice.
I’ve been trying to find out when and where this custom began. Thus far, no luck. But I do know that the tradition—originating, we suppose, in the ballet theatre—became so commonplace that the sport of skating recruited a whole new cadre of performers. They’re the sweepers.
“The role of flower sweeper has evolved over the years as figure skating fans and the seating capacities of figure skating venues have grown” (this from a 2002 story). “Years ago, the skaters themselves used to collect the items thrown to them. Today, it would be impractical to expect the skaters to ‘sweep’ the ice before heading to the ‘kiss and cry’ area to await their scores.”
Skating, kissing, crying—that’s does sound like a lot. In any case, the new arrangement gives lesser lights the chance to skate before a big crowd. There are even sweeper try-outs now. Megan Brown, 13, of Tigard, Oregon, was chosen last fall to sweep at the recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “We had to skate forward and backward and bend over to pick up a flower. I practiced ahead of time to pick up things gracefully.”
Actually, Megan didn’t wind up sweeping many bouquets off the ice, since skating officials now frown on flowers. A spokesperson for the World Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs e-mailed me: “It was making too much of a mess with petals falling off even when the flowers were wrapped up in plastic.
“Sometimes the plastic would get holes and when petals get on the ice the skaters blades and they would or could potentially injure themselves or their partner if it was pair or ice dancing.
“Also, with security heightened in many sports venues and at events, the 2002 US Championships provided stuffed ‘objects’ for the audience to throw on the ice. It made people happy to give something to the skaters but it was still safe.”
Everyone’s rooting for the skaters and their safety, and I suppose a stray stem might trip someone. But how does a long-stemmed rose breach “security”? Throwing the promoter’s “stuffed ‘object’” shows as much ebullience as canned laughter. Plus teddy bears and sequins don’t go together.
Sunday, January 23, 2005
Interflora Votes to Sell Out
After years of debate, the 82-year-old florists’ trade association voted today to sell controlling interest to outside management company 3i.
Following the example of FTD, Interflora’s voting members decided to relinquish their organization to a private equity firm. Interflora has some 58,000 member-florists worldwide, 1,850 of them in the UK and Ireland, and delivers flowers in 140 countries.
Though the proposal to sell out failed eight years ago and had received vociferous opposition this go round, 87% of eligible voting members today favored the takeover. The association met in Birmingham, England.
“Management had backed the 3i bid after feeling the pressure of competition from high-street retailers including Tesco and Marks & Spencer. The group lost two million orders last year and has seen its market share plummet from 75% to around 27%.”
Tesco makes Walmart look like a boutique. Some call it a supermarket but it’s more of a consumerist Borg, selling groceries and flowers, but also music downloads, pet insurance and electricity.
3i will pay GBP 23.3m ($43.7m) for 65% of Interflora. Member florists will receive between GBP 5,000 ($9400) and GBP 12,000 ($22.500) according to their length of membership and volume of business.