Human Flower Project
Saturday, June 07, 2008
A Flower for the Pleiades—Matariki
It’s the Maori New Year, observed across New Zealand with the making and presentation of harakeke flowers.
A flower made from woven flax is the traditional gift of New Zealand’s New Year, in early June
Photo: Ali Brown
Thursday, on the final dog walk of the night, we spotted the head and claws of Scorpio coming over a neighbor’s house. Summer is here.
Or winter if you live in New Zealand. And in the early mornings, Taurus the bull rises with the sun. In his horns you can see the twinkling Seven Sisters – the Pleiades. In Maori they’re known “Matariki,” and their appearance both marks and names the Maori New Year (in 2008, it fell on June 5th).
An old custom of Matariki is the weaving of kites and flowers out of a native plant called harakeke (Phormium tenax) – or New Zealand flax. From pictures, it looks like a cross between palm and agave.
Harakeke seems to have been THE basis of Maori material culture: “The long strap-like leaves were ideal for plaiting into mats, containers, shoes and even shelters. …Strong flexible fibre could also be extracted from the leaves for weaving into clothing, or for making rope and fishing nets.”
Phormium tenax varieties growing at Landcare Research in New Zealand
Photo: Warwick Harris, via Fernwood Nursery
Among “observant” Maori there is a quite extensive protocol both for gathering the leaves and for working them into objects. To wit:
“A prayer of thanks or karakia may be said before cutting. Flax is not cut at night or in the rain or snow. Only enough flax is cut to complete the weaving project. Flax is not cut by women who are menstruating, although they are able to weave.”
…the very sorts of requirements and prohibitions that indicate sacredness. So do these woven flowers, because the first putiputi (or flower) made from flax at the New Year must be presented to someone as a gift.
A flax “lily” by Sema
Photo: Flax Flowers by Sema
As one would expect, there are now crafts specialists who make flax flowers to sell, both for special local occasions and as New Zealand souvenirs. Today schoolchildren make putiputi at the New Year, too. Like so many human-flower traditions, the Maori custom has taken on a secular, nationalistic, and commercial flavor. If you have some New Zealand flax (or a similar plant on hand) you might ask a blessing and then try weaving your own New Year’s flower with these instructions. Now, don’t forget to give it away!
We’d be negligent if we didn’t show you the flowers harakeke can make all by itself. They’ll bloom six months from now, in December – the height of New Zealand summer. We understand they’re used to sweeten foods and drinks.
The Maori are just one of many cultures that have marveled at the Pleiades, and considered them divinely creative. Count contemporary scientists among these stars’ most awed admirers.
The Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus: a planet incubator?
Photo: Space Spin
“Rocky terrestrial planets, perhaps like Earth, Mars or Venus, appear to be forming or to have recently formed around a star in the Pleiades (“seven sisters”) star cluster, the result of ‘monster collisions’ of planets or planetary embryos,” according to astronomers at Gemini Observatory in Hawaii. “This is the first clear evidence for planet formation in the Pleiades,” says Joseph Rhee, an astronomer from UCLA. “The results we are presenting may well be the first observational evidence that terrestrial planets like those in our solar system are quite common.”
A happy, humbling thought for the New Year.
Culture & Society • Religious Rituals • Science • Secular Customs • Permalink
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
West Nile Virus Survivor Speaks
For gardeners and other outdoor enthusiasts, mosquitoes warrant more than a slap on the wrist. Here’s why.
An assassin bug perches on a gerbera daisy in the garden of Margaret Adie
Photo: Margaret Adie
In a quiet moment during the April get-together of garden writers here in Austin, Vive Griffith owned up to the horrible truth. “It’s the mosquitoes!”
Yes, we gripe about heat and limey soil, and stuck-up college kids, but what really make this city intolerable, especially for gardeners, are the hungry insects. In our neighborhood near Blunn Creek, they swarm like twenty-year-olds. And on a summer evening, you don’t have to be cool to be covered with backyard tattoos within half an hour.
“Get over it!” you ironmen and ironmaidens may be saying. Well, our neighbor Margaret Adie had to do just that. A gardener, as well as a professional bowmaker, sculptor, and photographer, Margaret contracted West Nile Virus last October.
She survived to tell the tale, and was good enough to let us buzz her with questions about how it all went down.
