Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hovirag: Hungary’s Hot Snowdrop

The cherished emblem of early spring in Hungary is now off limits to sellers and embroiled in a national dispute over genetically modified plants.

imageYoung hovirag seller

in Transylvania

c. 2005

Photo: Courtesy Gabor Miklosi

Our man in Budapest, journalist Gabor Miklosi, took a break from political muckraking this week to hunt for hovirag. Also known as snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis are the earliest blooming flowers in all of Hungary. Usually in February, they begin to appear on the streets of Budapest, sold by street vendors as tender harbingers of spring.

But the cherished hovirag custom was disrupted this year. “We experienced the most unusual winter,” Gabor writes, “It started off with the weather of early October lasting until Christmas, turning into that of late March immediately. People were selling hovirag as early as mid-January.”

When Gabor picked up his camera and went looking for snowdrops this past week, there were none to buy. “First I blamed it on global warming,” he says,  “but I knew there was a better explanation, as flowers, unlike humans, are stubborn creatures that withstand difficult times.”  Making inquiries like a true gumshoe, Miklosi found that disturbing wild hovirag flowers is now forbidden by law “as the irresponsible overpicking brought them to the verge of extinction. Some people were even detained for selling them earlier this year!”

imageHungarian prime minister

Ferenc Gyurcsany

(Are those hovirag legal, sir?)

The outspoken online Hungarian journal Pestiside reported that in early February, “customs officers found more than 21,000 snowdrops in a German van near Makó, south Hungary, with an incredible total street value of Ft 220 million (€870,000!!). The cargo has been confiscated and criminal proceedings are being brought against the driver for damaging the environment.”

We haven’t been able to determine precisely when or even if hovirag was placed on Hungary’s endangered species list. But this announcement from the World Wildlife Federation confirms the sad truth: that healthy hovirag is now so rare that environmentalists are mobilizing against the old rite of spring.

“Spring snowdrop bouquets awaken dear memories in everybody. Is there anything more beautiful than buying snowdrops for the beloved one?” So, if they’re not (yet) endangered, what’s the problem? The WWF has genetics professor Gábor Vida explain:  ‘While the pollinating insects give the most conspicuous flowers the bigger chance of survival, man does precisely the inverse. He picks these, so only the poorer ones may ripen seeds. The snowdrop population suffers a loss both qualitatively and quantitatively.’” WWF Hungary and Duna-Ipoly National Park Authority are waging campaigns to make hovirag collecting illegal.

imageGalanthus nivalis

known in Hungary as Hovirag

Photo: The Plant Expert

As if this stir weren’t enough, Galanthus nivalis is at the center of another Hungarian controversy. Esteemed biochemist Árpád Pusztai, a native of Hungary, was fired from his position with the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen for a remark about the safety of using a hovirag protein to make more disease-resistant potatoes.

For years, Dr. Pusztai had explored the beneficial effects of lectins in foods as well as in nutritional supplements and pharmaceutical agents. Lectins can affect the digestive systems of insects and can act as natural insecticides. Arpad’s work had shown that one such lectin called GNA (Galanthus nivalis), isolated from the snowdrop, acted in this way.” Dr. Pusztai has been researching snowdrop lectin for almost twenty years.

Pusztai was told “not to talk about his experiments in detail,” but during a 1998 interview with Granada TV, he remarked that in rats that had been fed the experimental GNA potatoes, “the effect was slight growth retardation and an effect on the immune system. One of the genetically modified potatoes, after 110 days, made the rats less responsive to immune effects.’”

That comment sparked a blaze of investigations, recriminations, suspensions, and symposia.

And the controversy over snowdrop-potatoes bubbles on in Europe, where the larger issue of GM foods simmers on a front burner.

Thank you, Gabor, for alerting us to this beautiful flower of Hungary. (It’s just like you, to go kicking around an old custom and uncover controversy.)

Posted by Julie on 03/04 at 04:41 PM
Cut-Flower TradeEcologyScienceSecular CustomsPermalink

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Carrying an Anthurium Torch

The University of Hawaii commemorates 100 years with Centennial, a new anthurium.


