Human Flower Project
Sunday, September 30, 2007
A Peony to Build a Myth On
Writer Isak Dinesen might have achieved immortality by introducing peonies to Kenya, but she managed it another way.
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
We are prone to literary binges. Grazing through writers, we’ll suddenly fall deeply in love with one and then read nearly everything she or he produced – a kind of serial monogamy. Carolyn Keene, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Tolstoy…2007 has been our Isak Dinesen year.
Karen Blixen (her given name) was born in Denmark, lived for 17 years on a coffee farm in Kenya, and wrote mostly in English. We’ve read that as with her enchanting prose, she arranged flowers in eccentric fashion — something we hope to learn more about in months to come.
But for now, we’re finishing her memoir Out of Africa, an experience we would no more adulterate with Robert Redford than gild a lily. In it we found this:
“Once when I was at home, an old lady in Denmark gave me twelve fine peony-bulbs which I brought into the country with me at some trouble, as the import regulations about plants were strict. When I had them planted, they sent up, almost immediately, a great number of dark carmoisin curvilinear shoots, and later a lot of delicate leaves and rounded buds. The first flower which unfolded was called Duchesse de Nemours, it was a large single white peony, very noble and rich, it gave out a profusion of fresh sweet scent. When I cut it and put it in water in my sitting-room, every single white person entering the room stopped and remarked upon it. Why, it was a peony! But soon after this, all the other buds of my plants withered and fell off, and I never got more than that one flower.
Duchesse de Nemours (Paeonia lactiflora)
“Some years later I talked with the English gardener of Lady McMillan, of Chiromo, about peonies. “We have not succeeded in growing peonies in Africa,” he said, “and shall not do so till we manage to make an imported bulb flower here, and can take the seed from that flower. This is how we got Delphinium into the Colony.” In that way I might have introduced peonies into the country and made my name immortal like the Duchesse of Nemours herself; and I had ruined the glory of the future by picking my unique flower and putting it in water.”
“Visitors to the Farm,” Out of Africa
Isak Dinesen, 1937
This vignette, with its fabulous gothic undertones, sent us searching of course for Duchesse de Nemours and into a conundrum. Every reference and photograph we’ve found shows a double white peony, “rich” yes, but perhaps too frilly to warrant “noble.” Could the labels on those bulbs have been shuffled around on the trip from Denmark to Dinesen’s plantation in the Ngong Hills of Kenya?
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain
and Princess Victoire, Duchess de Nemours
By Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1852
Photo: World Roots
A side note: we’re not sure which Duchesse of Nemours was immortalized by this beautiful flower. The most famous person to go under that name was Marie d’Orleans, a memorist herself of 17th Century France (Like Blixen, she was an aristocrat with a proto-democratic – or at least anti-royalist – spirit). Far more likely, though, the white peony was named for Queen Victoria’s first cousin – also named Victoria – a favorite childhood playfriend who later became Duchesse of Nemours. She died suddenly at age 35, 10 days after giving birth to her daughter Blanche.
Wouldn’t naming a white peony (single or double) for such a tragic figure have been just the Victorian response? (well, that and a few necro-decorative artworks).
The horticulturists out there will have to help us evaluate what Lady McMillan’s gardener had to say about introducing peonies to the highlands of Kenya. We’ve found sources that say peonies grow wild in Northwest Africa and some tree peonies have flourished in South African gardens. Anyway, it seems to us that since peonies are perennials, if Dinesen has nursed her first plants along, they might have bloomed better in subsequent years. Cutting that “single” blossom need not have “ruined the glory of the future.”
With Karen Blixen, it’s quite possible the whole white peony story was invented, another fable in the long tale called “Isak Dinesen.” It may outlast marble and all the Duchesses of Nemours.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Bip and His Flower
Marcel Marceau was buried in Paris September 26, his stovepipe hat and red flower standing by.
Family members (and two old friends from the stage) mourned mime Marcel Marceau during his funeral September 26, at Pere Lachaise in Paris.
Photo: Benoit Tessier, for Reuters
Born March 23, 1923 in Strasbourg, France - died September 23, 2007 in Cahors, France. In between there were flocks of flying hands, the invention of moonwalking, a red flower of tulle and a hat, squashed and tipped to international crowds. When Marcel Marceau was buried Wednesday at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, “the top hat and red flower were placed on a stand next to the mime’s coffin and later in front of his grave,” wrote Rachid Aouli for AP.
