Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, July 24, 2005

I Say ‘Geranium’

The favorite potted plants of summer have been passing under the wrong name, but vox populi trumps expertise.


Pelargonium zonale Sandra Salmon a Mirka

Photo: Cerny Seed

For at least three generations, we’ve been calling these “geraniums.”

In Kentucky, where I was raised, they were the workhorses of summer,  blooming through August with just the courtesy of regular watering. Lots of people, including Henri Matisse, have enjoyed them in pots, but my parents used to plant them in the ground, lots of red ones in a bed by the driveway, surrounded by purple petunias. This location put the so-called geraniums right next to our basketball court, where the warm-up bench would be in a gym. Somehow these rugged bloomers managed to survive a summer’s worth of out-of-bounds balls. The petalled heads might break, but new buds were always on the way.

Now .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) divulges that we’ve actually been living with pelargoniums, not geraniums, all along.

“Botany wasn’t an exact science when the first geraniums and pelargoniums were introduced en masse into Europe from South Africa in the 17th century,” he writes. Fosdick quotes true geranium expert Faye Brawner:  ‘‘The plant collectors lumped everything in as geraniums. A few years down the road, a French botanist decided there was a difference.”

Pelargoniums are tender perennials, brightly colored, often with scented leaves. One variety of this summer favorite even contains some oil of citronella and goes by the name ‘‘mosquito shoo,’’ a lovely thought though we’d like something a bit more effective, “mosquito be damned” perhaps.

imageGeranium pratense ‘Mrs. Kendall Clarke’

Photo: Exploring Gardens

Bona fide geraniums really are perennials and do well, Brawner says, in “rock gardens or for shady spots.” She recommends ‘‘Sanguineum,’’ ‘‘P. macrorrhizum,’’ or ‘‘Magnificum.’‘

Here is Alice B. Russell’s good guide to geranium, I mean, pelargonium, culture for home gardeners. It seems that in the tussle over nomenclature, the botanists have given in. Good for them. Let’s keep calling these flowers “geraniums.” It saves a syllable and honors in a tiny way the old timers who taught us not horticulture but gardening.

Posted by Julie on 07/24 at 10:47 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tournesols au Tour de France

The Tour de France leader wears yellow, and now we know why.


Lance Armstrong pedals through a sunflower field near Lezat-sur-Leze on the 15th stage of the Tour de France.

Photo: Frank Fife, for AFP

It was the nastiest of all forms of competition—a newspaper war—that inspired the Tour de France. Having been engaged in one myself twenty years ago, I still feel the burn.

This site explains how the world’s most famous bicycle race began as a publicity stunt of L’Auto, a newspaper started by a miffed advertiser (these days they’d just go to direct mail—to heck with starting another paper, much less a cycling race).

“It was an enormous success. When winner Maurice Garin entered Paris, a crowd of 20,000 paying spectators greeted him. And a special edition of L’Auto sold 130,000 copies, 100,000 more than the newspaper’s circulation had been six months earlier.”

During the 1919 competition the editor, Henri Desgrange, decided that the race’s cumulative leader should wear something distinctive to stand out from the pack. “He decided on a yellow jersey, mainly because L’Auto was printed on yellow paper, so the famous maillot jaune was born.”

We’d thought it was because of the tour’s circuit through French sunflower (tournesol) fields and because “a sunflower’s head can grow to be as big as 2 feet across,” a fate that may befall Lance Armstrong too.

Armstrong appears to be headed for his seventh Tour de France victory.

Posted by Julie on 07/18 at 08:26 PM
Culture & SocietyPermalink

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Magnolia: Early Mammals and Britney

Magnolia trees, some of the oldest flowering plants to have survived, link fuzzy condylarths to Britney Spears.


Magnolia campbellii x M liliiflora ‘Nigra’

Photo: Julia Hoerner and John McCormick

for Peckerwood Garden

Yesterday at Peckerwood Garden, a magnificent collection of rare plants in Hempstead, Texas, we had the pleasure of learning a great deal from plantsman and artist John Fairey. His eye, industry and expeditions have put together a wonderland in East Texas – where contemporary sculpture dwells with prehistoric cycads, and shrubs clipped into globes snooze under Japanese conifers.