Heathy and back bowmaking, artmaking and gardening, Margaret Adie
Photo: Human Flower Project
“It was a bit confusing at first,” Margaret says. “I had received a flu shot on a Monday and by Tuesday evening was feeling like I was getting sick. By Wednesday, I was certain I was having a reaction to the flu shot, because I felt just like I had the flu.
HFP: Did you see a doctor?
MA: I talked to many medical people about this and was told there was no way it was a reaction to the flu shot (it’s not like the vaccine has a live virus in it, but there are so many stories out there to bring up fear of a bad vaccine etc.).
HFP: Did your symptoms persist or change?
MA: I was sick with “the flu” for about six days. Then I felt almost normal for about a day and a half. But on the morning of the second day that second week, I awoke with a rash all over—on my arms, trunk, legs, face, even the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. I had to remove my rings on my fingers.
I still thought it was a flu-shot reaction and waited a few days, but by Sunday, the rash was still there So I went to a Doc in a Box. He saw my rash, drew blood, told me he didn’t know what I had—probably some kind of virus. My blood count was okay and he sent me home and told me to rest. I knew nothing more than I had before I went but I was $216 lighter.
HFP: So did resting clear up the problem?
MA: My rash finally disappeared and I felt fine for a week. Then it really hit me hard. I woke up with a high fever (102.5) and a very bad headache. I went to my regular physician and she checked me out to make sure I didn’t have meningitis. After a series of tests, she told me I had a virus and to go home and rest.
Boy, did I rest! I think I slept for about two weeks. Absolutely no energy at all. I would start to feel a bit better and then another wave of flu-like symptoms would come on me and I would sleep some more.
HFP: How long did all this last?
MA: It seemed as if I would never get over it. Five weeks had passed and I went back to my doctor, feeling like a whiny patient. I was pretty stressed about it all. Then she told me that she believed I had the West Nile Virus. The way the virus came and went was typical: the rash, the fever, the headache, achy joints, all the symptoms of the flu.
HFP: Did you ever get tested for West Nile specifically?
MA: No. The test is expensive, and by this time my health was improving. The doctor said there had been a lot of cases in Austin last summer, probably lots more than we knew because most people had very mild cases. Mine was pretty severe.
HFP: What treatment, if any, did you receive? Did your doctor advise any change in diet or prescribe medicine?
MA: Honestly, the only thing I could do was rest. I took Advil for my headaches.
HFP: If you’re willing to share this, how much did the treatment cost?
MA: Well, when everything was said and done, it cost me around $500
HFP: How long was it before you began feeling better?
MA: It lasted about 6 weeks.
In the space between segments of bamboo, mosquitoes can hatch, and do
Photo: Margaret Adie
Margaret’s certain that she picked up the virus from a mosquito bite.
“The mosquitoes are terrible where I live. There is so much bamboo growing around my house, and in the neighbors’ yards on both sides. I have been told that the brackets where the leaves sprout on bamboo hold enough water for mosquitoes to hatch!
“Also there has been construction two houses from me, where they dug a hole for a swimming pool and stopped work. It would be full of stagnant water for weeks, even had tadpoles in it.”
HFP: Have you recovered fully now?
That’s clearly so. Praise be! And according to the Centers for Disease Control, having contracted West Nile Virus, Margaret likely now is immune from further infection. Still she’s mosquito wary.
“I have always been careful about standing water around my house and try to keep the bamboo at bay,” she says. “I spray myself with repellant when I go outside and come back inside when there are a lot of mosquitos around. Evenings are the worst time.”
Her advice for others who’d like to avoid six weeks of bug-induced flu – or worse? “I’m not sure what to tell people,” she says, “but to keep standing water at bay and don’t plant bamboo.”
Gulp. Too late. We didn’t plant it, and/but we sure haven’t been able to get rid of it.
Reported cases of West Nile Virus in 2007
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Texas had a whopping 257 reported cases of West Nile virus in 2007 (Margaret’s would not have been among those, nor would many others). The problem seems to be especially severe in North Dakota – 369 cases there last year, nearly as many as in all California (380 cases).
Formerly, we’d considered mosquitoes a dastardly annoyance, but the idea of contracting West Nile Virus seemed about as likely as running into Big Foot. Now we know better. Margaret lives five doors down the street. Her experience has been a kick in the head. West Nile Fever, as Margaret had, can develop into encephalitis and meningitis.