“About 300 people attended the ceremony, some of them fans holding roses or carnations…. Some mourners threw flowers on the coffin, others placed small stones by the grave. ‘The rest is silence,’ and ‘To our dear maestro, the show goes on,’ were among the messages on the funeral wreaths.”
Image: George J. Goodstadt
Modeling his act on Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and the 18th Century’s Pierrot, Marceau combined clowning and dance into the art of mime. Marceau usually performed alone on stage, save his equally silent sidekick, the red flower. It had to be. With the white face makeup and black and white costume (fit for a 20th century harlequin) the red blossom was an emotional antenna, its extension as warm and suggestive as mercury rising from the bulb of a thermometer. Like the rest of mime, you could find it poignant or trite—maybe both.
In the New York Times’ good obituary, James Clarity (who also died last week) quoted the world famous clown:
“‘This character Bip is a funny, sad fellow,’ Mr. Marceau once observed, ‘and things are always happening to him that could happen to anybody. Because he speaks with the gestures and the movement of the body, everyone knows what is happening to him, and he is popular everywhere — Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Austria, wherever he has traveled.’” In all these things, Bip was much like his companion in bloom.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Milkweed Pearls for Lord Shiva
Sandy Ao shows how Kolkata honors the great destroyer deity—with blooms from an invasive plant.
Garlands of Calotropis gigantea, Giant milkweed flowers
Photo: Sandy Ao
“The gods would not refuse even the trivial erukku for worship,” declared the Purananuru 2000 years ago.
Trivial? Perhaps “lowly” would be a better translation. Erukku is the Tamil name for Calotropis gigantea, growing now as it must have back then— as “a common wasteland weed” across South Asia. Also known as swallowwort, giant milkweed and (by its flatterers) crown flower, this poisonous plant is sacred to Hinduism’s most fearsome deity - Shiva.
Since Monday is Shiva’s special day (as are the 13th night of the waxing moon and the 14th day), there seemed no time like the present to convey a beautiful set of Calotropis pictures Sandy Ao gathered around her home city, Kolkata, India.
Women selling calotropis garlands
Mullickghat market, Kolkata
Photo: Sandy Ao
Sandy writes, “There are no specific seasons for Calotropis and Datura,” another flower sacred to Shiva – and also a poisonous one. “Mainly these are wild flowers, not cultivated like marigold and tuberose. They are used through out the year - especially Calotropis. Wherever there are Shiva’s pictures, symbols (the Lingam) or statues, we will see a garland of Calotropis around them.” Sandy also makes note, after many visits to the big Mullickghat flower market, “I see more women selling Datura and Calotropis garlands than the men.” Threaded into strands, the calotropis flowers look like lavender pearls.
Shiva appears throughout Kolkata in many forms. He blows a conch shell on kitschy calendars and poses with his trident and, sometimes, snakes coiling about his blue neck at the lotto stand.
Startling to rheumy western eyes, Lord Shiva is also embodied in stone phalluses – the “lingam” Sandy referred to – that symbolize his chthonic, reproductive powers. We would suppose these sacred stones are ”erected” in Shiva’s many hundreds of temples across India, but as Sandy‘s photographs show, they also appear beside busy thoroughfares, usually under banyan trees, and at what seem to be streetside shrines. In nearly all of Sandy’s photographs, one can see pearly strings of calotropis flowers honoring the great god.
Devotee prays at a Lingam, representing Shiva, at a Kolkata street shrine
Photo: Sandy Ao
She spoke with a number of flower sellers about just how calotropis, datura and magnolia (also sacred to Shiva, and lots more expensive than the other blossoms) are used with bael leaves in devotions: “I was told that during the offering of flowers to Lord Shiva, the bael leaf will be placed on top of Lord Shiva’s head/Lingam. Datura /Magnolia will be on Lord Shiva’s ears. If it’s a lingam, these flowers will be placed above the bael leaf and kept on top of the Lingam. On the floor in front of Lord Shiva / Lingam, first a bael leaf will be placed; only then will other varieties of flowers be spread around the ground.
“And Calotropis will always come as a garland for Lord Shiva.”