Photo: University of Hawaii

The first department at University of Hawaii, founded 1907, wasn’t philosophy, medicine or music. It was the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now called the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For the university’s 100th birthday this year, it was only fitting to celebrate as Hawaiians are wont to do—with a flower. A distinguished group of UH horticulture wizards developed and delivered Centennial right on schedule—a white anthurium. In a few more years, Centennial will be available not just to the UH deans but to all of us, both as a potted plant and a cut flower.

It radiates the school colors, green and white—rah-rah.  “The green stripes that come together to form one flower (are) a symbol of the diverse cultures that represent the life-blood of the university. Further, the unusual tulip-shaped spathe is reminiscent of the flame that appears in the middle of the UH seal, with its upward sweep symbolic of the university’s quest for academic excellence.”

imageDrs. Haruyuki Kamemoto and Heidi Kuehnle with “Tropic Fire”

another of their anthuriums

Photo: Craig T. Kojima, for Star-Bulletin

Before ascending into the ether-speak of a commencement address (it is, after all, only March), we may note that anthurium development has been a dogged scientific business at University of Hawaii for more than half a century. Dr. Haruyuki Kamemoto, one of the researchers who bred Centennial, founded the anthurium program in 1950 “to develop disease resistant and novel anthuriums for the flower industry. This highly successful program has released more than 40 new commercial varieties since 1963, which helped anthuriums become the state’s most valuable cut-flower crop. Cut anthuriums had a farm-gate value of $4.7 million in 2005.”

This 1997 article from the Star Bulletin shows Dr. Kamemoto to be the Admiral of Anthuriums. As a consequence of his research, this peculiar flower has gone from being a hobbyist’s novelty to a huge money crop in the Islands. We especially like his description of what constitutes cut-floral success: flower yield, fast growth, “spectacular” appearance, endurance, and what he calls “carriage.”

imageSeal, University of Hawaii

Ma luna a’e o na lahui a pau ke ola o ke kanaka

“Above all nations is humanity”

Image: wikipedia

And all this time we’ve been calling this “posture”—a flower trait that, in our view, separates the grand from the merely nice. For anthuriums, ideal carriage means “the stem should be straight and it should be strong where it connects with the head of the flower….  The flower should also stand well above the foliage rather than grow among the leaves.”

Surprising to us, some anthuriums actually have a scent. “Some anthuriums have a very sweet floral fragrance like Lily of the Valley,” says Kamemoto. “Others have a minty smell. We are going to try breeding for fragrance.”

What a dandy coincidence (or was it scientific foresight?) that produced Centennial, its white bloom if not the spittin’-image at least a savory reminder of the torch on the school’s official seal. Dr. Heidi Kuehnle, another member of the horticultural research team, said this human flower project all came together beautifully.  “‘Centennial’ was in the right place at the right time.” Flowers are good at that.

Posted by Julie on 03/03 at 05:54 PM
Cut-Flower TradeSecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, March 02, 2007

Nagashibina- Girls Day

As Japan’s peach trees blossom, parents attend to the future health and happiness of their precious daughters.


Celebrating Hina Matsuri with peach blossoms

Photo: Evergreen Diary

In Japan the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) comes to a climax now. Held on the third day of the third month, it lands on the cusp of spring, a betwixt season, deserving a complicated rite. As Japanese culture—and perhaps it only—can do, these observances combine human formality and natural flowering, dressing up and letting go.

Hina Matsuri began several weeks ago with the setting out of tiered displays, covered in lucky red cloth. Here sit a cast of ceremonial figurines, usually the gift of maternal grandparents when a girl baby is born.

A full set of fifteen dolls includes “the emperor, empress, three ladies-in-waiting, two ministers, five musicians and three male servants. Friends are invited to admire the dolls and the young ladies, dressed in their best brightly flowered kimonos sit before the display and eat candies and other delicacies.” Some of these displays are hugely elaborate, others simple, but all represent a girl’s legacy and duty. In the ceremonies of Hina Matsuri, families act out the love, hopes and fears they hold for their young daughters.

Every Hina display includes peach blossoms, too, paper or porcelain and often fresh flowers, since the peach trees are blooming now. Hina Matsuri is nearly synonymous with Momo No Sekku, Japan’s peach blossom festival.  “Symbolizing a happy marriage,” the pink flowers are “indispensable decorations of this festival day. The blossoms signify the feminine traits - of gentility, composure and tranquility.” To us, peach blossoms also suggest the sweet unripeness of young girls, light fuzz soon to appear on their chins and arms.

