Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, October 31, 2005

Cempasuchitl—San Antonio Runs Low

San Antonians are scrambling to find the traditional flower for El Dia de los Muertos.


An ofrenda in the courtyard of San Fernando Cathedral

honors a loved one with marigolds , coxcombs, & candy

Oct. 30, 2005, San Antonio, TX

All souls, departed and contemporary, are on the move this time of year in Texas. Temperatures are bearable at last, and hibernating spirits regain the impulse for festivity.

Today’s is Halloween, of course, but in San Antonio, the pervasive celebrations are for All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2), better known as El Dia de los Muertos. We’ve been making a yearly pilgrimage to San Antonio, to visit the flower farmers of The Belgian Gardens, the flower vendors along Castroville Road, and San Fernando II Cemetery, but this year brought some sad awakenings.

The traditional flower for Day of the Dead is a long-stemmed marigold (tagetes erecta L.), known in its native land of Central Mexico as cempasuchitl. That name, from the Aztec dialect Nahuatl, means “twenty petals”—a pre-trade-deficit metaphor for “infinity.”


Carmen Almaguer gathered marigolds at Roger and Patsy Verstuyft’s

farm last year. The Verstuyfts didn’t grow a flower crop in 2005.

Cempasuchitl traditionally decorates the graves on this occasion. Their iridescence and pungent smell are said to guide the spirits of the dead back to earth for an annual communion with the living. (Cempasuchitl, we learned, is also used in the manufacture of yellow dye; it’s added to chicken feed to make skins and yolks more appealingly yellow.)

Jo Tuckman wrote a piece for the Houston Chronicle in 2002 about how more compact, hybrid marigolds, grown from seed genetically engineered in the U.S. have been gradually usurping the All Souls market. Flowers with shorter stems tend to be popular with shippers and some growers, since their stems are less prone to breaking during the “pilgrimage” from field to vase. But in San Antonio, the problem this year was finding any marigolds at all.

Craig Pennel, whose Tienda Guadalupe always arranges a big ofrenda (altar) in memory of Pennel’s partner Danny Lozano, “had to buy from a florist this year,” since the vendors along Castroville Road had no marigolds to sell. Local farmers Patsy and Roger Verstuyft on Somerset Road may have grown their last crop of Day of the Dead flowers; Patsy’s had shoulder surgery and Roger’s back is giving him the dickens. Their children, with health woes of their own, don’t seem to be taking over the long family tradition.

Relatives Eunice and Mark Verstuyft, who farm just a bit farther south, planted flowers as usual this year but, Eunice said sadly, “They haven’t opened. We don’t know what’s wrong.”  By Sunday, October 30, usually a bustling time at their barn in Von Ormy, they’d only cut two dozen marigold bunches. Local growers have it hard, but in parts of Mexico, recent hurricanes have completely swamped thousands of acres of farmland; Mexican marigolds have been hard to come by, too.

imageA memorial at San Fernando II Cemetery

San Antonio, TX, October 2005

The flower vendors, now required to pay the city a whopping $180 fee to sell on the street, still were doing a fairly steady business yesterday, as people stopped for decorated cans of real gladiolas and easels of silk roses. Maria Orta, who with her mother Carmen Alamguer is a regular flower seller at the Las Palmas shopping center across from San Fernando II Cemetery, said business was down. “People want the marigolds,” she said, and there just aren’t any to sell.

Posted by Julie on 10/31 at 11:44 AM
Culture & SocietyCut-Flower TradeFloristsReligious RitualsPermalink

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Macau—Pulling Out the Stops


Opening ceremonies at the East Asian Games featured a Beyond Busby Berkeley show of dancers in pink, a giant golden lotus, and live cranes.

Photo: Claro Cortes IV, for Reuters

Macau, the Reno of South China, is playing host to the East Asian Games, October 29-November 6. Events include dragon-boat racing and wushu (a martial art form), as well as mundane athletics like basketball.

Macau has spent nine years, and some say the equivalent of $625 million, to prepare for the event. The former Portuguese colony, “with a population of 440,000, is considered a small city by Asian standards. It has long been known as a center for seedy entertainment and casinos. But the city has witnessed an economic boom, expressed not only in the growth of upscale casinos, but in the real estate market, as well.

“The East Asian Games, its boosters say, will provide a chance to showcase Macau on an international stage. Such hopes are crucial for a city that has traditionally been in the shadow of nearby Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s flower is the bauhinia, or orchid tree, Macau’s—in case you missed the opening ceremonies—the lotus.

Posted by Julie on 10/30 at 11:01 AM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Gregarious Flowering

Officials in NE India, fearing that the oncoming bamboo bloom will bring famine, struggle to get a grip on this runaway resource.


