Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Altitude Fear & Latitude Envy

The saturated colors of mountain flowers are legendary, but are they worth an anxiety attack? We search for a flatter alternative.


Ryuzu falls and mountain flowers, 1997

Nikko National Park, Japan

Photo: Kohei Tanaka

We are alpi-phobic…Something about having grown up on the banks of a huge, sluggish river, maybe, or hearing one too many Appalachian folk songs where a woman’s dragged into the hills and smashed in the head with a rock. For us,  just the idea of driving “into the mountains” tightens the throat.

After reading about flower color today, though, we have reason to overcome this neurosis.  EarthScholars Jim Wandersee and Renee Clary wrote in their essay on the floral spectrum several months back: “More vivid colors are seen in cooler stands of flowers growing in places like Alaska. The intensely bright fuchsia of fireweed flowers makes driving Alaskan highways ‘a journey into the Land of Oz.’”

imageGentians at 12,000 feet

on Cheli La Pass, Bhutan

Photo: Nancy Holyoke

Nancy Holyoke sent us a photo of gentians she spotted in Bhutan, a blue the likes of which we’ve never seen on even the most psychedelic morning glory. Wouldn’t this be worth suffering through the claustrophobic shudder that steep slopes bring on?

Like a lot of folks, in and out of lederhosen, we’d assumed that tropical flowers (like the hibiscus blooms you see on Hawaiian shirts) were the brightest of all, but that’s not so. “Twelve years of observation among the vegetation of the eastern and western tropics,” wrote A.R. Wallace, “has convinced me that this notion (of more colorful tropicals) is entirely erroneous.”

“The beauty of alpine flowers,” Wallace noted, “is almost proverbial. It consists either in the increased size of the individual flowers, as compared with the whole plant, in the increased intensity of color, or in the massing of small flowers into dense cushions of bright color. It is only on the higher alps above the limits of frosts, and upward towards the perpetual snow line that these colors are fully exhibited.” We have a sick headache.

Another 19th century botanist, “M. Flahault in going north from France noticed in Zeeland that many flowers had already brighter colors. In Norway the colors of nearly all flowers were brighter, and he gives a list of 16 native and 12 cultivated plants in which this difference was especially marked. He also caused seeds of 14 species to be sown the same season in Paris and at Upsal in Sweden, with the result in each case but one of brighter colors in the northern locality.”

—from Arthur Alger Crozier’s opus: “The Modification of Plants by Climate (1885)

We’d brave quite a lot to see intensely beautiful flowers, but before we invest in hiking boots, there may be another way.

An inkling came in a note this morning from our cousin, painter Melinda Waring. “All you artists out there,” she wrote, “will understand, when I say an overcast day has more light than a sunny day.” And then we retrieved this long treasured post card of Van Gogh’s bulb field


Flower Beds in Holland

by Vincent van Gogh (1883)

Image: National Gallery of Art

The sapphire blues, golds, whites (and one patch of lavender) are brighter for the two brown barns anchoring each side of the painting, a fringe of dark hills in the distance, and the very cloudy skies.

For a more contemporary view of the same phenomenon, here’s a photo from the Dutch government.

imageA tulip field, with lilies and narcissus in Northern Holland

Photo: Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This region of Northern Holland is of course one of the most popular floral tourist attractions all year, anywhere in the world. Even though Holland’s tulip bulb industry is dwindling (gradually migrating from the Netherlands to Poland and facing competition from China), The Keukenhof, in Lisse, still draws 700, 000 visitors each year. The tulip season there is just winding down.

Could it be that the qualities Wallace attributed to alpine height were really the effects of distance from the equator, of northerliness – of perception? Certainly the EarthScholars’ example of color intensity, Alaskan fireweed, could help make that case. As could M. Flahaut’s investigations, Paris to “Upsal.”

As a flower lover, we will trek for color. But as a flatlander, we’d like to begin our quest for intensity via latitude (and cloud cover) rather than by taking on altitude. Let’s keep in mind the Dutch, including Vincent.  Instead of boots, we’ll buy a locket and fold in it this heartening observation from the mighty Felder Rushing, a fellow Southerner, likewise in search of more vivid flowers:

Holland is “farther north than Nova Scotia…. The angle of the sun is so low way up there, colors get ‘punched up’ and seem more vivid than they do in our muggy heat, which washes out a lot of the blue and green. Same thing in England, New England and British Columbia. Because of the climate, many plants grow better. And because of the angle of the sun, they simply look better.”


Posted by Julie on 05/06 at 02:53 PM
Art & MediaCut-Flower TradeGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Proto-Peony Pilgrim, at Ashland

Too early for the flower show, but just in time for a zillion blinking buds.


