Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On a Pillar,  on a Flower Mountain

In Zaragoza, Spain, which marks Columbus Day (October 12) by honoring the Virgin of Pilar, citizen pilgrims build a floral pyramid.

imageWorkers arrange

floral offerings to

the Virgin of Pilar,

Zaragoza, Spain

Photo: Luis Correas, for Reuters

In the Baptist Church of the U.S.A., they recommend a lot of hoisting: “Lift Me Up!”...“Lift up His Name!” For heights, though, the American Baptists could learn many meters-worth from the Roman Catholics of Spain. Anybody who’s stood in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor or walked uphill to the Cathedral in Toledo knows what we mean, as do those who’ve had the blessed fortune to participate in Zaragoza’s autumn celebration of the Virgin del Pilar.

According to Catholic teaching, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James the Apostle as he preached and prayed by the banks of the Ebro. “She appeared upon a pillar”—a holy object, which is kept inside Zaragoza’s present-day basilica. Each October, the wooden statue and its column of jasper come into the city center, to stand at the top of a tall scaffolding. Then, local citizens, dressed in traditional costumes of Old Spain, parade through the streets bringing flowers to cover the huge armature, so that it turns into a brilliant floral throne. Now that’s being “lifted up”!


Children dressed in Spanish folk costume dance before the floral ofrenda

dedicated to Nuestra Señora Del Pilar, Zaragoza, Spain

Photo: Ususarios

The sacred column itself stands atop a large pedestal of all white flowers (shaped sort of like a fez); it is emblazoned with red blooms formed into the symbol known across Spain as the Cross of St. James. (Non-Spaniards may recognize this symbol from Velazquez’s famous painting Las Meninas. Velazquez was admitted to the Order of St. James by Philip IV and wears the emblem proudly on his chest.)

Though the birthplace and ethnicity of Christopher Columbus remain in question, his commission from Spanish royals Ferdinand and Isabella is certain. Therefore, Columbus Day, when he set foot in the New World and “claimed it” for the Spanish Empire, has been a day of Hispanic pride since the 15th century. In Spain itself, October 12 is Dia de la Raza (Hispanic Day), celebrated with traditional songs and costumes. As for the Virgin del Pilar, according to wiki, “Every Latin-American nation has donated national vestments for the fifteenth century statue of the Virgin, which is housed in the chapel.”

Spanish ambition and aesthetics both seem contingent upon SCALE. Cristobal Colon, whoever he was, crossed a whole ocean. And Nuestra Señora Del Pilar, only 39 cm. high, stands on top of a floral mountain.

Posted by Julie on 10/14 at 01:12 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bringing City Trees to Fruition

Urban forester Georgia Silvera Seamans proposes a novel idea—helping city trees flower, fruit, reseed, and grow, rather than programmatically killing them off. For more of such enlightened ideas, visit Georgia’s fine local ecology.


SW 12th Avenue Green Street, Portland, OR

All Photos: Georgia Silvera Seamans

By Georgia Silvera Seamans

“What are flowers for?” asks Harold William Pickett. Answering himself, he writes, “All the organization of a flower seems to be directed towards the transfer of pollen from stamen to pistil, a prelude to the formation of seed.” 

Unlike the forest, the network of street trees does not rely on the flowering process to reproduce.  Instead, people – arborists, urban foresters, residents – purchase trees from nurseries, often located in less urban areas, and plant them in the grassy spaces between curbs and sidewalks or even within concrete sidewalks.  If trees must be removed because of declining health, hazard or damage through acts of vandalism or unaware drivers, they are simply replanted with new nursery stock.


Crataegus (Hawthorne) flower, Blake Street, Berkeley, CA

Even so, flowering and fruiting do occur.  I remember streets and neighborhoods by the trees they host.  I recall the exuberant flowering of Tilias along Melnea Cass Boulevard and the showy flowering of Pyrus calleryana on Garrison Street in the South End, both in Boston, the apricot-colored fruit of Ginkgo biloba in Boston’s Public Garden, the swinging fruits of Liquidambar styraciflua at the North Berkeley train station and Platanus on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.

imageLiquidambar styraciflua (sweetgum) fruit, Carleton Street, Berkeley, CA

Yet, city trees rarely come fully to fruition.  On the street, unfavorable conditions like soil compaction, poor soil quality, and inconsistent moisture levels hinder the development of seeds, not to mention the stretches of impervious concrete or metal grates covering the tree wells.  Along tree boulevards (or even the grassy areas between the curb and the sidewalk), cultural practices like mowing remove seedlings, too.

The announcement of tree canopy goals by some cities—100,000 trees in Boston by 2020, 1 million trees in New York City by 2017— are more than commendable in a time of climate crisis, but, surprisingly, none of these campaigns – to my knowledge – mentions strategies to enable reproduction of street trees.  To my thinking, a sustainable urban canopy should include in situ reproduction, not just replacement of trees with more nursery stock.  Of course, in situ reproduction would be difficult to achieve in many of the settings where street trees are now planted.  However, changing how we plant and maintain street trees – and especially how we design city sidewalks—could provide more favorable conditions for in situ reproduction.

imageShotwell Street Greenway (permeable landscape project), San Francisco, CA

Three American cities – Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco – have developed streetscapes which “mimic the forest floor” according to articles in Terrain and Landscape Architecture Magazine; at least Seattle’s program, known as SEA (street edge alternative), was designed with that intention.  Portland hosts several “green streets,” and a San Francisco nonprofit, Plant*SF, has transformed the sidewalks of a standard city block into a permeable landscape.  Each of the projects was developed to capture and cleanse stormwater runoff before it enters the municipal storm system and, eventually, natural water bodies. And each project has both reduced impervious sidewalk surfaces, thus increasing the growing area, and incorporated low to mid-layer vegetation to maintain soil health.  This change in streetscape design – from individual tree wells to more continuous planting areas – is significant.  But it is too early to know if such new practices of city landscape maintenance will make way for other forest floor processes: if seeds will be allowed to sprout and compete for light, water, and height!

