Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Chilling with Khao Chae

Jasmine flowers and cooled rice help to weather the long summer, Thai-style.

After yet another disgusting restaurant experience last night, we vow to cook more and dine out less this summer. We’ll be emitting less exhaust and exposed to fewer unbidden renditions of “Love the One You’re With” (Austin is the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” which is not to say good music).

imageKhao chae

Photo: Minoru Watanabe

via Asia Rice Foundation

Our first culinary ambition is Khao Chae. A delicacy of Thailand, it combines two of our favorite things in the world: rice and jasmine flowers. And much to recommend it as a Texas dish, it’s cool.

Khao chae (rice, soaked) has long been a specialty of the ethnic Mon, of Thailand’s Central Plains. They prepared it ceremonially for the Songkran, offering it with other gifts to “the female guardian spirit of the New Year.” In the 19th century, the homestyle recipe was adapted by the Thai nobility since it is a) tasty b) refreshingly cool as Thailand is hot, and c) quite complicated to prepare, so fit for a king.

Here is one recipe from Takako Mashiko:

“Ordinary jasmine rice is too soft, so the firmer khao taa haeng variety is used. It is first cooked in the normal way and then put in a colander and rinsed under running water several times to remove the excess starch.

“Then comes the unique ingredient: flower-scented water. A large pot is half-filled with water and a handful or two of fresh jasmine blossoms added. Then a small flower-scented candle is floated on top of the water, lit, and the pot covered loosely with the lid for 15 minutes. More blossoms and a candle with a different scent are then added and left for another 15 minutes—and then done for a third time. The scent from the candles and the natural oils from the jasmine should permeate the water.

“Sprinkle the rice liberally with scented water, then put into a piece of cheesecloth, twist the ends together to make a tight bundle and tie a knot in the top to stop the rice from swelling. Steam over boiling water. To serve, transfer some of the rice into a bowl, cover with more of the fragrant water and add a few small ice cubes and some of the flowers.”

Think of it as Thrice-Smoked Flower Rice and you begin to get the princely sense of it all. Traditional side dishes “include peanut-sized luuk kapi (shrimp paste balls), phrik yuak (fried pork-stuffed large hot peppers), hawm thawt (fried shallots), nuea phat waan (beef), and hua chai poe (Chinese radish).”

Funkygradstudent has gone hunting for khao chae in Singapore and come up hot and empty-handed. The Thai restaurants there told Funky “that special equipment and skill is required ”—it’s just too labor-intensive.

Which gets us back to dining at home.  We’ve spotted a neighbor’s jasmine vine looking lush with blooms. This weekend, we even stand to capture a bit of rainwater, which some khao chae recipes recommend. Candles: check. Earthenware container: check. Rice: check. We’re ready, and the mercury is rising.




Posted by Julie on 05/04 at 11:42 AM
CookingCulture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Grow a Landmark: Wisteria

Some controversial flowers outlive their enemies.


Wisteria in bloom, Cinque Terre, Italy

Photo: Virginia Lohr, Washington State University

We think of flowers as here today, gone tomorrow: sped up versions of ourselves.

Then there’s wisteria. This strong, long-lived plant has been somewhat vexing (and overpowering) for gardeners. Maureen Gilmer‘s recent article unwinds several mysteries of the May bloomer: “Among seed-grown wisteria, some individuals may not flower for 20 years,” which by 21st century standards amounts to an eternity. (She suggests seeking out faster-performing varieties: “Big Johnny,” “Longissima,” “Issai Perfect,” and “Purple No. 1”.)  Gilmer also describes, though does not recommend, some sadistic methods that gardeners have used to terrorize wisterias into hastier flowering.

It seems that those who aren’t rushing these plants into bloom with hatchets are chopping them down altogether. For all its vigor, wisteria is considered by some an invasive species. This article describes how Manhattan landscapers are struggling to coexist with the beautiful old Chinese wisterias (Wisteria sinensis) of Greenwich Village.  “Wisteria vines can break glass, break windows, break wood,” says Neil Mendeloff (good thing Rudi Giuliani’s no longer mayor!).  “It can be dangerous for homeless to sleep under,” Mendeloff says, because the big vines’ canopies can suddenly collapse under their own weight. “Moreover, wisterias are poisonous — two wisteria floribunda seeds can kill a child.”

imageWisteria at Ashikaga Flower Park

Silk Road Lake

But there’s another approach to wisteria, one that savors its amazing patience, strength and longevity. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the wisteria is native to cultures that appreciate such qualities: China and Japan. This primer by Chris Beardshaw claims that the giant wisteria in Ushijima, Japan is “estimated at 1200 years old.” Knock yourself out with this portfolio of pictures from the Ashikaga Flower Garden, where big crowds enjoy the fuji blossoms every spring.

