Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Museum for the Tomatopolis

How do you represent a place’s agricultural history? The EarthScholars travel to a small town museum that honors the local past and remembers its acidic vegetable heyday.


by Carol Frizzell

Tomato Museum Art Gallery

Crystal Springs, MS

Photo: Art Gallery Mississippi

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

If you added together the weights of all the apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges the world eats in one year, it wouldn’t come close to the weight of all the tomatoes we consume. Billions of tons of tomatoes are grown each year.  In fact, the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit.

But the tomato is a vegetable, isn’t it?  To a botanist, a tomato is a particular kind of ripened plant ovary, called a berry, and thus it’s a fruit. However, dieticians classify a tomato, nutritionally, as a vegetable. Why? Because, among other reasons, it isn’t sweet and is never served for dessert. There really is no contradiction in a plant organ being a fruit, botanically, while being considered a vegetable, nutritionally. “Vegetable” is only a culinary term—not a scientific one.

Research suggests that tomato plants originated in either Mexico or Peru. First bearing small, yellow fruits, they were considered bothersome weeds that reduced corn yields,  Interestingly, even though the tomato is a member of the typically poisonous “Nightshade” family, and although tomato leaves and stems do contain poisonous glycoalkaloids (tomatine, solanine, demissine), the fruit itself is safe for humans to eat. Indeed, it is a fine source of vitamins A,C, and K, plus lycopene, and many other phytonutrients.

In homage to the tomato, each year, Crystal Springs, Mississippi (population 5,939 ) hosts a lively Tomato Festival that climaxes on the last Saturday in June.  Located just south of Jackson, MS on I-55, the town is easy to find and convenient to visit.

There are other small-town tomato festivals in the South, such as the Avery Tomato Festival in Avery, Texas (population 462), the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in Warren, Arkansas (population 8,143),  and the Grainger County Tomato Festival in Rutledge, Tennesseee (population 1,270)—to name but a few.


Chautauqua Park

Crystal Springs, MS

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

However, it was the Mississippi festival’s advertised Tomato Museum that especially intrigued us.  We wondered what kind of displays a tomato museum would contain and what a visitor could learn from them.  So we traveled to Crystal Springs, MS on this year’s festival weekend to investigate.

The Tomato Museum is located within the visitor center of the town’s idyllic, 74-acre Chautauqua Park, a recreation area that includes the 34-acre Lake Chautauqua. This human-made lake was constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad as a reservoir to supply water to steam locomotives that stopped in Crystal Springs. This site was selected by the railroad because Crystal Springs was the highest elevation point on the rail line between Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana.  Thus, it was an optimal place along this north-south route for the massive engines to take on water. The whole town moved to this site (several miles east of its founding) in 1858, recognizing that it would be to their advantage to be located on the new railroad line. As a result, so many tomatoes were shipped nation-wide from Crystal Springs that the town became known as the “Tomatopolis of the World.”

The town continued to be a major produce center until after World War II, when the rise of trucking and the decline in produce farming caused a precipitous drop in produce shipping. Tomatopolis was no more.  Few of today’s youth recall the town’s glory days, but the Festival (as well as the Tomato Museum) serves to revisit its proud horticultural history and educate new generations about their tomato “roots.”

Crystal Springs tomatoes were red varieties, marketed under such labels as Crystal’s Pride, Blue Flag, Magnolia, Red Robin, Mississippi Special, and Mrs. Sippy.

Inside the Tomato Museum—free and open year-round, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—neatly arranged objects and media have been mounted on the walls and positioned on the perimeter flooring of one very large room, a bright and cheerful gallery with abundant natural lighting. The museum’s collection consists mainly of historical documents, tomato-growing tools, machinery, and tomato consumer ware—plus past tomato-festival memorabilia.  Labels are mainly descriptive, rather than explanatory.


A Representative View of the Tomato Museum

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

There is no brief introductory video, printed museum guide, or wall-mounted timeline to help the visitor understand Tomatopolis, nor is the collection itself segmented into distinct exhibits for learning purposes. The careful visitor does acquire a fragmentary sense of what tomato farming was like during the town’s heyday by looking over the large and continuous display. However, the Tomato Museum is not currently designed systematically to educate the visitor by answering the basic questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how. Nor does it move logically from general to specific as the visitor circumnavigates the room’s perimeter from left to right. 

