Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sunflower Oil, It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

Farmers in the Four Corners are growing dryland sunflowers now for a biodiesel center due to open next year.


Not Ready for Biodiesel?

Timothy Young’s Sunflower Car

Photo: Serious Wheels

Is biodiesel a go? It depends whom you ask.

The idea of turning plant oils into engine fuels is more than a century old. Rudolph Diesel revved up a crowd at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris running an engine on peanut oil. But the rest is fossil history. “Diesel died (in) 1913 before his vision of a vegetable-oil-powered engine was fully realized.”

For obvious reasons, there’s renewed interest and investigation these days, with petroleum-poor Europe taking the lead. Today, however, we read of a new biodiesel enterprise in, of all places, the American West.  Two dozen farmers in Dolores County, Colorado, are growing dryland sunflowers, to be processed for oil at a facility in the San Luis Valley. Project manager Jeff Berman told the Cortez Journal that “approximately 60,000 dryland and irrigated acres would be needed to sustain the production of 2.5 to 3 million gallons of seed oil,” which once turned into fuel could service customers “from Farmington and Aztec, (Colorado) to Price, Utah.”

We’ve come upon several U.S. projects testing the utility of biodiesel in farm equipment (seems reasonable). And farmers in Spain are growing sunflowers for this purpose, too.

imageColorado sunflower

Photo: Bob Fitzgerald, for Cortez Journal

Are you biofuels foolish? Journey to Forever is a fascinating website about many aspects of biodiesel and its potential. It was here we discovered that several other beloved flowering plants—poppies, lupine and calendula—have also shown promise as fuel producers. For you chemists, there’s good info on such things as relative viscosities and “melting ranges.” Slick!

Before you shred your Texaco card, however, consider nay-sayer David Pimentel, a professor of agriculture and ecology at Cornell. He argues, “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel.” Pimentel says that turning plants into biodiesel fuel uses more energy than the power they put out. “Sunflower plants require 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced,” he writes. Further discouragement:  North Dakota State University studies got all gummed up. “Sunflower and other oils mixed with diesel fuel (produced) significant buildup on piston sidewalls, stuck rings and in a few cases, broken rings.”

Meanwhile, the big seed heads are forming and the silos are filling up in the Four Corners. Let’s hope engineers are working on a no-stick engine.

Posted by Julie on 08/30 at 07:09 PM

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pong Malai—Shall We Fight?

No coin toss or slap on the rump, please—Thai boxing matches begin beautifully,  with ceremonial dance and floral garlands. 

imageThai boxer wearing a pong malai

Photo: Twins

Muay Thai is known as “The Art of Eight Limbs”—a fighting sport that allows punching with shins, knees and elbows as well as “yer dukes.” The national sport of Thailand evolved from a martial art and is gaining popularity across the world. We can understand why, without ever having seen a Thai boxing match. Combining grace, violence, drama, tradition, and honor, this sport has it all—even flowers.

Plenty of athletic competitions deck the victor with blooms—the Kentucky Derby winner’s blanket of roses, Olympic bouquets, and the old Greek poets’ laurels. But Muay Thai is the only sport we know of that gives competitors flowers before the match. And what flowers they are—bright garlands of orchids, carnations and marigolds called Pong Malai. Friends and fans present their favorite boxers with these leis before the fight starts, and the pong malai are displayed optimally, against bare chests.

imageTwo boys do the pre-fight dance, Bangkok

Photo: Yosemite, via wiki

The leis are a feature of Muay Thai’s opening ritual called Wai Kru, a combination warm-up, bow-down, scare-off. Historically, the Wai Kru was each fighter’s moment to pay respects to his (and now her) trainer, but it’s more than that. “The Wai Kru usually starts with the fighter walking around the ring, counter-clockwise. This is called ‘sealing the ring,’ showing that it’s just yourself and the (other) fighter now.”  Fighters then begin a series of stretchy dances that mime various people and creatures: ” a swallow, a hunter, a soldier or an executioner. After this dance, the fighter walks over to his coach” who removes the pong malai. Wouldn’t want anybody tangling a knee up in pink orchids, now, would we? Let sixteen limbs fly.

U.S. spectators have tended to groove on Muay Thai’s brutality (we’re weird that way). But there’s another view of Thai boxing, as the dramatization of beauty—and pong malai points right to it.  Brian Hu offers this interesting assessment of the sport as seen through the lenses of two Thai filmmakers. We’ll be looking for Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer at our local video store.

Posted by Julie on 08/29 at 04:52 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Monday, August 28, 2006

At the Florist, 1889

The sidewalk flower sellers of Paris reappear in Boston more than a century later.


At the Florist

Frederick Childe Hassam, 1889

Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA

Thank you, Nick Read, for the premonition.

We received your lovely post card, a lady and her maid shopping for flowers somewhere in Paris (Les Halles?). Keeping city grime off the merchandise are clean wraps of white paper, upside down versions of the servant girl’s apron. Is that a peach someone’s tossed by the curb? A nice bit of realism, the florists have just refreshed a few of the plants at left, as water streams from the pots across the sidewalk.

