Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ecumenical Flowers

With a flower embrace, two English cathedrals reach past theology.

imageCarved medallion

Norwich Cathedral

Photo: About Britain

Ecumenicism is bee-bop-a-lou-ah for “unity.” About 50 years ago, it was a much more popular idea—that people of all faiths might come together and get busy working on something more significant than how right they individually were.

So we were encouraged to see this trace of ecumenicism in today’s news, undertaken via —yes—flowers.  The Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals in Norwich, England, are working together to “Embrace the World”  in a joint flower festival.

imageA B24 Liberator (front) and a B17 fly above the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Norwich.

Illustration:  Paul Osborne

Parishioners have stencilled the streets of Norwich with a mile of yellow flowers, making a trail between the two grand churches. Inside, there will be scores of arrangements by local designers. The Norwich flowers will “focus on famous people of the world, in traditional style, while those at St John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral… will portray countries of the world in modern flower arrangements”—175 floral exhibits in all. The event, running through Monday, is expected to draw 30,000 visitors, and their donations (7 GBP apiece) will support improvements at both cathedrals and the East Anglian Air Ambulance.

We have special interest in Norwich and its air as our dear father was based here during World War II, flying bombing missions over Germany, Norway, and France. We discovered this amazing image on the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist site.  “During World War II” the beautiful Catholic cathedral “was used as a turning beacon for planes returning to Norfolk after bombing missions in Europe, especially by members of the USAF 7th Air Force. Many of them were married here, as testified in parish registers of the 1940s.”

Norwich Cathedral, more than 900 years old, has been called “one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe.” Flowers in wood, “nave bosses,” are a permanent part of the cathedral—“a unique and world renowned collection of medieval carvings.”

imageCarved medallion, Norwich Cathedral

Photo: Julia Hedgecoe

The deans of Norwich Cathedral and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist began meeting over a year ago “to explore ways in which they could improve their links as they wanted to show all faiths the benefits of working together towards a common goal.”  The Very Rev. Graham Smith, Norwich Cathedral, said, “The Festival was born out of the desire of our two Cathedrals to work together to the glory of God and in the service of the wider community”

Why does flower theology seem an invitation to ecumenicism? Our friend John Stokes of Mary Gardens has many informed and illuminating things to say on this subject. In our own view, flowers evidence a beautiful and living power that, without trampling on a violet,  presides over all.

Posted by Julie on 05/31 at 10:42 AM
Culture & SocietyFloristsReligious RitualsPermalink

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Valleys—Where Rose Oil is Born

Bulgaria’s big rose festival begins today; work is hard and “conditions” are ideal.


At Karlovo’s rose festival

Photo: Balkany

Kazanlashka roza—the Kazanluk rose of Bulgaria—receives its due over the next several days. Bulgaria’s rose festival comes at harvest time, when this special breed of flower is at peak bloom and ripe with precious attar.

While the Bulgarians admit their roses are descended from those of Iran, they point out how over four centuries, they’ve made huge improvements, thanks to humid nature and intensive nurture. They call the time-honored techniques of cultivation kesme, a laborious method that involves trenching, the careful relayering of “upper” and “lower” soils, overlapping healthy cuttings, periodic hoeing and shoveling in of “lower” earth, “scarifying the stamped soil” after the harvest, and mounding dirt around the bases of each plant for winter.

The seasoned rose growers here have noticed, “Every five to seven years there occurs a sudden warming during the harvesting time, which hampers gathering, storing and distillation. To avoid the adverse effect of the winds on the rose bushes, (the shrubs) were always planted in hedge-rows,” oriented north/south or northeast/southwest. Formerly, hedges of white roses were planted at the extremities of the field, to protect the more richly scented pinks inside.

imageRose harvesting

Image: BPG

To all this human care and industry, Nature contributes genius too. The climate here is, in rose-ese, perfect. “The rainfalls in the Rose Valley are heaviest in the spring, with a peak in June. Daily rainfalls are not abundant, yet the rainy days are many. This kind of weather prolongs the flowering period, suppresses oil evaporation,  at the same time increasing the yield of oil and its quality. The mean monthly precipitation in May and June is usually between 80 and 100 litres per square meter. The absence of intensive sunshine prevents undesired liberation of the volatile aromatic ingredients from the flowers.” 