Cyndy Clark overlooks the heavily budded peony bed

at Ashland, the Henry Clay home, Lexington, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

Religious pilgrims go in certainty; they know the saint’s fingerbone, kept in a golden box since the second century, will be there at the cathedral, whenever they arrive. It’s floral pilgrims who need faith or, short of that, an open-mind. The forsythia’s over, and so are the weeping cherries, but you had forgotten about lilacs. The peonies aren’t in their glory, but the buds are.

With friend and gardener Cyndy Clark, we made our pilgrimage to the big peony garden at Ashland, a historic home in Lexington, Kentucky, one week ago. Only five or six beautiful clumps were flowering; most of the garden was leafy and covered with huge plump buds.

imageBud with juice, and bloom, Ashland, Lexington, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

The Garden Club of Lexington installed the bricklined peony beds in 1986. “Dozens of Saunders hybrid peonies were donated by Bobbi Van Meter in honor of her mother, Alice McIlvain Prewitt, owner of Walmac Farm.” Mrs. Prewitt had been a longtime member of the club, which maintains the walled garden at Ashland, too.

A.P. Sauders was an early peony hybridizer from Canada.  We wish we could tell you names of these particular cultivars, in bud and in bloom, but we found no tags anywhere (it really wouldn’t be in keeping with Lexington style, you know).

Now about those buds…Some, tight and green, looked like brussell sprouts – has anyone ever eaten one and can account for how they taste? Others buds were blinking, “tears” at the edge of chartreuse, pink, and wine-purple eyes. A few more had cracked like eggs, with pink, cupped feathers lifting open.

True peony lovers know that different varieties open at different times through the season (generally early May through early July). For the peony gluttons out there (count us in!) here’s a website that purports to offer a seven week cycle of flowers, with varieties grouped by their bloom dates. Florists are intensely interested in the habits of peony buds, too, as these prized cut-flowers ship at bud stage.

The most curious feature of the Ashland peony garden is what’s NOT there – ants – even though many hundreds of buds were secreting shiny syrup.

Our mother’s peonies in Louisville have always had ants circumnavigating the buds. We’d thought that ants were somehow good for these flowers. (Peony buds attract wasps, too.)


Ants aplenty on Anne Ardery’s peonies, in Louisville, Kentucky

Photo: Human Flower Project

“The garden myth is that peonies need ants on them in order for the buds to open properly,” wrote Hanna at This Garden is Illegal, in May 2006. “This is not true. A peony bud will open just as well with or without the ants.”  She goes on to write that the ants do prey on other insects that can be harmful to peonies. So perhaps it’s “mythological” in the best sense: true, but not widely understood.


One of the early Saunders peonies at Ashland, April 27, 2008

Photo: Human Flower Project

Today we imagine that Ashland’s garden is in full blowsy flower, swarming with people. Henry Clay, the Kentucky politician who once lived here, is famous for telling his fellow U.S. Senators: “I had rather be right than president.”

REALLY, Henry? Well, you got at least half your wish. Loving the garden in bud, we can’t go so far as preference. We had rather found the peonies in bloom.

Posted by Julie on 05/04 at 03:44 PM
Cut-Flower TradeFloristsGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Friday, May 02, 2008

How Does Your Garden Reblog Grow?

With book clubs, meet-ups, and contests, the field of garden weblogging is now a thicket of online writers and photographers. Reblogging sites that collect posts from other blogs have helped bring the field into focus, partly by raising questions of copyright and profitability. Caren White, editor of one of the first garden reblogs—Garden Voices—talks about what’s happened and where it all may be heading.

Back in late 2005, we were contacted by a fellow named Joshua Mack about whether we’d like Human Flower Project to be included in a compendium of weblogs, a new venture called Garden Voices that was branching off of This popular spot where gardeners shared advice and photos had recently been purchased by iVillage, an online media group targeting women.

We were flattered and—as the flattered should always be—leery. Human Flower Project, many days, has little to do with gardening. And there was a more craven concern: Did it make sense to turn our unpaid labor and thought over to a for-profit enterprise, one featuring makeup tips and stories titled “Do You Cook Better Than His Mom?” —especially when we wouldn’t share in any of those profits? 

Eventually we settled on what seemed reasonable terms—Garden Voices would post our headlines and subheads but no photos or stories in full, provided they’d include a link back to Human Flower Project (other blogs apparently have other arrangements). There were a few bumps along the way, but eventually things smoothed out, thanks to Caren White of Middlesex, New Jersey. Caren, with her own A Gardening Year site, tends the Garden Voices reblog, and has been unfailingly accommodating.

imageGarden Voices, a compilation of hundreds of gardening weblogs, began in 2005

Image: Garden Voices

And so it went for over two years. Until late January 2008. For several weeks Garden Voices, which had grown into an international choir of weblogs, shriveled to a few squeaks and then went dumb.

