Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, January 21, 2008

Kahu: Leis for the March from Selma

On the holiday to remember Martin Luther King, we honor a Hawaiian civil rights leader, too, and his floral gift to the historic march on Montgomery.

imageMartin Luther King and marchers

March ‘65, on the way

to Montgomery, AL

Photo: via Hoover

In late February 1965 Jimmy Lee Jackson, a teenager in Perry County, Alabama, was shot and killed by a state trooper during a peaceful demonstration in the courthouse square. The black community there came together in outrage and dedication; they decided to take their grievances over segregation and police violence to the statehouse in Montgomery. When Gov. George Wallace forbade their demonstration, Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Washington, D.C., appealing to President Lyndon Johnson for support. Meanwhile, the activists began their march out of Selma…

“When the marchers reached the city line, they found a posse of state troopers waiting for them. As the demonstrators crossed the bridge leading out of Selma, they were ordered to disperse, but the troopers did not wait for their warning to be heeded. They immediately attacked the crowd of people who had bowed their heads in prayer. Using tear gas and batons, the troopers chased the demonstrators to a black housing project, where they continued to beat the demonstrators as well as residents of the project who had not been at the march.”

Bloody Sunday, March 7, drew the nation’s attention like never before to the civil rights struggle. Returning to Alabama, King led a symbolic march to the bridge two days later. And on March 25th, a third march began. King and some 3200 others walked east out of Selma, twelve miles a day, sleeping in fields. They arrived in Montgomery five days later, and before a crowd of 25,000, King spoke:

I know you are asking today, ‘“How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” ...How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?  I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

Muddy fields and tear gas, aching feet and billy clubs, what part do flowers have in the brave Selma marches?

We found startling pictures yesterday of King and others somewhere along the route from Selma to Montgomery. They’re festooned with glorious white leis!

imageRev. Abraham Akaka

receives a kiss on his 75th birthday from Danny Kaleikini (1992)

Photo: Star Bulletin

These were gifts from Reverend Dr. Abraham Akaka, better known in his native Hawaii as ‘Kahu’ (shepherd). Akaka was the pastor of Kawaiahao Church, the ‘Mother Church’ of Hawaii, for nearly 30 years. He was also the state’s first commissioner for civil rights. When King came to the islands in 1964 to celebrate Civil Rights Week, they met at the University of Hawaii, beginning what was to become a close friendship. That following spring, Kahu lent his support to the courageous marchers out of Selma by adorning them with flowers.

Though we had never heard of him, Rev. Akaka was a giant in his homeland, “the most influential and widely known Hawaiian since Kamehameha the Great. Newsweek once described him as having the ‘charm of a beachboy and the force of a Billy Graham.’” In 1962, both Hawaii’s candidates for governor asked “Kahu” to run with them, for lieutenant governor. He turned them both down. “I’m a bridge between the Republicans and Democrats,” Akaka said. No doubt the clash at Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday incited him and inspired this gift.

We don’t pretend to fathom the meaning of the lei in Hawaiian culture. Meanings is more like it, since there are ceremonial garlands of many kinds, each with flowers, seeds, feathers, and shells selected for their special beauty and spirit-power. We hope that lei experts will be able to decode for us the symbolism of these particular objects. And we would be MOST interested to learn if a local Selma florist had the fortitude to make them! How did they get here and around the necks of the marchers?


Selma Civil Rights March: March 21, 1965.  From left: U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rev. F.D. Reese wearing leis sent by Abraham Akaka.

Photo: Susannah Heschel

We can be fairly certain that Kahu’s leis were to bring the civil rights marchers protection and honor. Further, leis carry with them a spirit of peace: They “were given to ali’i (royalty) as a sign of affection and when two warring chiefs settled their differences, they wove a lei which meant an end to the hostilities.” Did Rev. Akaka send a lei to Wallace, too?

In a society that fixates on individual personality and prowess, we in the U.S. mark “Martin Luther King Day.” But one pedestrian doesn’t make a march, or one flower a lei. Many thousands of others, like Jimmy Lee Jackson and Reverend Akaka have led, followed, flowered, and died in this struggle. With respectful thanks, we celebrate them all.

Posted by Julie on 01/21 at 01:16 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsSecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, January 18, 2008

Diversity: Madagascar v. NYC

A “new” species of palm has been discovered on the island of Madagascar, thanks to its flowering finale.

imageBlossoming to the end

Tahina spectabilis

Photo: Xavier Metz

Botanists around the world are popping the corks over Tahina spectabilis, a gigantic palm tree just discovered in the northwest of Madagascar, even though the plant, blooming its head off, is about to die. “Details of the flowers and branches suggested it was a species and genus of palm that had never been described before,” reports the Guardian. “Genetic tests on the plant confirmed that it comes from an evolutionary line that was not previously known to exist in Madagascar.”

