Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

U.S. Florists—Only the Brave

This month’s Florists’ Review counsels flower shop owners that racing for the lowest price may finish off their trade.


Designer David Kurio, 2004 TSFA meeting, Austin, TX

Photo: Julie Ardery

It’s an old gory story in the annals of business, labor too— Price war. Companies bend over for customers by cutting prices below the competition. Sounds good for consumers, though in the long run, the practice tends to benefit only the big-shot sellers, those who can afford a stretch of lean profits, or even losses.

Most florists aren’t big-shots but small business people trying to hang on in a conglomerate culture. This come-to-your-senses piece by consultant Stan Pohmer in Florists’ Review describes just how tough that is.

Pohmer writes that high fuel prices have sent florists’ expenses up while tightening consumers’ purses. “People were worried about the basic necessities and essentials such as keeping food on the table, putting gas in the car and paying the rising costs of college for the kids, more often deferring ‘affordable luxury’ purchases like flowers,” he concludes. Need numbers? He reports that in the third quarter of 2005, supermarket cut flower sales were down 9.6% (compared to 3rdQ 2004), but florists’ cut flowers sales were down 28.5 percent!

imageKatherine Dumbeck (right) and friend.

Dumbeck sold her shop All Occasions Flowers in Elgin, TX, to Jan Rioux in 2004.

Photo: J. Ardery

Pohmer describes the impact of big box stores and, a burning topic among today’s florists, the competition from the wire services that for decades brought in much of their business. There’s a lot to be gleaned from this article, but one emphatic point was that florists have been engaged in economic bulimia: starving themselves by trying to match the groceries and discount-dromes on price. Pohmer advocates another outlook he calls “Comparative value,” the sum of “perceived price + quality + assortment + service + ambience + shopping experience + presentation + + +.” He argues that customers will pay more for flowers when they’re getting more than flowers.

If you’re a florist and want to hear what your brothers and sisters have to say about the article (which is a lot), join Flowerchat, an excellent on-line discussion of everything from starting a web page for your shop to pricing a grave blanket.

You florists are a kind, talented and, in these times, brave bunch. May 2006 bring you prosperity.

Posted by Julie on 01/11 at 02:15 PM

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Seeing Flowers: Are You Missing Anything?

(Note: We’re honored to post this revelatory essay by two scholar/scientists in Louisiana.  Jim and Renee, thank you for sharing some of your pioneering work here. People, as well as plants, need mentors, and you’ve become mentors to us.)

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary,                                           

EarthScholars™ Research Group

imagePhoto: Hiking the Carolinas

We don’t see with our eyes alone. The data our eyes generate undergo visual processing by our brains. Subsequently, only a small fraction of the total information our eyes detect is brought to our conscious attention. Given how the human visual system processes information, coupled with its learned “default values” for that processing, most people in developed nations tend to see plants as merely a green, blurry backdrop for the animals and human-made objects that populate their visual field.

Ask your friends what the picture above depicts and most will say “a deer” — even though there are at least a hundred times more plants than animals in that photo.

Ask them if they ever consciously pay attention, as they watch the game, to the millions of living grass plants upon which their favorite football team plays. Using an established turfgrass density rate, [850 grass plants per square foot] x [9 sq. ft. per sq. yd.] x [5,300 sq. yds. per football field], there are at least 40.5 MILLION grass plants growing between the two goal lines.

imageImage: Hume Seeds

It is also true that the more recent generations of people living in developed nations have spent less time outdoors in nature than previous generations, thus increasing their estrangement from the Plant Kingdom. We tend to pay attention to things with which we are familiar, things we understand, and things that are important to us. Nationwide research studies conducted by us at Louisiana State University on plant blindness have shown that it is only through botanical education, plant mentorship, and direct experience that plants become salient, meaningful, and valued by the US citizenry.

