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Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

This little flower is Vinca minor, the lesser periwinkle. It is native to Central Europe spreading down through Southern Europe into Asia Minor (although at this point it has naturalized throughout the temperate world as an invasive garden plant). In the United States they are sometimes confusingly (mis)called “myrtle”.

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo: landschaftsfotos.at)

A magnificent carpet of lesser periwinkles (Vinca minor) near Vienna in Austria (photo: landschaftsfotos.at)

Lesser periwinkles are subshrubs (which would have made for a good insult in grade school). They grow only to 40 centimeters (16 inches) high and do not climb—though they spread rapidly into large clonal colonies. Periwinkles are members of the hardy Aster family (the plant family not the snooty otter-killing magnates from New York). With vigorous evergreen leaves and shapely five-petaled flowers, the plants can be used as perennial ground cover for flower gardens.

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The best and most famous feature of lesser periwinkles is the distinctive blue-purple color. In English the flower and its color have become synonymous—the latter surpassing the former in popular recognition! Periwinkle is a very lovely and soothing color which seems purple in some light and blue in others. It makes an ideal color for walls and home furnishings as well as garments.

Periwinkle

cool-space-wallpaperI was looking at a list of color names when my eyes lit upon “cosmos pink.” Wow! What color could be more amazing than a glowing shade of pink named after all of creation? Surely cosmos pink must be the color of pulsars as they wink out, the ineffable shade at the heart of a supernova…the color of god’s polo shirt! However when I looked more closely into the matter, I discovered that I had jumped to a dreadful misapprehension. Cosmos pink is not named for the swirling firmament of all that is or will ever be: instead it is named after a small Mexican flower somewhat related to the sunflower.

A field of cosmos flowers

A field of cosmos flowers

This is a disappointment, but not a crushing one, since I love flowers nearly as much as I love cosmology! Botanically speaking, Cosmos is a genus of flowers which live in the Americas from Paraguay in the south up through Central America, Mexico, and into the United States southwest. They have naturalized to various other parts of the world by means of escaping from gardens or even from contaminated livestock feed. Since cosmos are members of the aster family, they tend to be extremely hardy. There are about 40 species which range in size from 30 centimeters to 2 meters (1 foot to 6 feet 7 inches).  They grow easily and can be planted in vast colorful fields (which is probably what I would do if I had vast farmlands and endless resources).

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from....everywhere

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from….everywhere

Cosmos flowers look very much like the classic daisy-type flower which all schoolchildren draw. They have a ring of ray shaped petals around a central eye (which is actually a disc of tiny florets). Cosmos flowers come in a variety of colors such as blue, white, red, yellow, orange…and, of course, pink. The color cosmos pink is a bright medium pink with a dash of blue. Come to think of it, who is to say God’s polo shirt is not that color?

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower)

Centaurea cyanus, the European cornflower is an aster which once grew as a weed across Europe (particularly in grain fields). As agriculture has grown more sophisticated (and herbicides more puissant), the cornflower has become uncommon to the point of extinction in its native habitat. Yet the cornflower is far from gone: its bright blue color means that some enthusiasts grow it as an ornamental garden plant. Additionally, in the era before herbicides and intensive agriculture, cornflower seeds frequently contaminated planting seeds—which meant that the cornflower traveled to Australia, the Americas, and Asia where it quickly became invasive.

CornflowerBlueSwatch (Large)

The cornflower, also known as the bachelor button or knapweed is the national flower of Germany.  It has long been traditional for unmarried men to wear one in their buttonhole (although I abjure this practice myself).

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer, 1665, oil on canvas)

The most famous aspect of cornflowers is their dazzling bright blue color which inclines very slightly towards purple. For centuries, this color has been a favorite of tailors, decorators, dressmakers, and artists. Cornflower blue is thus a classic traditional name for this brilliant midtone blue: indeed the color was very much a favorite of Vermeer. The name is still very much in use, so it is perfectly correct to imagine some charlatan or fop of the Restoration era donning a cornflower coat of the same color as the bridesmaids will be wearing at your cousins’ wedding next week.

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