According to the CDC, the virus “was first reported in the United States in New York State in the summer of 1999. Since 1999, WNV has caused more than 19,000 cases of human illness including more than 750 deaths in the United States.”
About 20% of those exposed to the virus develop symptoms. Most of those will be “older people”—a category that includes many who love summer gardening. Certainly in this town, it includes us!
Monday, June 02, 2008
Do Plants Have Rights?
With human-plant relationships more enmeshed than ever, it’s time to extend ethics to the botanical world. Many thanks to the EarthScholars for this provocative essay.
Photo: Sri Lanka Virtual Library
By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary
EarthScholars™ Research Group
The image at left shows a Sri Lankan man carrying several hands of bananas, the world’s most popular fruit.
Now grown in more than 100 countries, the banana is also a plant that humans have unquestionably changed. Fruits of the wild banana plant, that originated in India, contain many hard seeds, but today’s commercial dessert banana plants (Musa acuminata L. A. Colla) produce only seedless bananas.
Isn’t the term seedless fruit an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms? Isn’t the botanical definition of a fruit “a ripened ovule containing seeds”? The answer to both questions is yes. But humans discovered a banana plant that had an extra set of DNA which prevented it from forming seeds. They then propagated that plant vegetatively via offsets, mass-reproducing it (cloning it) without using any banana seeds.
Cross-section of a wild banana, with seeds
While it may not be apparent at the breakfast table, there are disadvantages to this human intervention. Growing seedless bananas narrows the amount of genetic diversity in this crop plant. Each banana plant in a plantation is a clone, genetically identical to all the rest. And this sameness makes today’s banana plants especially vulnerable, in that an insect or a plant disease that harms one plant is often capable of harming them all.
How a “pup” or “offset” is cut from a mature banana plant
For example, the vast majority of commercially produced bananas today are clones from a single source plant called the Cavendish cultivar. By the 1950s, this Vietnamese Cavandish cultivar had replaced the earlier world-favorite Gros Michel (“Big Mike”) banana cultivar, after the Panama Disease (a fungus also known as Banana Wilt) decimated its world crop production. The 1923 hit song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was inspired by a shortage of Big Mike bananas, due to the incipient infestation of Panama disease at that time.
Today’s Cavandish cultivar plants are currently threatened worldwide by a newly discovered fungal disease (Black Sigtoka) to which they are highly susceptible. It is only being staved-off by banana farmers’ constant spraying of expensive fungicides. Another Cavandish-susceptible disease (race-4) has not yet reached Latin America, where most of the US table bananas originate, but it is thought to be resistant to all known fungicides. Thus, some plant scientists have estimated the Cavandish cultivar will also need to be replaced within the next 5-10 years.
If banana growers acknowledged the dangers in mass-production of genetically non-diverse fruit —and farmers around the world instead grew a wide range of bananas that are not affected by diseases currently threatening commercial bananas—then, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] advises, they could avoid these repetitive crop plant crises.
We’ve introduced the human-modified banana plant here to raise some issues regarding ethics, rights, and human-plant interactions.
Do plants have rights? Should humans follow an explicit code of ethics when interacting with plants? Is it acceptable for humans to select or modify plants? Many gardeners and plant enthusiasts may initially find these questions bizarre, yet the current plant science literature indicates that some plant scientists today are grappling with them.
Logo of AvePalmas
Organization in Defense of Plants
One of us being a palm biologist, we were introduced to such questions by the Venezuelan Palm Society [VPS] and its “Universal Declaration of Plant Rights.”
The society presents nine justifications for such a “plant bill of rights.” Here are just three:
“Due to the immense and alarming disappearance of vegetation in the world, especially in the tropics, where there is a marked abundance of life, we humans, having mental capacity and ability to reason, have to speak up in the defense of all living beings on earth, particularly on behalf of plants, which is at the same time in our own interest.”
“Individuals of the animal kingdom, including humans, live mostly on plants, even if they are not 100% vegetarians.”
“Plants are beings that respond to a variety of stimuli, are capable of perceiving light, and have developed their wonderful harmonious workings in close connection with their environment. These extraordinary beings share the world with us and even share almost one-fifth of their genes with us.”