Research by Tunnicliffe at Cambridge University has revealed that UK children typically have a much narrower meaning for the word plant than botanists do. They use the term “plant” to mean a flowering plant, and the term “flower” to represent an entire plant—but they apply it only to the plants that have bright and conspicuous flowers. They don’t, for example, consider most trees to be plants, nor are weeds deemed plants by them. Other science education researchers have demonstrated that many of these childhood misconceptions persist even into adulthood, and are not limited to the UK.

imageTo the plant scientist, a flower is a reproductive organ that developed from a modified leaf. Botanically, a flower is a plant structure that may or may not be aesthetically pleasing, depending upon its natural pollination regime. If it is wind-pollinated, such as most trees and grasses are, its flowers may be rather small, drab, and inconspicuous. If it requires animal pollinators, it often exhibits dramatic visual or olfactory advertisements, complex floral structures, and various synthesized substances as rewards to attract them.


Consider the azalea (at right). When it is not in bloom, this plant is a rather bland piece of shrubbery, easily overlooked as you pass by it. When it is in need of pollination and ready for full bloom, it “switches on” its colorful visual advertisements and almost everyone is instantly aware of its presence. (Photos: Not in bloom, Dept. of Horticulture, Cornell University;  blooming, San Diego State University)

Flowering plants make up about 90% of the Plant Kingdom. Over 250,000 species have already been described. They appeared on Earth after the other seed plants, which date back to the Devonian Period. Thanks to recent work by plant biologists at the Salk Institute, we now understand, genetically, how floral structure develops and why flowers last for only a short time, while leaves and branches last much longer.

The fossil record tells us that flowers appeared long before humans, while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. During the past 140 million years, flowering plants have colonized nearly every available habitat on Earth. In his day, Darwin called their origin “an abominable mystery.” Harvard University biologists have recently found genetic evidence to back a claim that one of the first flowering plants may have been Amborella, a rather ordinary New Caledonian shrub with tiny flowers. The Water Lily was also shown by these researchers to be a rival candidate for first flowering plant.

Note how useful paleontology and genetics are in unraveling questions of plant evolution. Our own EarthScholars™ Research Group seeks to integrate biological and geological knowledge for greater public understanding of science. One of us is a botanist and the other is a geologist. Together, we are much like Charles Darwin, whose mindset was able to shift between biology to geology, consciously attempting to integrate those two domains. In contrast to Darwin though, our own efforts have focused on improving our nation’s geobiological understanding—via visual, historical, and field-based learning approaches. Much of our research has been conducted in fossil parks, petrified forests, and arboreta.

A geologist can look at a fossilized flower that s/he has collected and see specific geological processes at work, note environmental indicators, analyze associated pollen data, examine related strata, and piece together numerous discrete sources of information gathered in the field to allow the fossil to “speak.” Geologists exude an appreciation for earth history and the history of life.  Paleobotanist William Crepet of Cornell University, writing in Natural History magazine, reported that a recently discovered ancient marsh site in New Jersey contains over 200 species of fossilized flowers—many more than have been found anywhere else on Earth. They have been dated to be about 90 million years old (Late Cretaceous Period). While Crepet noted that these fossils have lost any bouquet appeal that they may once have had, they are beautiful in other ways. We can view them as they are preserved, in three dimensions, and as precursors of modern-day flowering plants—complete with petals, pollen grains, ovules, with many of their associated insect pollinators preserved as well. The latter data support the hypothesis that insects served as the driver of floral diversity, leading to many new plant species.

imageA fossilized flower

Photo: NASA Astrobiology Institute

So, have you seen a flower…truly seen a flower? Have you studied the plant when its flowers have fallen and it is not in bloom? Have you raised it from seed and met its requirements for growth and flowering? Have you noted its similarities and differences with respect to the other flowers that you know? Have you identified it accurately by its suite of characteristics? Can you name its parts properly? Have you viewed that flower through the lenses of its structure, its foliage and stem, its floricultural history, its environmental stresses, its pollinators, your prior knowledge about it, its sociocultural significance, its evolutionary pathway, and its changes across geologic time? Have you compensated for the biases of your own visual observation system?

Maybe what you have really done up to now is akin to just glancing. Perhaps it might take each of us an entire lifetime to really SEE a flower.

(From “The Most Beautiful Flower” by Cheryl L. Costello-Forshey)

…I heard my voice quiver; tears shone in the sun

As I thanked him for picking the very best one.

Through the eyes of a blind child, at last I could see

The problem was not with the world; the problem was me.

