Yesterday I planted the last of my daffodils for the season. As I dropped the bulbs into their egg-shaped holes, I could already envision their bright yellow cups emerging like trumpets come spring. Which got me thinking: what is it about daffodils that make us so happy? And how many varieties are there? I set out to find the answer. Continue reading →
The dried fruits and white seeds of black pepper, Piper nigrum
I’ve been a fan of black pepper since early childhood when my mom would sprinkle my morning eggs with the aromatic spice. Later I grew to love the coarser varieties. Ground at the table, the dried fruits tumbled onto my salad leaves, invigorating my meals with their gritty flavor. White pepper came later. A key ingredient in many Swedish dishes, it enlivened all of our family smorgasbords. Continue reading →
They say if you’re mama don’t know, you should go ask your papa. But, it’s anyone’s guess why Americans aren’t growing and eating the delicious fruit known as pawpaw. The small-sized tree produces the largest edible fruit native to North America. Continue reading →
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
I like to think of fall from an Alice In Wonderland perspective. That is, autumn is a time when we shrink in proportion to our gardens while the leaves ‘bloom’ above us. And each year, nature unveils new surprises, dazzling us with colors and combinations so daring as to leave little doubt as to her ability to create designs far superior to our own. Continue reading →
Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette, it’s also one of only a few species that thrivesin cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperature so much it often stays attractive well into winter. This makes it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading →
It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ housed at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Back then, it was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had bloomed since 2007. The event made national news because Stinky had been in a vegetative state for almost a decade, producing a single leaf but never a flower.
STINKY FLOWERS AGAIN
I never saw the 2015 bloom, which lasted for just 24 hours, making the viewing of it impossible unless you lived in the area. So imagine my surprise when this weekend, I was passing through Denver only to discover that Stinky was flowering again! I hopped in a cab to go check out the action.
Corpse flower, or Titan arum, is one of the oldest and biggest species of flowering plants in the world. Blooming just once every few years and sometimes as rarely as 10, it is known for its putrid odor and gigantic, single flower. Titan arum is what is referred to as a ‘carrion’ flower, or showy, stinking flower that emits a smell like rotting flesh.
Although native to the rainforests of Sumatra, corpse flowers are a relatively rare occurrence around the world. There are only about 100 known specimens in cultivation. The first ever recorded flowering of one was at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937. As for the Denver Botanic Garden, they acquired theirs in 2007. It remained in a vegetative state until 2015 when it suddenly produced a single, awe-inspiring bloom.
Stinky, next to his growth chart
At the Gardens, staff refer to their corpse flower as ‘beloved’ and that rings true, as evidenced by the spontaneous smiles upon its many visitors’ faces. Friendly volunteers pointed me to the Marnie Pavilion where Stinky is housed. I joined a line of people pinching their noses and waiting their turn to get up close to the unusual flower while above us a webcam recorded the plant’s every move over the course of 48 hours.
WHAT MAKES CORPSE FLOWERS SO UNUSUAL?
In its vegetative state, the corpse flower has a single, un-branched inflorescence (a cluster of flowers arranged on a single stem) that resembles a tree trunk. It is considered to be the largest inflorescence in the world. The corpse flower’s stem can reach over 10 feet in height and measure 3 to 4 feet in diameter.
Green and white speckled stem of corpse flower
In its non-flowering years, the stem produces a single, gigantic leaf that branches into an array of tiny leaflets. Together, they form a canopy much like a small tree and can persist for up to 12 to 18 months.
Corpse flower stem and ‘leaf’ in its native habitat
But in its flowering year, the corpse flower produces a single bloom that it was one of the world’s largest, sometime measuring as large as 6 to 8 feet. The massive bell-shaped bract is bright green on the outside and deep red on the inside with a deeply furrowed texture. Rising from within is a dull yellow floral spike that some liken to a loaf of French bread.
Finally, at the base of the spike are two rows of small, orange-red flowers. (You have to get awfully close to Stinky to see these.)
A close-up of Stinky’s bloom
During bloom, the tip of the floral spike gradually warms until it is approximately the temperature of a human body. This helps the ‘fragrance’ disperse.
A pair of Titan arums in Sumatra ca. 1900-40 showing leaf (left) and flower (right)/Photo courtesy Tropenmuseum
The death of the corpse flower is a quick one. The bract folds inwards, then the flower spike topples over and shrivels up. The whole process, from initial flowering to demise, occurs within a 24- to 48-hour period.
A collapsed corpse flower
A SCENT LIKE NO OTHER
Variously compared to the smell of rotting meat, eggs, fish (or flesh), dirty diapers, and/or Limburger cheese, the corpse flower’s fragrance is, well, unforgettable.
Why is it so stinky? It turns out the flower’s main pollinators are carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies who love the smell of rotting meat. To attract them, the plant emits its aroma in stages, gradually intensifying its scent over hours until it has whipped its pollinators into a carnivorous frenzy. The deep red color and texture of the bract, which resemble that of meat, further contribute to the illusion.
And yes, Stinky was pretty awful smelling — a strange mix of dirty socks and rotting cheese permeated the conservatory. (I can’t attest to the corpse smell, having never encountered one.) The plant was simply displayed on a metal table next to a growth chart labelled #StinkyDBGReturns.
