Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, November 09, 2007

Pretty on the Inside

If you don’t think algae’s anything to write home about, consider these images of plant specimens, and get out your pen.


Lycopodium clavata (club moss)

Photo: Jim Haseloff

Iris—in our opinion, one of the most glorious of all flowering plants— is rather humdrum, when compared with bamboo and wood ferns. We’re talking about the inner life. Jim Haseloff’s stunning collection of stained microscopic plant specimens checks our overhasty judgment of complexity and beauty. We find that some of homeliest plants have the most dazzling interiors once those botanical rooms are lit up with concoctions like “Safranin O and haematoxylin”—tried and true plant stains.

Jim’s fine site Plant Cellular Anatomy is an amazing and generous work. For those of you who may want to run out and start staining in earnest, he recommends Plant Microtechnique and Microscopy by Steve Ruzin, Oxford University Press.  Those who’d like to start out more slowly may want to try these simpler directions.


Caltha (family of marsh marigold)

Photo: Jim Haseloff

Why stain plants at all? Isn’t that like putting lipstick on a parakeet? From our very limited understanding, staining makes cellular structures easier to see. Also, stains can reveal information about plant parts: “Starch, protein, and even nucleic acids can be brought out using special stains.”

For the moment, it’s enough to revel in the normally unseen beauty of acer, caltha, dryopteris, and many more—including beloved iris. These are floral interiors Jim Haseloff has forced into bloom.


Coleochaete scutata (algae)

Photo: Jim Haseloff


Ammophilia (a.k.a.Marram grass)

Photo: Jim Haseloff


Cuscuta (Dodder)

Photo: Jim Haseloff

Posted by Julie on 11/09 at 05:13 PM
Art & MediaSciencePermalink

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Desperate Compromise in Kenya’s Rose City

The city council of Naivasha, the biggest flower growing region of Kenya, has scaled back its demands on farms, in the interest of two bathrooms.

imageA woman packs roses

at one of Naivasha, Kenya’s, scores of flower factories

Photo: Antonty Njuguna, for Reuters

Some say that Naivasha is the most unequal city in all Kenya. Once a favored haunt of rich white hunters, it’s now mainly a pass-through for tourists traveling from Nairobi to wild game safaris. In 1988, Naivasha’s planners estimated that the town would grow to only 50,000 residents. But there are more than 300,000 people living here now, and 50,000 of them are crowded into the Kargita slum.

Most of these new residents have been drawn to the region by the hope of work in Kenya’s booming cut-flower industry. Kenya supplies over 30% of Europe’s cut flower market and the Naivasha area accounts for 75% of production; one third of the local population works growing or processing flowers. But as the farms have prospered and numbers of in-migrant workers swelled, the municipal infrastructure of Naivasha itself has collapsed. The city is deeply in debt and basic facilities are strained, broken, or non-existent.

“These farms earn over Sh9.8 billion every year,” said Naivasha’s town clerk, Maurice Ochieng. Yet the municipality has thus far been able to assess the industry only for business permits and the land it owns —not sales. That means Naivasha the city takes in only about $32,835 annually (2.2 million Kenyan Shillings) from the flower industry. Furthermore, wages at the flower farms amount to only $37-$104 per month.

This past summer, municipal leaders made a push to tax the farms 1% on their annual output. But 57 growers, threatening to move their operations to neighboring Ethiopia,  took the matter to court and won.

imageNaivasha via Google Maps

This week, reports George Omondi of Nairobi’s Business Daily, Naivasha’s city leaders met with the Lake Naivasha Growers Group and vowed to cooperate with the industry rather than battle on. “It is common knowledge that most of the concerns raised previously are true and obvious,” said the city’s Maurice Ochieng, “but we must be able to move past them for the good of our town.” According to Omondi “Some flower farms, such as Oserian Development Company, have already started lending out their vehicles to the municipal council to help in garbage collection.” It will take the joint efforts of the farms and the city to handle these day-to-day chores—and to deal with the ecological perils that rapid growth and the flower industry in particular have wrought on Lake Naivasha, home to hippoes, many species of fish, and over 400 species of birds. 