There is little information about the tomato plant, the local soils and climate, the tomato production cycle, or the railroad. What was it like for a child who worked in the fields of Tomatopolis? The displays don’t say. One also wishes there were bold, life-sized images of people or historically garbed museum manikins representing some of the people who made Tomatopolis thrive.  One departs without any striking and memorable human narratives to remember and to tell others.


The 1938 Tomato Queen and Her Court by local artist Paul Fayard

Image: Rick Snyder’s Vegetable Resource Page

This is not unusual. We’ve found similar omissions at the vast majority of small-town science-related museums we visit. We praise the Tomato Museum’s historical intentions, as well as the fact that it has been successfully launched and beautifully sited.  To be fair, unless any new museum receives professional advice and ample funding for exhibit design, it often takes many years for a museum to mature and realize its founders’ vision. Also, other “tomato towns” and festivals have no tomato museums at all and this one charges no fee. Small towns in the South, such as Crystal Springs, MS, continue to accomplish a lot civically—albeit with minimal funding, lots of volunteer effort, and modest donations.  We are grateful for the opportunity to visit the Tomato Museum during its initial development.

Speaking of tomato museums, the seeds by which Mississippi’s Tomatopolis grew were originally obtained by a Crystal Spring citizen named N. Piazza—from his homeland of Italy.  Ironically, sometime in 2009, Italy’s first Tomato Museum will open in Collecchio (population,  11,904), near Parma. It will focus upon the tomato’s flavor, history, cultivation, and technology. It is hard to imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes!

Until Italy’s Tomato Museum opens, perhaps the world’s most famous one is the Tomato Museum on the Channel Island of Guernsey—a UK crown dependency.  The BBC h2g2 (2008) notes that “Guernsey has some of the most enthralling museums in the Northern Hemisphere: if the thrills and spills of the Guernsey Tomato Museum are too much, then the visitor need only visit the hardly-less-exciting Telephone Museum.”


Guernsey Tomato Museum: 1950s Tomato Packing Shed Exhibit

Photo: Guernsey Tomato Museum

As if to illustrate that tomato museums really can be fascinating for children and do improve over time, Laura Solon (Times Online, 2008) writes: “I don’t think I will ever be able to dissociate holidays entirely from the Tomato Museum in Guernsey. We had many family holidays to the island, which if you are aged between four and 12 is amazing. It’s quiet, the beaches are beautiful, the days mostly long and sunny, and when it rains, there is always the Tomato Museum. Tomato-growing is one of the island’s main industries, and I can’t count how many times I must have been to see exhibitions, complete with recreations of 1950s packing sheds and numerous tomato artifacts. By the time I was a teenager, the Tomato Museum had become a bit more hands-on and offered diversions such as tomato-grading.”

If you’re like us, and you wonder what a tomato museum would be like, the only way to find out is to see for yourself!

Posted by Julie on 07/21 at 11:23 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Saturday, July 19, 2008

With Brains for Branches: HFP Grows

Eureka X 2! An urban arborist and a plantsman have taken root in the Human Flower Project.

In our current heat-blizzard, the out-of-doors withers. But inside the Human Flower Project it’s more lush than ever. Georgia Silvera Seamans, in Berkeley, California, and Allen Bush, of Louisville, Kentucky, will be heaping on flowers and fruit, light and shade, as HFP Correspondents.

You may remember Georgia’s articles on city trees (here’s just one), and Allen’s confessional of gun love (if not, bite the bullet). They’ll both be gracing us with more posts in the coming months, a prospect that’s invigorating as a good rain.

By way of introduction:

imageAckee (Blighia sapida)

on Jamaica’s one cent coin

Photo: Jamaican money

Georgia, born in Jamaica, lived there for 13 years. “A combination of nature and nurture” bred her fascination with plants.

“I was surrounded by flowers as a child,” even sucking nectar straight from the pulled-out stamens. “My mum has a very big green thumb. She grew roses and crotons in the front yard and fruit trees and vegetables in the back yard.  One of our neighbors grew hibiscus….We took field trips to the botanical garden.”

She notes that there’s a very popular Jamaican folk song about ackee, the national fruit. The same fruit and flower also appear on the nation’s one cent coin.

imageGeorgia Silvera Seamans

enjoying the street trees

in Sevilla, Spain

Photo: Robert Seamans

Georgia remembers wearing a red paper poppy in early November to honor the veterans of war and, at Christmas, enjoying “a delicious and deeply red drink made from the sorrel plant.” We look forward to hearing and seeing lots more about these and other human floral customs of the Caribbean.

