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
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