Warm and humid without baking sun, temperate and airy without stinging winds. According to one source, flowers of the Striama and Toundzha river valleys (and their human assistants) produce 80% of the world’s rose oil, used in perfumes, to be sure, but also in cooking and cosmetics.

Here’s a general run-down of the festival events, which include dancing, lots of costumes, demonstrations, ritual picking, and the crowing of rose royalty. “The first rose festival in Kazanlak took place in 1903” and Karlovo began its own celebration soon after.  Here are more specifics and photos from Karlovo, where the ritual picking this year will take place June 3. This excellent site offers lots more information about the history of the industry. It notes, for example, that under Communism, rose production “was declared a monopoly of the state.”

While Bulgarian tourism calls the rose festival “a tribute to beauty,” we can’t help but remember what our Bulgarian friend Stela told us—that as a high school student, she and all her classmates were bussed into the rose valley before dawn and forced to pick flowers each morning throughout harvest season.

We’d call the rose festival “a tribute to labor and nature”—with beauty, and sore fingers, its result.

Posted by Julie on 05/30 at 11:52 AM
Cut-Flower TradeGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Monday, May 29, 2006

Decoration Day

North and South are still at odds over who initiated Memorial Day.


Civil War veteran salutes with a Boy Scout and a soldier

at a gravesite in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Decoration Day, 1927

Photo: Chicago Daily News

from Library of Congress, American Memory

When we dream of going back in time, to any period of history, there’s one era we would NOT choose to visit: the years of the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865.

In a small way, though, we revisit this dreadful time each Memorial Day. “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country….” So read an order of the Grand Army of the Republic, Washington, D.C., 138 years ago. This may be the U.S. military’s one floral command.

Fortunately, the military doesn’t run this country (yet, anyway). It’s primarily been civilians who have carried out this order, lovingly. The custom goes back at least two years before the army proclamation, when three women in Columbus, Mississippi, decided to decorate the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery. After the gruesome Battle of Shiloh, “Hundreds of wounded troops, - both Confederate and Union - were shipped south on railroad cars from Corinth, Mississippi, near the Tennessee line to makeshift hospitals in towns such as Columbus.  Many of the soldiers died on the trains; others survived into the late spring and early summer of 1862 but ultimately perished.” More than 2000 soldiers are buried here.

Felder Rushing writes that when news of the Columbus graveyard tribute “reached the North, an article in the New York Tribune cited the ladies for their unselfish act; many people were surprised that Southern ladies would mark the graves of Union soldiers with flowers. But war widow Augusta Murdoch Sykes, one of the Columbus planners, pointed out that ‘after all, they are somebody’s sons.’” The tradition of “Decoration Day” seems to have spread quickly on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, a reconciliatory custom born of grief and weariness—conditions only flowers of the late spring can meet.

Weirdly, some would extend the battle, over who gets credit for Decoration Day. Here, die-hard Northerners give their version; here, Confederate flag waving, is another view.

imageDecoration Day, Pineview Cemetery, West Virginia (1996)

Photo: Terry Eiler

Only in 1971 was the federal holiday Memorial Day fixed on the last Monday in May. It “marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season in the United States. It is still a time to remember those who have passed on, whether in war or otherwise. It also is a time for families to get together for picnics, ball games, and other early summer activities.”