In her grown-up life, Georgia has been certified as an arborist in Massachusetts and “worked as the street tree program coordinator/ urban forester for the City of Boston Parks Department.”

Now living in Berkeley, California, she will return this fall to doctoral studies, concentrating on the history of street trees in U.S. cities.

“I am interested in stories about neighbors who design ecological landscapes on previously vacant or underutilized spaces,” Georgia writes. “If you would like to share your story, please .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)”.

And Allen Bush…

…grew up (as did we) in Louisville, Kentucky. “I have been interested in flowers since I first saw a buckeye unfurl its elegant new leaves in early spring along the palisades of the Kentucky River near Lexington,” he writes. “I was in my early twenties and caught the bug in a bad way.”


Allen Bush plays with a panda while on a plant-hunting trip in China

Photo: Pam Spaulding

Allen moved to North Carolina to escape his hometown’s oppressively humid summers and long, overcast winters, opening a nursery in Asheville. He now lives in “The Falls City” again with his wife Rose Cooper: “For HFP it would be an honor to introduce her as Rose Bush.” (The thorny hand of destiny!)

“Rose and I tend a one-third acre garden in Louisville near an Olmsted-designed city park. The garden is a mixture of trees, shrubs, perennials and whatever else we can squeeze in. Some plants are rare or unusual but many of our favorites are passed along by friends.”

Having pursued botanical adventures across the world, Allen – like Georgia – possesses an especially lucid outlook on his home environment (the same one where we spent 20+ years but till now never quite saw).

“Louisville floral culture is marked by two seasons with the Kentucky Derby being the centerpiece,” he writes.


Lilacs and crabapples in Kentucky’s “first season”

Ashbourne Farm, North Middletown, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

“We have a mad dash, which seems only a little longer than the race itself, between mid-April and Derby Day (the first Saturday in May). The first season is a breeze and is overshadowed by the natural beauty of the Kentucky countryside.

“The second season begins the next day and continues until the following April.” We’d always thought that in comparison to Texas, Kentucky’s climate is mild, but Allen reminds us that it, too, tests one’s grit. Season #2 “distinguishes gardeners who don’t give-up in May, and who weed and dead head throughout the long hot and humid summers, and reward themselves with magnificent autumns.” 

And October IS a reward, bestowed with radiant equality on the diligent and the lazy.

For his livelihood, Allen Bush is Director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds. “I follow gardening trends, search for new perennials and provide public relations.” (usually without a sidearm.)

With elation, our project expands to include these expert and insightful human-flower people.

Posted by Julie on 07/19 at 02:56 PM
Art & MediaEcologyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Like a Virgin: Queen Anne’s Lace

Not virginal but “like a virgin,” Daucus carota only looks delicate, meanwhile “taking the field by force.”


Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) along Hwy 421, Midway, KY

Photo: Human Flower Project

It’s been nine years since we lived in Kentucky. And as we discovered during a July visit there, that’s time enough for drastic changes. We won’t venture into the mortal changes, but stick to the human/floral:

In Kentucky Daucus carota is as much a part of summer as fresh corn and wet bathing suits. We remember huge foamy fields of it. One 4th of July, 1993, we cut mounds of the white flowers along with chicory to decorate a backyard barbecue for 90.

Supposedly this wildflower (an immigrant from Europe) grows in Central Texas, too, but not like this. Driving to Lexington on Monday, we stopped to visit a healthy clump on the road out of Midway. The flower hadn’t changed; we had—into the kind of person who’d pull over in traffic and then trespass on private property all so that we could come close enough to see the purple-black blotch at the center of each Queen Anne’s Lace flower.

Seems that even real botanists don’t know what that dark splotch is for. According to lore, Queen Anne of Denmark, a hobby-lacemaker, pricked her finger and left one drop of blood on her handiwork (shades of Cinderella). “Perhaps this unusually colored flower part serves as a target for potential pollinators,” one source surmises. But perhaps not.

imageQueen Anne of Denmark

by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger


Image: via Wiki

Here is a portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) in some lacy finery. And here is naturalist Jim Conrad’s just as complimentary portrait of Daucus carota’s “flowering strategy”:

“Daucus carota accomplishes two important feats. First, the large, bright flower clusters attract pollinators from afar. Second, the tiny flowers comprising the clusters are so numerous that if one flower is damaged plenty of other blossoms can take its place. Many flowering plants benefit from either the large-blossomed, pollinator-attracting strategy or the small-flower, risk-spreading strategy, but Daucus carota has figured out how to use both.”

