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Preview: Human Flower Project

Human Flower Project

Modified: 2013-03-30T16:52:02+00:00

Copyright: Copyright (c) 2013, Julie

Unless Change Is a Language


Plants and flowers have their colors

and shapes. They sway in the wind yet

their roots support them

and they live to grow.

If they wither

it is not said

unless change is language.

              —David Ignatow

Mandorla: Intersecting Worlds


​With a tragedy in Russia, mourners and their florists turn to an old figure of Eastern Orthodox iconography, shaped like a seed. A Russian Orthodox priest blesses graves outside Krymsk. Overnight floods in Krymsk, a southern Russia city east of the Black Sea, killed at least 172 people early Sunday morning. There had been no warning, even though authorities later admitted having  known by 10 p.m. Saturday that heavy rains threatened to inundate the town. Some of the survivors (more than 25,000 lost their homes and belongings) say they believe that along with flooded natural waterways, more water was actually released from a reservoir above the city, “a theory rebutted by scientists from Russia’s environmental monitoring service, who said Friday’s rains swelled nearby rivers with the equivalent of six months’ average precipitation.” Recriminations have been mounting. And so have floral tributes to the dead. Thanks to Craig Cramer of Ellis Hollow for alerting us to these striking images taken in a makeshift graveyard outside Krymsk. A Ukrainian florist advertises various designs for wreaths, most of them variations on the tear-drop form of the mandorla. How different these sympathy arrangements are from the circular wreaths and sprays we’re accustomed to. All morning we’ve been searching for clues as to their distinctive shape. Egg? Seed? Womb? Teardrop? After browsing through Russian and Ukrainian florists websites, we’re still not certain why this form of tribute is such a consistent floral presence at funerals in the region. We’ve read that even-numbered flowers are preferred (even required) at times of mourning and that yellow blooms are unwelcome at happy or sad occasions alike. Having read up on Russian funeral  customs and dipped into church symbolism, we’ve come to think that the massive oval-shaped arrangements follow an iconic shape in Eastern Orthodoxy—the mandorla. This encapsulating form recurs in Christian imagery, a kind of radiant bubble that surrounds divine figures when they appear to humankind.  One of the earliest such images is this Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, c. 550-565 “The term refers to the almond like shape: “mandorla” means almond nut in Italian. In icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the mandorla is used to depict sacred moments which transcend time and space, such as the Resurrection, Transfiguration, and the Dormition of the Theotokos.” In Pythagorean symbolism and pre-Christian art, the mandorla shape was conceived as two intersecting circles, alluding again to a kind of “eclipse,” when two different dimensions coalesce; momentarily, there’s a keyhole that makes it possible to see a more essential reality than we know in everyday life. These pendulous wreaths, often fashioned with concentric rings of flower-color, remind us of the luminous cloud around our Lady of Guadalupe, a form that both protects and projects the power residing inside. A soldier digs a grave outside Krymsk, Russia. More than 170 residents of the town died in early morning floods Sunday July 8. Photo: Sergey Ponomarev, for AP The intersection of opposites certainly comes through in Sergey Ponomarev’s astonishing photo from the Krymsk cemetery. A pale young man (or is it a girl?) shovels inside a grave, a black block surrounded with mud, while on the ground above scores of the bright egg-shaped arrangements lie across fresh gravemounds; all the way to the horizon, they shine back at the sky.  [...]

Flower Pot Holes


​Here’s a fine Yankee take on Gandhigiri – the practice of meeting conflict with flowers.

After a beaver dam broke near Mill Creek Road in Orrington, Maine, the county sent in heavy equipment to tear up pavement in preparation for repairs. Mill Creek Road was due for resurfacing too and as long as the equipment was in the vicinity, the county authorities opted to have it torn up also. So residents along the lane have been dodging major potholes since March.

Recently, someone found a beautiful way to draw attention to the damaged road, meanwhile pointing out the biggest potholes for drivers. They planted flowers in the chunk-holes.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Jesse Schwarcz, whose parents, Mary Ann and Arthur, live on the road. “It gets so tiring to drive through those potholes and hit the bottom of every single one and swerve all the biggest ones. If they’re not going to grade the road and keep it maintained, then we can at least enjoy the flowers.”

Thanks to Alex Barber of the Bangor Daily News for the report.

