Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, March 25, 2005

Semana Santa

Alfombras (or floral carpets) glorify the sacred procession on Good Friday in Antigua, Guatemala


Photo: Semana Santa in Guatemala

With dirge music of brass bands and streets filled with the faithful and the merely amazed, Good Friday is the high-low point of Holy Week in Antigua, Guatemala.

For days in advance, various social and neighborhood groups construct alfombras—carpets made of sawdust, fruits, and flowers—both in the churches and along the streets. Some include Christian symbols—a cross, or an ox for St. Luke—others owe their designs to the woven patterns of huipiles, the garments of Guatemala’s indigenous people, still others incorporate more contemporary, popular messages.

But as human flower projects, the most spectacular are the alfombras along Antigua’s streets, meticulously designed and, ideally, completed just before the Good Friday procession begins. “Sand or sawdust is generally used to level the cobblestone roadway.  Sawdust is then collected and dyed in different colors.  Favorite colors are purple, green, blue, red, yellow and black. Flowers such as bougainvillea, chrysanthemums, carnations, roses and other native plants and pine needles are also used.”

There are several other interesting sites with explanations and images of the alfombras. But here is the most marvelous introduction I’ve found (in Spanish) to Semana Santa—Holy Week—throughout Guatemala. For the non-Spanish speaking, it’s still well worth visiting, with beautiful photography of processions all across the country, as well as the music of Good Friday marches, played by Guatemalan bands.

imageGood Friday Procession

Antigua, Guatemala

Photo: Semana Santa in Guatemala

As for the alfombras, no one knows whether this custom came with the Spanish from Western Iberia (where floral carpets are made for Corpus Christi processions) or if the pre-Hispanic cultures of Guatemala were already making such ephemeral artworks from local flora. (We welcome your observations or research into this subject, por cierto.)

In any case, this tradition reaches to core of flower culture, likewise the human condition. Like Tibetan mandalas, but on a magnificent citywide scale, the alfombras are made to be destroyed. Here the message goes beyond our transitory nature. The alfombras pour out the spirit of sacrifice, in the re-enactment of Christ’s walk to Calvary.

Posted by Julie on 03/25 at 11:50 AM
Religious RitualsPermalink

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Wildflower Watchdogs

Two stories—from the United Kingdom and the state of Texas—say that wildflowers are fast disappearing.

After heavy rains in the U.S., most wildflower stories this spring are punctuated with exclamation points of glee. But those who take a longer view of things aren’t happy with what they see.

Plantlife, a conservation group in England, has found that each county in the U.K. is losing “up to 10 species of wildflowers every ten years.” Bluebells, anemones, and foxgloves are all “in retreat,” the eco-group has found, after reviewing reports from over 3000 volunteers and plant experts.

Botanists in England attribute the wildflower decline to “pollution from cars, fertilisers, and human sewage in water.” Widespread use of fertilizers particularly has enriched the soil so that “common plants” (the English don’t seem to use the word “weed”) like cleavers, hawthorn and stinging nettle crowd out rarer wildflowers. At the end of its five-year study, Plantlife found that wildlife depletion was happening much faster than botanists had expected.

imageStephan Myers photographed the same spot in 1988 and 2001, showing how ryegrass had overtaken a wildflower field in Texas.

Along much the same lines, longtime observers in Texas see the extent and variation of spring wildflowers declining. Stephan Myers’ excellent article for Texas Co-Op Power in March 2003 offers strong evidence that ryegrass planted by the state highway department has overshadowed the wildflowers. Ryegrass, planted as a cover crop, also produces toxins “that efficiently kill neighboring plant competitors.”

As John Thomas, owner of Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, TX told Myers, “Spring wildflowers are one of the most important natural events we have in Texas….(a) celebratory rite of spring.” Just now, slopes along the interstate and Central Texas fields are beginning to bubble up with Indian paint brush, bluebonnets, prickly poppy, and primrose.   


According to veterinarian and naturalist Bill Eikenhorst, “Wildflowers do best in disturbed and marginal soils. But with the decline of ...farming and ranching industries, we no longer have broad areas of distressed soil needed for good wildflower populations.”

Not enough ranching, too much fertilizer, too few cattle, too many cars—the wildflowers’ demise is an unintended consequence of a million Average Joes and Joans. It’s going to take a major human flower project to conserve the bluebell and the Indian paintbrush. In seedsman Thomas’ words, ““Wildflower population declines are a man-made problem and only man (sic) can fix it.”