Speaking of attracting pollinators, we understand that the seed of Queen Anne’s Lace has been used for centuries as a “morning after” contraceptive. We do NOT advise it. Daucus carota closely resembles at least two poisonous plants, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata). Killing mother is a very poor method of birth control.

Revisiting this summer flower, we remembered also William Carlos Williams’s poem—

imageCenter of a Queen Anne’s Lace inflorescence

Photo: Hilton Pond Center

Queen Anne’s Lace

Her body is not so white as

anemone petals nor so smooth—nor

so remote a thing. It is a field

of the wild carrot taking

the field by force; the grass

does not raise above it.

Here is no question of whiteness,

white as can be, with a purple mole

at the center of each flower.

Each flower is a hand’s span

of her whiteness. Wherever

his hand has lain there is

a tiny purple blemish.

Each part is a blossom under his touch

to which the fibres of her being

stem one by one, each to its end,

until the whole field is a

white desire, empty, a single stem,

a cluster, flower by flower,

a pious wish to whiteness gone over—

or nothing.

Williams included this poem in his early collection Sour Grapes, first published in 1921. It was a set piece that he apparently thought turned out well, because in later years he often chose to read it. Listen to this recording from 1950.

We like his poem too: a meditation on purity, in which a touch, a drop of desire changes everything.

Posted by Julie on 07/17 at 05:04 PM
Art & MediaGardening & LandscapeMedicinePermalink

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bluebells? You Coulda Fooled Us

Take a country drive, meet the locals, yes—but start correcting folks on flower nomenclature, and you’re backing up.


Eustoma grandiflorum blooming on July 4

Fayette County, Texas

Photo: Gary McKee

At the big St. John Picnic and polka-rama on July 4th, Gary McKee was good enough to stroll up and introduce himself to us, a couple of gawkers sweating at the edge of the dance floor. A native of rural Fayette County, Texas, Gary apparently went off and got himself an education in anthropology. And he’s returned to document – among many glories of this locale—the great dance halls hereabouts.

Czech and German immigrants settled in this part of Texas. Towns like Praha, Dubina and Schulenburg are a tipoff, as is the abiding dedication to polka and waltz music (so much jauntier than the shuffling 2-step that dominates farther west).

Over the holiday weekend, Gary generously sent us some beautiful photographs of “the bluebells which are in bloom in the area right now.”

Er, uh…well…. We consider “bluebells” to be these heavenly flowers (Mertensia virginica) that bloom in the Midwest in early spring. They could no more survive July 4th in Fayette County than a Richmond belle could have savored the Shiner Hobo Band. Then, of course there are the legendary English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and their oft-maligned Spanish cousins (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which M Sinclair Stevens has actually managed to grow in Austin—though not, Lord knows, so they bloom for Independence Day.

Just as we were about to lower the glimmering wand of our expertise on Gary’s head (I mean, really, Gary, these are not even BLUE!), we thought we’d take a look at Geyata Ajilvsgi’s fine Wildflowers of Texas, wanting to learn what, in fact, such pretty purple flowers are that bloom in polka country during July. (Her handbook is indeed handy, divided into white, yellow, red and blue flowers). Page 345, here they were, “Bluebells.” Eustoma grandiflorum—“Bloom period: June – September.”

You could have fooled us, Gary, and did! We owned up, and heard more about these beautiful plants:


Bluebells, blooming after a dry spring near Fayetteville, Texas, July 2008

Photo: Gary McKee

“They only grow in the worst blackland/clayish soil and only bloom the last half of June and the first part of July, and only after a dry spring,” Gary reports. “Last year was a wet spring and no bluebells. There is a fantastic field just off of US 71 on the road to Fayetteville.” He even sent us a picture of it. Occasionally, Gary says, there is “an albino (?) plant, kinda like white bluebonnets.”

imageWe apparently aren’t the only floral fools who ever waltzed through town. Gary says he’s been asked about these flowers before: “I tell the city folks that there used to be millions of them, but Blue Bell Creamery (located up the road in Brenham) has about wiped them out making Blue Bell Ice Cream. Some of them city slickers are pretty gullible….”

That’s putting it kindly, Gary. Thanks, and great to meet you.

Posted by Julie on 07/10 at 06:32 PM
Culture & SocietyEcologySecular CustomsTravelPermalink
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