How dire are conditions in the city of Naivasha? George Omondi writes of yesterday’s meeting between town and business officials, “Most growers could not hide their shock as Mr. Ochieng proceeded to read his wish list for the town to them. It turned out from his priority list that the town of roses does not have a single fire fighting engine. The construction of two public toilets is also listed as an urgent project for the council. He wants the farms’ assistance in solving some of these problems.”



Posted by Julie on 11/07 at 06:09 PM
Cut-Flower TradePoliticsPermalink

Monday, November 05, 2007

Kiku: NY Botanical Garden’s Blockbuster Show

Judy Glattstein, bulb expert and gardener, takes us to the New York Botanical Garden for the first-ever exhibition of traditional kiku (chrysanthemum) outside Japan. Thank you, Judy—here’s the floral equivalent of the King Tut Show!


Ogiku, displayed in diagonals of white, pink, or yellow

the colors used in the Japanese emperor’s horse bridle

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

By Judy Glattstein

“To everything there is a season.” And to chrysanthemums, there’s now: the autumn.

Short-day plants (sounds better than “long-night plants,” I suppose) need the seasonal cycle of shorter days and longer nights to bring them into bloom. Once this was discovered, some curious person tried artificially shading chrysanthemums in summer. Confused but responsive, the plants obediently flowered in July. We can now have chrysanthemums year-round, rather obviating their autumnal connection.

In summer though, a chrysanthemum is just another daisy, lost in the crowd of Echinacea, Gaillardia, Helianthus, Leucanthemum, and more. While potted chrysanthemums are available year-round, the bulk of them appear in autumn, top-heavy pots of flowers for sale in garden centers and nurseries, supermarkets and farm stands. Control of bloom time, and a squirt of Cyclocel™ (a plant growth regulator that shortens the internodes, resulting in compact plants) are enough manipulation for most growers.

imageYukie Kurashina of the New York Botanical Garden trains a chrysanthemum into shape according to principles of kiku artistry she learned from Yasuhira Iwashita, master of Shinjuku Gyoen Garden

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

Then there’s the Japanese approach to growing kiku. The first cultivated varieties of kiku were introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century A.D, and the Japanese have been growing chrysanthemums ever since, more than a thousand years. Japan’s national flower, the chrysanthemum appears on the crest of the Imperial family.

The growing method? In November or December take a small shoot. Pot it up. Grow it on. Fertilize, water, pot on, pinch, support, continue training week after week, month after month. Meticulous attention to detail has masters of chrysanthemum cultivation spending a year training plants that will bloom for a couple of weeks before starting the whole process over again. These professionals train chrysanthemums in three widely different styles for autumn display at botanical gardens and public parks. The plants are shown in specially built pavilions called uwaya, built of bamboo and cedar to provide both staging and shelter for the flowers.

There is ozukuri, thousand blossom style, wherein a single chrysanthemum plant is trained to produce hundreds of simultaneous flowers in a massive, dome-shaped array. Planted in specially built wooden containers called sekidai, they require a complicated internal supporting framework. Each individual flower is fitted with a supporting collar as it begins to open and show color.

Single stem ogiku, with one perfect bubble of a flower balanced on top, can reach as much as six feet tall. They are displayed in precise array, diagonal lines of white, pink, or yellow flowers which traditionally are the colors used in the emperor’s horse bridle, tazuna-ue.


Photo: New York Botanical Garden

And then there are cascading kengai, small-flowered chrysanthemums trained on a boat-shaped framework covered with netting. One plant, careful training, a year’s time - and the result is a peacock’s tail of flowers up to six and a half feet long.

Before we all start booking tickets and flitting off to Japan - relax. It would be a fabulous experience to visit places such Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo for its kiku exhibition, but you can manage this without the passport. Kiku Master and Chief of the Chrysanthemum Department Yasuhira Iwashita of Shinjuku Gyoen graciously accepted Yukie Kurashina of the New York Botanical Garden as a student. She spent six months under his tutelage, returning for additional guidance in understanding, learning, and practicing the complex techniques of cultivation that produce magnificent, traditional kiku. And this fall, after years of collaboration followed by twelve months of hands on work, the New York Botanical Garden showcases the most extensive display of chrysanthemums grown in the Imperial style ever presented outside Japan.

