Capturing the Scent of a Flower

(Photo by Mary Kirman)

By Waverly Fitzgerald

October 2008. Legendary herbalist Jeanne Rose sat perched on a stool in the workroom of a perfume shop in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles on a Sunday morning. In front of her were ten little brown vials full of perfume, concocted by the students in her Natural Perfumery class the day before. She picked them up, one by one, unscrewed the lids, waved them back and forth under her nose, eyes closed.

“Some of these scents are nice,” she said. “Some are good.” She paused. “And some of these scents have the potential to be spectacular.”

I sat with the other nine women in the class, in a semi-circle. Each of us was properly attired, as instructed, in a white shirt or apron.  We ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties and included a script reader for a major studio, an aromatherapy teacher, a physician who specializes in fertility, the editor of a glossy food magazine, a student of acupuncture. I had come the farthest, all the way from Seattle, for this class.

I had not really intended to become a perfumer. This Natural Perfumery class was simply one of the many tasks I tackled in my quest to figure out how to capture the scent of flowers. I was more interested in the materials we had used-the essential oils, the absolutes, the waxes in the glass vials on the shelves around us-and how they were extracted from flowers. But at that moment, as we waited for Jeanne’s opinions, I dared to hope that my perfume was one of the spectacular ones.

I signed up for the class because I wanted to study with Jeanne Rose. She has been one of my heroines ever since I bought her first book, Herbs ‘n Things, shortly after it was published in 1971. Jeanne wrote it in the Sixties when she was a young woman with long dark hair and big dark eyes, living a block off Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, dressing rock stars in fringed suede jackets and bell-bottoms. She had compiled the information in the book from old herbals and some of the information seems unlikely or impossible (fennel seed boiled in wine and drunk for serpent bites?) but fascinating.

By 2008, Jeanne Rose had acquired over forty years of experience, growing, creating and selling herbal products and teaching classes. Her recent books, and the workbooks we purchased as texts for the class, are rich with information, based on her personal experience and her reading of scientific literature.

The other reason I had chosen this class was because I wanted to know how to make perfume from flowers. And a class in Natural Perfumery seemed the obvious place to learn. I was so naive I didn’t realize there is a difference between the scent of flowers and perfumes, which are artfully composed from many different elements including spices, citrus peel, woods, mosses, even seashells. I also didn’t understand the significance of the word Natural or that I had taken sides in a battle I didn’t even know was being waged, a battle between perfumers and natural perfumers.

The front window of Blunda AromaticsThe class was held in a perfume shop, Blunda Aromatics, in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles and the proprietor, Persephenie, is one of the rising stars in the field of natural perfumery. She sponsors events at her store that showcase other natural perfumers and the descriptions of these events make me wish I lived in LA instead of Seattle so I could attend and smell the fragrances.

On the other side are perfumers, like Luca Turin, my favorite perfume writer, who has only contempt for natural perfumers. Like most professionals in the field of perfume, he can’t understand why anyone would limit themselves to scents that can be extracted from natural ingredients, eschewing the marvelous fragrances that can be created in the laboratory. Turin is a chemist, as well as a scientist who has pioneered a new theory about how we smell, and he sometimes works for perfume companies, in the lab, creating new scent molecules or aromachemicals.

The main difference between synthetic perfume molecules and natural scents is that natural scents are more complex. Chandler Burr in his book The Perfect Scent, reproduces the results from a chemical analysis of a Turkish rose absolute (a solid waxy substance in which the flowers have been embedded). He lists 81 molecules, but the total list would contain between 800 and 1,000 different molecules. That’s how complex the scent of a rose is.

Some of the scents in a rose include citronellol, geraniol, nerol, nonadecane, eugenol, PEA, linalool, henicosane, alpha-pinene. You may recognize some of these molecules as they are named after the substances from which they are derived. Citron (think citrus blossom, not the fruit), geranium, neroli (another citrus flower), pine. Some  you might not recognize by name but you would by scent: eugenol is the spicy chemical that is found in basil leaves and cloves; linalool is a major aroma chemical in lavender. And those are just the scents that contribute over 1% of the total odor.

Perfume chemists have isolated some of the aromachemicals that are responsible for the scent of a rose, like damascone and damascenone, named after the aromatic damask rose. Luca Turin, scientist and perfume reviewer, says these molecules remind him of Brahms and autumn. He writes they are “outrageously fruity, and convey the full range of dried-fruit notes, all shades of translucent golden browns.”

Although I was disappointed in my quest to learn how to capture the scent of flowers, I did get plenty of  hands-on experience with a variety of perfume materials. Jeanne brought along 72 essential oils, waxes and absolutes for us to smell.

Workroom at Blunda AromaticsThese were lined up in little bottles and jars along the long wooden workbench on one side of the workroom. In a wavering row, all of the students in the class shuffled along the length of the counter, picking up each bottle and taking a quick sniff. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences well worth the cost of the whole workshop. Some of those bottles would cost hundreds of dollars to replace. Others were 40 years old, like the styrax resin, and couldn’t be duplicated today.

Each of these materials is created in a different way. And when you learn about the methods of extracting scent from flowers, you realize there is nothing very natural about it.

In steam distillation, steam is driven through the plant materials, which release their aromatic oils. The vapor that ascends contains the essential oil and water. It moved through a cooling tube into another chamber, called the condensing chamber, where the oil, because it is lighter than water will float on the top. It can be skimmed from the surface and bottled.

The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus.

The fragrant water can also be collected and saved. For years, the only two flower waters that were precious enough to be bottled and saved were rose water and orange blossom water.  Jeanne Rose was the first to advocate saving this byproduct of the distillation process which she named a hydrosol. Now you can buy hydrosols of lavender, and bay, and oregano. I have all of those in my refrigerator right now.

