Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, August 30, 2007

St. Lucia’s Rivals: Rose and Marguerite

For work, solidarity and pleasure, the people of St. Lucia island pledge their allegiance to one of two historic blooms.


Map of St. Lucia

Via: Dive St. Lucia

Floating in the Caribbean Sea between French Martinique and English-speaking St. Vincent, people of St. Lucia know something about cultural competition and the vagaries of political power. Their island changed possession 14 times in the French-Anglo wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. (St. Lucia became an independent state within Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations in 1979.)

So how does a society reckon with two centuries of checkered domination by colonialists across the ocean? The St. Lucians turned this legacy of divisiveness into two flower societies – one dedicated to the rose, the other to the marguerite (St. Lucians’ name for globe amaranth, Gomphrena globosa). Each year, they re-enact the old monarchical rule and strife with gentler conflicts: Which flower “la woz’ or “la magrite” is more beautiful? And – more important—which flower society can throw a better party?

As Human Flower Projects go, this one appears to be a world-class effort – combining secular and sacred traditions. The Rose society holds its grand fete today, the feast day of St. Rose of Lima. The Marguerites will have their chance the 17th of October, honoring St. Margaret Mary Alacocque.

In the weeks preceding their grand celebrations, the clubs conduct “séances” – ceremonial rehearsals of singing and dancing. Their symbolic King, Queen, and other royals preside over these occasions. “Strict protocol is observed at those nightly Séances, with every visitor or participating member, upon entering, bowing to the King and Queen who are present with their court. Police and soldiers in uniform enforce regulations against any disorder, breaches of protocol, or what are considered misdemeanors. Offenders are taken before a magistrate for a mock trial and then fined.” But a few pennies will bail you out, part of the delight, and the money all goes toward the flower societies’ next bash.

imageSeance, Rose Society, St. Lucia

Via: Tameron Eaton

On the saint’s feast day itself, there is a church service, followed by a banquet, music and a long night of dancing. One flower society at a time plays host, but it appears the whole island is invited. You can find some of the dance music on this old recording. And here’s a more recent youtube. “When the singing gets going, led by the shatwel (lead singer), drums start beating, guitars start playing and the shak-shaks (similar to maracas) start shaking, the party becomes so exuberant that it continues well into the next day.”

Further, as Florence Reese would say, “There are no neutrals here.” Everyone on St. Lucia island is a member of one flower society or the other. You’re either a Rose or a Marguerite.

“In 1884, Henry H. Breen reported that ‘although few persons, besides the labouring classes and domestic servants, take any active part in their proceedings, there is scarcely an individual in the island, from the Governor downwards, who is not enrolled amongst the partisans of one coterie or the other.’ Today over a hundred years later, nearly every St. Lucian, whether white planter, colored civil servant, landed peasant, or Negro or East Indian cane laborer, is at least nominally affiliated with one of the societies.” So wrote folklorist Daniel Crowley in 1958.

We’re not sure how one is admitted to one society or the other. Perhaps some of our Caribbean visitors can inform us about this and many other mysterious aspects of St. Lucia’s flower clubs.

imageParade at the Fete La Rose, St. Lucia

Photo: HTS St. Lucia

According to ethnomusicologist David Campbell, “The Societies demonstrate and celebrate their difference in contrasting behaviour and accomplishments.  La Rose, in spite of its English association, values noise, movement, rhythm, participation and showing-off in general. La Marguerite favours restraint, decorum and melody.”

Could there be a more genteel expression of rivalry, a more forgiving and playful re-enactment of oppression and strife? We’ll make sure to revisit this custom in mid-October when the Marguerites stage their fete. For today, bring on the noise. Vive La Woz!

Posted by Julie on 08/30 at 05:15 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Catching & Naming the Floral Spectrum

Guess who starred in the first color TV broadcast? James Wandersee and Renee Clary explore several human efforts to capture the array of floral colors: television sets to crayons to number systems.


Artist’s rendering an early color TV set

Image: Plan 59

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

On January 1, 1954, our visual world changed. This was the date of the first coast-to-coast telecast in living color. Do you know what the subject was? The living flowers of the famous Rose Bowl parade (the theme of the parade that year was “Famous Books in Flowers”). At last it was possible to view the kaleidoscopic Tournament of Roses Parade taking place in sunny Pasadena, California at home across the U.S.—while much of the nation was still trapped winter’s monochrome.

With first color television sets costing $1,000, it took nearly a full decade for most US homes to switch over to color TV—as the price gradually landed within middle class budgets. When people did switch, the visual impact was quite dramatic, and television watching became even more addictive.