We understand that the doll festival began in the Heian period (8th-12th C.) and was “legally established” in 1687. (Regrettably, we can’t imagine the U.S. Congress legislating a holiday for peach blooms, dolls, and girls.)


Floating dolls, Nagashibina, to release evil

Photo: City of Tottori

The doll festival’s elaborate fun culminates more seriously, with the March 3rd rite of Nagashibina. On this day girls will take simpler dolls made of paper, sticks or – in this environmentally conscious age—“fish food” to a local stream to be blessed by a priest. “The elder solemnly places the doll” in a straw boat. “All misfortune clouding the girl’s future is in the doll. As the doll sails out of sight, down the river, so does the misfortune. The girl is now pure and clean.”

Nagashibina isn’t so widely practiced today, but we understand it’s still strong in Tottori along the Sendai, Sumida, and Fukuro rivers (attracting thousands of spectators). Accompanying the dolls on their way, of course are peach blossoms, and brighter yellow rape flowers, too. After March 3, the figurines at home should be taken down promptly or else “according to superstition, the daughter will have great trouble finding a husband.”

imageFrom Kurosawa’s Dreams (Yume), 1990

For those who can’t travel to Japan for Hina Matsuri, we recommend Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams, from 1990. Its second episode, “The Peach Orchard” takes place during the doll festival, though its protagonist is not a girl but a young boy. His family has cut down an orchard, and the Hina dolls, come to life, condemn him. “Doll Day is for the Peach Blossoms, to celebrate their arrival. We are the life of the blossoms!” thunders the Emperor from a green hillside.

The boy protests that he had loved the orchard and cries for its loss. When the emperor mocks him—“This boy just likes peaches”—our young hero stands firm.

“No. Peaches can be bought, but where can you buy a whole orchard in bloom?” Truly. The emperor then bestows a gift better seen than described.


Posted by Julie on 03/02 at 01:23 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Wimbledon Flower Basket, 1884

The All England Club advances to pay men and women tennis champions equally, meaning no more flower baskets.


Wimbledon women’s trophy, 1884

Photo: © AELTC/Museum

19-year-old Maud Watson won the first women’s tennis championship at Wimbledon in 1884. Shades of Venus and Serena, she beat her sister Lillian in split sets but quite unlike the Williamses managed to achieve all this in an ankle length white dress. For her victory,  Maud came away with a silver flower basket. That was the prize.

A few weeks ago, the committee that presides over global athletics’ favorite curtsy on the lawn voted to overturn tradition and pay men and women equally for winning on the court.

“Wimbledon, which dates back to 1877, went ‘open’ in 1968 but had been criticised since then for maintaining a discrepancy in the prize money offered to its male and female competitors. Last year Roger Federer earned 655,000 pounds ($1.28 million) for winning the men’s title while women’s champion Amelie Mauresmo took home 625,000 pounds.” The 2007 prize amounts will be announced next month.

imageMaud Watson

Wimbledon first women’s champion

Photo: via BBC

The unequal pay scales date back to Maud Watson’s win. Her flower basket trophy, of silver, was reportedly “worth 20 guineas, while the men’s winner got a gold prize worth 30 guineas.”

Unfortunately, Bud Collins hadn’t been born at that time, so we don’t know what Maud thought of being shortchanged. But thanks to Matthew Glaze of the Wimbledon Museum, we did learn a bit about Maud’s flower basket. He writes that fifty years after her first Wimbledon victory (Maud also won in 1885) “she presented her prize to the Edgbaston Club for its annual junior tournament.  In the 1980s the Club, then combined with the Priory Club – used the trophy for international competitions.”  The Edgbaston Priory Lawn Tennis Club has “kindly” loaned this historic piece to the Wimbledon Museum for throngs of fans to see.

We think her flower basket very lovely and graceful, quite in contrast with the Klingon-ware platter that contemporary women champs receive ($1 million may be soothing). Did Maud, or anyone else, ever arrange flowers inside her trophy? We hope so. The stylized flowers in its design seem to be tulips, but it could do justice to primroses, even English bluebells.

Posted by Julie on 03/01 at 04:01 PM
Secular CustomsPermalink
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