Jeanne Rose has been distilling her own essential oils for years, using a copper still in her backyard. She also sponsors an Aromatic Plant Project which encourages wine growers in California to grow fragrant plants like lavender alongside their vines and harvest the crop for steam distillation.

I have not yet become enthralled enough to purchase my own still but I did learn how to create a kitchen still in an herbal medicine class and used that to create my first hydrosol.

I used bay leaves from the tree in my garden. I put the leaves in water in a non-reactive pan, put a metal steamer on top of them, and centered a glass bowl in the middle of the steamer. Then I covered the pot with an upside down glass lid and put a plastic bag of ice on top of that. Then I put the pot on the stove and turned up the heat. The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus. I removed the glass bowl containing the liquid gingerly after turning off the heat and let everything cool down.

My hydrosol of bay was delightful-spicy and warm. It contains (I learned from Wikipedia) eugenol, the same chemical component I love in cloves (and used to love in clove cigarettes) and eucalyptol, the main ingredient in eucalyptus, the remedy my mother used (a drop of eucalyptus oil on a piece of cotton in a steamer) for childhood coughs.

Flushed with success, I then attempted a rose hydrosol, using petals from the scented rose across the street. It smelled delicious steaming in the pot but the end result was a brownish liquid that smelled nothing like roses. It did, however, smell like Brahms and autumn.

Other methods of extracting scent from flowers are more brutal. Perhaps the earliest method used was to soak flowers in fat. The Egyptians wore cones of perfumed oil on their heads which melted, spreading the perfume through their hair.

Many flowers are too fragile to sustain steam distillation. This includes many of my favorites: wisteria, lilac, lily of the valley, gardenia, jasmine, honeysuckle. The method used to capture the scent of these flowers is called enfleurage, a term much too pretty for the method itself.

chassisIn its most developed form, as practiced in Grasse, the perfume center of France, during the nineteenth century, fresh flower petals are placed on panes of glass which are smeared with purified fat. The fat absorbs the odors of the flowers, which are replenished when they are spent, until the fat is thoroughly imbued with fragrance. Then the scented fat, which is called a pomade, is washed with alcohol which absorbs the scent. The leftover scented fat was often used to make soap. The scented alcohol is called an absolute. If the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, what is left is an essential oil. This old illustration of women working with the chassis (the glass frames) comes from Sacred Earth which also features a great article on methods used to extract scents from plant materials.

There are more primitive ways of creating the same effect, including simply stirring flowers into hot fat until it absorbs their odors. This cheerful article at Mother Earth News explains how to do enfleurage in your kitchen, by placing flowers in fat, then using rubbing alcohol as a solvent to extract the scent from the fat. I’m sure Jeanne Rose would shudder at this suggestion, because rubbing alcohol has a strong odor of its own which would affect your end result.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I am currently trying this home version of enfleurage but have not achieved very impressive results. I used Crisco (not being enough of a purist to want to clarify lard as the author of the article suggests) and spread it over the sides of two small tea saucers. I then placed petals of the jasmine that twines around the pillar of my front porch in the fat on both sides and clamped the two saucers together with a rubber band.

I check every few days to see if the flowers are spent (it seems to take about three days before they turn brown), then pluck them off and replace them with fresh flowers. The fat is beginning to take on an odor but it’s not entirely pleasant. I think I left some of the flowers too long and they began to mold.

I was more successful with an even more primitive method I tried when the woodruff was at its peak in late April. I put some sprigs of woodruff in a small bottle of jojoba oil and pulled out the limp stems every week and replaced them for three weeks in a row. The oil now has the marvelous smoky, almost tobacco-like scent of woodruff. I’m not quite sure what I can do with it. I may use it as a base and add an essential oil to make a perfumed cream.

Jeanne Rose in her books mentions several other forms of primitive distillation, for instance, hanging scented flowers in a corked bottle in the sun. She says the oils will drop to the bottom of the bottle and you can collect them. I tried this but my plant materials simply molded.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I have come to terms with the idea that fragrance is by its very nature transient. My favorite perfume (Clinique Simply) is no longer available. My new favorite (Mimosa Pour Moi) evaporates from my skin as I wear it. The aroma of roses perfumes the summer air but is gone by autumn. I am learning to enjoy the scents of the moment.

Do you have a method for capturing and preserving the  scent of flowers?

First published July 20, 2009

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Capturing Scent, Week 1

The scent of an unseen flower—news from a country we haven’t visited.
C.S. Lewis

When I started my year-long project of getting to know the flowers in my neighborhood, I assigned myself a different task every month. The task for June was to learn how to capture the scent of flowers.

For me these simple assignments always lead to some place unexpected. But I had no idea when I set out how complicated this particular quest would become. My search expanded from a month to a year and by the time it was done, I had read dozens of books on perfume, attended three workshops (on essential oils, natural perfumery and distillation), fallen in love with chemistry, vied for a special bottle of perfume in an Ebay auction and finally circled back around to where it all began: the scent of flowers.

 

It started with the scent of spring.

I still remember the first time I noticed it. I had walked outside my brick apartment building on one of those sunny days in late January that brighten the grey Seattle winters with a promise of spring. I was halfway down the block, on my way to the supermarket, when I caught a whiff of a fragrance. It reminded me of jasmine in its piercing sweetness but more delicate. I looked around but I didn’t see any flowers, just the usual boxy green hedges and evergreen trees common to my neighborhood.

The scent baffled me, especially because it was so striking, in those dull grey days before any flowers appeared. For years, I recorded the date I first smelled the scent of spring in my calendar. January 27, 2001. February 2, 2002, February 5, 2009. But the source remained a mystery.

