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Although 2020 has been a pretty alarming year in all sorts of ways, there was a silver lining: my flower garden ended up being unusually fulsome and colorful this year. Unfortunately photographs don’t really do gardens justice (just like the camera “adds 10 pounds” to portraits, it apparently subtracts 20% of blossoms and color). Even so, I think a little bit of the prettiness shows up in these pictures.

Brooklyn was appropriately rainy and not too hot. Even though I have a shade garden where barely anything grows (except for the trees which are the true stars of the show), there was still plenty of color, texture and form to keep things exciting.

Spooling through theses pictures makes me wish I had taken some shots in summer when sundry flowers were at their apex, but at least these allow you to see some of the Halloween decorations I put up (and the “Furnace Flounder” sculpture which I lugged out into the elements). I can’t believe I haven’t posted about my garden since spring (when I was busy painting watercolors back there).

The Floundering Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2018) mixed media

I don’t know what I am going to do when winter brings gray desolation to this refuge (and cracks my sculptures to pieces). I guess I can always start thinking about next year’s garden and how it could be better. For one thing, maybe I will be able to have parties again with lots of guests to enjoy it with me. In the mean time I am going to go out and soak up some of the last rays of September sun and listen to the crickets. Even this slow, messed-up year is starting to gallop by as summer dies. Maybe I will find some more pretty flower pictures to post before the frost starts though.

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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

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It is not a secret that my least favorite month is February.  Winter keeps holding on with grim ferocity while the joys of spring are, at best, far away.  Every year when the end of winter comes around I keep looking out at the garden waiting for the first green shoots to appear.  But the garden is still a sea of gray rubble and dead stalks (plus I failed to plant windflowers or snowdrops and the crocuses and hellebores have yet to flower).

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So this year, instead of going all the way outside (where it sounds like there is a windstorm), I went to the internet to find some early blooming flowers and I came across the witch hazels (the family Hamamelidaceae).  I have encountered them before–in liquid form as an astringent aftershave, however the living plants turn out to be very lovely in a small wilderness meadow sort of way. There are four North American species of witch hazels and two Asian species (one from China and one from Japan).  They are small deciduous shrubs/trees with large oval leaves. The American species are also known as winterbloom (which should have served as a hint that they bloomed in the cold season). The picture at the top of the post is the Chinese witch hazel ((H. mollis) currently blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic garden.

Witch hazels have red and yellow flowers with droopy corkscrew petals.  From a distance these have a winsome loveliness, but up close they are pretty crazy–like a Murano glassblower got the hiccups or an abstract expressionist sent you a bouquet. Here is a little gallery of witch hazels which I lovingly stole from around the web.

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Branding is a powerful force, and I have always assumed that these plants were used in ancient magics by various priestesses, enchantresses, sorceresses, and other suchlike lady thaumaturges.  Imagine my distress to learn that the witch hazels are in no way affiliated with witches or any other sort of dark magic.  Apparently this version of the word “witch” comes down to us from the Old English word “wice”, which means pliant or, uh,  bendy and is unrelated to the magical sort of witch.  Thanks a lot, English, what other misleading homonyms do you have lying around the garden beds.   Anyway enjoy the witch hazels and pretty soon we will go out and look at some proper spring flowers (if and when the wind calms down).

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(that witch better have an OED somewhere)

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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

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God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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I’m sorry I missed blogging about Earth Day this weekend (it was yesterday).  The day always strikes me as a dark combination of scolding and corporate greenwashing (to say nothing of the abusive narcissistic murderer who started it, but, alas, the concerns it focuses on are all too real. I need to get back to writing about humankind’s ever-growing burden on the planet in earnest.

But for right now I am going to back away from these huge unsettling issues and feature some springtime images from my garden and neighborhood.  I am a flower gardener, and while I have some doubts about the flower gardener’s ecological niche, I know it keeps me sane.  The flowers also remind me to love nature and esteem the natural world (not that I would ever feel otherwise). Also, it is a discipline which necessitates patience and the ability to change course when faced with problems.  Anyway, enough sententious thoughts: it has been a long winter, let’s see some spring flowers!  The magnolia at the top of the post is across the street from my house. It is hard to tell from the picture, but the house behind it is slightly pink, and seeing the tree in full flower in front of the house during the violet hour of dusk is breathtaking in a way which the image (and these words) completely fail to explicate.

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Now, here is a picture from the back garden—this is the hellebore and the bleeding heart with a couple of volunteer Don Quichotte tulips from years ago next to them and a little viola in the foreground. Years ago I planted this hellebore which has barely survived for 5 years before suddenly flourishing into this magnificent specimen plant.  There is a peony to the right, but it is too early for it to be more than just some tender fronds poking up.  The hellebore, the magnolia, and the primrose are really just the garden overture.  The big acts are soon to follow, but, after a long gray winter even these flowers have me giddy with delight.  I will feature more plants as they bloom—especially the splendid cherry tree, but for now let’s just enjoy the lovely blossoms.  We will also keep working on a way to preserve their home (the ecosystem of the planet) so that the springs of the future will be equally verdant.

