Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Today’s Hawaiian Lei (Kiss Not Included)

Competition from Asian growers and airport security are stifling Hawaii’s famed floral greeting.


Mr. and Mrs. Mainland Get a Blast of Aloha


In the late 1800s, visiting Hawaii meant sloshing over hundreds of ocean miles: The Boat Days, they call it in the islands. To be greeted with a lei after braving the seas (or before, if one were headed back to the mainland) seems to have caught on quickly, an indelible tourist experience that swiftly became part of travelers’ expectations and tour guides’ provisions. Lore grew around the lei custom, too:

“It was said if a departing visitor tossed their lei into the ocean and it floated back to the beach, it meant that the person would someday return to the islands. Hundreds of leis could be seen floating in the crystal waters off of Diamond Head as a ship steamed away.” (Anyone who finds this too sentimental, please break a brick with your head!)

imageLei Vendors in Honolulu

Photo: via

The University of Hawaii has posted a brief history of the lei tradition based around interviews with Honolulu lei vendors. It notes, “By the turn of the (20th) century, the lei industry was well established in Honolulu. Hawaiian lei sellers — generally women — were visible on the sidewalks of downtown Honolulu in the area of Hotel, Maunakea, and Kekaulike streets.” Travel to the islands swelled in the late 1920s, as Matson Navigation Company began luxury liner service between California and Honolulu.  The lei sellers, picking flowers from their own yards and local farms, strung garlands and brought them to the waterfront on steamer days (usually twice monthly). With the beginnings of air travel in the 1940s, some moved to the airport, selling their flowers from the backs of trucks.

“(We) had all these jalopies. We just build a stand on. No more electricity over there. Just a dark road and don’t even have street lights. What we have is gas lanterns. We hang it onto the stand. This is how it started,” said seller Harriet Kauwe.

And today? Hawaiian tourists have come to expect the lei greeting. And it’s still provided though the circumstances, the vendors and the flowers themselves are changing fast. Most of the lei sellers on Maunakea Street today are Filipino women, not Hawaiians. Nearly all lei greetings take place not at the shining waterfront or even the airport gate. Instead, airport regulations require “greeting companies” to station representatives in the baggage area holding out signs with passengers’ names (limousine-service style). One company explains: “After deplaning, clients should recognize their name sign. In the traditional way of saying Aloha, a lei, specially selected from one of our four service categories, will then be presented” (we’re not sure if a kiss comes with that).

imageShirley Magaoay, a lei vendor born in the Philippines

at her shop on Maunakea St., Honolulu

Photo: Olivier Koning

Also, it’s likely that the flowers looped around your neck will not be Hawaiian. The state’s annual summary of the flower and nursery business found that Hawaii-grown lei flowers had been steeply declining for several years. Production of plumeria, creamy yellow and highly favored for leis, was down by half from 2002. Cultivation of pikake (Jasminum sambac), a pearly and more traditional lei flower in the islands, was down even more. “In 2002, nine growers sold 81,000 (pikake) blossoms valued at $242,000. In 2006, five growers sold 23,000 flowers worth $60,000.” Carnation and tuberose production in Hawaii has sunk also.

What’s happened? As on the mainland, U.S. flower farmers can’t beat the cheap labor costs in Latin America. And Hawaiian growers find themselves in added competition with farms in Japan and Thailand. Not only were total blooms and revenues down between 2002 and 2006, so was the acreage dedicated to lei flower production. (You can find the whole report here.) We’d suppose that as in much of the rest of the U.S., flower growing simply doesn’t look like the most lucrative use of land, especially so in Hawaii where there’s not much of it and demand for a piece of paradise is high.

The one exception in this decline of locally grown lei flowers seems to be the orchid Miss Joaquim Vanda, a splashy purple and white blossom hugely popular in the 1930s that’s making a comeback. This flower doesn’t travel well, so Hawaiian blooms can still dominate the market.  “To make a vanda lei requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 flowers,” said Richard Criley, horticulturist at University of Hawaii. “Of course, the old-style lei, the flat one, which uses only the principal lip petals, requires many, many more flowers. That would account for the increase right there.”

But Criley also believes that lei sales generally have fallen off. Perhaps Hawaii, more accessible now than ever, is also less exotic, and a fresh garland has a whiff of absurdity. All the new rules at U.S. airports have made greetings clumsy, too. “There used to be a whole slew of people waiting by the gates with lei in hand. Now, you have to wait at the baggage area, which isn’t as easy,” he says. No matter how much slack guitar music they pipe in, blinking alarms, Hertz and drug hounds, moving walkways and conveyor belts are mighty low in Aloha.