Until 2004. That’s the year I learned about a fragrant shrub: sweet box (also known as sarcococcus humilis) commonly used in Seattle as a hedge. It has small white flowers, wisps of white asterisks, which punctuate the stem and are almost hidden under the glossy green leaves. This plant loves shade and prefers to grow under the canopy of another shrub. Thus the invisibility of the flowers, which bloom in January and give off an intensely sweet scent.

I thought once I had identified the source, it would be easy to find the scent of spring, yet it continues to elude me. I bought a small shrub of sweet box and planted it in one of the big pots on the front porch of my apartment building, but it never bloomed in captivity.

Then my landlord hired a landscape architect to redo the front of our apartment building. They tore out the scraggly juniper hedges and the strip of weedy front lawn; they also got rid of the cherry tree and all the daffodil and tulip bulbs planted by the residents. The new landscaping features all the low-maintenance shrubs that are in fashion in Seattle right now: hebe, mountain laurel and rows of sweet box. Yet even when the sweet box is in bloom, I can bend down and sniff the white flowers and smell nothing.

It’s as if the fragrance wants to surprise you. It takes a certain combination of factors for it to emerge: a sunny day, an enclosed space (like a front porch), perhaps just a hint of a breeze, one that stirs the leaves.

The scent of spring always arrives around the same time as the fuzzy white buds of the goat willow, the flimsy yellow forsythia blossoms and the first robins. It’s one of my phenological markers during the year, and heralds the beginning of several months of increasingly delightful scents.

On my walk between my apartment and my work, eight blocks apart, I pass through a landscape of scents as I move through time. February and violets. The hyacinths and jonquils of March. In April, I stop on my walks to dip my nose into the cups of tulips. In May, it is the irises which lure me.

 

They wave their flimsy purple flags throughout my neighborhood. I used to walk right past them, dismissing them as grandmother flowers. Irises reproduce like rabbits, the knobbly brown rhizomes multiplying as they spread out like fans. They must be divided and given away, to neighbors surely, judging by the similarity of the species in the front yards of my neighborhood. They seemed to match the age of the buildings, brick apartments and wooden frame houses, some dating back to 1905.

It was Richard who first introduced me to the scent of irises. On our first date, we went for a walk around Green Lake, a Seattle tradition, during which he identified every tree (not a Seattle tradition). He was both a poet and a scientist, a combination that charmed me. On our second date, we walked around my neighborhood which is when he introduced me to the scent of irises.

They are shy flowers. They do not perfume the air, like the more wanton flowers: jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria. With iris, you have to give them your full attention. Bend down. Cup the flower in your hand. Poke your nose in between the soft petals of the falls.

I was stunned by what I found there. The scent was voluptuous: a mixture of sugar and violets. At least, that’s how it smelled to me. Richard said his ex-wife thought they smelled like old girdles.

The relationship with Richard didn’t last past a season but my love for irises persisted. A few years later I persuaded Michael, my new love, to drive down to Schreiners, a fabled iris farm near Salem, Oregon. It was May. I will never forget the moment we stepped outside his car. The scent that heretofore I had only known as a fleeting aroma enveloped me, as a cloud of sweet iris scent drifted down from the fields beyond the parking lot.

Schreiners offers a lot for the iris lover: a gift shop, a nursery, a catalog, picnic tables and a ten acre display garden where over 500 varieties of irises grow in masses in mounded beds. Visitors strolled through the grassy aisles, catalogs in hand, pointing out the features they admired: fringed falls, speckled standards, bright orange beards like neon caterpillars. Everyone was dazzled by the colors and shapes of the irises, yet no one seemed to notice their scent. I was the only person bending over and smelling the flowers.

I bobbed up and down the rows, quickly learning that the darker the iris, the more luscious the scent. My favorites were in the range of black, irises with names like Hello Darkness and Around Midnight. The blues were also delightful: they tended to be sweet and amiable.

Schreiners also sells cut irises, which surprised me. I had never seen them as cut flowers before and I wondered why. On our way home, we purchased a dozen. Inside Michael’s small car, the odor of iris bloomed and swelled. Within a half hour we were giddy with it, another half hour and we were dizzy. It’s not an easy scent to take in enclosed spaces, perhaps one reason the iris has not caught on as a cut flower.

We discovered another reason after we got the flowers home. When irises decay, they turn into blobs of brown goo that are viscous and rubbery to the touch. When I mopped up the puddles off the top of the piano, I found they had stripped the varnish off the wood. And the smell—yes, it does resemble old girdles.

 

We are just at the tail end of iris season here in Seattle. A few are still blooming here and there, but it is the next wave of scents that are wafting through the air. The incredibly complex and varied fragrances of the roses. The spice of peonies. I can look forward in July to the honeyed scent of linden, and the sweetness of honeysuckle, and the aroma of jasmine. Every year brings a new surprise. Something I had not noticed before. This year it’s the honeyed scent of black locust blossoms, which are falling right now.

 

Several years ago, I had an extra ticket to the Opera and invited a screenwriter I had just met. When he showed up at my door, my heart sank. It wasn’t the way he was dressed—he looked sharp in a sports coat, worn jeans and cowboy boots. It was the sight of the supermarket rose in his hand that made me wince.

Despite all I knew about the provenance of this supermarket rose, I brought it up to my nose to sniff. But it smelled like nothing, perhaps a faint whiff of the plastic in which it was wrapped.

This rose was the perfect product of the modern rose industry, described so well by Amy Stewart in Flower Confidential. Wanting to learn about how roses were grown for the florist trade, Stewart flew to Ecuador where she attended a trade show promoting the products. She walked down aisles lined with giant flowers. Roses with blooms bigger than a baseball, than a peony, than a dahlia. Roses with stems as thick as a finger, absolutely straight, with no thorns. Roses so tall that, when placed in waist-high vases, they towered over her head.

