You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘flowers’ tag.
Last spring my flower garden was sad. I planted a ton of daffodils, crocuses, tulips, and irises, but, thanks to squirrel depredations, I ended up with one mangled tulip of indefinite color (which was ripped apart by a squirrel the day after it bloomed). The squirrels in my part of Brooklyn are angry hungry monsters. Rap music and powerful Jamaican curries have desensitized them to noises and smells which would scare off lesser squirrels. No one traps or shoots them–so they do not fear the fell hand of man.
This year I have been desperately trying to keep my bulbs alive long enough to bloom properly. Every evening since mid-March you can see me out back throwing hot pepper and garlic powder on the garden like some maddened chef. I have spritzed an ocean of animal repellent on the little green buds. I have studded the garden with glittering mylar pinwheels and festooned it with scary helium balloons. Yet every day another bud is taken. The crocuses were all ripped up. In the end, I wonder if anything will actually blossom, or if it was all once again in vain.
However there is one exception to this story of attrition and doom! Yesterday the first flower bloomed in my back yard…and it was not at all what I was expecting. Primulaceae, the primroses are native to Europe from Norway south to Portugal and from the Atlantic coast east all the way to Asia Minor. Perhaps I should not be surprised that the primrose is first to bloom considering it lives wild in Norway, the land of polar bears, glaciers, and marauders. Most garden primroses have been heavily hybridized, but last year I bought a specimen which looked most like the common European primrose, Primula vulgaris, and it survived a whole year to bloom again! The flower has five beautiful butter yellow petals with center around a bright yellow eye.
I was hoping to provide some exciting primrose lore, but the humble flower does not seem to feature in many myths and legends. According to Wikipedia, it was Benjamin Disraeli’s favorite flower, so crafty parliamentarians should at least be drawn to this article. Anyway, spring is finally here so prepare for everything to get better.
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.
To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man). Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast. Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton. Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods. There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly. The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.
Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension. The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.
Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama. He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews). He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a flowering tree of the rose family which bears an edible golden fruit. Quinces are rare in America due to their susceptibility to fireblight disease (a bacterial infection caused by Erwinia amylovora). Because the fruit are unusual here and because, without cooking or other treatment, they are very sour and bitter, quinces are regarded as a sort of poor relation to apples and pears (both of which are indeed very close relations within the rose family), but probably it should be the other way around. Not only does the quince occupy an exalted place in literature and the arts, but the tree is believed to hold a treasure trove of medically useful compounds in its leaves, bark, and fruit.
Quince trees are small trees which, in spring, bear many large single blossoms of bright pink. The flowers are hermaphrodites, able to fertilize themselves. When fertilized the blossoms develop into chartreuse-colored pubescent fruit which then further ripen into a bright golden yellow in autumn (when also the tiny fuzzy hairs fall off). The knobbly pear-like fruit are exceptionally tart but become sweet if treated with salt, bletted (left on the tree to decompose slightly), or cooked. The quince is exceptional for baking, for making sweet wines and liquors, and for jams and sauces. Additionally quinces have long been a feature of traditional medicine and a host of recent studiessuggest that different parts of the plant might have a number of therapeutic properties including lipid lowering effects, antidiabetic activity, and antiallergic properties among others (in addition to being a healthy nutrition and fiber source).
The quince originated in the Caucasus region between the Caspian and the Black Sea (a region where wild quince trees can still be found). Cultivation of the little tree began in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. If that sounds like a familiar location, it should, for it was there that human hands created the first cities. From the cradle of civilization, the quince spread to the Levant and the Mediterranean long before the apple or the pear. For this reason the fruit is a favorite candidate (along with the fig) as the forbidden fruit of Genesis. Additionally, anytime an apple appears in ancient Greek literature or myth, it can reasonably be assumed to be a quince–which means the infamous golden apple of Eriswhich caused the Trojan War was actually a golden quince. Indeed quinces are gold colored and have been a traditional feature of classical Greek nuptial ceremonies since records exist. The quince lingered on as a symbol of Aphrodite and is one of the trees sacred to the love goddess. A number of fertility myths and superstitions remain attached to the quince in the Balkans and in Turkey.
Beyond the Mediterranean world, the quince has an active artistic life as well. The knobby glowing fruits have been a source of inspiration to artists for a long time, but perhaps they are even more celebrated in literature. Peter Quince is the rustic craftsman and playwright from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wallace Stevens later borrowed the character to narrate Peter Quince at the Clavier, an examination of desire, music, and thought. Tennyson, Browning, and Keats all alluded to the fruit or flowers of the quince which feature frequently in Victorian poesy. In fact The golden fruits are the second fruit mentioned in the poem The Goblin Market (which must surely rank as the greatest fruit-themed poem ever written). Finally, the fruit features prominently in The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, a work of literature familiar to everyone which surely deserves mention here, involving as it does farm animals, mammals, a turkey, and the moon which was (and remains) in outer space.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Last month, in a fit on excessive spring exuberance, I blogged about the redbud tree, one of the first trees to blossom as the weather warms. Spring has been a bit delayed here and tree enthusiasts have yet to spy the redbud’s lovely reddish-pink blooms. Nevertheless, I am going to continue the theme by writing about another tree which stands out on account of its beautiful pastel flowers–the empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa), a deciduous tree from western and central China. Also called the foxglove tree and the princess tree, the empress tree is covered with huge pale purple fountain-shaped blossoms in early spring. Growing faster than virtually any other deciduous tree, the paulownia readily proliferates throughout temperate climates. Its wood is easy to tool and carve while also durable and pretty.
In Chinese culture, paulownia wood was used for all sorts of ornamental cabinetry and carving. Most traditional Chinese musical instruments were (and still are) made of paulownia wood. A custom in China was to plant a paulownia tree upon the birth of a female child. When she reached adulthood, the tree would be felled in order to fashion a trousseau for her marriage. On a darker note, the wood is one of the preferred materials for Chinese coffins.
Because of its prettiness, quick growth, and usefulness, the tree was planted throughout East Asia and it quickly spread to temperate forests of Korea and Japan (where the official symbol of the Japanese prime minister is a paulownia flower). The seed pods of the tree are abundant, soft, and durable. This made them the perfect “packing peanut” of the 18th and 19th century when Chinese porcelain was being exported around the world. International trade disseminated paulownia seeds across Europe and the United States and they remain common near railroad lines. Because it is so hardy and quick growing, the empress tree is a formidable (albeit charismatic) invasive plant from coast to coast in the United States. Looking through the internet I have found many websites on how to deal with invasive paulownias…as well as many websites selling the trees for landscaping and sound barriers! Thanks to this latter use, paulownias are also common near major interstate highways.
Fortunately, European and American woodworkers are coming to appreciate the toughness and ease of tooling which made the lumber popular throughout Asia: empress tree wood is now frequently made into surfboards, skis, and electric guitars. The tree’s popularity as lumber and as a swift-growing reforestation tree is causing its numbers to swell, despite the best efforts of anti-invader purists.
It should be increasingly obvious that the empress tree is one of the winners of the Holocene world. It is a formidable and successful organism with many competitive advantages. Even without human interference, it would probably be spreading. However, like the pig or the rose, is appealing to humankind on many levels and we have carried it all over the place. I love pork and suede and roses. I also like the purple cascade of paulonia blossoms in April and May and the dulcet tones of the guzhen. I hope you do to, because the empress tree is here to stay….