Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tulips in Harness

How do you handle a blossom worth 12 sheep? Singly, elegantly, in a porcelain corset.

imagePyramid vase

c. 1690-1720

Artist unknown

Photo: Rijksmuseum

At the height of tulipomania (1634-1637) one tulip bulb cost as much as 4 oxen or 1000 pounds of cheese. Once those bulbs bloomed, Dutch flower arrangers couldn’t just flop such high-stakes blossoms inside any old milk bottle. Holland’s tulip fiends collaborated with the ceramicists of Delft to produce the tulipiere—an uber-vase designed to show off a bunch of precious flowers to their best individual advantage.

With tulip season nigh in the Southern U.S., Mariana Greene of Dallas features tulipieres today. You may have seen these puzzling things in antique shops. They sometimes look like upward udders or carburetors—vessels with not one opening but several protuberances, each meant to hold a single bloom.

The most magnificent one we know of is this smashing Pyramid vase in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Curators date it from 1690-1720, after the speculative trade in tulips crashed. (Whoever owned this piece must have sold at the right time.) More than three feet high, it’s actually a construction of 6 separate vases and can hold forty flowers—tulips or roses or what you will. “Mr. van Os, I’m ready for my close up.”


Photo: Photos by Evans Caglage

for Dallas Morning News

What sophisticates these flowers are. The bulbs, native to the Near East, were brought by a diplomat to Vienna and then to the Netherlands in the late 16th century. The tulipiere shape seems to have been born in Europe but typically was decorated with designs from Chinese porcelain. Subsequently, Chinese ceramicists began producing tulip vases of their own.

It wasn’t floral price alone that that inspired these peculiar vessels. If you’ve ever had tulips you know that once they’re cut and set in water, they keep growing, and have a way of dipping and straining toward the light. The tulipiere serves as a kind of harness, reining their wanderlust in.

imageTulipiere, 2005

by Janet E. Kastner

Photo: University of Texas Fine Arts

Here’s a pretty pair from the 18th century, a pink lady, and Deidre Daw’s five foot Diphthong Vase, ready for some of Ecuador’s stilt-stemmed roses.

Should you not have a tulipiere, you can search out an antique, buy a reproduction in the Delft style, or even find a contemporary piece, like this one with Las Vegas dancers. And if harnessed flowers don’t appeal to you, here are other ideas for arranging the globetrotters of spring.

Posted by Julie on 02/23 at 12:55 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyCut-Flower TradeFloristsPermalink

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Flower Confidential

Amy Stewart tracks the savvy, shady flower business, a refrigerated industry on parade.


Lily hybridizer Leslie Woodriff with Star Gazer and others

Photo: via North Coast Journal

“The commerce in blossoming flowers is one of the most uncertain and dangerous speculations in which the small street-traders of London can engage,” wrote Englishman Charles Manby Smith, in 1853.

Amy Stewart, whom we can thank for finding this pearl, describes how much has changed since Mr. Smith voiced his misgivings. Her book Flower Confidential (Algonquin) witnesses the combined effects of science, high-speed transportation, free trade and mass marketing as they transformed an “uncertain” livelihood into a global industry. Botanical guess-work and much of the commercial risk have been squeezed out of the flower trade; now mechanized greenhouses protect plants from the vagaries of weather, refrigerated trucks, planes and warehouses provide transcontinental “cold chains,” and individual “condones” prevent rose buds from opening ahead of schedule. And of course, we consumers are caught up in the system, too, trained to want certain flowers on a predictable schedule and even to prefer blooms that sellers have found simplest to ship.

Amy is an accomplished California garden writer. As well as maintaining her own website, she holds forth with three blogging buddies from back East on the mischievous Garden Rant.

Her new book shows flower breeding, growing and sales as interlocking worlds, all three ruled by Dutch expertise. Horticulturists and traders from Holland have managed to rationalize the wonders and “dangerous speculation” of flowers and, despite the natural advantages of lands along the Equator, maintain their domination of the business.