In the quest to breed the perfect rose for the floral industry: a rose whose petals won’t fall, whose stem won’t break, whose thorns won’t prick–the scent has been bred out of them. Not surprising as it is the very chemical that makes roses decay (ethylene) that gives the rose its scent.

Ethylene is produced in large quantities by apples, which is why you can put an apple in a paper bag with a green banana or a rock-hard avocado and the other fruit will ripen. Ethylene is also responsible for two plant functions that florists abhor. One is abscission, which causes the leaves to fall from a tree or the petals to fall from a rose. The other is senescence, which simply means aging.

The rose my date brought me sat on my desk in a crystal vase for two weeks. Not a petal fell. When I finally decided to discard it, I pulled the clump of petals off the stem in a lump. It never smelled. It never drooped.  It was perfect if you wanted a rose that only looked good. I want a rose that smells that smells like a rose.

Assignment for This Week

  1. Go for a scent walk. Walk around your neighborhood and hunt for fragrances. When you catch a whiff of an aroma that intrigues you, try to track it down to its source. Scents are almost as elusive as birds. Here are some tips that I use. Look up rather than down. Look around rather than close.
  2. If you had to choose your five favorite flower scents, what would they be?

 

The stunning photo of the inside of an iris was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The photo of the sarcococcus plant in bloom and the tall purple iris were taken by Waverly Fitzgerald. The rose and the peony flowers were photographed by Shaw Fitzgerald.

 

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Foraging, Week 2: Foraging Issues

Foraging is hedged around with a thicket of issues: legal questions, ethical dilemmas and safety concerns. Let’s look at them one by one.

Ethics

The ethics of foraging are fuzzy. When I searched the Internet for information, I found a letter written by a woman in Los Angeles to an ethics columnist. She wanted to know if she could pluck lemons from a tree that was overhanging the sidewalk in her neighborhood. The response was stern. Only if she got permission from the homeowner.

This is the answer dictated by ethics. But the law is not so harsh. In California, any fruit which overhangs public property is public property.

In the United Kingdom the opposite is true. The owner of the fruit tree has the right to all of its fruits. If your apple tree overhangs my yard, I cannot pluck apples from the boughs or gather fallen apples from the ground. And you can come into my yard, any time you want, without asking my permission, to harvest your apples.

I was unable to find any comparable statute in Washington law. I assume that since a parkway (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street) is a public space, anything growing there is public property. One of my neighbors has blue delphiniums, pink hollyhocks and golden dahlias blooming in his parkway. Yet it has never occurred to me to pick any of these flowers.

I rely on intuition to guide me. I leave the gladiola that is blooming in the crack of a nearby parking lot, even though it’s clearly a volunteer. But I pluck the honeysuckle blossoms that grow on a vine overhanging the sidewalk outside Pepe’s Garden (named after a neighborhood character. Pepe’s Garden is a hillside vacant lot that has been terraced and planted by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings).

The distinction between public and private is personal. I tend a plot in a community garden, the Thomas Street p-patch on Capitol Hill. Community gardeners learn not to covet. Because the space is so park-like, with winding slate paths and wrought-iron benches, visitors view it as a public space. So although there’s a little sign posted at the gate, asking people to respect the garden, I’ve become used to having my plot raided.

Although I grow a few food crops, I prefer flowers. Tall blue bearded irises. Small purple violets. A flamboyant pink peony.  One year I planted several lily bulbs, but only one came up. I watched it grow, admiring the sturdy stalk pressing upwards, the swelling green bud at the top. Every day I went to the garden, eager to see it open. But one day, there was only a stalk. Someone had snapped off the flower.

For weeks I was angry every time I saw that truncated stem. Then one afternoon while I was working in the garden, a woman and two men who had been drinking on the back bench, strolled past me on their way out of the garden. The woman had the reddish, cracked skin of someone who lives on the streets. She was short with a broad face and long dark hair and she had tucked a spotted pink Stargazer lily behind her ear. At first I was irritated by the sight—that might have been my lily—but then I considered what this flower might mean to her. She got beauty and fragrance for free. I could afford to purchase both at the local grocery store.

There is one act of foraging that is I know is illegal in the State of Washington: removing any plant from a public park. When I learned about this law, I was dismayed. For years, I’ve gathered greens for my Advent wreath at Volunteer Park, a large and spacious public park a few blocks from my apartment.

I visit the same trees and plants year after year: here the doll’s eyes (also known as snowberries) growing in a frowsy clump by the path; there the cedar, with its fragrant spreading branches; farther down the path, the holly with its red berries.

Then in 1999, a wild windstorm (known hereabouts as the Election Day storm), eased my guilt by downing most of the branches I needed. That November, I collected my greens by picking them up off the ground. (I have convinced myself this act is not illegal. After all, I am saving the grounds maintenance crew from some work.) This has become my regular practice: to take only what is offered.

Safety

Foraging means gathering wild food. For those of us who grew up believing that food came from the grocery store, where it is neatly labeled, the act of yanking greens right out of the ground or plucking berries from a bush seem dangerous. What if they are poisonous?

Samuel Thayer has an interesting take on this in his book, Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. He suggests only eating plants you can positively identify. He gives the following example. Suppose you are at the grocery store and the cashier rings up your bananas as grapes. You point out, “Those are bananas.” The clerk disagrees with you. He calls over the produce manager who says, “No, those are grapes.” You would insist they were bananas. Even if the manager pulled out a chart of photos and shows you grapes labeled as bananas, you would not back down. “I know bananas and these are bananas!”

He recommends a five point system that we’ll visit next week. The goal is the sort of contradictory confidence that would enable you to stand your ground with the produce manager.

But correct identification is not the only issue. Tama Matsuoka Wong in her book, Foraged Flavor, also goes through a thorough process when she finds a new plant.

