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As you can imagine, this year, my garden has been a particular source of solace and inspiration!  Alas, spring’s explosion of flowers is already fading away for another year.  As always, I tried desperately to hold onto the beauty through the magic of art, but (also as always) the ineffable beauty slipped away as I tried to capture it with paint. In fairness, the true thrust of my artwork lately concerns the crisis of life in the modern oceans (which is a rather different subject than pretty pleasure gardens).

A few weeks ago I posted the watercolor paintings which I made of the garden’s cherry blossom phase.  Here are some little sketches I made during the tulip florescence which followed.

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Leen Van Der Mark Tulips in Brooklyn (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on paper

These tulips are called Leen Van der Mark, and they are my favorite (since they look even more Dutch than they sound).  Initially there were even more tulips than this, but the squirrels beheaded quite a lot of them.  The strange metal mushroom is some sort of industrial vent/fan thing. Probably best not to think about it too much.

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The Broken Pot with Crabapple Blossoms (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is a melancholic picture of the non-flower part of the garden.  The neighbor’s cypress wall fell down in a spring gale revealing the wire, garbage, and urban chaos on the other side. I tried to capture the madness (along with the poignant broken pot and withered elephant ear), but I feel like I only managed to draw a blue halo around the fake plastic urn.

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Bleeding Heart Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

There are some small casts of classical sculptures in my garden.  This little sphinx always topples over unless it is secured to a brick or a paver.  The strange taupe “hands” are meant to be hellebore flowers–which are actually that color but which possess a winsome troubling beauty wholly absent here (although I guess they are a bit troubling). Once again we can see bits of the detritus in the neighbor’s exposed yard.

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Rhododendron in Spring Flower Bed (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Watercolor on Paper

Here is the opposite side of the garden,with some summer impatiens popping up.  I have forgotten what these orange and yellow tulips are called, but they remind me forcefully of my childhood (when I gave one to my schoolbus driver in kindergarten). The extreme right of the composition features a very beautiful and robust fern (although we can only see one of the surviving fronds from winter). In front of the frond is a species tulip, Tulipa clusiana, which is native to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the western Himalayas.  Those places are usually much scarier than Brooklyn, so perhaps it will naturalize and take over.

Thanks for looking at these pictures.  I am a flounderist rather than a garden painter, but it was good to have a pretext to just sit in the sunny garden and stare at the flowers for hours.  I will see if I can take the watercolor set out to the stoop and do a street scene as summer gets closer.  The police have been scuffling with quarantine scofflaws out front, so that painting might actually be an exciting picture (if I can watercolor fast enough to paint a near-riot).  Speaking of which, stay safe out there and best wishes for continuing health and some floral joy of your own.

 

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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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Have you ever read “In Praise of Folly” by the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam?  It is a magisterial work of humanist values which helped frame the Protestant Reformation (although Erasmus himself always remained a dutiful Catholic priest).  The essay takes the form of a classical panegyric, in which the goddess Folly sets out to praise herself and her unrivaled influence over human affairs.  After a thoroughly convincing enumeration of Folly’s worldwide power (a list which particularly aims at the excesses of temporal and spiritual princes), Erasmus ends his treatise with the concept that only true Christian devotion can combat folly–a somewhat disappointing conclusion if you happen to be skeptical.

"You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

“You’ll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me.”

Today’s post actually has almost nothing to do with Erasmus…or does it?  Ferrebeekeeper has already evinced an unhealthy interest in architectural follies, fanciful structures with no apparent purpose other than to amuse or divert the great lords who commissioned them.  Today we praise the color folly, a brilliant orange-pink crimson.       Folly is most famous as a fashion color and finds frequent use in lipsticks, nail polish, and lady’s apparel.  The name was first applied to the color during the roaring twenties as a booming chemical industry brought all sorts of new dyes and paints to market (also the name suits the euphoric giddiness of jazz-age excess).

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Folly is not just used in nail polish. The flag of Nepal (which is arguably the strangest national flag because of its double pennant shape) has a folly-colored background.  The pink-crimson of the Nepalese flag is the national color—it represents the mountain rhododendron and the brave yet joyful hearts of the Nepalese people. The rhododendron is not alone, there are many beautiful roses, zinnias, and azaleas which share the hue.

The Flag of Nepal

The Flag of Nepal

Folly is actually one of my favorite colors.  I am not praising it ironically.  I do wonder how we named such a pretty color with such a scandalous name.  Fortunately, it is probably only a devoted fashionista or a history buff who would use the name folly today (everyone else would probably say “bright rose” or “orange-pink” or some bespoke name made up by copywriters), but how did we stumble into the name in the first place?  Did some clever flapper decide to pillory her era by evoking the spirit of Erasmus? Folly is great, but its name is folly.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

The high Himalayas  seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The high Himalayas seen above the village of Ghandruk, Nepal (photo from http://holeintheclouds.net)

The world’s largest honeybee, the controversial Himalayan cliff honey bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa) lives high in the Himalaya Mountains among the craggy peaks of Bhutan, Yunnan, Nepal, and the Himalayan provinces of India.  The large honeybees are renowned for building large nests/hives within the inaccessible overhangs of huge cliffs. These nests tend to be found at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,000 m (8,000 and 10,000 feet) built into cliffs which face to the southwest.

Honey-huntingAlthough Himalayan cliff honey bees have complicated lives within a densely layered hierarchical colony, they are not controversial because of their social complexity, but rather because of taxonomical quibbles. Before 1980, Apis dorsata laboriosa was classified as a subspecies of Apis dorsata (the giant honeybee of Soth Asia), but during the eighties and nineties, the Himalayan cliff honey bee was thought to be a unique species (Apis laboriosa). In 1999, the species was demoted back to a subspecies of Apis dorsata (although some genetics-minded entomologists argue that it is a distinct species). Hopefully you followed all of that—it sounds like more vertiginous twists of naming might still lie in the near future.

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Himalayan Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata laboriosa), photo by L. Shyamal

Perhaps some of this confusion comes from how inaccessible the bees are.  Only gifted mountaineers and free-climbers could ever hope to reach the lofty hives where the bees deposit their precious honey and larvae.   From their towering homes, the bees are able to forage nectar and pollen from upland meadows of the Himalayas (which burst into extravagant fields of flowers during the brief seasons of spring and summer).

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

A Nepalese Honey Hunter Risking his Life for Cliff Honey (photo by Eric Valli)

Sadly for the bees, there is a terrible catch—the spring honey which they harvest from the high mountains comes partially from the nectar of white rhododendrons (which contain a grayanotoxin).  The spring honey from rhododendrons is red in color and, when fresh, reputedly has a narcotic effect on humans.  Honey hunters risk life and limb to climb high up the mountains.  They then use long poles to rob the bee hives–all while teetering hundreds or thousands of feet above a sheer precipice and being attacked by angry giant bees! The honey fetches a huge premium among the rich of Japan, Singapore, and China even though grayanotoxins are, you know, toxins, and can cause cardiac problems in addition to the soothing intoxicating effects.

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

Photo credit: Andrew Newey

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