According to the Denver Post, over 12,000 people visited Stinky in 2015, making him one popular flower. (This year’s numbers weren’t available at the time of this posting.) I lucked out and waited only a short time to see the Gardens’ prize specimen. If you’re ever in the area on the next day Stinky decides to bloom, its definitely worth the trip.
The Denver Botanic Gardens are located at 1007 York Street in Denver, Colorado. Best to buy tickets on line first if you’re planning to see Stinky.
Last week, I was manning the booth at the Master Gardener Demo Garden when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. It looked pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed. And the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading →
Different flowers and flower colors carry different shades of meaning
Studies show that mastering a foreign language can not only boost your brain power but also provide you with insight on how the world thinks. Unfortunately, not everyone can learn with the same facility. But there’s one second language we all know how to speak fluently, albeit with slight variations. Colorful and often emotional, it’s called the Language of Flowers.
THE VICTORIAN LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS
Back in Victorian times, people knew how to ‘say it with flowers.’ The 1800s were a buttoned-up era, with many taboos against expressing emotions. To get around the rules, people borrowed from an ancient language to convey their feelings. They used flowers and floral arrangements as coded messages.
Mother’s Day card circa 1890
Sometimes referred to as floriography, the Language of Flowers can be traced back to ancient times. This includes the Hebrew Bible, where plants and flowers often figure as symbols. The Song of Songs is one such example:
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. 2.As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. 3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2:1-3
Apple tree blossoms
THE TULIP’S TURKISH ROOTS
However, the practice of floriography most likely had its roots in Turkey, where in the 16th century, the Court in Constantinople was said to have an obsession with tulips. Following their discovery in the mountains, many powerful people started cultivating the cup-shaped flowers in their gardens.
Tulips were an obsession in the Court of Constantinople
Eventually, as Ottoman sultans began wearing tulips in their turbans, they became symbolic of wealth and power. Not surprisingly, the flower’s name is believed to derive from the Persian word tulipan, meaning turban, with which it shares an uncanny resemblance.
The word tulip comes from the Persian tulipan, meaning turban
TULIPS IN THE HAREM
In the Western World, we have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to thank for introducing the language of flowers to Britain. In 1716, she accompanied her husband to Turkey where he was stationed as ambassador. Montagu’s letters back to England often contained references to the Turkish use of floral symbols. This included a reported custom of using flowers to send secret messages in the harem.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
THE FIRST FLORAL DICTIONARY
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria ascended the throne in the next century, however, that Montagu’s efforts to promote floriography were finally embraced. Seemingly overnight, books about flower symbolism began to be published. Many of these works continue to form the basis of the floral language we practice today.
The first dictionary to associate flowers with symbolic definitions appeared in 1819 with the publishing of Le Langage des Fleurs, a work attributed to Charlotte de la Tour. The author’s true identity remained a mystery for several years until it was revealed to be Louise Cortambert, wife of the geographer Euguen Cortambert (1805-1881). She would have been in her late thirties at the time.
1920 edition of Charlotte de la Tour’s Le Langage des Fleurs
Organized by season, Le Langage de Fleurs contained illustrations and essays on different plants along with their associated meaning. There were 330 different types of emotions. Listed in alphabetical order, they ranged from messages of love, acceptance and refusal to more specific feelings or psychological states such as Render Me Justice, My Regrets Accompany You to the Grave and the catchy Better to Die than Lose One’s Innocence. The book can still be purchased on Amazon today.
COMMON FLOWERS AND THEIR MEANINGS
So what are some common flowers that we Americans know how to read? Maybe some of these generally accepted meanings will jar your memory.
Remember putting a buttercup under your chin and asking your friend if it gave a yellow glow? If a yellow reflection can be seen, a person is supposed to love butter.
Buttercups can tell if you like butter
Or did you ever pluck off the petals of a daisy one by one while alternately repeating the phrases She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not? A game of French origin, this practice can determine if the object of your affection returns those feelings.
Reading the daisy can tell you whether or not your affections are returned
Emerging from the cold ground in early spring, daffodils are the quintessential symbol of spring and rebirth. In the language of flowers, they can also mean Regards, while some dictionaries associate them with Chivalry. Other interpretations link daffodils with self-esteem, and the Greek legend of Narcissus suggests the flowers could also represent egotism and vanity.
Daffodils symbolize spring and also regards
Forget-me-nots’ meaning is implied in the name. The true blue flower whose Greek name myosotis means mouse ear, is commonly associated with constancy and friendship.
Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and constancy
Often flower meaning derives from the behavior of the plants itself. For instance, Mimosa pudica is often linked to sensitivity or chastity, as its leaves fold up when touched by another organism.
Mimosa pudica symbolizes sensitivity
Even within the same species, colors can mean different things. In paintings, a deep red rose has been used for centuries to symbolize the blood of Christ, while also expressing the intensity of romantic love.
A red rose is associated with strong feelings of love
While pink roses express affection.
Pink roses represent affection
And yellow roses stand for friendship or devotion.
A yellow rose signifies friendship
Overachievers may like to emulate Felix in Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily of the Valley and compose elaborate bouquets built upon multiple meanings. In the novel, he uses flower arrangements to convey coded messages that only his lover can decipher. This took some advanced study, however, with Felix spending days in the countryside meditating on the essence of each flower.
Regardless of your flower knowledge, the list is as long as there are flower species. And though meanings may vary across cultures, the roots of this ancient custom remain the same. Some feelings are just better expressed when spoken in the Language of Flowers.