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Every year Ferrebeekeeper features posts about the voluminous cherry blossoms from the splendid Kwanzan cherry tree which grows in the back garden. For a week or two the garden becomes an unearthly place of lambent beauty which resembles the western paradise of Amitabha Buddha. But what about the week after?

Well, the answer is all too clear from these photos. The blossoms fall. In the week after they bloom there is a crazy shag carpet of princess pink all across the garden and in the neighbor’s lawn. Also this carpet is far stickier and wetter than it looks. After I took these pictures, I went inside to get something and then came downstairs to see that great pathways of pink blossoms were cast upon the hardwood floors and carpets. The first stunned thought I had was that someone had let a Roman emperor (and his blossom-throwing votaries) into the house. Only after a moment did it occur to me that the distinctly-non-imperial petal-treader was actually this author (and then I went for the even-more-non-imperial dustpan).

Despite the fact that it is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny moist decals waiting to adhere to everything, the blossom carpet has its own sort of beauty. The real letdown comes in the days afterwards–when it all turns to taupe goo. Fortunately we should have some May flowers by then to distract our attention to elsewhere in the garden! Maybe the Brooklyn weather will finally become May-like as well. In the meantime I will continue to pretend I am in the court of Elagabalus (a fiction which grows easier by the minute as our republic descends into political incoherence) and hope that my roommates are not too incensed by the petals which the dustpan missed.

he Roses of Heliogabalus (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888), oil on canvas

Every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, I like to draw and paint pictures of the garden. Although I am never satisfied with the pictures when I am working on them (since they only capture the tiniest fraction of the garden’s beauty), I am often pleased later in the year. It is almost like canning fruit: fresh fruit is obviously much better, but at least you have a little preserved portion of the heavenly taste later on. Additionally, painting the same subject year after year also provides a sort of benchmark to assess the media and techniques I am using. At any rate here are two of the pictures I painted. Above is a full watercolor sketch of the yard and below is a little drawing in pink, gray, and black ink which I made in my pocket sketchbook. Let me know what you think!

It is blossom season in New York! Instead of writing blogs about mollusks, gothic art, and politics, I have been looking at flowers and trees. The cherry tree at the top of the post is down by the Manhattan Court House (as you can hopefully tell by the World Trade Center/Freedom Tower/Whatever-it-is-called-now), but the rest of the images are from my garden in Brooklyn. The centerpiece of the garden is a Kwanzan flowering cherry which usually blooms for a fortnight (although, thanks to the cold snap, it seemed more like 6 days this year). I have blogged about the cherry blossoms at length in years past, yet, every year I am struck anew by the beauty and evanescence of the pink blooms.

Here are the blossoms in my back yard (my roommate added those plastic flamingos, by the way). Speaking of other gardeners who change things around in the flower garden…here is another character who lives in the neighborhood who cannot keep his paws off of the blossoms. Every day during tulip season he beheads a couple of tulips to see if they are good to eat. When he realizes they are not squirrel food, he tosses them down. Sigh…

Below is a patch of pastel pink tulips. You can see one of the beheaded stems at far left.

These white tulips are known as “Pays Bas” and I think they came out particularly lovely! This year, in addition to the cherry tree, the old ornamental crabapple also blossomed (which is a rarity). You can see the darker pink blossoms in the foreground in the picture immediately below.

I am going to see if I can draw/photograph/capture some more of the garden’s spring charms for you (it never looks right on the computer screen), but for now I am going to go back out and enjoy the showers of falling petals…

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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

It’s cherry blossom season again!  Every year for a magical week, the ornamental cherry tree in the back yard garden blooms and the world is filled with happiness, joy, and beauty.  In past years I have already explained the historical roots of the Japanese hinami festival (which celebrates the beauty of the cherry blossoms) and rhapsodized about “Mono No aware” the awareness of transient beauty.  This year maybe we don’t need to read a philosophical post to appreciate the beauty of the blossoms.  We can skip straight to the garden pictures.

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In case you are wondering, the big strange mummy/fish/monster thing at the bottom of the 2nd picture is a sculpture project which I am working on.  It is the subject of my next post (but I need to put some glitter and fluorescent paint on it first, so that it doesn’t look like it crawled out of a forgotten tomb).  In the meantime, savor the pink blossoms.  It’s all so fleeting and exquisite…

Um...who could be unmoved by such splendor?