Image of Lord Shiva
decorated with marigolds, bael leaf, and calotropis buds
Photo: Sandy Ao
Shiva’s name means “auspiciousness, welfare” though he wields the power of destruction. “He represents darkness and is said to be the ‘angry god.’ However, according to Hinduism, creation follows destruction.” (Picasso called painting “a sum of destructions,” didn’t he?) Just so, we learn, “Shiva is also regarded as a reproductive power, which restores what has been dissolved.”
Fitting, that that this god of fertility is honored by what some might also call an “invasive plant.”
Sandy tells us that in Hyderabad, “Calotropis grows wildly and plentifully, especially in the unattended compounds. Whereas, in Bengal (Kolkata), people collect the buds before they are fully bloomed and turn them into garlands for Shiva.” Lowly, perhaps, but much in demand.
“If one desires to worship God externally,” the old poem says, “let him just take the flowers which have fallen from the tree and worship the Supreme Siva here on some external symbol, just as He is worshipped in the heart.” The heart that bursts open like a pod of gossamer and seed.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Scrutiny on the National Beauty of Trinidad and Tobago: Chaconia
A wild poinsettia, hurriedly chosen as the national flower, bears red flags and political history.
Stamp with Chaconia
Trinidad and Tobago
When Trinidad and Tobago declared independence from Great Britain, 1962, a group of “deciders” came together to choose the new nation’s official symbols. And from reading Julian Kenny’s fine piece for the Trinidad Express, it seems they were an astute and fast-acting bunch, flowerwise.
They selected a glorious Trinidadian, the wild poinsettia known as “chaconia,” to represent them. As befits a national emblem, the chaconia had color, locality, and timing working in its favor—and even a dubious etymology.
Many islanders assume that this plant, with its long stem of scarlet flowers, was named for Don Jose Maria Chacon, Trinidad’s last Spanish governor. Reasonable…except that the complex history of Trinidad (and Tobago) seems to owe a lot less to the Spanish than to English, French, African, and Chinese settlers. If you’re a bit rusty on these matters, check this good history site. )
Doing the chaconne engraving by H. Fletcher, 1735
Collection: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photo: Encyclopædia Britannica
No, it seems much more likely that this amazing flower Warszewiczia coccinea, got its local name from “’chaconier’ after the French chaconne, a song/dance in which the dancers festooned themselves with small red flags that waved about as they danced.” The blooms do resemble tiny red flags. And with the world renown of calypso music and even “limbo,” it just seems right that the flower of this particular nation should be named for a flashdance.
(Kenny notes that Trinidad’s natives call this plant “wakamy.”)
Also in its favor, the wild chaconia always blooms just at the time of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence Day, August 31. Waverly Fitzgerald wrote us recently about her family’s custom of adopting certain flowers that bloom right at folks’ birthdays as their personal “birthday flowers.” Why shouldn’t countries do the same?
And finally, the tasteful people of Trinidad and Tobago considered that chaconia’s red and green color coordinated well with the flag and national coat of arms.
The official Chaconia is Trinidad’s single wild variety. But today, we understand, a double chaconia, first propagated by David Auyong in 1957, is plentiful in gardens and nurseries across both Trinidad and Tobago. Carlyle Chang, one of the original “deciders” from 1962, told writer Johnny Lee, “We were not aware of the existence of the double variety at the time; otherwise we might have considered it over the single.” With six weeks to make these decisions, we’d say the committee made an excellent choice.
Chaconia Medal (gold)
National authorities here have awarded the Chaconia medal for forty years “to persons deemed to have rendered long or meritorious service in the jurisdiction of Community Service or Social Welfare” for Trinidad & Tobago.” It’s a red and green ribbon and a medal struck with the image of this blooming plant in gold, silver, and bronze.
We’re grateful to Julian Kenny for his excellent article illuminating the human-cultural freight behind this beautiful Caribbean plant. That freight includes some baggage, too. Kenny writes of the Chaconia medal, “Of the 200-plus awarded between 1969 and 2002, 84 per cent went to males and 16 per cent to females, while 77 per cent went to one “cultural” group and 23 per cent to another. Guess who! The latter, and women, have only a token place in the Order, regardless of their contributions and constitutional guarantees of equality.”
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