And we found a marvelous story from Shanghai Daily about the effort to relocate a 500 year old wisteria in the Minhang district. “The species is scarce in the city and this ancient sample makes it a treasure,” said Ye Xinlong, the local “green director.”

Ye persisted in a human flower project to move this plant that wound up costing thousands of hours and $8 million Yuan (USD $963,000). He spoke of the wisteria with respect and awe: “It has pulled through all the hard times and become a wordless historic witness. That makes it as worthy as anything to be protected…. We treat the old wisteria like a senior man who needs tender care.”

Even in the West, some wisterias have outlasted their detractors and become beloved landmarks. There are any number of “Old Wisteria” hotels and B&B’s that boast their wisteria vines as beautiful greeters. In our memory are planted the wisteria-covered arbor at University of North Carolina; we stumbled beneath that vine in the moonlight many an evening returning to Kenan dorm. And on a spring visit to D.C., in the fine company of Anne Ardery,  we found the huge wisteria at Dumbarton Oaks in full bloom (Anne has a lovely wisteria in her own front yard in Louisville, too).

imageMaylie’s Restaurant, New Orleans

Photo: Ashleigh Austin

Both those vines are probably in bloom today, as is the famed wisteria at Ashikaga Flower Park in Japan. Just a few other wisteria landmarks of note include the vine at Grey’s Court in England, the biggie at New York’s Central Park, and we can only hope that Maylie’s Restaurant, New Orleans, is still going strong, with its wisteria vine coiling right up through the center of the dining room. Such plants seem to have exceeded the evanescence we associate with flowers: they’ve become citizens emeriti—important presences on the local scene.

A final twist of wisteriana: we have learned from Berkeley horticulturist Margaret that Chinese (sinensis) and Japanese (floribunda) wisterias can be easily distinguished by noticing “what direction the vines are twining. Wisteria floribunda, the Japanese Wisteria, twines clockwise (picture forming the letter J, for Japan), while the Chinese Wisteria twines counter-clockwise (picture forming the letter C, for China).”

So why is the venerable Ashikaga plant turning counterclockwise? Because the Japanese are especially fond of their “Chinese gardens.”

Posted by Julie on 05/03 at 01:06 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Botanically Challenged

Why can’t a keen detector of cattle dogs tell her hedgehogs apart?


Echinocereus mysteriosa

Photo: Human Flower Project

This is a cactus plant. It is prickly. It is blooming today. It is implanted in a rock (so don’t try swiping it).

Here you have the extent of our botanical insight (and minor baring of teeth).

We have tried to do better. Today, inspired by radiant purple blooms and aware (oh, yes, more horticultural knowledge) we won’t see such a display for another year, we tried to track down just which cactus variety this is. Is that what botanists do?

We are 86% sure it is an Echinocereus cactus, but how can you tell whether it’s Echinocereus fendleri Sencke ex Haage (pink hedgehog) or Echinocereus engelmannii (strawberry hedgehog), when perhaps it could in fact be Echinocereus enneacanthus, except that variety is supposed to have “warty ribs.” Would we know a “warty rib” if we saw one?

Certainly the Latin names of botany can be off-putting, especially if one is not a native speaker. The words are so long, for one thing, and for another the translations are puzzling. We learn from a reliable source, for example, that “the genus name Echinocereus is coming from the Greek for ‘hedgehog’, while the second part ‘cereus’ comes from the Latin for ‘large candle.’”  Fond as we are of metaphor, the juxtaposition of hedgehogs and large candles defies even the silliest parlor game of surrealism. Why would a hedgehog be bearing a candle, and if it were, wouldn’t a small candle do?


Lest you think we are unobservant and that’s what’s getting in the way of accurate botanical identification, please note that we are entirely capable of recognizing that both these specimens (left and right) are Australian Cattle dogs. In fact we can tell from about a block and a half away whether a creature is even one/eighth Australian Cattle dog, of which there is/are an abundance. Some varieties of echinocereus are endangered species; the Australian Cattle dog is not an endangered species.

