Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Vitex Queen

Gardener and herbalist Ellen Zimmermann shares the glories of the “chaste tree.”


Vitex agnus-castus (with Turk’s cap)

Photo: Human Flower Project

Does the chaste tree enhance or suppress libido?

Now coming into bloom here in Austin, Vitex agnus-castus is also known as “chaste tree” and “monk’s pepper.” We’ve heard it was once planted around monasteries and “touted as an herb capable of helping Monks maintain their vows of chastity.”  But if that’s true, wouldn’t it be called “monk’s balm” not “monk’s pepper”?

Herbalist Ellen Zimmermann discreetly recommends, “You be the judge.”

Ellen is known around these parts as “The Vitex Queen.” Through classes, demonstrations, her beautiful garden and her own glowing good health, she’s been spreading the news about this plant’s benefits for “women of all ages.”  She names the chaste tree among her Top Ten Herbs: “The medicinal berries are used to treat PMS and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and excessive bleeding.  As a hormonal balancer, Vitex regulates progesterone and estrogen, treats fibroids and re-establishes normal ovulation and menstruation.” Hear me roar!

imageEllen Zimmermann teaches in her garden southwest of Austin, TX, July 2004

Photo: Human Flower Project

Ellen makes a simple tincture of vitex berries, usually harvested in July; they’re also a key ingredient in her “Menopause Made Easy” tincture. Find out lots more on Ellen’s website. Our favorite corner there is the monthly herbal newsletter, one of the very first dedicated, of course, to vitex. Ellen affirms that it “helps the body retain its natural balance after using the birth control pill.  Vitex can also treat fibroids, inflammation of the womb lining and will enhance the flow of mother’s milk.”

If you’d like a second opinion, how about Hippocrates? He set down in the 4th Century B.C., “If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark red wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped. A draft of chaste leaves in wine also serves to expel a chorion (afterbirth) held fast in the womb.”

Interiors aside, we most appreciate lilac chaste tree for its beauty and hardiness here in the scorching South. Ellen suggests, “plant a small tree, in the sun, nurture it at first and then just about let it be.  Vitex loves our summer heat and will thrive for years.” Bill Hopkins, a North Texas gardener and terrific blogger at prairie point, likewise paid tribute to vitex.

Its effects on libido? When Bill writes, “I can’�t imagine living without (a chaste tree) now,” and Ellen calls vitex “my husband’s favorite herb,” we get the picture, a mighty pretty one.





Posted by Julie on 05/26 at 11:25 AM
Gardening & LandscapeMedicinePermalink

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Looking over a Concrete Clover

Lewis Mumford sets off a search for the flowers of highway interchange.


Highway interchange in North Carolina

Photo: NCDOT

“Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf.”

So Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) summed up America’s erotic love of technology, speed and engineering-for-engineering’s sake.

Are there truly flowers in asphalt, discernible from the sky? We found a few symmetrical freeway interchanges, like this one in St. Louis, a loop-de-loop in Maryland, and the Kathleen Road interchange in Florida (oh, Kathleen, I’m thinking you would have preferred some lovelier floral tribute than this!).

But primarily what we found was land scarred up, hideously. Check out the Museum of Ridiculous Freeway Design for some especially koo-koo junctions. What’s more sinister, though, (and inspired Mumford’s “national flower” thought) is our deep infatuation with roads. This site lovingly compiles highway shapes and here’s a study of knotted objects including concrete clovers.

Up for a bit of DIY? Well, by all means, make your own cloverleaf highway.

Architect and sociologist, Mumford developed a fairly grim outlook on American culture, and after checking out these transportation “flowers” one respects his darkness. He wrote about how advertising had fabricated “needs” for ever more and newer stuff, and that stuff was deliberately shoddy—so we’d always be out there buying replacements, on credit. But he argued that the organic world obeyed very different laws: of “qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, and freedom from quantitative pressures and crowding. Self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair.”


Brooke and endangered cranes fly

over Kankakee County, Illinois

Oct. 27, 2005

Photo: Operation Migration

It seems to us that the worlds of technologies and organisms, of highways and wildflowers, have become knotted. How many clomid babies and, by now, clomid young-adults do we know?  The hope of returning to an existence free of “qualitative pressures” may be an impossible one. Inside the knot, though, there are some fascinating efforts and successes. Consider Operation Migration, a mix of human technical prowess and bird instinct. This group has been working to reroute endangered whooping cranes along their ancient migratory path.

“Whooping cranes learn their migration route by following their parents. But this knowledge is lost when the species is reduced and there are no longer any wild birds using the flyway. Until Operation Migration was asked by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to spearhead a reintroduction of the world’s most endangered cranes, there was no method of teaching migration to captive reared Whooping cranes released into the wild. In the first five years of the program,  approximately 60 birds have been taught a migration route between Wisconsin and Florida. This is 4 times the number that existed in the early 1940’s.”

We wish Lewis Mumford were here to comment on such an odd endeavor and this photo, of “Brooke” and six birds flying over a concrete cloverleaf last fall in Illinois.


Posted by Julie on 05/25 at 12:36 PM
Culture & SocietyEcologyGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

All I Know About Chemistry I Learned from Hydrangeas

A Japanese native teaches pH 101.


Hydrangeas in bloom

Columbia, South Carolina, July 2005

Photo: Human Flower Project

Through the southeastern U.S., hydrangeas are plentiful. We were fortunate once to inherit a garden in Lexington, KY, with so many white oakleaf hydrangea bushes that local florists would come “shopping” in wedding season. Starting about now.