Among Peckerwood’s many attractions is its wealth of magnolias. Fairey said that these are some of the oldest trees on earth, which came as a shock to me. Those gleaming leaves that decorated our mantelpiece at Christmas time, the pods slit open with red seeds, and cream-and-lemon scented blooms seemed late-Baroque, not prehistoric. But I was about 50 million years off.

imageChriacus, a species from the magnolia’s Eocene era

Image: Paleocene Mammals

This excellent article by Gary Knox for the Florida Extension Service presents a thoroughgoing description of this old timer tree, a list of the varieties that do best in Florida, and a bibliography. Knox writes that the 80-some species of magnolia originated in Eastern Asia and the Eastern Americas. Early fossils of magnolias date from the Eocene Age just after the demise of dinosaurs, when condylarths roamed the earth, creatures hooved, clawed, chunky, and ratty.

“Surviving magnolia species represent some of the more primitive flowering plants,” he writes. “Magnolia flowers do not have true petals and sepals but are composed of petal-like tepals. Flowers do not produce true nectar, but attract pollinating beetles with fragrant, sugary secretions. Magnolia flowers are primarily pollinated by beetles of the Nitidulidae family because magnolias evolved long before bees and other flying pollinators.”

The idea of a tepal is a bit slippery for us non-botanists to grasp. “It corresponds to the sepals and petals in the flowers of other plants, but unlike these, all tepals are of the same form, not being differentiated into the protective, not insect-attracting sepals that serve to protect the developing bud, and larger, insect-attracting petals.” I think I get it: The earliest flower buds didn’t need protection or glamour just “fragrant sugary secretions.” Pretty basic.

imageBritney Spears down on the Old Plantation

In the U.S., magnolia is an emblem of the Deep South. Dominatrix of the Plantation, the creamy blossom symbolizes Southern womanhood in its grandeur, lushness and sinister force. No surprise that Britney Spears, a native of Louisiana, would try to bottle that power. Her perfume Curious is said to contain “Louisiana magnolia.” Here she is looking bayou born, predatory and Gone, with or without the Wind, a pose designed for a non-differentiated audience.

For more on this intriguing plant, Eliot Tozer’s article provides profound truth (“Deterring deer is a black art”), other magnolia information and trend-spotting. “Yellow magnolias,” varieties like ‘Elizabeth” and ‘Butterflies,’ “have taken this country by storm.”

Sounds like a primeval tale to me: here come the blondes.

Posted by Julie on 07/17 at 12:14 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Virgin of Carmen—Flowers Afloat

Throughout Andalucia and across much of the Catholic coastal world, mariners celebrate the Virgin of Carmen with flowers and fireworks on July 16.


La Virgen del Carmen, Tenerife, Spain

Photo: Los Gigantes

The ancient Greeks split the universe among three powers—the skies for Zeus, the netherworld for Hades, the seas to Poseidon. It’s just a lot for one deity to handle.

Even monotheists sense the terrible expanse and some, like the Catholics of Southern Spain, take action.  In Andalucia, with its long Mediterranean coastline, believers pay respect to the water and ask for protection as they venture over it to travel, fight, or fish. It wouldn’t do for Catholics to pray to a sea-god; instead they petition La Virgen del Carmen for aid.

On July 16, she’s honored in cities like Sevilla and Malaga and fishing villages (now tourist villages also) like Rincon de la Victoria. There, after a special mass, a statue of the virgin, robed in brown and gold, is carried through town on a throne adorned with white carnations. She receives cheers of “guapa, guapa,” as a dozen “barefoot men in blue and white sailor suits” bear her float down to the water.

imageFuengirola, Spain

Photo: Malaga Car

Once at the shore, in a “kind of ritual baptism they push her in and let the waves wash over the throne. Then they pull her out and set about mounting the throne onto a specially-prepared boat, decked with red and white carnations.” The virgin’s flowery craft then rides along the coast in blessing, escorted by a flotilla of “jábegas” (fishing boats).

The festival of the Virgin of Carmen is observed through the watery reaches of Roman Catholicism. Most of the fishing villages of Southern Spain claim her as patroness. We also found celebrations of a more civic character in Panama, and other religious rites in Chile. The Virgen del Carmen is also honored in Oaxaca, Mexico, an inland city, where her feast day appears to have combined with worship of a Pre-Columbian corn goddess. Again, it’s a big, various world. Even centuries of Catholic dogma can’t drown the idea of polytheism. The lesser gods have just been scattered, or barely submerged.


Procession of the Virgin of Carmen, Sevilla, Spain

Photo: Ricardo Jose Calvo Leon

As for flowers, they have a critical role to play in honoring the Virgin of Carmen. Accompanying her out onto the water, they are prayers of a land-born species, the scuba diver, sailor and fisherman who hope to make it back to shore.

Out of longing, the Venetians invented landscape painting, and flowers are due to Our Lady of the Sea.

Posted by Julie on 07/15 at 03:53 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink
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