Do I sound like a press release? The more people whom I inveigle, invite, coax, to see this exhibition, the more delighted I’ll be - and so will they. I talked to Yukie about this project early in the Spring. I had a behind the scenes tour of kiku in training in September. In October I led a tour of the exhibition (See Judy’s October Garden Diary at BelleWood Gardens, her website, for lots more). And I’m planning to go back at least one more time before the exhibition closes.

Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum opened on October 20. It closes on November 18. The 108 ogiku will be replaced with fresh plants midway through the event, as will all the kengai and the ozukuri. The two courtyards wherein they are displayed each surround a large rectangular waterlily pool. The last few waterlily flowers, frost-kissed lotus and browning reeds offer a true feeling of autumn. One courtyard is embellished with bamboo, rustling in each passing breeze. The other courtyard has Japanese maples in their autumnal colors. There are a few bonsai in the courtyard, many more in the adjacent majestic Enid Haupt conservatory.


[Japanese maple] from Kakyo Tokyo meisho, 1881

Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894)

Courtesy of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, The New York Botanical Garden

Photo: New York Botanical Garden

There’s also Plants of Japan in Illustrated Books and Prints in the William D. Rondina and Giovanni Foroni LoFaro Gallery of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, an exhibit of rare books and botanical prints from the Library’s collections. The cool, low light conditions (necessary for the health of the books like Josiah Condor’s treatise on Japanese garden design, wood cut prints by Hiroshige III, and 19th and 20th century Japanese nursery catalogs.

I was there for five hours. I’m impatient to be back. Come. You’ll be just as astonished, impressed, and fascinated with these kiku. Those lumpy blobs of chrysanthemums we plop on our doorsteps with a pumpkin, and call it autumn - you’ll never look at them in quite the same way.

Posted by Julie on 11/05 at 11:23 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, November 02, 2007

Yard Art: Toiling for Paradise

Jill Nokes, a generous contributing writer here, settles in deep with twenty yard artists from across Texas.


The Houston home of Cleveland Turner

better known as “The Flower Man”

Photo: Krista Whitson, from Yard Art and Handmade Places

“Who wants to see a hut?”

A reasonable question, asked by Sam Mirelez of San Antonio, Texas. It explains—in part anyway—why Mirelez models his aluminum birdhouses not on the homes in his neighborhood but the Eiffel Tower, the Alamo, and many another monument of world renown. It may also have something to do with why you baby a big old climbing rose or keep searching for another variety of muhly grass to add to your collection. Property brings out the show biz gene.

But for the thousands of us meekly coddling and neglecting our surroundings, there are a few like Mirelez. He is one of twenty remarkable Texans featured in Yard Art and Handmade Places, Jill Nokes’s exploration of extraordinary home environments across the state. Anyone who has battled the elements (like fatigue) to sustain something beautiful in the yard will not fail to be humbled by the ambitions and achievements of Nokes’s subjects. They’ve made palm tree jungles, streetside history lessons and cathedrals of junk, all of them more to be admired since, in many cases, the huts are just out of sight.

So far as we know, “Naives and Visionaries,” an exhibit mounted at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center in 1974, was the first long look at yard art and related folk art installations (did that term exist then?). Subsequent books and shows on this phenomenon have tended to steer one of two ways. Many, like John Beardsley’s Gardens of Revelation, dwell on these efforts as idiosyncratic, as art—the creative outpourings of talented individuals. Other presentations, like Arte Entre Nosotros (Art Among Us), curated by folklorists Kay Turner and Pat Jasper in the 1980s, see yard art primarily as an expression of regional, ethnic and religious traditions.

Nokes partakes of both these approaches – in fact, folklorist Pat Jasper was an advisor and early collaborator on the project. But Nokes’s book takes a fascinating step beyond. A landscape designer herself, she possesses a stunning capacity to evoke the numinous effects of space. Every chapter begins with an extended scene-setting description; many of them are such sensoriums of language you alternate between philosophical reflection and beads of sweat.

Here Jill introduces “Stories from the Panhandle”:

“The expansive flatness, the vacant air, and the seamless connection of earth to sky all contribute to a sense of unfamiliar and uncomfortable exposure. The uninformed visitor convinces himself that there is no reason to feel so small and insignificant when surrounded by all this space, and in self-defense retreats into numbed boredom, deciding instead that there is really nothing interesting to see….In the winter, blizzards often roar in on 50-mile-an-hour winds to hammer the frosty ground, only to be replaced by scorching summer temperatures and drought. Most rain, when it comes, arrives in June and can range from twelve inches in the west to twenty-one inches in the northeast. Delivery of this scant rainfall brings to mind the old joke about the rancher who, when asked by the stranger how much rain he got that year, replied, ‘Oh, about fifteen inches, and I can remember the night we got it!’”


