Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sweet Crab

Students rallied to save the crabapple tree at Sweet Briar College, and an alumna planted her own.


The flowering crabs at Sweet Briar College

Photo: Kim Leach

We grew up believing that the gorgeous crabapple tree that stood outside our window in Louisville, Kentucky, was planted when we were born, to grow up alongside us. As a high school senior, we crawled out the bedroom window onto the roof and sat beside its topmost blossoms.

Now we learn that our arrival was likely just part of what inspired planting a flowering crab. Crabapple trees have for 80-some years been living fixtures of Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Three of these trees had grown up tall before the Benedict building, part of the original “Ralph Cram” campus; when a brick wall there was to be restored, the college groundskeepers thought the crabs would have to be pulled out. This was 1999, in April, when a flowering crab can best plead for its life.

According to this account students and faculty petitioned the college president to save the trees, and prevailed. The smallest was removed, but the others survived. “College tree trimmer Richard Canode, in consultation with apple expert Tom Burford, carefully and caringly pruned the two crab apple trees. While he was removing all of the suckers, dead wood, and ivy, he said that he considers these trees among the most valuable on campus.”

Sweet Briar is one of those now very rare institutions—an all women’s college. (We’re guessing there aren’t many colleges where students still dance the May Pole.)  Our mother attended the school for one year, back in 1939-1940. She must have enjoyed those crabapple trees next to Benedict and after marrying and settling in Kentucky, chose to plant a flowering crab of her own in Louisville, to celebrate May Day every year.

imageTopiaried crabapple

with Wendy’s

Liberty, NY

Photo: Human Flower Project

Much to the credit of all involved, Sweet Briar’s faculty turn to the crabapples not only for an education in direct action but for nature study, as in this careful observation of bee activity.

Would you like to plant one of these trees? Here’s a good Q&A that may address some of your crabapple thoughts. And a photo of the tree that kicked our own imagination into high gear—a topiaried crabapple we found floating like a pink satellite outside the Days Inn in Liberty, New York. 

Finally, we greet our new friends at the beautiful and informative Dias com Arvores, a loving study of trees in Portugal’s landscape and culture. Por favor, show us your crabapples!

Posted by Julie on 05/22 at 11:04 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Friday, May 19, 2006

Persephone’s Flower

Mysterious flames, pomegranate blooms signal the end of spring and, in our part of the world, an oncoming season in hell.


Woodcut: Nikos Stangos

The myth of Persephone gets whitewashed for children. We were taught that a lovely maiden out gathering flowers one day suddenly was swallowed down into the underworld. She wanted to go home to mommy (or was it that Mommy wanted her back home?). Anyway, her Mother Demeter, the goddess of all vegetation, was so distressed by her daughter’s absence that she stopped the plants from growing.

Zeus knew the girl was in the Underworld with Hades, and negotiated Persephone’s return. But before the hand-off, Persephone, who’d been warned not to eat anything, slipped and nibbled seven pomegranate seeds. That snack bound her to spend four months back in Hell every year—November, December, January and February—or so we were told. For in much of the Northern Hemisphere that’s when Demeter’s grief turns the green world grey and brown.

We’ve since learned a few things. First, even a mama’s girl like Persephone will stretch the apron strings. It’s not clear whether Persephone (known also as Kore) was abducted and raped or went along with Hades willingly. We do know that she disobeyed Demeter by eating those seeds;  nobody forced the pomegranate on her. Like the apple (Fr. pome) in the Garden of Eden, the juicy seeds were too tempting to resist. And it’s no coincidence that the pomegranate fruit is shaped like a uterus.

imageFlowering pomegranate

Punica granatum

Photo: Human Flower Project

Punica granatum holds mystic significance in many cultures. This excellent piece by Paghat’s Garden explores the pomegranate’s place in several religious traditions: Judaism and Christianity, as well as its more familiar appearances in Greek and Roman mythology. Even the Prophet Mohammad advised, “Eat the pomegranate, for it purges the system of envy and hatred.” Other associations are negative, and harken back to Persephone as “bad-girl.”

Horticulturally, pomegranate seems completely free of shadows. The trees are “native to southeastern Europe and Asia and were grown in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India and Iran. Cultivated extensively in Spain, pomegranates moved with the missionaries into Mexico, California,  and Arizona in the 16th century.” Blessedly, a big one grows right next to our driveway in Texas and each spring explodes with flowers, firecracker orange.

William Welch, one of our favorite flower experts, writes, “Although of very easy culture, pomegranates prefer a sunny location and deep soil. They thrive in acid or alkaline soils, and tolerate heavy clay as long as there is sufficient drainage. Many forms exist, and not all fruit well. Generally, double-flowering types provide little, if any, fruit.”

That goes for our tree. We enjoy tons of blooms but only a few fruits in the fall.

In California commercial pomegranate cultivation is concentrated in Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties, with small plantings in Imperial and Riverside counties. There were 2,000 acres (810 ha) of bearing trees in these areas in the 1920’s. Production declined from lack of demand in the 1930’s but new plantings were made when demand increased in the 1960’s.”

Pomegranate fruits—actually the seeds cram-packing the uterine-shaped casing—never have really caught on in the U.S.  Pomegranate was held in greater favor during the long eras before refrigeration (Persephone’s time), since the fruits store exceptionally well. In fact, pomegranates, “improve in storage, become juicier and more flavorful” and last for as long as seven months.

As our friends to the north are coming to life, their iris and poppies heralding the happy gardening months ahead, we sense Demeter’s gloom. Now living in the land of the pomegranate, we know Persephone’s season in hell approaches—June, July, August, September.