Um…who could be unmoved by such splendor?

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

If you have been keeping your eyes on the internet lately you have probably seen the shimmering tapestry of pink, purple, red, and white blossoms which is the “tree of forty fruits”. This is a stone-fruit tree which has been agonizingly grafted together out of numerous branches from heritage peach, apricot, plum, apple, quince, cherry and other rose-family fruit trees into a frilly pink Frankenstein of a fruit tree. The root stock is a hardy plum tree to which the other stocks are added one by one. The effect is simultaneously garish and beautiful—particularly in blossom season (though it must be impressive to see the tree in early fall when it is laden with heterogenous fruits).

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The tree of forty fruits seems like it might have been designed by a mad scientist, a huge biotech corporation, or a high-minded super-villain (like Poison Ivy or someone), but it was actually the creation of an art professor, Sam Van Aken. Van Aken gre up in rural Pennsylvania and he wanted to save the vanishing heirloom fruits of his youth. In an article about his project in Epicurious, Van Aken explained why he is working to safeguard these classic fruits, “In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing,” To him the number forty has a talismanic quality which represents superabundance. He has already created 16 of the intricately grafted trees and he dreams of spreading them around the country and perhaps the globe.

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The tree of forty fruits is a living sculpture—a bizarre amalgam of trees, agriculture, and diligent manual artistry. It isn’t just a splicing together of different tree species, it is a hybridization of ancient fundamental human pursuits. If you told the nurserymen and sculptors of Babylon that we would live in a world with such a tree, they would applaud. So should we!

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I meant to finish off flower week last Friday with some photos of my garden in Brooklyn as it bursts into spring blossoms—but I was unable to find my camera (well actually I couldn’t find the charger for the battery of my camera). This past weekend I went through all sorts of drawers, shelves, and closets and finally found the missing unit in a cabinet which I swear I checked before—why don’t electronics manufacturers make these things the color of marine rescue equipment as opposed to matte black? Anyway, here is the back garden. After a long hard winter, it is pure joy to see the tulips, dogwoods, and bleeding hearts in bloom. I’m sorry I am not a very gifted photographer: the plants are so much prettier in the real world! However, maybe a little part of their beauty shows up in these photographs.

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Above all else, the star of the garden is the huge stately Kwanzan flowering cherry tree which overtops the house. The tree is so big that it is difficult to photograph all of it. Additionally no camera can do justice to the ineffable beauty of its stately pink blossoms (which I have written about in past posts about the Japanese blossom viewing festival and about the wistful poignancy of ephemeral beauty). I love that tree so much—maybe I’ll go out and take pictures of it tonight with the lanterns on (sorry about all of the ugly cords).

 

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There are some holes in the garden where summer plants have not yet sprouted (or where grim winter laid waste to the flower that was living there) but that is all part of the joy of gardening. I’ll try to post some more pictures with the irises, roses, and hydrangeas once they have bloomed. In the mean time it is a lovely season to head outside and enjoy the flowers!

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A wild Prairie Trillium

A wild Prairie Trillium

In the wild there are all sorts of brown flowers.  Trees, grasses, vines, and wildflowers frequently bear tiny brown or green blossoms so as not to draw the attention of herbivores.  Yet brown is an unusual color in the flower garden for the same reason.  For centuries (or millennia) gardeners have tried to breed, hybridize, or mutate flowers into increasingly vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, white, and blue.  However, if you look through botanical gardens and flower catalogs for long enough, you will find a pretty brown variety of nearly every popular sort of garden flower.  Here is a tiny gallery—and the familiar favorites are surprisingly pretty (and unfamiliar) in shades of chocolate, caramel, auburn, and sienna.

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Brown Bearded Iris

Brown Bearded Iris

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Copper toned daylily

Copper toned daylily

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

 

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Sunflower

Brown Sunflower

The Picture Scroll of “Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers”by Chen Lu

Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers (Chen Lu, Early Ming, Ink on Handscroll)

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.

Plum Blossoms, hanging scroll, ink on paper

Plum Blossoms (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, ink on paper scroll)

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.

Plum Blossom and the moon (72.8*155.7 cm, by Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty)

Plum Blossom and the Moon (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, Ink on Scroll)

on-life.

Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

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.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

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.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

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.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

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.

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