Posted by Julie on 03/12 at 06:45 PM
Culture & SocietyCut-Flower TradeFloristsSecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sissinghurst: Now I See It. Now You Do, Too

The “invisible” Vita Sackville-West made a garden that launched ten-thousand gardening visions, John Levett’s among them. Ever thanks to you, John.

imageEssay and photos by John Levett


I’m sitting listening to Somethin’ Else, Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 outing for Blue Note which just happens to have Miles in the band which might just happen to have sold a few more copies. It’s nothing remarkable, no doubt filled contractual obligations, kept the band off the streets and, skipping past a few concepts and events that I can only half make up, reminded me of Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, which broke up the band. Our band. That’s Stuart, Mick & Me. And the bloke who could play.

There’s nothing more certain to break up a band than drafting in someone who took all the lessons, got the certificates, could read the notes, follow the tune then throw it away, create a signature style and show the rest of us that we’re only water-carrying shufflers for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. Our band had dosed on King Oliver, Kid Ory, George Lewis and Johnny Dodds solos so why we let in a jump-jive sax player I can’t fathom. Whatever. History was against us. Lennon etc. were playing Hamburg. British Beat was only months away. And I’d already bought ‘Live,’ started collecting Coltrane, going to Joe Harriott gigs in south London, staying up late at wherever Tony Oxley [I think] was playing, then kipping on a bench on Charing Cross Station waiting for the first train out to the suburbs on Sunday morning.

Which reminded me of sitting in the back seat of a mate’s car driving down to Sevenoaks in Kent one Friday evening in 1968 and sitting next to this bloke I’d never met who asked me who I read (Orwell), who I listened to (Coltrane), who I watched (Antonioni) and so did he. We became friends for twenty years until I changed and he didn’t. In those decades he came to teach teachers, I taught kids & together we worked on learning projects for schools. Which took us to Knole House.

We asked for and got the necessary permissions to photograph the interiors of the house; being taken around by the jolly Baron Sackville who moved furniture, rearranged settings to get the best light, gave us tea and buns, access to the family photo albums and a catalogue of anecdotes. We filled our boots that day but I moved out of south London shortly afterwards and returned to Knole only some thirty years later when I thought it a good idea to take myself down there to sit in the grounds to read Woolf’s Orlando.

The Baron Sackville (who was either a Bertram, Bernard or Lionel) came to Knole as a result of the custom of primogeniture whereby all the family stuff goes to the firstborn male or, if there isn’t such a male, so on down through the family until they get one. If you’re a firstborn female then you’re invisible. Which is why Vita Sackville-West, of the same family, got the hoof, packed the mattress on the truck and headed someplace else.


Or, finally, to Sissinghurst in 1930. There were a few stops on the way but I always think that they don’t count. There’s every reason to believe that Vita was happy at Knole and bitter, if not resentful, at having to leave it. In circumstances such as that it’s not unreasonable to seek to recreate, if not the happiness, then at least the circumstances in which it might return. I’m inclined to believe that the creation of Sissinghurst was a reasonable bash at doing just that.

There are still points on the Weald of Kent (Biggin Hill, Emmetts near Westerham, Churchill’s Chartwell, the tower at Sissinghurst) where you can believe that this was England as it once was. Which it wasn’t.  It once had a thriving Mediaeval iron and charcoal industry, and forests, decimated by the said industry and Tudor demand for shipbuilding. What you can see now was created by the enclosure acts and the demand for wool. Nevertheless, Kent still passes as what you might like to think of as ye olde England; I’d happily live there and fantasize too if I could go back a century prior to stockbroker gated communities.

A couple of years ago I chanced on a first edition of Vita’s The Land and bought it for no other reason than that I thought it yet another good idea to take myself down there to sit in the grounds and read it. I’m not alone in thinking it a good idea to read originals in original settings. I’m also not alone in knowing that this is a romantic conceit. At the end of the poem is the dateline ‘Ispahan, April 1926.’ Ispahan is a bit of a schlep from the Weald but why let a continent and a half get in the way of imaginings. ( I once had the idea of travelling down to Kent to read each section of the poem in season which fell at the first hurdle. Having given up car ownership I found myself stuck one ‘raw-boned winter’ January morning on a train outside London Bridge station for fifty minutes due to signal failure; ‘Classic monotony’ was written on line three.)