The windbreak on the Owens ranch, Deaf Smith County, Texas

Photo: Eldon and June Owens, from Yard Art and Handmade Places

Nokes proceeds to look at three places that no folklorist or art connoisseur would notice – huge windbreaks composed of a thousand or more trees, great Ls of green that some determined flatlanders have managed to grow on the otherwise brown expanse of north Texas. These living fortresses make it possible to sit comfortably on an outdoor patio while the wind drives 40 mph.

With many years of landscape work behind her, Nokes evinces as much excitement over the Clark family’s “expertise with heavy equipment, their skill at grading and their capacity for flat-out work”  as she does for Rufino Loya’s delicious Casa de Azucar (House of Sugar) where ” concrete flowers dot the perimeter like hard candy candle holders on a grocery story birthday cake.”

imageYard Art and Handmade Places

By Jill Nokes, with Pat Jasper

University of Texas Press, 2007

Throughout this handsome book, photographs by Krista Whitson – as well as pictures by Nokes and others – complement Jill’s prose and many intriguing excerpts from her interviews—a combination that transports us into these wondrous places. A good listener, she has drawn out the secrets of her subjects’ motivations.

“Being on duty twenty-four/seven put me more or less in a cubicle, and every day the walls of that cubicle got higher and higher,” Joe Smith, the lifelong town doctor of Caldwell, Texas, told her. “Art provided for me an escape route and allowed me fly over the top of that cubicle. I chose that route, and I enjoy it to this day.”

We at the Human Flower Project especially relish how acutely Nokes perceives the social sphere – as a kind of weather that can alternately prod, defy, limit, and flex the creative impulse. For Ruben and Irma Gutierrez, ornamentation of their yard stakes claim to right of pride where Indian ancestry has been muffled and Latino families lost their homesteads along the San Marcos River. Ira Poole’s pedagogical front yard in Austin – with its Statue of Liberty and sculpted maps—extends his career as a classroom teacher. Moving the opposite direction, Charlie Stagg retreated into his East Texas creation, a haven from his parents and a den to inhabit when the larger art world would not embrace the sculptures he had made to sell. Tim and Keith Ann Gearn have opened outward with a Ferris wheel—providing both a community landmark and a local spa on spokes. Sam Mirelez’s forest of birdhouses began with one anniversary gift.


Sam and Lupe Mirelez before their front yard in San Antonio

Photo: Krista Whitson, from Yard Art and Handmade Places

Most vividly, perhaps thanks to her many years of study and work in horticulture, Nokes senses how such environments—and their makers—change over time. Unlike paintings that hang in museums, these creations are subject to the pummeling and blazing of Texas itself. “I just found out that one of the windbreaks I featured in the book (June and Eldon Owens) was almost completely stripped in a freak hail storm on Wednesday,” Jill wrote October 12. “This was the same year they had noticed record numbers of pheasants roosting in their rare strip of woodlands.”

Such development and decline, what we savor in flowers, are human traits. We see Carol and Richard Blocker grow from nonchalant hobbyists, to obsessive and competitive cactus collectors, to kindly eminences of the succulent club scene in San Antonio – mentoring others and kicking back to enjoy their lot-sized “dish garden.” A moving finale is Jill’s portrait of Evelyn Blazek, now approaching her 90th year, Chinese tallow and privet creeping toward the sacred garden she has tended for more than three decades. What Nokes writes of Vidor’s Charlie Stagg holds true for all these extraordinary makers—as for the ordinary, with one rose on a trellis. “The structures themselves are as fragile as the life that built them.”

Note: Jill Nokes will give a slide lecture and sign copies of Yard Art and Handmade Places at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, Sunday Nov. 4, in the “Lifestyle Tent” at 10th and Congress, “right in front of the gates to the Capitol” from 2:00-2:45.

Posted by Julie on 11/02 at 02:14 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink
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