You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘blossoms’ tag.
The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting. Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life. Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life. Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree. For more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.
These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu. He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death. The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces. The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back. This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope). Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.
In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring. The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer? Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen. The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.
Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists). In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”
Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth. They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.
In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance. The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family. When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree. The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon. This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.
It is spring again and the huge ornamental cherry tree which lives in my back yard is blooming (weeks earlier than it bloomed last year). Frequent readers know my fondness for both trees and flower gardens; and the Japanese cherry tree magnificently combines both things. It is a stately and elegant mid-sized tree of great vigor, which for one week (or less) is covered in clouds of gorgeous pale pink flowers. When it is fully in bloom, the tree is unrivaled in its beauty. Even the most lovely orchids and roses do not put on a display so simultaneously delicate and ostentatious.
Last year I wrote about the Hanami festival, which has steadily grown more important in Japanese society since its beginnings a thousand years ago during the Nara period. The flower appreciation festival now grips Japan as a national fervor which dominates the spring season and monopolizes the news. Hanami however is merely an outward expression of a much larger cultural concept, “Mono no aware” (物の哀れ) which translates approximately as “”the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera.”
Mono no aware involves a gentle wistful sadness for the impermanence of all things. The cherry blossoms come back year after year, yet childhood fades away before one even knows. Lovers with whom we dallied under the pink branches move out and drift away. The mayflies die. Our pets die. We die. Life runs by so quickly that we might as well be cherry blossoms ourselves, here for a beautiful fleeting moment before being shaken away into oblivion by some gust of wind or random happenstance. The idea of life’s beautiful brevity grows out of the flinty Buddhism for which Japan is famous and it gives rise to many famous tropes of Japanese culture (like the stoic samurai prepared to throw away his life in a lightning quick duel, or the suicidal lover, or the moth in the flame). There is an undercurrent of cupio dissolvi running through humankind and it seems particularly pronounced in the Japanese psyche.
However I like to imagine Mono no aware (and the cherry tree, and all trees, and all living things) less in terms of Japan’s Buddhism and more in terms of the animistic nature-based religions of East Asia like Shinto or Daoism. Look at the cherry blossoms more closely over many generations and you will see that they themselves change. Today’s blossoms are big showy gaudy things engineered by untold generations of nurserymen to appeal most directly to human taste. If you look long enough you will see that blossoms themselves are an innovation—a design leap by which plants appeal to animals to help out with the critical work of reproduction (and it works tremendously well! There is a cherry tree from Japan in my back yard in Brooklyn). The seasons themselves change, as demonstrated by this year’s unseasonable warmth (to say nothing of the warmth of the Eocene). The oceans rise and fall. Animals burgeon and fall into extinction. The world is made of clouds and storms and water rather than unchanging stone. In fact that metaphor doesn’t even hold up– geologists look at mountain faces and see the eons of erosion and shift with uncanny clarity. The stones themselves dance and shift and change as much as the fickle water (albeit so slowly that we can not clearly see them do so).
Year after year the blossoms come and go. It is beautiful and sad. But it would be sadder if they never opened up, or even sadder yet if, having bloomed, the pink petals never fell but hung forever as though in some fairy land. Change is a critical part of living things. Children grow up for a reason. Lovers quarrel and part because they did not belong together. The samurais and warriors and noblemen of yesteryear have been replaced by kinder smarter better people, and it is to be hoped that we will likewise be replaced. As you sit drinking beneath the flowers and the stars, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that spring flashes by so fast. Be appreciative of the beauty and meaning you have today and start dreaming of how to make the next spring even better.
Happy Tomb Sweeping Day! The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.
As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead. Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.
In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons. People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.
Spring has come early this year and the beautiful tulip-like petals of New York City’s magnolia trees are already beginning to fall into great drifts of white and pink. If you stop and pick up one of the pretty petals from such a pile you will be surprised by the leathery resilience of the delicate-looking petals. The durability of the petals of magnolia flowers is not coincidental—the flowers are different from other common flowering trees because Magnoliidae trees were among the first flowering trees to evolve. The earliest known fossils of such flowers date from the upper Cretaceous period around 130 million years ago. Magnoliidae petals are tough because they were originally meant to attract the attention of beetles rather than bees (which do not appear in the fossil record until 100 million years ago). Since there were no insects specially adapted to live as pollinators when magnolia-like trees first appeared, the petals and reproductive structures of these first flowering trees had to be robust to survive attention from the hungry clumsy beetles (toughness which has passed on to the modern ornamental trees).
Paeleobotanists have not yet unraveled the entire history of the evolution of flowering plants (indeed, Charles Darwin called the abrupt appearance of flowers in the fossil record “the abominable mystery”) however magnolia-like trees appeared long before the great radiation of angiosperms which occurred approximately 100 million years ago. The first magnoliid trees must have seemed tremendously strange–explosions of color and shape surrounded by great uniformly green forests of gymnosperm trees (like the familiar conifers). Magnolia blossoms betray evidence of their ancient lineage through several “primitive” features: the petals are nearly indistinguishable from the sepals; each flower has many stamens which are arranged in spiral rows; there are multiple pistils; and all of the stamens and pistils are supported by a “fingerlike receptacle.”
By attracting the attention of animals (either through the colorful appearance and appealing scent of flowers, or by the edible nectar and fruit) flowering plants were better able to reproduce themselves. Magnolias spread around the temperate world and began the complicated interdependent relationship which all sorts of animals (including humans) have with flowering plants.
So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post. The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter). I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened. I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots. Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high. You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]
Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees. The tree is old and huge. It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.
Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era. Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility. The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees. Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees. Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.
Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan. A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties. Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals. Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.
As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard. It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood. All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.
I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud. I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys. Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.
As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud. Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms. It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America. Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.
The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California. Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.
Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.