May 18th: A Celebration of “International Fascination of Plants Day”

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Flowering crabapple trees at Tower Hill Botanic Garden May 6, 2017.

Dipping into Twitter last week to check on the latest natural history news from around the world, I came upon an announcement of “The International Fascination of Plants Day” by the Linnean Society of London. The official date is May 18th, 2017, but events are scheduled throughout the year.

I decided to ask a few people what they would describe as the most fascinating quality of plant life. The first person immediately said photosynthesis, the process by which plants, using the green pigment chlorophyll, make food (carbohydrates) from carbon dioxide, water, and light, during which oxygen is produced. We breathe and eat courtesy of plants. This was a fast start.

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Gunnera leaf taken at Trebah Garden, Cornwall, UK.

The second person praised the way in which trees, shrubs, and understory plants layer their branches and leaves in a forest to catch flecks of sun. The aim to maximize light-capturing efficiency becomes so artful. Human beings receive untold benefits from wandering among the layers of leaves. In Japan it is called shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, and conducts studies to document specific aspects of wellness enhancement during walks. It is thought that even cognition improves after forest-bathing.

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Entrance to forest in Enfield, Ithaca, NY>

A third person thought a bit and then said “spring.” We talked some and came to the conclusion that plants are spring–their capacity for regenerative burgeoning, the leafing out, the opening of buds. This brings us to flowers, an “abominable mystery” to use Darwin’s phrasing. Would we have the word “bloom” without plants? Middle English adapted the word from the Old Norse “blómi” for flowers, which also came to mean prosperity. What would we do without the verb “to bloom” and the noun “blossom,” which when transferred to a person came to mean “a state of great loveliness.”

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A tulip blossom.

 

The fourth person I asked referred me to this clip, BBC Life: Plants. 6 month time lapse in one minute, narrated by David Attenborough. A group of us clustered around the family dinner table watching it on her cell phone in wonder.

I am fascinated that the organizers used the word “fascination” rather than a word like “importance” or “recognition.” It is the right word to describe the botanical bent of my life. It began at a young age when I explored the farm in Virginia where I was born. I am not sure why I bonded with plants. It was instinctive or became instinctive. We had no television, radio, or phone and no neighbors in sight. Perhaps I became biophilic. “Biophilia” is naturalist E. O. Wilson’s term (and title of a book by him), first introduced by psychologist Erich Fromm, for the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to affiliate with other species. He believes that these bonds affect mental development.

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E. O. Wilson’s book published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Here in Ithaca, NY, on May 18th, organizers (Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science, and Cornell Department of Natural Resources) are holding an inaugural forum for the new Biophilia:Ithaca Chapter, modeled on one begun in Pittsburgh.  The first featured speaker is local metalsmith artist Durand Van Doren. It will be held 5-7 pm in the BorgWarner Room of Tompkins County Public Library.

The goals of Biophilia:Ithaca can be found on the Cornell Botanic Gardens website. In summary, it is an effort to awaken, acknowledge, and encourage biophilia in people, a suitable tribute for the 2017 International Fascination of Plants Day.

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Emerging leaf and/or flower bud  from an amaryllis bulb.

My Sword Garden!

Rex Fernandez the cat detects signs of life in amaryllis bulb

Rex Fernandez the cat detects signs of life in amaryllis bulb

 

The Red Lion is out! He has sprung, finally. It is a brief moment, considering the year of care that he required of me in order strengthen him for this burst of movement upward. Though, I confess that I was not thinking of him every day of this past year. And he is not the only Red Lion. I have others and I am loyal to them all, and to his relatives who go by other names—Vera, Clown, and Novella.  They are everywhere in my house—six in the dining room, three in the study, three in the kitchen, three in the alcove, and eight in the basement, where four on the washer and four on the dryer gyrate to the sudsing and tumbling of clothes to no ill effect apparently. They comprise my bevy of amaryllis bulbs, and they are too many–a true plethora, a surfeit, a glut. Why so many amaryllis? It’s not my fault. My husband runs a landscape design/garden center business. In early January he brings home the amaryllis bulbs that did not sell during the Christmas season.  We give them away to friends, but still there are more. I pot up the orphans because I cannot resist what I know they will do with just a little soil, water, and light.  I moisten potting soil in my biggest mixing bowl and pot up the fat brown bulbs, taking care to stuff down their wiggily spongy roots (unlike the roots of tulip and daffodil bulbs, amaryllis roots remain living all year, whether potted or unpotted). The bulb planter then becomes a bulb watcher, looking for signs of life. Just when one is ready to state that this is the bulb that will not do it, just then it does! The tip of a green sword emerges. From then on the bulb watcher should not leave the premises. The large flowering bud at the tip of the green sword opens in a ballet dance of shimmering, iridescent seductive curves. Individual flowers join petal tip to petal tip, forming ring-like umbels.