When we wrote Caren to ask what was happening, even she was perplexed. Was Garden Voices malfunctioning, on hiatus or plain dead?

NBC/Universal had acquired iVillage for $600 million in 2006;  by early this year there were lots of pieces moving on the corporate chessboard. The new management tried an iVillage TV show, which was cancelled in March. Thirteen iVillage employees lost their jobs earlier this year, and the remaining ones were shuffled from the New York offices to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The Healthology website (purchased for $17.2 million in 2005) was discontinued; would Garden Voices be next?

The site is back up and running now. But during the uncertain weeks of February we corresponded with Caren, taking the vagaries of the reblog as an opportunity to learn about Garden Voices. We asked Caren about the set-up of the site, its past (since in February its future was an open question) and her outlook on the gardening blogsphere. With many thanks to Caren, here you have it:

HFP: When did Garden Voices begin and how? What was the motivation behind the site?

Caren White: Garden Voices was begun late in 2005.  I can’t speak to how or why it was launched.  Joshua Mack who headed the team who developed and ran the site has left iVillage for personal reasons.  I do know that he had originally intended that it be a “blog about blogs”.  This wasn’t communicated clearly to me at first so I came up with my own concept of what it should be and ran with it.

When I began garden blogging in 2005, there were not a lot of garden blogs and the few that were out there were difficult to find.  I wanted to create a site where anyone interested in reading garden blogs would be able to find blogs on any topic related to gardening from anywhere in the world.  I deliberately reached out to bloggers outside of the US because I was interested in gardening outside of the US.  It took about a year, but I reached my goal of having blogs from every continent except Antarctica.  I’m still trying to reach my goal of blogs from every state. 

Initially, there were a lot of articles from the Home & Garden sections of regional publications that were great as fillers, but as the number of blogs increased, I dropped them and the site is now purely garden blogs.  I was also asked to blog on the page but I found it too difficult to maintain multiple blogs.  I gradually stopped blogging and commenting.  I really wanted the focus on the blogs themselves.


Caren White, editor of Garden Voices, also operates A Gardening Year, works another job and volunteers at Rutgers Gardens, where she’s pictured here

Photo: Mary Anne MacMillan

HFP: How did you come to be involved in it? And how do you maintain the site?

CW: Josh contacted me initially in November 2005 about adding my blog to the page.  Then he asked me if I would be willing to be the editor.  I did a post about my initial involvement

His original estimate of 1 to 2 hours a day to update the page was right on the money.  I was expected to update once a day, Monday through Friday.  I’m an overachiever, so I try to update twice a day, seven days a week.  Each update takes about an hour.  I check the feed to see all the new posts, skim them for content, “snip” them, tag them and then publish them through Movable Type software.  All of this was set up and is maintained by iVillage/GardenWeb.  I have no control over anything except the blog contents.

What took up a lot of my time initially was hunting for blogs to add.  I would spend 2 to 3 additional hours a day surfing the web, reading blogs and emailing bloggers asking if they would like to add their blogs.  Two things I asked for to help bloggers find me, was an “Add Your Blog” link on Garden Voices and a button for bloggers to add to their blogs.  They did add the link to the sidebar, but when the email addresses changed after NBC bought iVillage last year, the address on the link was never updated.  Development of a button for bloggers to use on their blogs was started, but never finished.

I’ve stopped recruiting blogs for the page due to space limitations.  The template is frozen at 40 entries.  There are already too many blogs to be able to fit everyone’s posts every day.  I requested an increase from 40 entries but was told that Garden Voices is not a blogroll.  Instead, I should choose “the best” posts of the day and publish those.  I’m not comfortable judging other people’s blogs so instead I publish the first 40 posts in my reader.  Occasionally I get complaints from bloggers that their posts are not appearing.  I always explain why and then make an effort to ensure that their posts get in more regularly.

Despite the fact that the “Add Your Blog” link no longer works, bloggers are still finding me.  They either leave comments on my garden blog or email me.  Here’s a hint to bloggers who want to get on sites like Garden Voices:  have an email address on your blog.  It’s so much easier for someone like me looking to add blogs to a site to be able to email a blogger directly rather than leaving a comment on a post.  If you are concerned about privacy issues, do what I did and have a separate email address for your blog.

I’d also like to do a shout out to Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening who gives out my email address to bloggers who want to add their blogs to Garden Voices.  Thanks to her, I’ve been able to add some really awesome blogs to the site.

HFP: Have any garden bloggers asked to be removed from the site?

Continue Reading

Posted by Julie on 05/02 at 01:14 PM
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