And for all of those times I myself had been blind,

I vowed to see the beauty in life,

And appreciate every second that’s mine.

And then I held that wilted flower up to my nose

and breathed in the fragrance of a beautiful rose. 

And smiled as I watched that young boy,

Another weed in his hand, 

About to change the life of an unsuspecting old man.



Posted by Julie on 01/10 at 11:01 AM
Culture & SocietyEcologyGardening & LandscapeSciencePermalink

Monday, January 09, 2006

Shelf Life—A 145 Million Year Old Flower

The oldest flower fossil yet discovered goes on display in Nanjing, China.


Archaefructus sinensi

Photo: Prof. David Dilcher

via Valentine

People’s Daily reports that “Liaoning ancient fruit,” a 145 million year old plant fossil, is the Mona Lisa of Nanjing’s new Museum of Paleontology. It lacks la Giaconda’s smile, but features something of greater interest to paleobotanists: “ovules…completely enclosed in a carpel” (i.e. seeds inside fruit), making this specimen the world’s oldest flower.

Sun Ge discovered the fossil eight years ago in Northeastern China. It had previously been thought that angiosperms appeared 130 million years ago, but this plant “collected from the Upper Jurassic ‘Jianshangou Bed’” grew 15 million years earlier.

David Dilcher, biologist of the University of Florida, who also worked on the research notes that the sample “doesn’t have any beautiful showy flowers, but it is a flowering plant because it has fruit that enclose seeds.” So what?, you may ask.

Well, it was this flowering system that evolved into grains, fruits, vegetables, zinnias, without which, Dilcher says in a masterpiece of understatement, “It would have been a very different world.” As in, no roses, ticks, parrots, buffalos, or people.

Here are more more articles about Archaefructus sinensis, one for paleobotanists, another, from a terrific flower forum in Greece, for non-experts.

If you’re in Nanjing, please stop by the new museum, elbow your way in to see our floral ancestor, and send us a postcard.

Posted by Julie on 01/09 at 12:26 PM
Art & MediaEcologyScienceTravelPermalink

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Street Flowers of Sao Paulo

The Hummingbird Program gives Brazil’s runaways paintbrushes and a chance to fly home.


Matheus Aparecido Alves Borges, 7, and his still life

Photo: Hummingbird Activity Center

Here—para voce—bouquets from Brazil.

This gallery of still life painters and paintings is a gentle awakening to some jagged realities of life in Sao Paulo, the third largest city in the world. Just under 18 million people live here, most notoriously, thousands of children who live on the streets.

In 1993 Gregory J. Smith, a former art dealer, moved to the megacity and began working with runaways, establishing a Children at Risk Foundation here (Smith had set up such a foundation in Norway a year earlier).

CARF’s goal, now as then, is to defend the rights of Brazil’s street children, to offer them “a dignified and definitive solution” to a universal childhood problem: finding a healthy environment—familial and social—where they can grow.

A 1997 study by Brazil’s Peace and Justice Center found, to many folks’ surprise, that lots of Sao Paulo’s street children have “structured families” and parents with jobs. The study concluded,  “It is not the family structure which generates street children but the lack of public leisure areas, culture and education which such occupy the free time of these youth.”

CARF responded with the Hummingbird Activity Center in 2001. Taking this step, the organization expanded its programming from 80 children to more than 600 by 2004. Hummingbird (Beija-Flor, in Portuguese) focuses on sports, art and vocational training, addressing children not so much as problems to be fixed but as people with minds, energies, and strivings.

imageThalyta Nere de Lima, 9, and her painting

Photo: Hummingbird Activity Center

Ordalina Candido Felipe, a teacher at Hummingbird has written, “For youth of the urban periphery, art constitutes safety and implies that they are not frightened to tread in other territories. But to be able to reach that goal, they need to work extensively.”

How beautifully Smith and his associates have set those energies in motion with this flower painting project.  We’re eager to learn more about the assignment and its outcomes. Beija-Flores, please be in touch.

In our view, nothing could be more refreshing for children of the streets than to collect their impressions and dreams of the flower world and give those impressions back in their own colors and “vases.”

These seem to us portraits of psychic health. Move over, Odilon Redon.



Posted by Julie on 01/08 at 01:31 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPermalink
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