And while we have edged over to a topic we know something about, we might also mention that the dog of St. Dominic (Santo Domingo) which in some renderings looks like a dalmation/cattledog cross but in others seems to be a plot hound, usually is seen bearing a candle.

We can tell a cattledog from a plot hound. And we can accept the idea of a dog bearing a candle, even a large one, which is sometimes known as “a torch.” But a candle-bearing hedgehog. Please.




Posted by Julie on 05/02 at 02:57 PM
Culture & SocietySciencePermalink

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Garden at Camp Iguana

With seeds from the mess hall and plastic spoons,  detainees at Guantanamo Bay are gardening.

imagePhoto: Harun Yahya

The best gardening story of the Spring comes from behind barbed wire, via Boston lawyer P. Sabin Willett.

Willet is working to defend prisoners the U.S. has locked up at Guantanamo, Cuba. These are the forgotten ones of the Iraq War. Some, like Willet’s client Saddiq Ahmad Turkistani, were cleared of any charges by the military “long ago” but remain in prison. These men are denied their freedom and even such bits of humanity as “newspapers, visits from loved ones, English dictionaries — and flowers.” Willet, who reported taking a bouquet to Saddiq recently, writes that the inmate “likes to draw roses and often asks for gardening magazines.”

Willet and others have also been trying to gain gardening privileges for the men at Camp Iguana, a low-security facility. The request was denied.

But, we learn, Saddiq and his fellow inmates have managed a tiny garden nonetheless. “We have some small plants — watermelon, peppers, garlic, cantaloupe. No fruit yet. There’s a lemon tree about two inches tall, though it’s not doing well,” Saddiq told his lawyer.

The inmates literally scratched out a plot in the hard soil of the prison yard.  “At night we poured water on the ground. In the morning, we pounded it with the mop handle and scratched it,” with plastic spoons. “The next day, we did it again. And so on until we had a bed for planting…. We have lots of time, here.”

Seeds? They were saved from mealtimes when the prisoners were fortunate enough to find bits of fresh fruit on their dinner trays.

Andrew Buncombe, picking up the story for the Independent, writes more about this remarkable gardener:

“An ethnic Uighur who was living in Afghanistan, (Saddiq) had been jailed by the Taliban for three years and then freed by the Washington-backed Northern Alliance in late 2001 before being transferred to US custody. Last year, Mr. Turkistani, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay. His lawyers say he is guilty of no crime and should never have been seized by the US. He was accused by the Taliban of being involved in a plot to kill Osama bin Laden - an allegation he denies.

“But the future of Mr. Turkistani and the eight other cleared prisoners - five Chinese Uighurs, a Russian, an Algerian and an Egyptian - who live in the less restrictive Camp Iguana, remains uncertain. He does not hold Saudi citizenship and the US does not want to send him to China because of the discrimination against Uighurs there.”

imageBarracks garden at Ruhleben, Germany, 1947

Photo: via Royal Horticultural Society

Buncombe’s story notes the tradition of P.O.W. gardens, specifically at Harperley, in England. This former prison camp for German soldiers has been preserved and actually promotes its own “Garden Centre.”

Horticulturist Barbara Haynes put together a fascinating essay on gardens in wartime. Her article makes special mention of Ruhleben, a World War I camp for British civilians outside Berlin. Prisoners there not only gardened: they formed their own gardening organization, seeking affiliation (“swiftly granted”) with the Royal Horticultural Society. They managed to improve the soil (formerly a racetrack) with “pig dung” and made a greenhouse out of “tobacco boxes.” In time, they even held their own gardening exhibitions.

As well, during World War II, U.S. prisoners (the officers, anyway) held by the Japanese on Kyushu Island were permitted a garden.


German POW’s gardening at an English prison camp

Photo: Imperial War Museum, via BBC

It seems even in war, the human flower project will not be effaced. Thanks to P. Sabin Willett. And congratulations to the gardeners of Camp Iguana. Watermelons, cantaloupes and lemons are mighty fine, but surely Saddiq and the others would like to grow some cosmos and zinnias too.

To find out how to contribute seed for the Camp Iguana garden, contact Reprieve.

Posted by Julie on 05/01 at 03:20 PM
Gardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink
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