Once she is satisfied that she has correctly identified the plant, she checks on its sustainability (we’ll get to that in a minute). Then she gets permission to harvest it from the landowner and checks to make sure it is distant from “chemical runoff, highway fumes, animal waste, and pesticides.” That’s likely since she lives on several acres in a rural part of New Jersey. For a city dweller, making this determination is a bit more difficult.

One day, I noted that the contorted branches of the juniper bushes outside the Safeway supermarket on the corner of 15th and John were covered with grey-green berries. I popped one into my mouth. It tasted sharp, bitter, peppery. I thought they would be great as a condiment, in a chutney, or in alcohol (juniper berries are one of the main flavoring ingredients in gin). But I didn’t know if they were safe to consume.

A quick survey of the Internet turned up an article by an urban forager who suggested looking at the trunks of the trees for evidence of spider webs. She believes that if the trees have been sprayed the trunks will be bare. The next morning I checked and found spider webs on the trunks of the junipers but this was not completely reassuring. After all, the webs could be old and abandoned. But I pass it along as a suggestion for other foragers.

One safety rule which is most often applied by foragers in the city has to do with height. Nothing below dog height is the rule for picking plants and flowers along urban sidewalks. In some parts of the city, the height recommendation might be raised to man height. I used to work at a literary arts center situated between a public park and a church that served free lunches on Tuesday. We often had homeless people sleeping on our porch and using our garden as a latrine.

Despite these restrictions, there were plenty of plants available for me to forage. The fennel growing out of the cracks in the parking lot towered over my head. When the seeds turned brown, I clipped off the umbels, plunked them inside a brown paper bag and shook them occasionally to release the seeds. The blackberries in the back of the parking lot also grew too high to be peed upon. Our building manager baked them into delicious scones and muffins for staff meetings.

Sustainability

One June evening, coming back from the library laden with books, I entered a cloud of honeyed sweetness. Looking around, I found the source of the aroma: the linden trees growing beside an old brick church were blooming. I dumped my library books out of their plastic bag and began filling it instead with the sticky white linden flowers. Two men walked by. They stopped a few feet away. “What is that?” one said to the other. They looked all around. Their puzzled expressions reminded me of my first encounter with linden.

I was working as an office manager for a dance school in Ballard. The street outside the office was lined with trees which dripped sap all over the windshields of the parked cars in the month of July. As I walked to work every day, I puzzled over the honeyed scent in the air, pausing to sniff every shrub, every flower. It took me a week before I looked up.

“It’s a linden tree,” I said, showing the passers by the blossoms I was gathering. The flowers are tiny and white and sticky with sap; they cling to the green husks of the seed pods. The two men expressed their amazement and went on. But I wondered, after they left, if I should have been so open about my discovery. Once I alert others to the existence of these plants, will they strip the stand?

So far this hasn’t happened, and, indeed, I am always finding new lindens. It’s almost always the fragrance that alerts me. A few years ago I went to an Obon festival in the International district with my niece and as we walked back to our car we passed under a row of sweet-smelling lindens, laden with flowers and dripping honeydew. So if my library tree is ever out of blossoms, I know where to find more.

How do you know which plants it’s OK to pick? Tama Matsuoka Wong divides the edible plants she knows into three categories: green (go!), yellow (go slow) and red (stop). Most of the plants in the Green category are naturalized and invasive plants, food plants that have escaped into the wild and invasive plants that people want to exterminate. In the Yellow category are native plants that have co-evolved with the local landscape, including other plants, animals, birds and insects. When foraging these plants, a good rule of thumb is to take only 20% of any stand. In the Red category, are specialized plants that need specific conditions to grow and might take years to return, or not at all, if they do at all, so she does not pick these.

Tama lists the following edible invasive plants that get the green light:

Aralia
Asian honeysuckle
Asiatic day flower
Dames rocket
Daylily
Field mustard
Galinsoga
Garlic mustard
Japanese barberry
Knotweed
Lesser celandine
Mile-a-minute
Mugwort (Artemisia)
Multiflora rose
Narrowleaf bittercress
Purple loosestrife
Shiso
Wisteria

As an example of plants in the Red category and should not be harvested, she lists the spring ephemerals, specialist wildflowers like trout lily, spring beauty, toothwort, mayapple, trillium, wild ginger, and solomon’s seal. She writes: “Many of these plants are declining in the wild and will not grow back if the soil around their roots is plowed or disturbed. Some are also slow growers; trilliums can take two years to germinate and seven to ten years to flower.”

Assignment for Week 2

Instead of sending you out to forage this week, I’d like you to come up with your own guidelines about foraging.

  • Where do you consider it ethical to gather plants that are not ones that you planted? What are the laws where you live that cover this?
  • What would it take for you to feel that a plant you foraged was safe to eat?
  • And finally, what plants are considered invasive or noxious weeds in your area? And what plants are rare or endangered?
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Foraging for Flowers: Week 1

  • I make some new friends and got some questioning looks while I was foraging for old blooming shrubs and certain kinds of flowers that I had seen here and there but didn’t grow myself.

    Lee Bailey, Lee Bailey’s Country Flowers

     

    It’s close to midnight on May Eve and my daughter, Shaw, and I are slipping through the alleys of Seattle, armed with clippers and black plastic trash bags. We dodge dogs, splash through puddles, dash between shadows. Security lights flicker on in our wake. We know our way through these back streets. We’ve been doing this for years. So far we have not been caught.

    We have come, as we do every year, to gather flowers for May baskets. Because we live in an apartment building and have no garden of our own, the flowers we collect are purloined. We clip purple blossoms from lilacs overhanging backyard fences, snip the snowball-shaped white flowers that grow on shrubs along the sidewalk, snap twigs studded with pink petals off trees in parkways. Until I began my year-long project of getting to know the plants in my neighborhood, the lilacs were the only flowers I could name. We knew the others by the common names we gave them: snowball flowers (viburnum) and bell-flowers (Pieris japonicus).