One of the book’s finest chapters, excerpted in North Coast Journal, offers a stateside vignette of this process in the story of Leslie Woodriff, an eccentric lily breeder, and Ted Kirsch, the business partner who turned Woodriff’s hybrid Star Gazer lily into a commercial dynamo. This huge and fragrant white flower with the pink throat, Stewart writes, “stands at the crossroads between old fashioned plant breeders and modern hybridizers.” As the partnership between the two men sours, then dribbles into court, the once creative tension between haphazard experimentation and commercial genius unravels. Guess who comes out on top? (a Dutch company.)

imageShuttling flowers at Aalsmeer

Photo: Millikin University

With crisp style —and seemingly boundless interest in cargo docks and conveyor belts—Amy has a special gift for explanation. Whether describing how ethylene wilts a delphinium or the auction clocks wind down at Aalsmeer, she writes with verve.

Flower Confidential, in our view, is less engaging when Stewart shifts from description to persuasion. For example, Amy takes considerable pains to present the case for VeriFlora, a proposed certification system for flowers sold in the U.S. (Such systems, each with its own set of standards, are already used in parts of Europe, Africa, and South America). The goals of improving agricultural ecology and especially working conditions and rights for laborers in the flower industry are important. Too important, we believe, to entrust to growers, however well meaning they may be.

Stewart quotes Nora Ferm of the International Labor Rights Fund along these lines. “Ecuador needs the flower industry,” says Ferm. “It’s brought in a lot of jobs. And workers at a given plantation are better off than they were before the certification arrived. But some of these certifications come in and basically give a prize for complying with local laws. Well, they should all be complying with local laws…” It seems to us that strong legal requirements, and sanctions for companies that fail to meet them, stand the best chance of improving working conditions and protecting the environment.

imageWe will continue to enjoy and track down many of the fascinating details in Flower Confidential –  that the first, influential Japanese flowers growers in California couldn’t own their own land, that most of Ecuador’s premium roses sell in Russia, that HMOs have put a dent in flower deliveries to hospitals, that gerberas like only one inch of water, that there’s a flower superstore in Miami where you can stroll along color-sorted aisles of blossoms and make your own arrangement on the spot. Unfortunately, retrieving these particulars may be hard. There’s no index. With all this information – plus truckloads of figures and statistics— how could the publisher have failed to provide one?

Nearly a year ago, Amy began trickling out information about her book into the blogsphere, and with its release in January, Flower Confidential has received a shower of good coverage from media eager to fill the Valentine’s holiday news hole with something juicy. Amy, you’ve done it. Congratulations. And thank you for the light you’ve shone on the human wiles, will and labor behind our flowers.

(Check here for details of Amy’s upcoming readings and book signings -– to include our own Land of the Lotus Eaters, Austin, TX, on Friday, February 23.)



Posted by Julie on 02/22 at 01:18 PM
Art & MediaCut-Flower TradePermalink

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

SF Flower Vendors: Stand, Stand, Stand

San Francisco’s city supervisor wants to dismantle a floral tradition: the folk economics of sidewalk sales.


Linda Hoogasian waters wares at the Market Street flowerstand she and her family have run in San Francisco for 55 years

Photo: Kurt Rogers, for SF Chronicle

With more kinks than a Rastafarian convention, San Francisco culture is beloved by eccentriphiles all over the world. The smell inside Lyle Tuttle’s tattoo parlor (several decades of nervous sweat) would call down the health inspectors in Baltimore or Salt Lake City. But here, it’s a municipal treasure, all part of the ambiance.

So it is with surprise as well as chagrin we read that San Francisco City Supervisor Jake McGoldrick is trying to overturn a century-old—and beautiful—city fixture: family owned flowerstands. Carl Nolte, reporter for the SF Chronicle, interviewed several of the local vendors. “Basically they are trying to get rid of us,’’ said Harold Hoogasian, who owns one of the stands as well as a number of storefront flower shops in the city. “They are trying to get rid of an institution like the cable cars.’‘

imageSan Francisco Flower Stand, n.d.