(image) Potholes on Mill Creek Road in Orrington, Maine, have been planted with flowers by an anonymous garden enthusiast. Photo: Gabor Degre, Bangor Daily News

Royalish Flower Seed


​Seed from some of the plants grown at Buckingham Palace are now on sale, but will their royal connections get them across international borders?

The gardens at Buckingham Palace

You may not be royalty, but you too can grow poppies (even we have managed that). Nobody curtsey for you recently? Stand tall, and grow the same upright ginger as blooms at Buckingham Palace.

The BBC reports that 11 plant varieties from among the more than 350 flowers that grow there can be yours.

During the Hampton Court Flower Show, running until Sunday, the seed will be for sale at the Plant Heritage Seed Shop, for a minimum £1 donation to “the charity.” (which we take to mean Plant Heritage, not the British monarchy, which seems to be solvent).

Planting the Flag


​To honor local Marine Jean Villanueva, the Murrieta, California, Fire Department planted an American flag flower bed in his family’s yard, just in time for Villanueva’s homecoming from Afghanistan.

Todd Bradstreet of the Murrieta FD initiated Project Greenthumb to help with yard work at the homes of residents with family members away in military service. Villanueva’s wife, Jodie, signed up for the program and got lots more than she was expecting: lawn mowing, some landscaping, and then this patriotic raised garden with “stripes” of red and white petunias.


Marine Cpl. Jean Villanueva,wife Jodie, and their daughter Leilah, enjoy sit in the yard that Project Greenthumb tended in Villanueva’s absence. Photo: Bill Wechter

A Gentle Correction


About 10 days ago, we cited a New York Times article​ explaining why Burma’s human rights leader wears flowers in her hair. She kindly corrected us both, us all.


Aung San Suu Kyi pinned a supporter’s flowers in her hair on the day she was released from house arrest.

​While visiting France in late June, Burmese human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently had accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, remarked on the customary flowers in her hair. The New York Times had reported that she wore them in memory of her late father, who would put flowers in her hair. HFP seized on this information and passed it along.

But Aung San Suu Kyi corrected that notion recently while visiting France.

“You see, I was only two when my father died,” she said. “And at that time, I had no hair! In Burma we believed if you shaved children’s hair, it grows back thick and long. And my hair was always shaved, so it’s only a myth that he placed flowers there… but I’m very touched people think he did.

“The reason why I wear flowers in my hair is actually because my mother used to do so. This was very much a Burmese tradition. But these days Burmese girls have started cutting their hair short so they no longer wear flowers. And on top of it, they don’t know how or have great difficulty doing it. Even my personal assistant—who has short hair—doesn’t know how to help me.”

Conceptual Gardening


With design, aesthetics and ecological concerns leading the way, symbolism isn’t much of a force in contemporary gardening. But we offer two examples where concept dominates, one noble, the other daffy. The Zoar garden with its symbolic spruce at the center. ​Our first stab at a garden, on High St. in Lexington, Kentucky, was as conceptually ambitious as it was horticulturally shaky. (Aesthetics/design? What are those?) In a squarish back yard surrounded by a high (inherited) fence, we planned an astrological garden, sectioning the perimeter into 12 beds and designating each to a zodiacal sign, Aries to the East, Cancer to the North, Libra toward the West, and Capricorn on the South. Then we went about finding plants and objects that corresponded to each sign. Windflowers? In Gemini of course.  Zinnias for Leo. A vine of moonflowers under Cancer, etc. At a flea market we came upon a very strange plaster statue: a monkey in a blue nurse’s uniform holding a bedpan. Perfect for Virgo! The astrological garden on High St., Lexington, KY: Leo zinnias and Virgo orderly.  Photo: Human Flower Project On the evening of the summer solstice, 1997, we invited about thirty friends over and had them stand around the edges of the yard at their proper astrological stations, and beginning with Mimi Pickering (born closest to the spring equinox and thus the “firstborn” of the zodiacal year), each guest announced his or her birthdate as well as a “fairy name.”  “Tomato seed”… “Hercules”…. Our own was “Bubble,” which David Holwerk pointed out is not a fairy name but a stripper name. After we’d all come full around the year, ending with Edward Roberts, born March 17, we planted a redbud tree in the center of the yard, watered by Nina McCormack and Marty Newell, the two Aquarians present. This very contrived endeavor came to mind recently as we read about a far more serious conceptual garden at the Village of Zoar, Ohio, a town of German Separatists that, some claim, had the first communal society of any European immigrants to the U.S. The Village of Zoar was named this year as one of the most endangered historical places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The entire town—including its garden—may be flooded if the Army Corps of Engineers decides not to rebuild a crumbling levee on the Tuscarawas River. Zoar Garden circa 1960 Photo: Columbus Dispatch The original settlers came to the U.S. in 1817 to escape religious persecution in their homeland. As a reflection of both their faith and their belief in a communal society, the villagers constructed in the center of town a large garden, designed after the book of Revelation, Chapter 21.   James Griffing, a 19th century visitor, wrote: “In the center of the garden stood a Norway spruce representing everlasting life, and around the tree was an arbor vitae hedge symbolizing heaven; This in turn was surrounded by twelve juniper trees; one for each of the apostles… A circular walk enclosed the centrum, and from this twelve other walks representing various paths to heaven radiated to the four sides of the garden. These in turn were intersected by walks which symbolized the worldly ways through which people wander on earth before they find salvation.”How enlightened to recognize that many paths lead to heaven. Drawing of the Zoar Garden with its radiating path and central spruce, representing Christ. A more contemporary and horticulturally-minded historian writes, “Although some vegetables and fruits were grown here, the garden was filled mainly with flowers.” Is there a plant list anywhere? We haven’t found one, but as a former “conceptual gardener” (though a pagan one), [...]