Even the new high definition televisions of today do not seem as impressive a technological advance to those who experienced the thrill of first watching color television at home after years of twilight-like visual deprivation via black-and-white sets. To most people, colorcasts were the first “reality TV.” It was not just a happy accident that the first network colorcast began with a floral flourish either. At such a wintry time of the year, network executives knew people craved color, and nothing else offered more vivid colors than flowers. Plants were the first choice.  Even the NBC Color Peacock did not appear until two years later.

imageAn icon of American childhood

Photo: Smug

In addition to the color television set, another source of domestic color, available in almost every American home with children since 1903, has been the familiar green-and-yellow box of Crayola® crayons, invented and manufactured by two Pennsylvania cousins, Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. The first boxes held just eight crayons, with 25% of the colors named after plants (violet, orange).  In 1949, there were 48 crayons in the biggest box, with 50% named after plants (e.g., apricot, carnation pink, cornflower, mahogany, maize, melon, pine green, thistle).

By 1998, the size of the biggest box had grown to 120 crayons—with lots of plant-derived colors: almond, asparagus, banana mania, bluebell, cerise (cherry), chestnut, cranberry, dandelion, eggplant, electric lime, fern, fuchsia, goldenrod, Granny Smith apple, laser lemon, lavender, mango tango, mulberry, neon carrot, peach, plum, razzle dazzle rose, shamrock, tropical rainforest, tumbleweed, vivid tangerine, wild strawberry, wild watermelon, and wisteria. We hypothesize that this preponderance of plant names may help US children associate colors with various plants—provided they are taught about the plants that are their crayons’ namesakes.

imageRaw Sienna

Photo: wiki

As the EarthScholars, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the adage: “if you don’t grow it, you mine it.” This maxim seems as true for crayon colors as it is for other materials humans use. The Crayola company has chosen many color names from Earth materials (e.g., antique brass, aquamarine, brick red, copper, desert sand, gold, silver, turquoise blue).  Perhaps the most fascinating of the Earth crayons are the colors burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, and raw umber. Did you ever use those crayon colors as a child? All four are, of course, shades of brown. Chemically, burnt sienna is formed by heating raw sienna to 800-1000 degrees Celsius and dehydrating it; the same holds for burnt umber and raw umber.

imageBurnt Sienna

Photo: wiki

So, what are sienna and umber? Both are Precambrian clays found in Italy and named after the city of Siena and the region of Umbria. These were some of the first pigments used for painting by humans in caves. Both take on more intense colors after being heated . Crayola removed the raw umber crayon from its assortment in 1990, thinking that the color and its name were both too dull to appeal to today’s children.

Edward R. Tufte (1989),  a well-known American information architect,  pointed out that “Nature’s colors are familiar and have a widely accepted harmony.” He recommended that graphic artists look to nature for their color palettes when designing information documents and websites.

The main reason most people grow and give flowers is for their colors. The colors that we see in flowers are caused by light reflected from various plant pigments. Sets of chemical compounds called anthocyanidins comprise the basic reflective components. Temperature affects flower color too; thus more vivid colors are seen in cooler stands of flowers growing in places like Alaska. The intensely bright fuchsia of fireweed flowers makes driving Alaskan highways “a journey into the Land of Oz.”


Professor Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918)

Photo: Munsell Color Science Laboratory

How can one best describe a flower’s color? In our laboratory we sometimes use a costly electronic tristimulus colormeter, but the simplest way to describe “reflective “colors is the system developed by Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918). The US Geological Survey’s soil scientists use it to match soil colors—as with those Italian clays. Plant scientists use it to match flower colors and other plant organs. (Different sets of charts are used for those two functions.) Munsell’s system, which originated in 1905, is based on a standardized set of painted, color chips.  For any color it assigns three values. Hue is the major color, like red or blue. Value is the brightness of the main color. And chroma is the degree of saturation of the color (deep red, for example).

Munsell’s system was adapted for plants by the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS, 2001);  a set of color patches arrayed on four fans is now the standard for describing flower colors— just like matching paint to fabric,  one holds color chips near the specimen to determine the best match. As the chips have numerical descriptors, the Munsell system provides a low-tech method for quantifying a flower’s color. (Professor Munsell considered naming colors with words foolish and misleading!) 

imageRoyal Horticultural Society Colour Chart

(Available from the RHS)

Photo: Royal Horticultural Society

If you would like to see a simulated, approximate version of the RHS chart and its four fans of color, visit the Azalea Society of America’s website.

A recent study by Griesbach and Austin (2005) indicated that the Munsell Book of Color ($675) is even better than the RHS Colour Chart ($210) if you want to describe the differences among the floral colors of cultivars. With it, an experienced observer, using interpolation, can identify and specify any flower’s color from 100,000 possibilities. (The Munsell Color Charts for Plant Tissues—other than flowers—and the Munsell Soil Color Charts are available for purchase from many vendors, including Forestry Suppliers, Inc. in Jackson, Mississippi: approximately $175 (plants) or $105 (soil)).