The VPS ascribes a total 22 rights to plants. They include, but are not limited to, the following:
• “Plants have a right to live, just as animals do, free of excessive human exploitation, be it the name of science or sport, exhibition or service, nutrition or fashion. The goal ultimately is to avoid the risk of extinction of any species. A healthy vegetation in Nature benefits humans and animals alike.”
• “Encourage the cultivation of nourishing, medicinal, ornamental and other useful plants of all types and protect them against insects and other animals, preferably in a way that is non-damaging to the environment.”
• “Intervene by all means possible to help [plant] species in danger of extinction.”
• “Plants for scientific use may be cultivated in special nurseries or botanical gardens. In modern science, especially genetics, there is an immense quantity of information hidden in plants, that may be studied for the benefit of the plants themselves and for other living beings, including ourselves.”
• “Avoid cruelty against plants such as inadequate pruning or excessive lopping or any other unwise procedure, which often can cause the death of the plant.”
• “We have to learn to share our lives with plants in general and particularly with trees that provide us with so many benefits. Historically significant trees should have special protection.”
• “Empower all movements acting in defense of plants to voice their views and to vote at government level in order that the continued devastation of the planet will not be continued. Furthermore, plants could have the support of an international organization which devotes itself to the rights of the plants, applying the principle of ‘Reverence for Life.’”
East Kootenay Invasive Plant Pilot Project Weed Warriors 2005 Logo
Image: Weed Warriors
It seems to us that this discussion can also benefit from consideration of the definition of a weed. We think the following statement by Lee Dittmann is helpful: “To a gardener, [a weed is] any plant which grows where it is not wanted. To the botanist, it’s a plant which is especially adept at quickly colonizing areas disturbed by human beings or our livestock. Most weeds, (such as the Dandelion in North America), by this latter more objective definition, happen to be non-native.”
Many readers will wonder: If it’s my garden, don’t I have the right to decide which plants may grow there? Or, if our aim is to restore native plant communities, is it not acceptable to remove weedy species that have an unfair competitive advantage, in order to allow native species to flourish?
A Swiss government ethics panel has issued a report (The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants—April, 2008) that adopts a biocentric ethical view which values plants as dignified living organisms with inherent individual worth, and over which humans cannot exercise absolute ownership— although it does recognize “all action that involves plants in the aim to conserve the human species is morally justified.” It decries cruelty to plants and states that “the arbitrary killing of flora is morally wrong.”
The Jolly Green Giant
Blue Earth, Minnesota
In the past, claims of speciesism (humans’ prejudice toward organisms that physically differ from their own species) have been invoked by animal rights advocates, but now the circle has been expanded to include plants as well.
Some vegans, in contrast, have argued that the difference between animals and plant involves sentience. That is, nonhuman animals are conscious of sense perceptions; as sentient beings, they have minds, preferences, desires, or needs. While plants are indeed alive, they are not sentient. We may owe other people the obligation to use plant resources wisely, such vegans say, but we don’t owe anything to the plants themselves.
The later position is reminiscent of Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being in which all species could be arranged in order, from the “lowest” to the “highest”—
with worms on the bottom and humans on the top.
“But wait!” say the university scientists at Florence, Italy’s International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. Via their research in plant biochemistry, physiology, ecology, and molecular biology, they have found that plants are definitely not low-lifes.
Instead, they claim, plants exhibit intelligence—defined as the ability to solve problems, adapt, and thrive. The myth is that they require human-like feelings and rapid movement to be considered smart and complex. Although they have no brain, plants do communicate and respond via chemical substances and they possess a precise and sizable vocabulary with which to express danger, degree of health or injury, recognize siblings, and optimize fitness—including computing integrative responses at the whole-plant level.
For example, a proponent of this view argues that one of the touchstones of intelligent behavior in the science laboratory is the ability of individual animals to run mazes successfully and receive a token reward. However, the capability of individual plants to grow through an environmental maze toward sunlight or a needed nutrient is typically disregarded.
To encapsulate our perspective, we wish to point out that author Jerry Baker published a popular-press book in 1972 entitled “Plants are Like People.” In 1973, he followed with a book called “Talk to Your Plants.” In 1999, he published a sequel: “Plants are Still Like People.” It seems to us that while some people still prefer to think that plants are basically “green people,” scientific evidence indicates plants are actually a decidedly different life-form. Interestingly, such anthropomorphic thinking seems to lie at the base of many of the issues raised here.