Topped with Flowers of Ash


The National Endowment for the Arts has named basketmaker Molly Neptune Parker among this year’s National Heritage Fellows, a program modeled on Japan’s longstanding recognition of “National Treasures.” We were especially drawn to Parker’s “flower” topped baskets, a design she learned from her mother and grandmother, traditional Passamquoddy basketmakers all. But like all great folkartsts Molly Neptune Parker has pushed forward the Native American tradition in which she was raised, the better to honor a legacy.

(image) Two of Molly Neptune Parker’s baskets, topped with “flowers” made of ash splints. Photo: National Endowment for the Arts

Sustained by a Father’s Flowers


Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature flowers, reaching back to childhood in Burma, arrived with her in Oslo.

(image) Aung San Suu Kyi

Twenty-one years after it was awarded to her, Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo, Norway, June 16.

Leader of the Burmese opposition movement, political prisoner, and now a member of Myanmar’s Parliament, she withstood decades of house arrest and separation from her husband and children. Though the government that jailed her permitted her to leave the country and rejoin her family (in the hopes that she would stay away), Aung San Suu Kyi refused, chosing to prolong her own detention rather than abandon the stand for human rights in Burma.

We have taken note since nearly the beginning of Human Flower Project that in public appearances, Aung San Suu Kyi always wears flowers in her hair. She did so at the Nobel Prize convocation today, clusters of white roses pinned beneath her chignon.

But until reading reading Steven Erlanger’s report in The New York Times, we never knew why. “It is a gesture she makes in honor of her father, Gen. Aung San, an independence hero of Burma, who was assassinated in 1947, when she was 2, but whom she remembers threading flowers through her hair.”


Bees Lead


A new study by a group of scientists working in Australia has concluded that in the co-evolution of bees and flowers, bees—not flowers—lead the way. Basing their work on earlier research that theorized Australia’s first flowers were relatively colorless, the scientists then examined the color spectrum most easily perceived by honeybees and bumblebees. The native flowers examined tended to be of colors that bees find easiest to detect.

“We collected spectral data from 111 Australian native flowers and tested signal appearance considering the colour discrimination capabilities of potentially important pollinators.” Their findings regarding color were consistent with those reached in North American studies. “Subsequent mapping of Australian flower reflectances into a bee colour space reveals a very similar distribution of flower colour evolution to the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, flowering plants in Australia are likely to have independently evolved spectral signals that maximize colour discrimination by” bee pollinators.

Bees, by the way, “have trichromatic colour vision based on ultraviolet- (UV), blue- and green-sensitive photoreceptors.” Their “best discrimination” is for blue wavelengths (close to 400 and 500 nm). The scientists write, “behavioural experiments on free-flying honeybees have confirmed this theory.”

You can find the complete paper here.


How bee vision would see a flower, one that looks yellow to human eyes

Photo: Phys