 

The Red Lion

The Red Lion

The Red Lion posing!

The Red Lion posing!

 

I carry the Red Lion from room to room, hoping to find the perfect spot for the perfect photograph, but my efforts do not do justice. Several writer photographers have done so, however—Starr Ockenga, author of Amaryllis, and Ken Robbins, author of A Flower Grows—in very different ways. Ockenga ordered 90 kinds of amaryllis bulbs and spent a year documenting their growth in her greenhouse. Robbins follows the growth of just one bulb in hand-tinted photographs. Finally, standing on a table, I view the Red Lion from above.

 

Red Lion seen from above

Red Lion seen from above

 

The scientific name of the amaryllis is Hippeastrum, or horse star. In 1837 the Honorable Reverend William Herbert, Dean of Manchester named the genus thusly perhaps after a holy water sprinkler, whose shape had its antecedents in a medieval weapon used by knights, known as the “morning star.” The common name, amaryllis, has a more troubling origin. A lovely nymph named Amaryllis fell in love with a handsome shepherd named Alteo, who was impervious to her love. He said that all that he desired was a flower—one that was new to the world. Amaryllis wished to comply with this desire. She consulted the Oracle of Delphi who advised her to dress in white, plant herself at his doorstep, and pierce her heart with a golden arrow for 30 nights. She did this. When Alteo finally opened his door, there was a red flower. Her blood, so slowly dripped, had become the amaryllis.

 

The Red Lion again!

The Red Lion again!

 

The Scottish poet and garden writer Muriel Stuart (1885-1967) writes in her book Fool’s Garden (1936) that “There is a sex appeal in flowers, no less than in human beings. Unguessed, unexplained, but present, shown by the garden lover’s preference for rose or magnolia, for orchid or gillyflower, for tree or rock plant. Strong and irrestible, the wherefore they know not, the mysterious drawing power is there, some potency distilled from stem or stamen, curved petal-lip or watching eye. And so we are drawn to certain flowers by some sex appeal of growth and colour, no less than to certain people by hand or eye, or wayward toss of hair or turn of chin. Show me a garden and I will show you the gardener’s soul” (p. 195). Stuart, more English than Scottish, wrote poems, whose themes were sexual politics and horticulture, that were admired by Thomas Hardy. Her gardening book is full of sweet stories about the “whimsies” that she and co-worker, her young son Adam, contrived in their garden, one being a special “sword garden,” for plants whose leaves are “swordy and austere.” Their vision was a garden full of “stately spears” and “tiny daggers” and “lance lifters.” Muriel  writes that she and Adam, the fools of her title, learned much in the planting of their “unorthodox” garden.

It occurs to me that my collection of amaryllis is a sword garden–and what could have more sex appeal than the Red Lion? For me, however, the sex appeal is not so much in the flower, but in the tip of green just beginning to show itself from the brown bulb, like the spire of a cathedral in a dull place. Every year when it’s warm enough I carry the tired bulbs outside to replenish themselves in the shade. The slugs, leaving trails of silvery slime, nibble them to shreds,  and the resident groundhog and rabbit may feast a little as well. I splash water on them in the droughts of August. By fall their tattered leaves have yellowed, but the bulbs are plump again with stored food reserves made by the leaves. Just as frost arrives, I carry them inside and wait for the tip of the green spire to appear. Many gardeners consign amaryllis bulbs to the compost pile, but they can live and flower for 75 years. Perhaps I will be nurturing my fool’s garden of amaryllis for some time to come.