Actually, plant discoveries have been coming pretty fast and furious on this big island off the east coast of Africa. “Out of the 10,000 plants native to Madagascar, 90% of them are found nowhere else in the world.” The huge palm gave itself away with a spectacular show of flowering.

Whereas most palm trees bloom periodically throughout their lives, this giant shoots the moon. “Once it is fully grown, the tip of the stem branches into hundreds of tiny flowers that sap nutrients from the plant so rapidly that it collapses.”  On a stroll with his family, Xavier Metz, the manager of a nearby cashew plantation, spotted the huge flower stalk cascading in the sky. He took pictures and posted them on the web, attracting the attention of the plant experts at Kew Gardens and botanists around the world.

imageTahina spectabilis

Photo: Xavier Metz

“Ever since we started work on the palms of Madagascar in the 1980s, we have made discovery after discovery,” said John Dransfield, an English scientist. “But to me this is probably the most exciting of them all.” Tahina spectabilis is a thrill for several reasons: its size (some say it grows “six stories tall”), its novelty, and its dissimilarity from other palms thus far found on the island.

Press releases said that the tree was named for Metz’s daughter Tahina, and that “‘Spectabilis’ means ‘blessed’ or ‘to be protected.’” But we side with the Ethical Paleontologist, who believes that Tahina must mean “blessed” in Malagasy (whether it’s Metz’s daughter’s name or not); and “spectabilis” means, well, “Geez, lookadat!”

imageBioclimates of Madagascar

Map: Missouri Botanical Garden

Madagascar owes its immense plant diversity primarily to two features: its range of climate zones and its isolation. There are tropical rainforests on the island’s eastern side, while the west and south,  “in the rain shadow of the central highlands, are home to tropical dry forests, thorn forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands.” This shoot-the-moon palm tree was discovered in yet another bioregion, the northwest part of the island. Check out the map at right, via the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has a concerted plant research project of its own ongoing in Madagascar.

We find it curious that in the plant world, isolation is so conducive to diversity, whereas in the human social world, those environments that are least isolated tend to be the most diverse (New York City versus North Dakota). Cities seem to attract ethnic complexity, even as they destroy it—melting down distinctions in the longer run. There is a case to be made for geographic isolation in human culture, too. We think of Gee’s Bend, a particle of land cut off by a loop in the Alabama River. The society of Gee’s Bend is not in itself diverse, but its relative isolation fostered an original flowering of its own, rare and spectacular as a six-story palm. “Gee’s, lookadeese!”

Posted by Julie on 01/18 at 06:51 PM
Culture & SocietyEcologySciencePermalink

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Flowers as Misdirection

In two recent U.S. bank robberies, flowers are accessories to the crime.


A thief “disarms” bank staff with flowers in Minneapolis

Photo: via KARE

Those Minnesota criminals sure have style!

A man bearing a lovely bouquet (they appear to be pink roses—hard to be sure with those fuzzy surveillance cameras) pulled a gun on the teller of a Minneapolis bank last Thursday and demanded that money be loaded into a black canvas sack.

Did he give the teller those flowers? We’re not sure, but the same fellow’s also suspected in two other recent bank holdups in the area (because there were pink flowers involved in those crimes, too?).

In Maple Grove, Minnesota, another thief drew an unwitting local florist into his scheme. According to the FBI, he “paid a florist to deliver a bouquet and a wrapped package to a Maple Grove Wells Fargo Bank….. In that package was what appeared to be a bomb” (presumably one of those cannonball looking things with a long sparky fuse).

As the package was opened, the thief called the bank manager and demanded that a bag of cash be delivered to his limo, idling just outside.

imagePresto! Flowers! Stick ‘em Up!

Image: Discount Tricks

In the world of magic this is called “misdirection”: using some prop or gesture to put observers off guard. “Look over there!”—not here, as I’m dealing from the bottom of the deck. To this end, what could be more eye-catching and disarming than flowers? The fact is, both these flower plots worked (though a suspect’s been arrested in the Maple Grove case).

About a year ago a thief in Boise, Idaho, held up the Key Bank, jumped into a yellow getaway car and drove off. Apparently, he didn’t get far, nor did he intend to. He stopped into a local flower shop and spent one new $50 bill on blooms. A case of misdirection-backfire: the $50 note was easy evidence, promptly traced back to the bank.