Posted by Julie on 10/12 at 09:26 AM
EcologyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

No Direction Home: Compass Plant

With a navigational sunflower for a guide, Jill Nokes takes us wading into the Kansas prairie. Eyes out for Jill’s forthcoming book Yard Art and Handmade Places, due from University of Texas Press next month.

imageCompass plant

Silphium lacinatum

Photo: Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

What a thousand acres of compass plant looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac

The Flint Hills of Kansas must be beautiful this time of year, when all the grasses reach their full height and glory. When we visited the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas, in July, abundant summer rains had hastened the growth and lushness of the grasses. Even that patriarch of the prairie, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), was beginning to bloom then.  Yet most vivid to me in that endless ocean of grass were the isolated stands of compass plant (Silphium lacinatum).

This slow-growing, long-lived, eye-catching member of the sunflower family can grow as tall as twelve feet, with roots as long or longer burrowing deep into the earth.  The species name lacinatum means torn, or jagged, and refers to the deeply cut, sandpapery leaves.  These leaves are held on the long stiff stems on a north-south axis; broadside to the sun morning and evening, but on edge at midday. This clever adaptation maximizes photosynthesis while minimizing evaporation during hot summer days.  Compass plant’s regular alignment with the cardinal points served as living guideposts to lost travelers who found themselves cast upon a landscape that seemed featureless and endless.

In his book PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country, William Least Heat Moon tells us, “Where these yellow rays of blossoms once grew in abundance ten feet high, some prairie tribes refused to camp, believing that the plants drew down lightning, yet during electrical storms the people burned the dried root to ward off thunderbolts.” 

Besides meteorological and directional powers, compass plant offered the original prairie peoples an astounding number of medicinal uses. Extractions were made to treat rheumatism, scrofula, constipation, and from this same plant also came a diuretic, a diaphoretic, an expectorant, an anti-spasmodic, a vermifuge for their ponies, as well as a general tonic for listlessness. We don’t often regard medicinal plants as being pleasant-tasting, but many sources report that children would break open the stems and chew the hardened balsamic sap like gum.


Jill Nokes and a stand of Silphium lacinatum,  August 2007

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas

Photo: Courtesy of Jill Nokes

According to Moon, its name in several dialects translates as “big medicine.”  Today, these protected remnant patches of virgin tallgrass prairies amount to only a tiny fraction of the original stands.  Grasslands are often difficult for people of European descent to interpret, understand, and value.  Listing the reported uses and meaning of just one single plant from the diverse mosaic of the tallgrass prairie, we are reminded of all the knowledge and wisdom that was lost when the prairies were plowed and grazed out of existence.  Perhaps the compass plant can help guide us back to a place of humble understanding.

Posted by Julie on 10/09 at 11:09 AM

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Continuous Narrative: Flowers and Insects

A new exhibition of paintings shows how flowering plants of the East Coast U.S. live in symbiosis with fluttering insects.

imageCatalpa and Hawkmoth (Ceratomia catalpae)

by Mindy Lighthipe

Image: via Mindy Lighthipe

Thanks to Mindy Lighthipe—artist, naturalist, organizer—we can alert you to a rare exhibit of botanical art. “Butterflies, Moths, & Pollinating Insects of the East Coast” opened Monday at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown, New Jersey. And please don’t let its generic title put you off. These 42 paintings, by 32 skilled artists, are lively and provocative, a dramatic illustration of survival as the dance of interdependency. Each painting shows how the life of a particular moth or butterfly species hovers around a specific flowering plant.

“It is impossible to do this with photography,” Lighthipe says, since “often the different stages of a plant and/or insect are not happening at the same time.” With the same technique of “continuous narrative” that Masaccio used to convey episodes in the life of Christ, these painters (all members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators— Greater NY), tell stories too.  Lighthipe says that “Each artist chose an insect and then researched its life cycle, habits and specific relationship with the plant world. Many of the artists raised the insects and grew the plants,” she adds. Lighthipe herself produced four paintings to show the braided lives of passionvine and the Zebra Longwing.

Generally, insects depend on specific plants for food and congenial habitats. In their turn, plants rely on the insects they host to disperse pollen—i.e. sex. (Our father has always contended that in addition to food, shelter and sex, there exists another fundamental need, and that’s the right to say “I told you so.” We hope that Mindy or others will tell us how the symbiosis between plants and insects meets this necessity.)


Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemeris thysbe) by April Flaherty

“Butterfly bushes, red bee balm and Casa Blanca lilies are their favorites

in my garden,” Flaherty writes.

Image: via Mindy Lighthipe

To see all the paintings, check this website, courtesy of Mindy Lighthipe. And if you’re close enough to Morristown, New Jersey, to visit the Freylinghuysen Arboretum, make sure to see the exhibit itself, running through Halloween. Many thanks to Judy Glattstein for the intellectual pollination.

Posted by Julie on 10/07 at 03:20 PM
Art & MediaEcologyPermalink
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