Image: All Posters

The central issue seems to be whether the flower vendors can maintain control of their rights to preside and do business on the public streets. Nolte writes that as it is now, “permits for the stands, which cost about $750 a year, stay with the same operators, who can sell them or pass them on to their descendants.” And they do. Several of the families, like the Hoogasians, are second and third generation Armenians who fled political oppression in Europe and established a foothold in the U.S. by selling flowers on the street. Mark Murdock inherited his flowerstand from his parents, “Sephardic Jews from Greece,” who had survived the Holocaust.

Want to get technical? Here is the city code on how the permits are to operate. And here is a recent review of the ordinances. The city issued its first permit to a street flower vendor in 1904. There are currently 18 flowerstands throughout San Francisco, many of them, local landmarks.

Supervisor McGoldrick had said he wants a lottery system for assigning permits, to open the flowerstand business up to new vendors. “I don’t know anybody who has inheritance rights to public property,’’ McGoldrick told Nolte. A San Francisco TV station reported yesterday that, under pressure from the vendors and their allies, McGoldrick backed up a bit and is willing to grandfather in existing vendors rather than forcing them to enter the lottery. But it appears he is holding firm that they will be able neither to sell nor to pass on their permits to family.

We were alerted about the city dispute by Rebecca Quilici last fall. “I have worked at a sidewalk flowerstand in San Francisco for 20 years,” she wrote.  “The San Francisco Board of Supervisors have taken it upon themselves to implement legislation that will essentially destroy the flowerstands and the 100 years of tradition that have created these wonders.  We are fighting.” Quilici stressed, “I don’t think any other city in the U.S. has what we do.”

imageKearny St. Flower Stand, 1912

Photo: Mark Reuben Gallery

And isn’t that the point? In this city of exceptionalism, shouldn’t the custom and wonder of the city flowerstands and the merchant families who began and maintained them be preserved? Like the Marxist murals at the Coit Tower, this cultural kink is a marvel of public life in the capital of Eccentricity. In the midst of high technology, loose ties, and all-business relations, here is a vestige of folk economics.  If you’d like to lend your support and/or pick up a bouquet, here’s a map that can guide you to ten of the city’s flower stands. Please pass on high fives (or a more Armenian gesture of solidarity) from us.

Posted by Julie on 02/21 at 01:00 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsPermalink

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Carnaval: Every Body Flower

From Rio to Dunkerque, we’re taking off clothes and putting on petals for Fat Tuesday.


Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Photo: BBC

Last call!

You know what that means. Time to bloom and jam. It’s Fat Tuesday, the climax of carnaval season in much of Europe and nearly all the Americas.

imageRoba la Gallina, one of the stock characters in Dominica’s festival

Photo: Carnaval Dominica

Lupercalia and Mardi Gras may be imports from the Old World, but really it’s on this side of the Atlantic that folks know how to grind their ya-yas out. Rio de Janeiro has the wildest, brightest Carnaval around, featuring lots of bare skin and nipple glitter. New Orleans draws party pilgrims from around the world, too.

But after surfing for Dionysus today, we’ve come across some spectacular revelry in Dominica, in Dunkerque, France, also Chipona, Spain,  and Haiti. Even Quebec City, Canada, (celebrate or bust) holds ice canoe races.

imageDancing and shining, in Rio

Photo: Grand Poobah

Quebec actually celebrates carnaval before Fat Tuesday (Being February, bien sur, what difference does a week make weatherwise in Eastern Canada?). For jollies, the Quebecois this year enjoyed horse-drawn sleigh rides, snow sculpting, and “snow baths.” Take that, and shiver your glitter, Rio!

Tomorrow, the beginning of Lent, flowers will come off the altar until Easter Sunday. So today get your bloom on.

Posted by Julie on 02/20 at 12:43 PM
Secular CustomsPermalink
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