Human Flower Project
Divinity in Bud
The EarthScholars, invited to address wetland scientists in Cambodia, followed their noses to a stunning floral tradition of Theravada Buddhism.
Jasminum sambac buds
By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary
EarthScholars™ Research Group
By pure serendipity, we were in Cambodia at the annual peak of jasmine picking season: June. With their pervasive “celestial” fragrance and milky petals, glistening and pure, jasmine buds are made into offerings to Buddha in this part of the world. About 14 million Cambodians (96.5%) are Buddhists, so there is steady demand for these modestly priced floral products.
Theravada Buddhism was abolished during the despotic Pol Pot regime, but today is Cambodia’s official religion, practiced also in Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. King Jayavarman VII introduced the faith nine centuries ago to Cambodia, where it came to replace Hinduism, a spiritual transition evident at the grand temple of Angkor Wat: here, Buddhist statues sit atop Hindu plinths.
Small Cambodian jasmine farms, with rows of plants trimmed to form bushes after about 4 years’ growth, provide families with basic income and employment. Farmers receive about $0.45 per pound of buds in June, the rainy season, when the jasmine is plentiful. During the cold season, December to February, those same bushes are less productive and the price for jasmine buds ascends to $11 per pound. Buds are picked in the early hours of the day, well before the flowers open, and then taken to the marketplaces. (The unanimous definition of “a lazy person” in Cambodia is anyone who sleeps past sunrise!)
Jasmine offerings for sale in a Cambodian marketplace
Jasmine is a genus (Jasminum) of shrubs and vines within the olive family (Oleaceae), with over 200 species, native to tropical and semi-tropical regions of the Old World. It is thought to have originated in the Himalayan Mountains of western China. In Cambodia, farmers grow the delicate, sweet-smelling, greenish-white jasmine flower, Jasminum sambac, that opens only at night and is usually harvested in the morning when its tiny-petaled buds are tightly closed. The buds, produced in clusters of 3 to 12, are very strongly scented, much more so than the flowers. While altar flowers in American churches are usually chosen for their visual beauty, jasmine buds and flowers serve primarily as euphoric, sweet-smelling, olfactory offerings.
Besides their use in sacred offerings to the Buddha, jasmine buds and flowers are also used in decorative displays for temples, festivals, holidays, birthday parties and weddings. Monks make scented holy water, adding jasmine blossoms, for blessings, In combination with green tea, jasmine makes a delightfully aromatic brew.
Jasmine buds and a lotus bud offered to Buddha
There are two types of jasmine offerings deemed appropriate for The Buddha. One requires nimble female fingers to thread small jasmine buds onto a long “wooden” needle made from coconut palm branches; the “je kah” is that thin stick encircled with layers of buds. The other—the “pum melei” – is a circular jasmine garland placed around the neck of a Buddha (Hindus adorn Shiva statues with these garlands as well).
As a human flower project, jasmine growing in Cambodia is uncomplicated and dependable. Jasmine seedlings grow quickly and need little care—just watering twice a month, periodic fertilizing with vegetable compost, and an occasional spraying with pesticide. It is admittedly not the key to wealth, but the year-round crop provides daily yields of one to two kilograms of buds and flowers that can earn the small farmer up to 10,000 riel ($2.50) per day—a survival income. The epicenter of this entrepreneurial floral venture is the tiny village of Kkoh Kroubey in Kandal Province, about 20 kilometers south of Phnom Penh.
Use of jasmine buds and flowers at weddings is increasing, and this helps maintain demand during the gaps between religious holidays. And there are steady sales to tourists. The high pitched, pleading question “Mister, you buy flower?” is especially familiar in Phnom Penh, usually posed by a child offering jasmine garlands for a few hundred riel.
Younger Americans may best know Cambodia as the country where US movie star Angelina Jolie adopted her son Maddox. There is a memorable visual connection between her and the jasmine flower. In her 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, during a scene under what locals now call the “Tomb Raider tree,” growing in the central sanctuary of the ruins of Cambodia’s ancient Ta Prohm temple. Jolie’s character searches for and plucks a jasmine flower—and is immediately sucked down into the Earth!
Aerial view of Angkor Wat, surrounded by its 600-foot-wide moat
Although an estimated 25,000 workers took over 37 years to complete the construction of the massive Angkor Wat, after the fall of the empire in the 15th century, the temple complex remained relatively unknown to the outside world until 1860. That is when the French botanist Henri Mahout stumbled upon it, deep within the Cambodian jungle whilst on a collecting expedition. He subsequently impressed the world with published accounts and sketches of what he’d found. The popularity of Angkor aroused by Mouhot’s writings led to France’s popular support for its study and preservation; the French carried out much of the research and restoration work on the temples of Angkor until recent times.
In 1924, P. Jennerat de Beerski wrote, “Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams.” Cambodia possesses vast treasures—both carved in stone and alive in plants. Jasmine is a fragrant floral portal to the kingdom.