Human Flower Project
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Will the real workingman please stand up?
Workingman’s Dead, with spent gaillardia and daisies
Photos: Human Flower Project, Spring 2007
The life of leisure is so déclassé… In our social circles, anyway, nothing puts you on the outside faster than flashing a beach tan, eating bon-bons or bragging about your latest rubdown at a chi-chi spa. Tack-ey!
No—around here we’re all WORKING! Look at us sweat…How many hours did YOU put in last week, Sister? Oh-EE-Oh. Hear the shoulder-gristle pop as we toil.
Gardeners, of course, are labor extroverts. They love to chronicle every muscle pulled in a stump’s removal and poison ivy pustule, for, among gardeners, every tribulation is a badge of honor. Truth be known, there IS a lot of overcoming in the garden, from major undertakings—like digging trenches and war on bermuda-grass—to the tasks that are actually fun, like deadheading flowers.
Exhibitionists will make even this out to be laborious, and in rare cases, it can be. Last fall we spoke with Sylvain Piperno, who works full time at the Luxembourg Garden in Paris. He told us the very busiest time of the year is June, when the flower beds all flourish, and tidying up after spent blooms takes a big staff all day, every day. But in most home gardens, and certainly our own, deadheading is actually pleasurable. Here you are, wading out with the butterflies, soaking in the sight of things in blossom. And since the purpose of deadheading is to keep plants flowering, one might even say it’s a form of greed.
We can’t help but circle back to a pregardening phase, circa 1970, where the seed for this post was planted. That was the year the Grateful Dead released Workingman’s Dead. Our favorite band at the time, they shed the tie-dye shirts and portrayed themselves as tough blue-collar guys, switching train tracks, mining coal and “chippin’ up rocks for the great highway.” Far out! All of us Deadheads loved that shtick. It implied that deep down we weren’t a bunch of students loafing around drinking wine, but hard-working stiffs with lunch buckets, living in the shadow of smokestacks and heading to the factory to earn an honest wage.
Deadheading in the garden is actually much simpler than being a Deadhead used to be, and just as enjoyable. But both, in our view, are mildly delusional.
Why Should Gardeners Deadhead Flowers?
“By deadheading the blooms, you trick the plant into believing that its reproductive task is not yet accomplished.”
And you call that work!
Friday, May 18, 2007
Blooms that Sting and Swim
Greet the Flower Hat Jelly (but don’t pull it on your head).
Olindas formosa—Flower Hat Sea Jelly
Monterey Bay Aquarium, California
Photo: Fred Hsu, via wiki
For just about anything appealing, colorful, sweet or nearly-round, we humans call up the word “Flower”—to wit, this marvelous sea dweller, native to the waters off Brazil, Argentina and Southern Japan.
Meet Olindas formosa, nicknamed the flower hat jelly. It certainly fits several of the “floral” criteria above—radially symmetrical as a rose, opulent as a peony, and dazzlingly colorful as, well, honestly we’ve never seen anything with quite such variegated and flashy beauty in the plant world. (If you have, please let us know!)
Despite its name, the flower hat sea jelly is not recommended as millinery. Its shimmering “petals” (tentacles) contain complicated cells that sting. The effect, we understand, is “nonlethal but painful.” Too bad! As its “pinstriped bell” grows to about six inches wide, this could make a really stunning cloche.
Flower Hat Jelly at the New York Aquarium, May 2, 2007
Photo: Julie Larsen Maher
Wildlife Conservation society, via AP
More along floral lines, we understand that sea jellies sometimes convene in huge numbers called “blooms.” Marine biologists are still fairly mystified by these events, though many suspect that they occur in overfished waters. “According to Claudia Mills of the University of Washington, the frequency of these blooms may be attributed to mankind’s impact on marine life. She says that the breeding jellyfish may merely be taking the place of already overfished creatures.”
If you would rather not try on a flower hat sea jelly but want to see a live one up close, check out the New York Aquarium’s ‘Aquatic Asia’ exhibit this weekend. The aquarium has at least one Olindas formosa in captivity, as does the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Well Dressing on Ascension Day
With mosaics of seeds and flowers, Derbyshire gives thanks for the blessing of water.
Biblical well dressing
Photo: Discover Derbyshire
By the Christian calendar, today is Ascension. According to the Gospels, Jesus appeared among his disciples forty days after Easter, ordered them to spread the good news—the Great Commission—and then lifted off into the heavens. (We especially like Pietro Perugino’s Italianate version of that event.)
But in Derbyshire, located in England’s north Midlands, the religious miracle is fondly stirred together with a natural wonder: that despite the horrible drought of 1615, the waters of Tissington never ran dry.