    At home, we spill our take onto newspapers spread on the floor. The air fills with the sweet scent of lilac, the musty aroma of hawthorn, the spicy odor of viburnums. Sometimes we arrange the flowers in cones, fashioned from colored paper twisted and stapled shut, with a ribbon for a handle. One year, inspired by Martha Stewart, Shaw arranged the flowers in tiny glass jars and twisted wires around the rims for handles.

    Late at night, we tiptoe through the halls of our apartment building, hanging a floral tribute on each glass doorknob. So far we have not been caught.

     

    Foraging. That’s what I call this activity of gathering plants I have not planted. A broad word for a broad activity. To forage is to wander, to raid, to rummage, to strip of food. In fact, the word food comes from the same root word as forage, a root that also gives us foray, fodder, foster, pasture, pastor, antipasto and repast.

    Animals forage for food. Bees for blossoms. Birds for berries. Wildlife biologists have theories abut how foraging happens, including the optimal diet model, patch selection theory and the marginal value theorem.

    Eric Charnov, the scientist who came up with the Marginal Value Theorem, explains it this way: If you are collecting apples in an orchard, you will pick the most easily accessible apples from the closest tree, before moving to another tree. It would be inefficient for you to strip all the apples from one tree or to flit between trees selecting just a few choice apples from each.

    I came to foraging by a meandering path. For over twenty years, I’ve been writing about holidays, a topic that has fascinated me since I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, poring over dusty volumes of folklore in the Gothic gloom of the library.

    Because of the holidays, I fell in love with the seasons, and because of the seasons I fell in love with plants. Each plant flourishes at a particular moment in time and that moment is specific to a particular place on earth.

    In medieval England, young people roamed the woods on May Eve looking for flowering branches of the May tree so they could bring in the May. (Plus it was a great excuse to go frolic in the sweet-scented darkness of early summer.) Lilies-of-the-valley are the flowers of May Day in France, tucked into every buttonhole, while lilacs are associated with May Day in Ireland. And for every country, every province, every county, the flower that blooms on the first of May will be different.

    So I began looking for the plants associated with each season in my neighborhood. Though I have long harbored a romantic fantasy of buying land in the country and building my own cottage, I’ve chosen to live in Seattle, in an urban village (Capitol Hill) in the heart of this major metropolis. And so the plants I can gather at the start of spring, at the height of summer, in the waning days of the year, are plants that grow in the city.

    Fortunately I have an abundance of materials available to me. One May Day, we made baskets out of orange pill containers with ribbon handles stapled on and filled them with viburnum flowers, cherry blossoms, the lacy fronds of wormwood, the foliage of St. Patrick’s tongue, and some purple flowers that I have not yet been able to identify. One thing that was missing which we usually include was lilac: although it is blooming in our neighborhood, I couldn’t find any blossoms I could reach while prowling around in the dark with my plastic bag and clippers.

     Assignment for Week 1

    This week take a stroll around your neighborhood and create a bouquet of the flowers and foliage that you find. (You might have some ethical concerns about what you can and can’t collect. When in doubt, asking is always recommended. Although I figure that plants growing wild in alleys and vacant lots and freeway verges, are free for the taking.) Bring them into your house, use them to make a wreath or put them in a basket and leave them on a friend’s doorstep. The idea is to find out what is available right now, on this turning point in the year when we celebrate the flowers.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    All the photos are mine except for the lovely lily of the valley which was taken by Carmine Profant.

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Hawthorn: the Tree of May

Plant profile written by herbalist, Corinne Boyer of Opal’s Apothecary

In the autumn and wintertime, the hawthorn tree with her gnarled bark covered in grey green lichens and her gangly branches reminds me of an old woman. She is a small tree that can usually be found on older homesteads. But in the spring and early summertime she boasts vibrant green leaves that surround many small bouquets of white blooms, often tinged with pink. She becomes a queen! This tree is like the matriarch gatekeeper of the nature spirits in my mind. Many plants/trees seem to possess supernatural powers and hawthorn is one indeed. Here we will find a wealth of folklore and older uses that have been recorded throughout history.

There are around 200 known Cratagus species and they apparently cross easily. The Latin Cratagus comes from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, referring to the strength of the wood. The common European species is Cratagus monogyna and C. oxacantha. The Northwest has a native species, C.douglasii, known as black hawthorn. The genus is native to all temperate zones; Europe, North America and Asia.

Common names for hawthorn include May Flower, May Blossom, White Thorn, Thorn Apple, Hag Thorn, Ladies, Meat, Bread and Cheese Tree and Quick Thorn. The ship the Mayflower from England was named after Hawthorn. The word “haw” comes from the old word for hedge, for which this tree has been used extensively. The planting of hawthorn to provide fencing for pastures, or hedgerows, began in Roman times. Currently in North America, Hawthorn is planted for ornamental purposes and also as a tree that provides both food and shelter to birdlife.

The flowers are gorgeous but smell somewhat stinky and acrid. As the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to carrion, this smell has been compared to the smell of “carnal love” and of rotting flesh! The lime green leaves shine and have a shape that is unmistakable once learned. The autumn display shows off the haws, the fruits of the tree, in various shades of red, from bright to deep. In the winter time the wise tree stands naked, beautiful and her strong thorns can be found with ease.