Martin Nilsson spelled it out in his masterful Greek Folk Religion:

imagePersephone and Hades, relief

Reggio, Museo Nazionale

“For people who live in a northerly country, where the soil is frozen and covered by snow and ice during the winter and where the season during which everything sprouts and is green comprises about two thirds of the year, it is only natural to think that the Corn Maiden is absent during the four winter months and dwells in the upper world during the eight months of vegetation. And, in fact, this is what most people do think.

But it is an ill-considered opinion, for it does not take into account the climatic conditions of Greece. In that country the corn is sown in October. The crops sprout immediately, and they grow and thrive during our winter except for the two or three coldest weeks in January, when they come to a standstill for a short time. Snow is extremely rare and soon melts away. The crops ripen and are reaped in May and threshed in June….

“There is a period of about four months from the threshing in June to the autumn sowing in October during which the fields are barren and desolate; they are burned by the sun, and not a green stalk is seen on them. Yet we are asked to believe that during these four months the Corn Maiden is present. Obviously, she is absent.”

Looking again at the myth, we recall that Demeter’s girl was gathering flowers when she sank—whether by force or choice—to the underworld. It was the end of spring, as it now is here. The “blizzards” of June will soon be upon us. We hope Persephone remembers to take a pomegranate or two with her for the long summer ahead. She’s going to need them.

Posted by Julie on 05/19 at 11:56 AM
CookingCulture & SocietyEcologyGardening & LandscapeReligious RitualsPermalink

Thursday, May 18, 2006

World Flower Council: ‘You May Say I’m a Dreamer’

Top florists from fifteen countries gather in Ottawa this weekend to perform, kibbutz and float their boats.


In aboriginal costumes, with tropical flowers

World Flower Council Summit 2005, Jakarta

Photo: Dean White

“Globalism” has come to mean exploiting the lowest-paid workers in the world. So what about “Internationalism”? There has to be some term for cultural broad-mindedness or, to be simple about it, curiosity. Its tenets might be, “The world is vast. Nobody has all the answers. Let’s get up off our duffs and look around, why don’t we!”

Such is the spirit of the World Flower Council. The group was founded in 1983 by Juzaburo Sekiye in Gifu, Japan. “Sekiye had a dream of furthering the cause of world peace through sharing a love and knowledge of flowers…‘making a flower the symbol of peace and culture without regard to country boundaries.’”

The world may not be at peace, but Sekiya’s dream continues to unfold. Current WFC president Dean White tells us that the organization now has members in 29 countries, florists who share designs and names of good suppliers and, more importantly, who want to know how their livelihood can serve a higher purpose. The group has delivered flowers at times and places of international tragedy—“the bombing in Bali, the breaking of the wall in Berlin, the tsunami in Indonesia.”  These are people who also clearly know how to kick up their heels.

imageDemonstration by Caroline Loo of Malaysia

World Flower Council 2005 Summit, Jakarta, Indonesia

Photo: Dean White

This weekend, the World Flower Council’s summit takes place in Ottawa, coinciding with that city’s tulip festival. Dean says that a highlight of the summit—of special interest to the general public—will be Friday’s demonstrations “Northern Lights” and “Dream Catchers” with 30 of the world’s top floral designers. And Sunday, the florists will be busy by 6:00 am decorating boats to cruise along the Rideau Canal that afternoon. Here’s a complete schedule of events.

Dean kindly sent us a trove of photographs from last year’s summit in Jakarta, of fashion shows, design demonstrations, garden tours. This looks like a complete joyride for anyone interested in flowers and “internationalism.”

Thank you, Peter Plumley, for informing us about this fascinating group. And to the members of the World Flower Council, “Keep Dreaming.”

Posted by Julie on 05/18 at 10:15 AM
Culture & SocietyFloristsTravelPermalink

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Head Up!

One of New York City’s major HIV treatment facilities keeps its chin up and its head in the flowered clouds.


At Tulips and Pansies: The Headdress Affair

Photo: Village Care of New York

How do you handle social stigma? With a hat the size of a satellite dish and buckets of orchids.

Village Care of New York held its fundraiser Tulips and Pansies: The Headdress Affair Monday, May 15, at Bridgewaters in Lower Manhattan. The event restores HIV/AIDS to the spotlight with an evening of ‘70s flamboyance—a runway show featuring floral megalocrowns—to benefit Village Care’s AIDS services.

“The AIDS epidemic is far from over. In New York City alone nearly 6000 new HIV infections occur each year.” Village Care operates a long-term care facility, two day treatment centers, an AIDS-specific mental health program and more.

imagePrepping for the runway, May 15

Photo: Village Care of New York

The stigma of AIDS, unfortunately, remains with us too. So how splendid that this charity event takes an over-the-top attitude. Hot-shot designers Betsey Johnson, Bill Blass, and others lent their names, though who needs names, really, when you can have flowers on your head? In the name of further excess, how about some quintessential fashion-prose?

“Empress XX Gefil Tefish took a royal stance in a crown of pepper berries and orchids designed by Imperial Court of New York… There was also a gun-toting cowgirl in a ten-gallon hat of fuchsia and red roses who wore a complementing Betsey Johnson prairie dress with gingham trim, while a masked marauder took stalk in a hat of over 1,000 white floral head buds shaped like hair curlers by Form and M&J Trimmings.”

Here are many more photos of the event. This organization serves patients (some 1500 daily)  “regardless of their ability to pay.” To make your own contribution, ask a question or play hat-fashion critic, please .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Posted by Julie on 05/17 at 10:52 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyMedicinePermalink
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