When you see a book called something like The English Garden through the Twentieth Century (not dissimilar to Jane Brown’s The English Garden Through the 20th Century) you can bet it’s not about your fifty square metres thick with with the gloop of clay, sand, brick chippings and builder’s rubble that you’re trying to build the New Jerusalem on. Sissinghurst, on the other hand, will feature in most of such books. In (again) Jane Brown’s Vita’s Other World, Sissinghurst is described as ‘an echo of a dream’; the dream being the Hearst-Kane ‘castle fantasy’ sometimes satisfied, as in the case of Sissinghurst, by the manor house rather than the fortress. What Vita did was to add an English garden that came to symbolize what all English gardeners sought out in whatever plot they plotted on.

I have no idea what makes up a great garden. On the other hand, I have an idea what makes up a loved one. You pay your entry fee to the excellent woman direct from a Barbara Pym novel, collect your marking-your-way-around pamphlet, pray there’ll be no coach loads of Italian tourists today (“They just have no idea of how to form a queue, darling”) and head off. Chances are that you have some idea of what to expect; you’ve glanced at the guide/garden book/magazine article/web page; you know it’s Tudor/Stuart/Victorian/Modernist; you know what’s in season. But it’s not about what you see, it’s about what you can make your own.


The wonder of Sissinghurst is that it’s approachable. You’re never likely to have a plot this big, nor the money to pay the wages, but you can take away the idea. Each part of the garden has a character, a focus, some feature that distinguishes it. Its size varies—some small intimate corner; a trough; a wall; a walk; a field. The planting changes—in shade; in distinguished borders; formal; discovered; echoes of formal landscapes; mirrors of cottage garden beds. Everything surprises—turning a corner; finding an entrance; a seat; a flight of steps; entering again through a different entrance; turning your back and finding a path. Pocket the guide and stroll; find yourself wondering if this is where you started; ask if that walk is intended to be walked; guess if you’ve passed this planting before. Like the best of all gardens, any view leads you forwards, then you turn around and you notice what you’ve just missed.

Sissinghurst is what we’d all like in our back garden plot. We get home & start the re-think. We do that because we come away from Vita’s garden believing all is possible because everything we’ve seen this day has been so intimate, curiously accessible, a picture we can steal. A vision; a big idea which we can translate. That seems to me to be her genius. It was translated into her garden notes. There is something that tells you lots about post-war Britain coming out of the column she wrote for The Observer, ‘In Your Garden’—a time, a place, a loss, an everlastingness, nous and an English sensibility (read Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day, watch David Lean’s Brief Encounter, read Orwell, be English and be born in 1944…there’s no other way of feeling it).  She was never a great novelist or poet. She wanted that but so do a lot of us; the genius in life is recognizing and capitalizing on what’s best in us. Gardening was best in her. She had all the attributes, encumbrances and drawbacks of the ‘upper’ class (never forget ‘class’; this is Britain don’t yer know) but she stumbled to get over that and improved herself; drawing herself up to be ‘dead common’ like the rest of us.

imageTo her, gardening was improving and so it is. It has aspiration, hope, loss, disappointment, anger, creation, destruction, willfulness, humility. We learn that some things will never be and for others their time is over. We can cultivate patience or embrace heartache. We gamble and lose or briefly dwell in an unexpected success. Something works for us this year but that’s the last year ever.

And there’s community. That was another part of her accomplishment. Her writings read like an edition of ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’; whatever your age, your expertise, your plot, your problems are universal and shared. Walking around Sissinghurst brings ‘good idea,’ ‘try that,’ ‘who’d have thought,’ ‘that’d work.’ It shows possibilities; gets us thinking as gardeners; makes the heart leap; encourages.


The first time I visited Sissinghurst I was driving home from Romney Marshes one early Autumn afternoon. That morning I’d taken a walk along the shingle of Dungerness and saw, again for the first time, Derek Jarman’s garden. It was after his death as I was searching for his grave. As I drove from Old Romney to Tunbridge Wells I saw the road for Sissinghurst; nothing grand, just a rising drove lane. As I sat in the lower meadow in late afternoon it struck me how close the two gardeners seemed; seeing something that wasn’t there.

Posted by Julie on 03/08 at 10:27 AM
Gardening & LandscapePermalink

Monday, March 03, 2008

Chicory: The Root of Today’s Coffee Break

Jim Wandersee and Renee Clary provide a tantalizing trip through the Chicory underground, resurfacing in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All we’re missing are the beignets—and are we missing them!