Much as we love white flowers, when it comes to hydrangeas we prefer the colorful and more bosomy varieties—like H. macrophylla, also known as “mophead.” These pedagogues of spring taught us all we know about soil chemistry. The flowers announce how alkaline (high pH) or acidic (low pH) the soil is, tingeing toward blue in acid conditions and pink where it’s limier. Growing up in Louisville, we were enchanted to see how gardeners had steered their hydrangeas toward violet or rose, or sometimes managed to mottle blossoms by more complicated tinkering (or was it chance?). Neither being well versed nor terribly interested in science, this sort of gardening intervention seemed quite aggressive and exciting—a yard experiment conceived by Granny Frankenstein.

If you are fortunate to live where these beautiful plants do well, you might try playing around with soil chemistry to achieve a Utopian shade somewhere between pink and blue. This site contains excellent information on hydrangea selection, coloration and pruning.

“A wide range of depth of color exists in the pink and blue cultivars ranging from blush pink and robin’s-egg blue to brick red and cobalt blue. The depth of color is entirely dependant on the cultivar. Otaksa, for example, will never reach a rich deep color, no matter how much you may pile on the chemicals. And some hydrangeas refuse to be changed to clear blue, like Geoffrey Chadbund, making a royal purple flower at best, when treated.” Many of the white varieties won’t take on color at all.

Once you have a mutable species in the ground,  you may turn them bluer “by adding sphagnum peat moss, sulfur or aluminum sulfate to the soil. A pH range of 5.5 to 6.0 is needed, and a soil test is a good first step.” Aluminum is the key and usually present in the ground already, but “if the soil is alkaline, plants are unable to absorb the existing aluminum and the flowers will not blue.”  It’s possible to burn the roots of your hydrangea with too much aluminum, though. Water before you add chemicals. Allen Boger recommends, “Start with 2-4 applications of two tablespoons of aluminum sulfate per plant, at two-week intervals in the spring. Don’t overdo it.” Achieving Utopian Blue may take a couple of seasons.

Why does it seem effort always is extended in blue’s direction? Because “it is more difficult to acidify soils than to make them more alkaline.” You’re not kidding! Here in Austin we struggle along on a shelf of chalk. Azaleas and camellias have been known to perish as they near the curb—so we’re not going to attempt hydrangeas. We leave that to our gardening friends back in Kentucky and South Carolina.

Folks, we’d love to see how your pinks, blues and whites are faring this spring. Have your mopheads reached Utopia?




Posted by Julie on 05/24 at 11:22 AM
Gardening & LandscapeScienceSecular CustomsPermalink

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Fleur-de-Lis at Chelsea

A French iris breeder succeeds with a patriotic new bloom.

imageFrench king

in battle uniform

Image: B. Timms, Heraldry

The event may be utterly English but the hit of this year’s Chelsea Flower Show seems to be French: Ecoutez, regardez.

Jinny Blom’s Laurent Perrier Garden, “Inspired by the chalky landscape of the Champagne region of France,” features “a delicate muted palette of colors—cream, blush, copper,  watery blue and claret with particular focus on irises.” Oh-la-la, rococo. As well as being exquisitely pretty, this garden is drawing attention at Chelsea because it’s so timely. While over the past few days the flower show grounds caught gushing rains, England as a whole has been dry. Most of the U.K. has been under a “hosepipe ban” since last summer, injecting a certain tremulousness into gardeners’ ordinarily stiff-upper-lips. So iris is the flower of the hour; though the blooms are delicious and delicate as Fragonard, the plants are drought tolerant.

It may smart a little that iris, a.k.a. flag and fleur-de-lis is having such a banner year under these inhospitable conditions at Chelsea. For the fleur-de-lis, of course, is the emblem of France.

There’s quite a bit of controversy over when and how the fleur-de-lis became the insignia of French royalty. The name most often mentioned is King Clovis (@466-511):  “Legend has it that an angel presented Clovis, the Merovingian king of the Franks, with a golden lily as a symbol of his purification upon his conversion to Christianity.” Very nice, except as even the heraldry experts will agree, the fleur-de-lis doesn’t so much resemble a lily as an iris, specifically iris pseudacorus, golden yellow with sharp arching petals.

imageYellow flag (Iris pseudacorus)

Photo: G. Bradley, for UK Safari

This is the color and shape we see wherever the French traded, fought or breathed. (Check out, for example, the official seal of St. Lucia and this iris-spangled window from Bourges Cathedral.)

And it’s a French hybridizer Cayeux Iris whose flowers are stealing the Chelsea show. Rubbing it in, Cayeux has introduced Reussite, a tricolor—bleu, blanc et rouge, like the French flag. (Okay, so the Union Jack is blue, white and red, too, as are Old Glory and any number of other national banners. We still get the message.) London Times writer Julian Desborough gives credit where it’s due.


Photo: Cayeux Iris

Admitting his own weakness for irises, he writes, “The one that caught my eye is a doyen among growers, Cayeux Iris, which is showing 41 different bearded irises, of which 24 have been bred by the French horticulturists themselves. The latest cultivar, “Reussite” or “Success”, is the culmination of 30 years of hybridisation work by Richard Cayeux and his father Jean. They have achieved an iris that represents the French tricolour - red, white and blue. The petals are white, the sepals white with a blue edge (without a trace of purple) and the barbs are red.”

“Barbs” is about right.

For lots more on Chelsea (May 23-27), check out the BBC’s huge site. Here you can design your own virtual garden and get up to the minute video downloads for your mobile phone.  Maybe next year, they’ll be able to communicate that grapey fragrance of bearded iris too.


Posted by Julie on 05/23 at 12:18 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink
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