In the South, the custom remains strong, though it’s not always observed on Memorial Day. At rural cemeteries where there’s no groundskeeping crew, descendents often set aside a weekend in the spring or summer to meet and clean up the ancestors’ graves. The occasion melds Decoration Day and family reunion. Make sure to see the photographs Terry Eiler took in West Virginia, 1996. Terry’s photo album appears, along with the Chicago picture above and thousands more materials, at the Library of Congress site called American Memory.





Posted by Julie on 05/29 at 11:44 AM
Culture & SocietyPoliticsSecular CustomsPermalink

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Heartthrob of the Fall Line

Along an ancient border of the American Southeast, it’s showtime for the rocky shoals spider lily.


The Fall Line

where the Appalachians drop to the coastal plain

Image: Dept. of Geography, Kokushikan University

Throughout the land of gracious drawl—the Southeastern United States—people refer to “The Fall Line,” where the Appalachian Piedmont meets the coastal Atlantic plain. “Its name arises from the occurrence of waterfalls and rapids that are the inland barriers to navigation” on all the region’s major rivers. Just as our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, grew up on the Falls of the Ohio, where folks had to debark and tote overland, many cities of the Eastern U.S. developed along this geological dropoff,  from Lowell, Mass., on the Merrimack River in the north, through Troy, NY, Wilmington, Delaware, Washington, D.C. on the Potomac, to the more southern river towns of Columbia, South Carolina; Augusta, Georgia; and Auburn, Alabama. Navigation was tough but water-power plentiful along this escarpment, a good place to unload your grain and set up a mill.

The southern stretches of the Fall Line, with warm water running over rocky shoals, proved the perfect habitat for Hymenocallis coronaria a rare and beautiful spider lily. In late May, the aquatic plant bursts into silvery flower, causing great commotion in Dixie. Landsford Canal State Park on the Catawba River in South Carolina, claiming to have the most Rocky Shoals Spider Lilies in the country, holds an annual Lily Festival, with canoe and kayak trips up river to see the flowers in bloom (sorry, y’all. It was last weekend, though surely some of the lilies are still celebrating).

In Alabama, the same plants are known as Cahaba lilies, since the Cahaba River south of Birmingham suits them. “They only occur in open well-lit rocky shoals of streams and rivers. Other requirements the lilies have are swift-moving and well-oxygenated water free of pollution and sediments.” This Alabama nature site says the flowers’ main pollinator is the “plebian sphinx moth,” a nocturnal visitor “attracted to the lily by the fragrance of the flower and the sugary reward it offers. Once seeds are produced, they drop into the water and sink to the bottom where they are wedged into rock and grow to become new plants.”

The same fragrance also attracted naturalist William Bartram, credited with first describing the rocky shoals spider lily in 1773. “After observing a population in the Savannah River near Augusta, he wrote, ‘Nothing in vegetable nature is more pleasing than the odoriferous Pancratium fluitans, which alone possesses the little rocky islets which just appear above the water.’”


Rocky Shoals Spider Lily - Full Flower Moon

Landsford Shoals, South Carolina, May 1999

Photo: Ted Borg

(Prints of this photo are for sale, proceeds benefiting conservation work in the Catawba River Valley.)

By whatever name, these beautiful flowers are disappearing. Only 50 colonies survive, yet the plant has not been placed on the federal endangered species list.  Dammed creeks and sedimentation from runoff have sent too much soil to settle in the lily’s rocky and fluid habitat, so that other types of vegetation are sprouting here, crowding out the beautiful wild amaryllis. This article describes how botanical scientists are building an artificial stream to replicate the rare lily’s native habitat and study its life cycle. Clemson University’s Botanical Gardeners, given some seeds of Hymenocallis coronaria,  are trying to propagate the rocky shoals spider lily and reintroduce it into shallows of the Broad River in Columbia.

Maybe rah-rah-for-rarity ecotourism and scientific research (plus endangered species status, please!) can save this beauty of the southern Fall Line.

Posted by Julie on 05/28 at 03:25 PM
EcologyGardening & LandscapePermalink
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