Robbery 101: Flash your flowers before or AS you break the law, not afterward. It’s hard to vanish with a rose between your teeth.



Posted by Julie on 01/16 at 11:10 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPermalink

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Behold the Wollemi Pine!

With the discovery of “living fossils” in China and, now, Australia, the EarthScholars administer a gentle bump on the head. Wake up! You might have just missed a plant celebrity. Thank you, Jim and Renee.

imageThrough One Eye

By Joan True (1940-2006)

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

It seems rather “common sensical” to us that when we look at something repeatedly, we observe whatever is present to be seen, and over time, it becomes increasingly familiar to us. But is that really a defensible assumption?

Shall we conduct a little test? Surely you have watched the fingers on your hands move countless times. If you are currently sitting at a table, position one of your hands forcefully flat on the table top in front of you.  Question: Which finger is the only one that cannot be easily lifted up by itself, separately, while the remaining four are kept flat?  Although most people have looked at and used their fingers every day of their lives, few people predict that it is their ring finger which has the least dexterity. Why don’t they know this? Visual cognition studies show that we often “look” without selectively paying attention to or concentrating on particular aspects of our visual field.

Thus, the verifiable but seldom chosen answer is the ring finger—for anatomical reasons that turn out be fairly complex. However, and this is important, if you were guided by a mentor to observe your fingers systematically for an extended period of time—such as in learning to type, to play a musical instrument, or to perform sleight-of-hand magic tricks—you are much more likely to answer that question quickly and correctly, based upon your visual memory of your own finger movement. Thus, observation is really “systematized looking” that we consciously wish to make available to us for future recall—this happens whenever we are looking with a vested interest or a purpose in mind, or whenever we are looking carefully in order to try to understand something.

Another example: How many times have you looked at a US penny? Thousands of times! You get pennies in change and you count them; you lay out your pennies to pay a restaurant bill exactly; you place your pennies in a coin dish for later use. You don’t do these things with your eyes closed, do you? Questions: Does the president’s head on a penny face right or left? Which US president is it? How many times and where does his image appear on a single penny? On which side and at which clock-hour position does the word liberty appear? Is it written as LIBERTY or Liberty? It’s not easy to recall these details, is it?—unless you are seasoned numismatist (coin collector). If so, you are used to observing these features and using them as indicators to establish the grade or condition of each penny in your collection. Similar limitations apply to the untrained eye’s observations of plants, but to an even greater degree—because most people look at individual plants quite infrequently.

In our January 10th, 2006 Human Flower Project article entitled “On Seeing Flowers: Are You Missing Anything?” we explained the basic principles of our plant blindness theory which asserts that, especially in urban settings within developed countries, people tend subconsciously to overlook, undervalue, and fail to differentiate the plants in their environment—consciously sensing only a “green blur” or a verdant backdrop of vegetation against which human and animal activities of interest to them take place.

It should be noted that the United States is an urbanized nation, with 80% of its population residing in cities and suburbs. Thus, it seems likely that, unless they have been influenced by a plant mentor or are self-taught plant aficionados, plant blindness is the default botanical- attention state for most US citizens today.

People pay more attention to large plants than small plants. The largest plants in the Plant Kingdom are trees (which, studies have shown, young children don’t even consider to be plants). Trees comprise about 25% of all plant species and are the defining life forms of many large terrestrial biomes—including the temperate coniferous forest biome, deciduous forest biome, and tropical rainforest biome. You would think that by the present day, humankind would have discovered all the large species of trees on Earth—and you would be wrong. How could even experienced plant explorers overlook some strange-looking, tall trees, you may ask?

imageThe discovery site of the Wollemi Pine

Image: Bradshaw Foundation

Consider this. In 1994, approximately two dozen 100-foot-tall trees from the age of dinosaurs (90 million years old) were discovered growing in the sandstone gorges of a wilderness area only 125 miles northwest of the most populous city in all of Australia—Sydney, the home of over 4 million people.

These trees were discovered in Wollemi (WALL-um-eye) National Park of New South Wales by David Noble, a bushwalker/rock climber/park and wildlife officer. Having previously made hundreds of expeditions exploring the park, Noble was an experienced plant observer who suddenly realized he had never seen such trees before. He stashed several twig specimens in his backpack to show to expert dendrologists (tree biologists) and plant taxonomists.  The trees that caught Noble’s attention turned out to be an entirely new tree species, and even a new genus of tree, apparently related to the ancient Araucariaceae (ah-rou-carry-ACE-eh-ee) family of evergreen coniferous trees, a family dating back 200 million years. Other members of this family include the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and the Monkey-Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana).

