Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Riots in Naivasha

Workers on one of Kenya’s largest flower farms rioted and were repulsed by police yesterday; over 1000 workers had been fired for holding an unauthorized strike over a pay cut and alleged corruption.

The whole world is watching Kenya’s flower industry, or should be. Let’s look more closely today: police and workers clashed near Lake Naivasha Monday and hundreds of people have lost their jobs.

“Police fired tear gas and fought running battles on Monday with the workers, who were among more than 1000 employees at the Oserian farm in Kenya’s central Rift Valley fired for participating in (a) strike…Several injuries were reported in disturbances outside the farm.”

The workers claimed to have been docked their monthly Sunday pay and also complained that the company’s education program, for which it had received “fair-trade” designation, has enrolled only the children of the wealthiest workers. Strikers also said that farm managers had dispatched 100 of them to put out a fire, and that 52 workers, untrained as firefighters, had been gravely injured.

The company, claiming the strikers had failed to give the requisite 21 days’ notice before their action, had fired more than 1000 employees. 

“The developments come as Oserian, which does major business with the British supermarket chains Tesco, Salisbury and Marks and Spencer, is striving to improve its reputation by joining a Fair trade network.” How fair does all this sound to you?

imageWorkers packing roses at Oserian farm, Jan. 13

Photo: Simon Maina, for AFP

Horticultural exports bring in about $100 million to this poor nation’s economy, primarily sales of roses and carnations in Europe.  Oserian Farm, 50,000 acres on Lake Naivasha, is one of Kenya’s biggest producers. But increasingly mindful buyers in Europe now want assurances that the good looking produce they’re buying hasn’t come at an exorbitant human cost.

Oserian earned fair-trade certification in 2002 from a company called Max Havelaar, and agreed to set aside 12% of production costs for the welfare of workers. Such certification and compliance are reevaluated annually, renewed or cancelled each year;  last year, according to a representative of Max Havelaar, the farm failed to meet “initial specified targets,” particularly in “distributing the bursaries” as mandated.

The market for fair-trade goods has tripled since 2001 and is on the rise. Meanwhile, conditions in and around Naivasha continue to deteriorate. Do shoppers-of-conscience at Tesco influence agribusinesses a continent away? Yes. They do.

Posted by Julie on 01/31 at 11:36 AM
Culture & SocietyCut-Flower TradePermalink

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sunflowers vs. AIDS

German scientists have found a mold-fighting compound in Helianthus that may also fight HIV.


‘Sunflower Dreams’

Photo: Lunar Fractals

At the University of Bonn, ag engineers and biotech scientists believe they have uncovered an antibody in sunflowers that can prevent the spread of HIV, which causes AIDS.

“White stem rot” is deadly to most sunflowers, but some plants manage to fight off the disease, thanks to their production of “dicaffeoyl quinic acid.” This same compound, “can prevent the HI virus from reproducing, at least in cell cultures,” says Claudio Cerboncini, of the Caesar research center. At this point, no one knows whether this sunflower antibody will combat the AIDS virus in a clinical setting. But the researchers have said this compound may open the way for a whole new class of drugs, with fewer side effects.

Medical science already had known of dicaffeoyl quinic acid but until this finding, the compound was thought to be too rare and expensive to warrant further trials. “By using the Bonn method it could probably be produced for a fraction of the costs.”

imageSunflower infected with Sclerotina

Photo: Agritel

Sclerotina has caused disasters for sunflower farmers, but the struggle against it may prove a huge boon to humankind.

“The United Nations forecasts that a minimum 45 million people in developing countries will be infected with HIV/Aids by 2010.” In South Africa alone 370,000 people die of AIDS each year. For much more news about AIDS worldwide, see the World AIDS News.

Posted by Julie on 01/30 at 06:04 PM

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Flowering Plum

On naked branches, blossoms of prunus mume open with the New Year in China.

imageScroll painting

by Cheng, Tiesheng


“The scent of plum blossoms comes from surviving the bitter cold.”

With this ancient reflection on endurance we greet the Lunar New Year. Thank you, Cheng, Tiesheng (程铁生). Mr. Cheng, a lifelong student of calligraphy, was also a teacher, forcibly retired in the 1950s for his criticism of the Chinese govenment. His beautiful calligraphic scroll, a cherished gift sent to us by his son Wei and daughter-in-law Ying, bring the joy of China’s snowy Spring Festival to the subtropics of Central Texas.

Though the lunar New Year is adorned with many plants (pussy willow, narcissus, and, in Vietnam, bong mai), the delicate five-petalled blossoms of plum are Northern China’s exquisite emblem of beginning.