Half-dollar-sized Chicory flower head consists of many individual petal-like flowers, squared-ended and toothed

Photo: Cirrus

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

Chicory, also known as Coffeeweed, Succory, and Ragged-Sailors,  is a landlubber—a sky-blue member of the Aster (Asteraceae) family. Beautiful as Cichorium intybus (pronounced ”sigh-co’-ree-um inn’-ta-bus”) is, it’s not grown commercially for its flowers but as a salad foliage crop (radicchio) or as a root crop. Herein lies the “coffee connection”: this Chicory’s roots have been used for hundreds of years as a coffee substitute and a coffee additive— and to some people’s joy, it doesn’t contain any caffeine.

imageA Chicory root harvest

Photo: Chicory, S.A.

The root of the plant is cut, sliced, and kiln-dried, then roasted at 325 °F on a conveyor-type roaster and ground up to make commercially available “ground chicory root.”

A craving for “coffee with chicory” emerged in France. During that country’s civil war in the 18th century, coffee was scarce. The French found that roasted and ground chicory added body and flavor to the brew or, in a pinch, even substituted for coffee. The Acadians who journeyed from Nova Scotia brought this culinary delight and many other French customs to Louisiana. During the Union Naval Blockade of the War Between the States, coffee was unavailable, and New Orleanians added ground chicory to their coffee (in a 3:7 ratio) to stretch their unpredictable, precious, and expensive coffee supply. They liked how the coffee-chicory blend made their coffee darker, thicker, and what they termed “bittersweet.” To them, chicory powder not only added a complex flavor to coffee, it also somehow intensified it.

imageCafé du Monde, New Orleans

Photo: Cloud Travel

To this very day, you can depend upon the fact that a cup of café au lait served in New Orleans at its landmark, open-air coffeehouse, Café du Monde (open 24 hours a day, except on Christmas), will be made with rich, dark-roast coffee,  ground chicory, and boiled milk—just as it was almost two centuries ago. New Orleans’ chicory coffee is seldom consumed black—it’s typically served mixed with 170°F milk (au lait) and paired with several hot beignets (“ ben-yays’ ”), a local delicacy—square, deep-fried French donuts dusted with powdered sugar. In Louisiana’s capital city of Baton Rouge, the popular coffeehouse most similar to Café du Monde is Coffee Call. Within the Crescent City and surrounding South Louisiana, coffee with ground chicory is sipped in greater quantities than anywhere else in the world.


Café du Monde’s signature coffee-chicory blend

Photo: mabjo

New Orleans is currently the number one coffee port in the country (unloading a quarter of a million tons of beans per year) and it clearly loves its coffee. In the mid- 19th century, the city boasted over 500 coffeehouses. All of them served coffee with chicory. They became places where business information was shared and were sometimes called “coffee exchanges” for that reason. We have New Orleans to thank for the work-day coffee break. As late as the 1920s, the coffee break had not yet become a part of the daily routine of American workers. But by 1928 in New Orleans, the mid-morning coffee break had become accepted as a hallmark of “The Big Easy’s” business practice and reflected a philosophy of life that included small pleasures.

Wild Chicory is an easily recognizable roadside biennial. Sometimes this plant can even be weedy or invasive. Flowering occurs from June through September. The average plant produces about 3,000 seeds. It grows wild in all of the “lower 48” states, plus all of the Canadian provinces, and is partial to limestone soil.


The biennial life cycle of the Chicory plant

Photo: California Vegetable Specialties

The famous Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus used Chicory as one of the flowers in his floral Clock at Upsala (1751), because of the regularity with which its flowers opened and closed. Here in the US, Chicory flowers open about 6 a.m. and close around noon.  A floral clock planted according to his principles is still flourishing at the University of Uppsala, where Linnaeus was a professor.

imageBeignets with at café au lait

served at Café du Monde

Photo: Jeenybeen

If you find you are now insatiably curious about the Chicory plant, how would you like to visit one of the world’s Chicory museums? There are three—the Chicory Museum in Alholmen, Finland (housed in a former Chicory processing factory), the Chicory Museum in Geuzenberg, Belgium (focusing on Belgian endive, an edible blanched-leaf vegetable form of Chicory), and the Maison de la Chicore (housed within a family mansion) in Orchies, France. The latter is run by the Laroux family, the world’s number one Chicory root producer and processor today. Why not explore these unique travel possibilities while sipping a delicious cup of New Orleans-style café au lait?

Note: This article follows the practice of capitalizing the plant’s common name, but not capitalizing the name of its derivative commodity—namely, the ground powder or the name of the coffee blend.



Posted by Julie on 03/03 at 12:33 PM
CookingCulture & SocietyTravelPermalink
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