In 1998, these newly discovered living trees were officially named the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), with the species epithet nobilis honoring its discoverer, David Noble. Part of its common name, Pine, is (as with the Norfolk Island Pine) a misnomer, because this tree merely resembles a pine (true pines are members of the genus Pinus and are typically found only in the Northern Hemisphere).


Wollemi Pine: Fossilized leaves and living leaves, in two or four flattened ranks

Photos: Paula Offutt

Later, paleobotanists discovered that existing specimens of fossil pollen and fossil seed cones (including some recovered during Australian dinosaur excavations) matched those of the living Wollemi Pines. There is now quite a well-established fossil record of this species. Journalists often call such a plant species a living fossil: an informal term for any living species (or clade) of organism that appears to be the same as a species otherwise only known from the Earth’s fossil record and that has no close living relatives.

In paleobotany, a Lazarus taxon (plural, taxa) is a classification category that disappears from one or more periods of the fossil record, only to appear again later. (The term refers to the biblical story of Lazarus, whom Jesus miraculously raises from the dead.) Lazarus taxa are observational artifacts that can occur due to incomplete sampling or local extinction in areas later resupplied. In the case of Wollemia nobilis, some existing fossil pollen and seed cones were shown to have been previously misidentified, and thus some gaps in its fossil record have now been eliminated.

imageArtist’s rendering of a Wollemi Pine

Image: Edge Cinema

Later scientific studies have shown that Wollemi Pines

(a) total about 100 mature naturally-occurring, living specimens, divided into three small populations within the park;

(b) populations reproduce sexually but show virtually no genetic variation—these trees are all clones;

(c) are susceptible to attack by foreign pathogens carried by visitors (hence researcher access has been carefully controlled via quarantine at the three secret natural sites within the park and $133,000 fines are posted for disturbing these trees);

(d) are strangely capable of shedding entire branches rather than just individual leaves;

(e) are host to a fungus which produces taxol, an important anticancer drug;

(f) can be raised from seed, plus be successfully propagated quite rapidly using modern tissue culture techniques;

(g) are found in three similar ecological niches featuring permanently moist, active-stream gorges, with similar soils and light regimes; and

(h) often have multiple stems originating at the base of their trunk—as many as 160.

The Australian government has helped the Wollemi Pine become a plant celebrity. Potted specimens were sent on tour to the nation’s botanic gardens. Sydney’s botanic garden organized a cooperative venture between the government and the private business sector to use tissue culture techniques to propagate and sell the tree on a commercial scale, with an international marketing plan.  Royalties from its plant sales will support conservation of the Wollemi Pine. Thus, North Americans can now order their own “living fossil” Wollemi Pine tree (check here) for a cost of less than $150. It can be cultivated as a tall tree, patio plant, or potted plant. Because this ancient and initially rare tree has attractive, unusually dark green foliage and bubbly (coco-puff-like) bark, sprouts multiple trunks, and is shade-tolerant, it is quite likely to become popular worldwide, both as a plant celebrity and geobiological teaching tool to heighten public understanding of plant evolution, biodiversity, extinction, refugia, and geologic time.


Plant zoo? Rare Wollemi Pine exhibited inside a cage for its own protection

Photo: Biotechnology Online

In 1948, the announced rediscovery of the Dawn Redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) in China near Modaoxi by Zhan Wang (1943)—a tree previously known only by its fossils—rocked the botanical world. It is the only living species in the ancient redwood genus named Metasequoia. An easy tree to grow from seed in temperate climates, it can reach a height of 135 feet or more within a century after planting. Or, if you have no room in your yard for such a tall tree, you can grow one as a miniature bonsai tree.

As if to anticipate the focus of this article, it should be noted that Wollemi is an aboriginal word meaning “Watch out!” or, “Look around you!”

Our message is that paying attention to plants necessarily involves comparison and attending to details. We often look without seeing, without knowing what to look for, and thus we miss much more visual information than we should. Two other hikers accompanied David Noble on the day of his great discovery, but only David noticed the huge Wollemi Pines. The emotional, intellectual, and participatory rewards of careful plant observation can help give our lives and the lives of others meaning and purpose. That’s what David Noble’s and Zhan Wang’s discoveries teach us. As for the Wollemi Pine, Sir David Attenborough spoke for the embedded biological explorer that resides within each of us when he exclaimed: “How marvelous and exciting that we should have discovered this rare survivor from such an ancient past.” A plant celebrity? Indeed!



Posted by Julie on 01/13 at 04:52 PM
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