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This time of year, winter begins to drag on and I start to dream of the flower gardens of spring and summer.  Unfortunately, the garden is currently a lifeless grey ruin beneath a layer of frost (although I personally know there are some bulbs down there sleeping until April), so, in order to enjoy the beauty of flowers, we need some help from art…which is where anonymous master artisans of the Ching dynasty come in.  Above is an exceedingly fine famille rose tripod censer from the middle (?) of the Qianlong reign (the Qianlong emperor reigned longer than any sovereign in Chinese history from 1735 to 1796).  It features auspicious symbols like twinned fish and a lucky vase amidst an otherworldy garden of calligraphic vines and splendid pink and white florets…all against a backdrop of imperial yellow like some divine custard.  The censor’s amazing shape hearkens back to the ancient origins of Chinese ceremonial vessels and offers a glimpse of the shamanistic magics and animistic spirits (which are never far away from Chinese art), but its execution is pure 18th century ornate frivolity.  The fulsome garden and brilliant spring colors would not look out of place in a piece from the other side of the world from Rococo France, yet there is something more satisfying in the flourishes and rootlets and buds of this Chinese garden.  The brilliant colors will have to dispel the gray of winter and last until spring (but since they have been undiminished for more than 2 centuries, that should be no stretch.

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My garden this year was not necessarily the magical success which I had hoped for it to be…but that’s ok, I can just write about someone else’s garden.  My go-to garden for this kind of lazy blogging is Longwood Garden, a magical gilded age paradise in Chester County Pennsylvania which was the summer seat of the DuPont family.

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Autumn is not the traditional apex of the gardening season, however Longwood Garden is such a stupendous garden that its planners can insouciantly eschew such conventional thinking.  Every season is the apex of the gardening season there…up to and including winter (which is no petty feat in our temperate clime).  To celebrate late autumn, Longwood created a Chrysanthemum festival with thousands of chrysanthemums agonizingly shaped into geometric forms by otherworldly patience (and by weird sadistic potting contraptions).

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The effect is stupendous—it’s like what would happen if the world were invaded and colonized by beautiful alien flowers with a disturbing penchant for symmetry (although I guess that sort of did happen at the end of the Cretaceous).  I hope someday I manage to actually get to Longwood to see the Chrysanthemum Festival in person.  These pictures never do justice to the ineffable power of their pleasure gardens.  The show runs until November the 19th so maybe my East Coast readers want to visit too.

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My iris is blooming today. I have blogged about it in the past (it’s a dark violet iris named “Night Ruler”), but it is so beautiful. It reminds me of how much I like irises (for the one week or less when they bloom).

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In celebration, I went to an amazing iris catalog online and looked up some other irises to fantasize what else I would plant if I had more sunny space in the garden. The online iris shop was amazing: each iris was more beautiful than the last and I soon became besotted with ruffles of magenta, black, caramel, icterine, and blue. Yet the best aspect of the whole endeavor were the beautiful madcap names. It turns out that weird computer algorithms cannot keep pace in any way with the visionary poets who name irises.
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A single random sweep gives us names such as “Vizier”, “Daughter of Stars”, “P.T. Barnum”, “Vigilante”, “Halo Everybody”, and “Sordid Lives.” These are not random names either—each of the irises has a moral quality which makes the reason they are named instantly recognizable. “Mango Queen” (above)looks like a female sovereign made entirely of mango flesh. “Sordid Lives” (below) is a big flouncy, heady mixture of plum, ivory, and stained brown. “Beach Dance” looks like an 80s movie I saw on cable once.
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My overall favorite (in case you have your credit card out and have decided to show your love of this blog in rhizome form) is a big German Iris named “Beefy” (at bottom) which looks like a bleeding hunk of rare roast beef in the form of an exquisite flounder. There are aesthetic marvels of beauty, horror, and wonder out there in the garden my friends. Let me know which ones are your favorites!
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I saw some jonquils getting ready to bloom and it made me happy and excited.  I am ready for spring.  Winter was mild until the end but it has really been lingering around and we need spring flowers.  Jonquils are domesticated ornamental flowers descended from are a specific sort of daffodil: “Narcissus jonquil.” They have dark green, tube-shaped leaves (compared to other types of daffodils which have flat leaves).  They tend to be smaller and their central tube is flared and flattened like a little saucer or cup.  There are so many sorts and I hope to see them all within a few weeks!

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