Translated into English as “plum blossom,” China’s New Year’s branch is actually Prunus mume, a species closer to apricot. The trees bloom in late January/early February, coinciding with the Lunar New Year, appearing on bare branches before any leaves have sprouted. Wei writes, “Plum blossom does not crowd the spring time with all the other flowers to catch people’s attention but enjoys its own efflorescence lonely in the winter. The poets of old time took it as a symbol of pride, noble self-esteem, and perseverence for that cause.”

In Chinese culture, flowering plum has been a touchstone through sixteen centuries of music, as well as painting.

The plum blossom was also central to a complex, numerical system of divination, the “Plum Blossom Number of Changes” developed during the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) by Shao Yong. Similarly, but more simply, branches of prunus mume in bloom today will be read as good luck signs for the coming year.

imageGarden, Husan Hill

Photo: China Planner

Scholar and artist Lin Bu lived on Gushan surrounded by only his brushes, books, domesticated birds and trees.

The older the plum tree, the more ascetic it becomes.

At the mountain tower by the river inn is a man, wretched and poor.

Purity becomes complete when the cold fills every crevice,

And only now do I know that we were once the bright moon.

As they observed Lin Bu in concentration and solitude, “The people said the flowering plum was his wife and cranes his children” thus did the flowering plum come to signify “chosen seclusion and moral pre-eminence.”

Through the centuries, Chinese artists and authors of myriad beliefs have tried to make the plum blossom their own. To claim the meihua is somehow to wear armor and a halo simultaneously. Mao Zedong wrote his “Plum Blossom Hymn”; more recently, a documentary film entitled Plum Blossoms in the Snow describes China’s embattled Falun Gong minority.

imagePrunus mume in bloom

Photo: Wikipedia

Moving from the symbolic to the literal, we’ve learned of a lovely plum tree garden on Hushan Hill in Wuxi, and the City of Guangfu, famous since the Han Dynasty for its plum orchards, renowned throughout China as a “sea of fragrant snow.”

Who can fathom the flowering plum—or any other flower? We hope, in the spirit of the new year, only to begin. With tact and kindness, our friend Wei writes, “The scent of plum blossom is not strong. You can actually barely smell it. But this poem is not really about the scent as you may have seen….”

Continue Reading

Posted by Julie on 01/29 at 02:45 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Birds Do It

With berries and flower petals, cedar waxwings go on the make.


Cedar waxing on a floral bough, Quebec

Photo: Claude Nadeau

Thanks to Valerie Sudol of the New Jersey Star Ledger for her remarkable description of cedar waxwing courtship.

“In the mating ritual, the male will bring an offering, usually a berry but sometimes a flower petal, and present it to a potential lady love. If receptive, she will accept the gift, hop to one side to display her wings and their waxen jewels, and then give the food back. They pass the tidbit back and forth any number of times before one finally eats it.”

One website advances a rather joyless premise for why waxwings would bother passing along food rather than just chowing down. It proposes that the tough coating of most berries is too hard for waxwings to digest, so by tossing a berry around for awhile they make it edible. That would explain the exchange of berries, but what about the flower petals, where there’s no tough wrapper to peel?

imageRange of Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

Bombycilla cedrorum appears to handle flowers somewhat the way people to, exchanging blossoms to strengthen social ties and, in some cases, sexual ones. “Cedar Waxwings  have an interesting habit of lining up in a long row along a branch, and passing a berry or flower from bird to bird down the row, until one eats it.”

Like gregarious human types, these birds sometimes overdo.  Sudol writes, “When they descend upon a stand of berries in groups of 100 or more, it’s with the enthusiasm of frat boys on midterm break. They will stuff themselves silly, making party chat while they strip the branches clean.

“Some say it is gorging on over-ripe, partially fermented berries that makes them act like drunks, insensible and unable to fly….John James Audubon, the noted artist and naturalist, didn’t have to shoot waxwings to acquire specimens for his paintings. He could just pick them off the ground when they were staggering around under the trees and cart them off to his studio.”

A couple of years ago, we had the good fortune of entertaining a flock of cedar waxwings that had come across our nandina bushes. We hope that more masked beauties will return: “Drunk or sober, y’all come.” Hey, all you florists, wondering whether Bombycilla cedrorum visits your town? Cornell University offers a map and more information.

This chart (California-centric) describes plants and flowers that various birds species especially like. Summer holly and brown twig dogwood are cedar-waxwing favorites. And here are more photos of this remarkable flower-giving bird.

Posted by Julie on 01/28 at 04:04 PM
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