In the end, the color of flowers is a matter of indescribable beauty.  Color television displays, enticing sets of children’s crayons, expensive colormeters, and numerically descriptive color-chip systems may claim to have captured the chromatic essence of the living flower, but we must acknowledge that’s impossible. Rather than our assigning a color name or value to a flower, is it not the flower that is adding inexpressible and incalculable aesthetic value to our lives?

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

  – Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat


Posted by Julie on 08/28 at 01:59 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySciencePermalink

Sunday, August 26, 2007

‘We Want to Sell a Flower’

The flower sellers of Bucharest are protesting Romania’s new regulations of street stalls.


Along with 300 other flower sellers, 68 year old Lucia

marched in Romania’s capital Aug 20.

Photo: Vadim Ghirda, for AP

In tandem with the globalization of the cut flower trade, we see a global clamping down on street vendors of flowers. Is there a connection? ...

From San Francisco, California, to Harare, Zimbabwe, to Vancouver, Canada, municipalities seem to be doing all they can to tax, corral, or outright ban selling flowers on city thoroughfares. The latest “containment” effort is in Bucharest, Romania, where Roma vendors have made a marginal living for generations from selling blooms to passersby. What possible harm could there be in that?

“A Bucharest district mayor, Liviu Negoita, said he wants to limit flower selling to six months a year, and says that flower sellers will be obliged to sell their wares from special kiosks, available in three models.” There are an estimated 700 flower sellers and florists in the capital city (pop. 2 million).

“This is a nightmare,” said Mariana Ionita, 36 who has been selling flowers since she was eight. “I have three children and my father is ill. There are 10 people in my family, and from today we are illegal.” She said her stall was shut down by authorities early Monday (Aug. 20), in sector three, one of the city’s six districts.

Some 300 vendors marched last week in protest. “Since Romania joined the European Union on Jan. 1, there have been moves to regulate street trade. Newspapers are no longer sold from stalls on the street, but from special kiosks and the same rules are randomly being applied to florists.

“Waving blue, green, mauve and yellow chrysanthemums outside the city hall, florists yelled: ‘We want to sell a flower, not discrimination!’ A group of Roma from the Association of Florists went into the city hall to register a formal complaint calling on authorities to reverse a decision to close stalls down.”

In Romania, as elsewhere, the limitations on street flower sellers bring old ethnic tensions churning to the surface. Yet we think the problem is wider and even more intractable than racism.  The drive to sweep vendors from the public spaces of cities seems to us part of the overriding trend to control, monitor, and regulate the urban environment. Get thee to a kiosk… this is a non-flower zone.

Gentle citizen, look out. The ink may be drying on another “regulation,” one of your very own.  Do you have a permit to stand on this corner? Where are your documents?

Posted by Julie on 08/26 at 09:35 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsPermalink

Friday, August 24, 2007

Global Trade and Flower Jingoism

A Netherlands trade board has allowed the merger of two huge flower firms, pushing back against newcomers in the industry.

imageTwo-headed giant

Image: Gandolf

It came as no big surprise that the Netherlands Competition Authority ruled to allow the two giant Dutch flower auctions—Aalsmeer and Floraholland—to join forces. The two auction houses have been combining their businesses for years now, and since each passing season brings yet another determined player to the table in this increasingly competitive market, the pressure has been on to shore up Holland’s domination.

What did strike us as peculiar was the reasoning Nederlandse Mededingingsautoriteit (NMa) provided, that a merger between Floraholland and Aalsmeer “would still leave ‘sufficient alternative channels’ on the domestic and foreign markets.” On the foreign markets, they may have a point, as Dubai, India and other countries are building up stronger auctions. But on the domestic side, PLEEZ! One source reports that a combined Aalsmeer and Floraholland will control 30% of the European market and 90% of the Dutch market.

If control over 90% of the market doesn’t constitute a monopoly, what does? 95%? 99.9%?  Anti-trust laws are being ignored in many parts of the world (this is rampant in the U.S.) but to pretend that the combination of these two behemoths is not “anti-competitive” within the Netherlands is a joke.

It seems to us that in a global economy, nations will be looking out for their traditional industries and bending national regulations in order to strengthen those industries abroad. Better, some in the Netherlands might say, to put up with a monopoly at home than risk losing our longstanding pre-eminence in the flower trade to China or some other comer. Isn’t this what’s happening, a kind of economic jingoism?  We’d be interested to hear what our esteemed friends in the business world think, and of course we’ll be keeping an eye on the two-headed giant in Europe.

Posted by Julie on 08/24 at 04:07 PM
Cut-Flower TradePoliticsPermalink
Page 1 of 4 pages  1 2 3 >  Last ›