Posted by Julie on 03/24 at 11:53 AM

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Black Hyacinth—Shiny and New

After 16 years in development, Midnight Mystique hits the market.

In the English and Scottish papers, where gardening news can shove crime and even the royals off Page One, a black hyacinth appears today.

The Scotsman, inter alia, reports that “Midnight Mystique” (named apparently for a lingerie item) is for sale at 8 pounds per bulb, nearly ten times the price of familiar pink, white, and purple varieties.

Seed company Thompson & Morgan paid 150,000 pounds for “the entire stock”—three black hyacinth bulbs found in the Netherlands—and then, according to the Times of London, “spent seven years cultivating 28,000 of them.” (I don’t find the flower photogenic, but you can see one for yourself with this link.) “Midnight Mystique” was hybridized from white and blue hyacinths. The original three bulbs were produced via an expensive “tissue culture” process. “Once enough plants were established, the company could also use the traditional ‘scooping method’ where the bottom of the bulb is removed. This encourages tiny bulbs to form around the base that are then grown on, taking three years to reach maturity.”

I’ve noticed how gardeners, like hyacinths, tend to clump together along a continuum: at one extreme,  the fashionistas, intent on growing new and rare varieties—at the other, the antiquers, who hanker after grandmother’s or even great-grandmother’s favorites. “Midnight Mystique,” however, may appeal to both. Here is an obviously new fangled bloom, but, we also learn,  “Black flowers were beloved of the art nouveau designers at the previous turn of the century. Victorians and Edwardians at the cutting edge of fashion used to collect them, going to great lengths to track down exotic species.”

imageAlcea nigra

Image: Alchemy Works

One of my own old-timey favorites is alcea nigra, the black hollyhock, shiny as a grackle. We find on the Monticello garden site that “In 1629 the British herbalist John Parkinson described a variety of hollyhock with flowers ‘of a darke red like black bloud.’” The Alchemy Works site calls the black hollyhock’s essence “useful for coming to grips with the void and for introspection.”

I suppose anyone who’ll pay 150,000 pounds for three black hyacinth bulbs has a void to fill too.

Posted by Julie on 03/23 at 11:36 AM
Gardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Autotuin—Gardening on Wheels

Thanks to Aaron’s Home & Garden blog for this tipoff.


Florrie de Pater’s car garden, Amsterdam

Photo: Peter Kaas’ weblog

“Gardeners, start your engines!”

Only the Dutch could conceive of such an inspired horror, a mongrel of the natural and mechanical coming soon, we can only hope, to thoroughfares near us all. Autotuin is Dutch for car garden.

“A city like Amsterdam is stuffed with parked cars. Which makes it a bad place to be. The car garden offers people the possibility to refurnish one of those many public parking places in a different way. With a garden, for example. But a chicken run is possible as well….” Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It seems in October 1999 “Fokke van Katwijk sawed off the roof of his Toyota Corolla, filled the car with one and a half cubic meters of fatty gardening soil,” and established a planter-on-wheels in the Lomanstraat. Florrie de Pater now is the proud owner, and the car garden has toodled on over to “the Willemsparkweg in Amsterdam close to Hotel Zandbergen.”

The intriguing Autotuin site gets my vote for Best of the Web. It explains everything, and we mean EVERYTHING—from parking and auto registration regulations in Amsterdam to the local cost of a junker (130-230 Euros, in 2002). Buses, we are reminded, prove “very handy as a chicken run.” We’re advised about the proper tools for removing a car roof (a “tilted grinding machine”) and the oh-so-pivotal issue of weight.

imageGarden car, Florida

Image: Autotuin

“A car with garden soil quickly comprises a 1500 kilogram extra weight. Most cars ain’t designed for that. A standard nuclear family (two parents, two kids) on a holiday to Marbella weighs not even one third of that.”

This is garden writing! mongrel also in its mix of humor and precise specifications. You can tell the authors really have thought through and executed the making of a car garden and sincerely hope you will too, for their real purpose is a serious one: to reclaim the public space of cities for non-drivers.

Good luck, and good thing you folks are beginning this experiment in Amsterdam. It’s going to take awhile catching on in Houston and Detroit.

Posted by Julie on 03/22 at 04:52 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink
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