Bamboo forest, Mizoram, India

Photo: Bamboo Development Agency

Mizoram, a teardrop hanging between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is wet, hilly land covered with forests. Mizo lore and ag scientists agree there’s a serious threat coming: mautak (Melocanna baccifera ), a widespread species of bamboo, is due to flower, and famine is likely to follow. The disaster after the last great flowering, in 1959-60, killed 3000 people, sparked an armed insurrection, and in fact brought about the creation of Mizoram itself.

“Bamboo flowers ‘gregariously’, as scientists put it: across vast areas. Generally, most species flower at fixed intervals; all clumps including the youngest ones die after flowering, a peculiarity that exists only in bamboo. When a species flowers gregariously, all populations of it raised from the same seed source flower at once, wherever they exist.”

The sudden superabundance of seed nourishes rats, and once the seed supply has been devoured, hungry rodents “run amok, quite literally…. the rats attack granaries, fields of standing crops, paddy, fruits, vegetables, whatever is available.” 

After 35 years,  mautak has begun blooming again. “In 2002-2003, 34 villages faced an increase in rodent population. In 2003-2004 another 16 witnessed it. 85 villages have already recorded sporadic mautak flowering…. The Union ministry of environment and forests has estimated, in 2005, that 510,000 ha of the mautak-dominant area will flower gregariously.”

imageMizoram (in red)

Map: Deutsch Wikipedia

If there ever was one, here’s an example of the disastrous consequences of monoculture. Of Mizoram’s total land area, 87% is forested: “51% per cent is under bamboo” and well over half of the bamboo forested area is “completely dominated by the mautak species.”

Within Mizoram, there appears to be a combination of panic, frustration and confusion about the incipient flowering. Modern forest management is coming up against jhum, a form of agriculture centuries old. “For the Mizo people, mautak is an integral ingredient to jhum cultivation, practiced over more than 70 per cent of the land at one or the other time. As Michael Lalmanzuala, a retired chief secretary of Mizoram, explains, ‘In January and February the rural folk begin to fell bamboo for jhum. In March they set fire to the fallen bamboo, turn it to ash. This ash is the best nutrient our steep and young, muddy hills can get for cultivation. Without mautak, cultivators can grow nothing.’ “

A government-sponsored bamboo development agency seems intent on discouraging jhum, finding ways to profit from bamboo harvesting instead, but convincing local farmers to change hasn’t been easy, nor, according to some anthropologists, may it be wise.

imageJhum: Sowing seeds after the winter burn

Photo: Karbi Culture

This fascinating paper “reappraises” jhum, looking at its practical, ecological and social effects. “At least 100 different indigenous tribes and over 620,000 families in the seven states of North East India depend on jhum for their subsistence.” The paper concludes, “Only occupations providing monetary and social benefits perceived by jhumias to outweigh the cultural and security benefits embodied by jhum are likely to gain acceptance.”

Thus far, those occupations don’t seem to exist. Meanwhile, the mautak has begun its “gregarious” flowering—to peak, botanists say, in 2006.

Posted by Julie on 10/29 at 11:58 AM
Culture & SocietyEcologyPermalink

Friday, October 28, 2005

Toledo—Coming in for a Floral Landing

A midwestern city renovates to become a new hub of flower transport.

imageToledo, Ohio

Toledo Express Airport

Big-shouldered cities of the American Midwest have been slumping over for several decades. Toledo, Ohio, in a sense is typical. Population of this city on the shores of Lake Erie, a former giant of glass manufacturing, is declining and, to judge by what “makes” a U.S. city, Toledo hasn’t had a major league baseball team since the Maumees in 1890.

But if a move by the city’s port authority succeeds, it will become a major league flower transport center. The city’s transportation directors voted yesterday “to approve spending $625,000 to convert part of the Cargo Building at Toledo Express into refrigerated storage.” The firm that will lease this facility and operate the transport center “also will pay the port authority $1.5 million up front for a 10-year option to lease 20 acres” nearby for future development.

“Proposed cargo flights…would haul roses from Quito, Ecuador, to Toledo, then take other cargoes to Frankfurt, Germany, and from Europe to South America.”

Currently, Miami  dominates transportation of flowers and other perishables from South America into the U.S. But according to Toledo’s transport chief, “there have long been rumblings about shifting that trade to the Midwest, which is closer to a greater number of population centers and thus offers shorter delivery times.”

The company, Glopexx, plans initially for six weekly flights of flowers into Toledo.

Posted by Julie on 10/28 at 12:52 PM
Cut-Flower TradeTravelPermalink
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