In European folklore, this tree was considered sacred before the arrival of Christianity and afterwards. In particular, lone standing hawthorns or thorns, that is hawthorns that were not planted but occurred naturally, were known to be fairy trees. It was considered an act of vandalism to remove a bough, or take away fallen branches firewood. If one of these solitary thorns was removed, it could bring death to the family to the person who removed it. It was also believed that if the thorns were ploughed up, all fertility would leave the land.  It is amazing to think back to the times when the powers of nature spirits, not science, ruled the collective consciousness.

It was advised to never fall asleep under one, for fear of be taken over by the fairies that abound. An Irish belief is that hawthorn grows over graves or buried treasure. Hawthorns also mark wells. In early May, people tied rags and trinkets to the branches of a hawthorn companion to a holy well. In the Lake District, hawthorns were also associated with justice and older court systems, and were planted near important meeting places.

Hawthorn is strongly associated with May Day celebrations because it blooms around the first of May. Going “a maying” was a happy custom where people would gather the flowering boughs alongside music and horn blowing. At sunrise, the branches were hung over the doorways of homes, which was originally a protective act. Bathing in the dew from a hawthorn on May Day ensured a beautiful complexion. In some parts of England, one was doused with water if a hawthorn sprig was not pinned on during the May Day celebrations.

On May eve, hawthorn could be used in a love divination. A girl would hang a branch of it from her signpost. In the morning, her future husband would come from the direction which it was pointing. If it fell, it foretold no marriage. Hawthorn is associated with love, interesting because of its carnal smell. It is connected with marriage rites and it is often incorporated into a bridal garland or chaplet. It is symbolic of fertility, love, marriage, hope, fruitfulness and spring.

Hawthorn is also associated with witches. In the Channel Islands, they believe witches meet under the solitary hawthorns and that it is dangerous to sit under a thorn on May eve as the tree is likely to transform herself into a witch. Interestingly, this “witch” tree was also used for protection from witches, by way of hanging crosses made of its wood over the house door. Driving a small hawthorn peg into a grave site could prevent the spirit from coming back to haunt the living or from turning into a vampire.

Hawthorn was associated with the powers of protection from lightning, as it was said that the white thorn was never struck by lightning. In fact, it was thought that cutting down the tree itself would cause a thunder and lightning storm. Attaching a sprig to the cradle of a newborn protected the child. Mothers in Burgundy France took their sick children to a flowering hawthorn tree and prayed to the tree for their health. It was thought that carrying a dying person round an ancient thorn three times and bumping against it would help recover their health.

Despite this, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn inside and one should never pick the flowers before May eve. An old Cheshire saying goes “May in, Coffin out.” Another old saying goes “Hawthorn tree and Elder flowers, Fill the house with evil powers.” In Ireland the flowers were never supposed to enter the home before June, and by then they would be done, I imagine.  Apparently sleeping next to thorn flowering indoors in May would bring great misfortune.

Hawthorn has been used medicinally. The bark was used to soothe sore throats in Scotland, while an infusion of the flowers was good for anxiety and for stimulating the appetite. Also, this leaf infusion was used to ease childbirth pains in East Anglia. In Russia, hawthorn was used to treat conditions of the heart, much as it is used today, in particular for heart pain, angina. Traditional Scottish herbalists used hawthorn for balancing high blood pressure. The use of hawthorn as a heart tonic comes specifically from an Irish physician from the nineteenth century. An infusion of hawthorn leaves was used topically to draw out splinters and bring boils to a head.

The young buds of hawthorn were called ‘pepper and salt’ by country folk or ‘bread and cheese’. I have seen older salad recipes that include young hawthorn leaves in the long list of ingredients. Wine and mead can be made from both the flowers and berries. I like to make mead with the dried flowers–it is excellent! The berries can be infused in brandy or made into conserves along with other fruit, as they are mealy and dry but high in pectin. They are called “pixie pears” in some places. The berries were thought to be best after Halloween, when witches had flown over them.

I love hawthorn tea, made from the dried flowers and leaves of the tree. After drying, the stinky smell seems to lessen. It is a great tonic for circulatory and heart concerns, best used without any other medications and taken for 3-6 months to produce an effect. I make a decoction from the dried berries along with rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon chips, allspice and a few cloves. This makes a beautiful “Red Velvet Chai” as I like to call it, delicious with a little milk and honey. I have a friend who likes to extract the berries in port wine. Here are some unique and interesting recipes to try.

Hawthorn Flower Syrup- from A Country Harvest- Pamela Michael

5 Cups hawthorn flowers
Extra sugar- see recipe
4 Cups sugar
5 Cups water
6-7 Tablespoons lemon juice
6-7 Tablespoons rosewater

Layer the flowers with sugar in a jar, until full. Heat the 4 cups sugar, water and strained lemon juice until sugar has dissolved, boil for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, then add rosewater. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar of prepared flowers. Screw the lids on loose and place in a saucepan on sheets of folded newspaper, with the folded paper between jars to prevent them from touching. Fill pan with cold water and bring to boil then lower heat to barely simmering for one hour. Lift jars and tighten lids. When cold strain and pour syrup into bottles and cork. Store in refrigerator. Keeps for months.

 

Hawthorn Berry Jelly– From same source above

3 Pounds Haws, pick larger ones if possible
3 ¾ Cups of water
1 pound sugar
1 pint lemon juice, strained

Wash berries thoroughly, place in saucepan with water and bring to a boil, cover cook gently for one hour. Occasionally mash berries with wooden pestle. Drip through double thickness of muslin or a jelly bag overnight. Measure juice into a large saucepan, adding sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sugar has dissolved, then boil hard for rapidly for 10 minutes or until jelly sets and pour into jars to seal.