The painting, by Childe Hassam, is one of 100 works now on view, through September 24, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts show Americans in Paris: 1860-1900.  Lots of flowers crop up here, in Sargent’s painting of the Luxembourg Gardens, along the strap of a woman’s dress in Mary Cassat’s portrait of an opera goer. You may see Winslow Homer, as well as Whistler and his mother.

Our friend Nick, a fine painter himself, is also a forthright critic. While “trying out” to be a docent at the esteemed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Nick was asked to comment on one prize in the collection, El Jaleo. He failed to suppress the observation that John Singer Sargent hadn’t gotten the Spanish dancer’s anatomy quite right. (We’ll let you guess how that story ended.)

Speaking of critics, here’s a lukewarm review of the MFA exhibit from the Boston Globe. Cate McQuaid describes Hassam’s “At the Florist”  as “vaguely stiff.” However, Nick writes,  ‘“This was a nice painting, well done.”  Such is high praise!



Posted by Julie on 08/28 at 09:12 PM
Art & MediaFloristsTravelPermalink

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Makahiya— Shy Heroine of the Philippines

A blossom newly named for President Arroyo sets off fury in a land of flower legends.


Makahiya: “Sensitive plant”

Photo: Maverick

Maybe because its countryside is so very lush, Philippine Island culture abounds with creation myths, legends that “remind us of our connection to nature. We have a lot of stories on the origins of flowers, like those of dama de noche, roses, ilang-ilang, sampaguita…” writes Norma Dollaga. “Listening to these stories, we are able to connect ourselves spiritually and ecologically with the gift of creation.”

Dollaga writes that, as in the rest of the world, “Most of these ‘alamat’ [myths] we grew up with are stories on the goodness or evil ways of people. Myths and legends remind us that when a person dies or disappears, an embodiment of that person will arise.”

If this sounds like mild-mannered folkloristics, think again. Dollaga’s op-ed piece for INQ7 is as pointed as pitchfork—she’s fuming that a flower has been named for Filipino president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  “Mussaenda Gloria Macapagal Arroyo,” honoring the controversial head of state, was bred by Dr. Teresita Rosario. “It fits the President. It is petite and cute,” Rosario said.

With the Islands’ old custom of turning flower legend into object lesson, how, Dollaga asks, “can a leader widely perceived as corrupt, fraudulent and a cheat be cute? Naming a flower after Ms Arroyo is a betrayal of the people and dishonors flowers. Flowers must be adored and respected. Dr. Rosario’s flower deserves better.”

imageSeed packet for Mimosa pudica

Source: Amaday

Dollaga then tells the story of Makahiya or “sensitive plant.” Once upon a similarly-corrupt time,  bandits roamed the land. In one village lived a humble family, mother, father and their shy, virtuous girl, Maria. Eventually the band of thieves arrived and plundered their town, knocking the parents unconscious. When they awoke they looked for their precious daughter only to find Mimosa pudica, an odd new plant with firecracker-like blossoms. When touched, the plant drew its leaves together, as if to hide. They resolved that their dear and pure Maria had changed into this sensitive plant rather than surrender her virtue.

(The Makahiya story sounds a lot like the Greek myth of Daphne; she escaped the clutches of Apollo by turning into a laurel tree.)

With a bit of snooping, we’ve found a number of references to Makahiya, showing how dear this plant is to those who grew up in the Philippines. One young blogger writes, “I was five years old the last time I visited the Philippines, with my mom. Even though my memories of the trip are few, I do have one that has remained close to my heart: my mom showing me this magical plant called makahiya.

“This very small fern-like plant blossoms with numerous heads of pink and lavender flowers. When touched, as if by magic, the leaves close up onto themselves. My mother instructed me to touch this plant, and I remember very vividly seeing the leaves curl and close and giggling with glee as I ran around the garden looking for more. A few weeks ago, Tita Jo kindly invited me to her lovely little summer home in Antipollo (about one hour north of Quezon City). There in her garden she pointed out the makahiya plant. I again touched the leaves, and with just as much delight (if not more) I watched them curl and close up.”

Mimosa pudica is actually native to Brazil though it has spread over much of the tropics. Kinmatsu Lin posts several good photos and Maverick offers some etymological details. “Other names given to this curious plant are Humble plant, Shame plant, Sleeping grass, Touch-me-not, and Mori Vivi (West Indies). The Chinese name for this plant translates to ‘shyness grass.’ The species epithet, pudica, is Latin for ‘bashful’ or ‘shrinking.’”

And in Tagalog, the language of much of the Philippines, Makahiya means “shy”...certainly not the characteristic of a woman who would be president.

We share Norma Dollaga’s interest in legends and likewise think that the rampant naming of flowers for celebrities—whether shiny movie stars or shady politicians—slights our cultures and our flowers, too. At the same time, the feminist in us bristles. Why are these “female” plants of lore usually the shrinking, low-growing, delicate ones?

Ms. Dollaga, perhaps would you approve attaching “Gloria Macapagal Arroyo” to something tall, garish, prickly, or stinky?

Posted by Julie on 08/27 at 03:44 PM
Culture & SocietyPoliticsSecular CustomsPermalink
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