“‘There was no rayne fell upon the earth from the 25th day of March till the 2nd day of May, and then there was but one shower; two more fell betweene then and the 4th day of August, so that the greatest part of this land were burnt upp, bothe corn and hay. An ordinary load of hay was at £2, and little or none to be gotte for money.’
“The wells of Tissington were flowing during all this time, and the people for ten miles round drove their cattle to drink at them.”
For that considerable blessing, people here turned Ascension into a festival of thanksgiving and began annually to garland the local wells with flowers—a custom called well dressing.
Well dressing on Ascension Day, May 11, 1899
Tissington, Derbyshire, England
Photo: Sir Benjamin Stone
In all likelihood, the tradition pre-dates the 17th Century’s dry spell, to Roman times (anyone who’s thrown a coin in the Trevi fountain knows how the Romans honor their waters). Perhaps it’s even older, a Celtic pagan custom of spring seedtime, which England’s May-blooming wildflowers made a decorating cinch. (Some sources say that the early church actually banned the practice.) Like so many floral customs—sacred AND secular—well dressing seems to have been revived in the Victorian era. This photograph from 1899 shows a minister and congregation gathered around a decorated ‘coffin’ well in Tissington.
What’s most amazing is that the custom persists in Derbyshire. Today through May 23rd, the wells of Tissington will be adorned with mosaics made of leaves, flowers, and seeds. From what we’ve seen, these human flower projects are largely the work of local schoolchildren.
Clematis-petal building (detail)
2002 Brackenfield well dressing
after L.S. Lowry, by students of
Stretton Handley Primary School
Photo: Stretton Handley
Here you can watch an interesting video of how it’s done—a process that involves shaping clay into frames and “pricking out the design with cocktail sticks.” This fine site identifies all the particulars of a wonderful mosaic made by Stretton Handley Primary School with such unorthodox art supplies as peppercorns and lichen. There’s wool for smoke, melon seed for cobblestones, and best of all, lavender clematis petals overlapped for clapboard (or is it dressed stone?).
The well decorations will be ceremonially placed through the week, starting today, visited by processions and blessed by the local bishop. (Of course, it’s become a big tourist attraction too, drawing some 50,000 visitors to the Peak District.)
We understand. Transplanted to green Kentucky from San Angelo, Texas, our mother always beamed on rainy days—to the bafflement of the neighbors. We now live in Texas ourselves, and are discovering the sanctity of water. All to say, the well dressings of Derbyshire—as well as wondrous—are perfectly sensible, too. In American suburbs, we’ve ridden past many a “wishing well” festooned with buckets of petunias. Now Tissington’s tradition puts those funny yard ornaments in a new and grateful light.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Ringing in Beijing
Chinese and South Korean students team up for pre-Olympic festivity.
South Korean students in Beijing fashioned an Olympic
symbol from flowers, part of a “green exchange”
Photo: Hao Xiaotian for Xinhua
The next Summer Olympics are still fourteen months off, but preparations and even decorations began long ago. The Chinese capital is hoping to allay international suspicions and raise its global profile with One World, One Dream, the Summer Olympics of 2008.
One effort of the past week was an Olympic emblem made of flowers by students at Beijing’s Botanical Garden. One hundred young South Koreans had the chance to visit China, and 60 Chinese students visited South Korea as “green volunteers,” May 14-16. (Here are an informative essay about the state of environmental education in Asia and an impressive roster of “green” organizations—scores of them!— serving students in China and Hong Kong.)
Looking at this floral sculpture prompted us to investigate the interlocking rings that have symbolized all the Olympics in our memory. We read at wiki that the emblem “was originally designed in 1913 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, but gained widespread popularity due to its promotion by Nazi Germany.”
It’s said to signify “the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.” How nice. But, your Baronship, aren’t there seven continents—or at least six ? (At the moment, we can’t name any Antarctic athletes who competed in summer sports, anyway.) Even here at the Human Flower Project, we’ve used the motto “floral customs on seven continents.”
Turns out that geographers actually disagree about counting continents. Some scholars, mainly Europeans, have lumped North and South America together—even before NAFTA. And these days, we understand, Europe and Asia, rather than being split on a dotted line running from Estonia to Istanbul, are often merged as “Eurasia.” (Our third grade teacher Mrs. Berquist is rolling over in her grave.)
We aim for open-mindedness in most things, but in this case—favoring a cultural definition of “continent” over a topographical one—we’re sticking with seven. It’s such a good number! The five rings of the Olympic flag and this Beijing flower project will have to stand for something else, like the number of times John Williams is permitted to compose a new “anthem” for the games (he must be stopped!).
We’re not giving in on Pluto as a planet either.