References:

Treasury of Tree Lore, Josephine Addison, Cherry Hillhouse, 1999
A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery, 1995  
Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition- The Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, Gabrielle Hatfield and David Allen, 2004
Hatfield’s Herbal, Gabrielle Hatfield,2009
Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine , Gabrielle Hatfield,2004
Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore , D.C. Watts, 2007  
A Modern Herbal Volumes 1 and 2, Maude Grieve, 1931
A Country Harvest, Pamela Michael, 1980
 

Close-up of white May flowers by Kami Jordan

All other photos taken by Waverly Fitzgerald

First published May 12, 2012

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Flower of May: Sweet Woodruff

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book:

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is one of my favorite plants. It is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is happy in a part of my garden which is rather moist. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).

Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.

Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.

Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into a medicinal tea which soothed the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems. The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them. It is used to flavor May wine but it also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.

Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my mentor and friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade and its roots will stay moist. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.

During my experiments with capturing the scent of plants, I was most successful with sweet woodruff. I let it sit in jojoba oil for about a week and now the oil is delicately flavored with that dry hay/tobacco/vanilla scent that I associate with lying in the grass at midsummer.

Image Credits:

The illustration comes from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. The photo was released into the public domain by the photographer. I found it at Wikipedia.

First published April 19, 2010

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Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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Portraits of Plants, Part 2

Portraits of Plants, Week 2

Second in a series of posts from My Year in Flowers. During the month of April I learned how to draw plants. The first post is here.

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing.
Georges Duthuit

I produce pages of sketches for every plant I study. I usually begin with a contour drawing or spirit drawing. Then I do a more literal contour drawing, placing the flower on the page, and tracing around it. Although this usually produces a rather clumsy outline, at least I have a life-size reproduction.

Clare Walker Leslie and Charle E.Roth in their book Keeping A Nature Journal, recommend a series of sketches. A contour drawing, then a modified contour drawing (that is one where you are allowed to look at your page). They then recommend what they call quick gesture sketches. Looking at your subject and your page, draw a quick sketch in 5 seconds, then another in 10 seconds, then another in 15 seconds.

The next sketch is diagrammatic. This is where I focus on the details.  How many petals? How many stamens? How do they line up? I try to describe colors (a silvery pink, a greenish-brown) and note scents. As you work with the flower, the botanical terms that seemed so artificial become real. The intricate parallel lines of the monocot family become apparent in the leaf. You notice right away that the leaves are alternating rather than opposite on the stem. I find the sepals most interesting—like little green jewel cases with their green ribs and undulating shapes. They almost always recapitulate the number of petals and stamens.

I tend to draw flowers straight on but they rarely look right. Leslie and Roth suggest several different approaches: a profile, looking down, looking straight at the flower, viewing it from the side.

Sometimes I create a design sketch, breaking down the shape of the petals into simple shapes, lining them around the center in an ideal pattern. I examine the way the flower and the leaf are attached to the stem and draw those nodes on the paper. These botanical details can be rendered as blueprints, and in that way, they begin to resemble design patterns.

I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes, I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied due to disuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes. I love the dense, color-saturated floral patterns of the wallpapers for which he is famous. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.  Try transforming your flower into a two-dimensional shape that will still convey the quality of the flower. What is the simplest shape that is still recognizable?

You also don’t need artistic talent to do this sort of drawing. Of course it helps. But I have none (as my high school art teacher made clear to me). Yet I manage to create sketches that are recognizable. More important, they are educational. Remember the purpose of the sketch is not to create a lifelike rendition of the flower, such that people will gaze at it and say, “Wow! That looks just like an alstromeria!” But rather that you will have learned more about it.

I was a snob about alstromerias until I drew one. I thought of them as frivolous products of the cut flower trade. They have no scent and they last forever in the vase, two signs of a flower that has been turned into a freak of nature. But a few years ago I spent two cold, wet weeks in March at a writer’s retreat. The only flowers to be found were the alstromerias that had been purchased to adorn the main house where we ate our dinners. I took a few stems with me to my cabin in the woods and I began to draw them. It was me and the alstromerias for hours. I could not get enough of them. I loved the clever shape of the flower with its three rounded pink tepals, serving as a base, for the more narrow, more vertical tepals, flaunting splashes of yellow and distinctive black nectar lines, designs as decorative as the spots of a cougar or the stripes of a zebra, luring bumblebees into the nectar at the heart of the flower.  I loved the six-sided little green basket of the ovary, the three little curlicues on each pistil. I loved the way the snake-like curve of the stem, the twist of the leaves. Never again will I snub an alstromeria.

Assignment for Week 2

Continue to sketch flowers. Choose another one. Bold flowers with simple shapes are probably the easiest. Lilies and tulips. Buy a stem of flowers from the grocery store or florist if you can’t find anything you like in your garden. A stem with leaves is just fine.

Try a number of different techniques: contour drawings, quick gesture sketches, tracing the outline of the flower, viewing the flower from different angles, diagramming the various parts, reducing a flower to its simplest outline.

For the third lesson in this series, go here.

Illustrations: The lovely William Morris design is the pattern called Chrysanthemum. I found the painting of the sage looking at the bamboo here. I took the photo of the alstromerias I was drawing. But I haven’t found the drawing I did of them.

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Portraits of Plants #1

 

From A Curious Herbal, published in Nuremburg in 1757

The way of seeing is a way of knowing.
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I found identifying plants difficult until I began drawing them. When I first chose a conifer to identify, a scrubby evergreen at the corner of my block, I spent weeks puzzling over it. I cut off a sprig and studied it, comparing it to the illustrations in my tree identification book. I took photographs with my new digital camera but they didn’t capture the details that seemed so relevant to me: the milky color of the swelling bud tips, the nascent cones, jutting forth on the stems, clotted with fresh scales. It was a spruce, I thought, but the tree book contained at least 22 varieties of spruce, none of which resembled my specimen.

Finally I sit down and sketch it in my notebook. Here a packet of needles, unpacked. I learn there are two in each bundle. There an attempt to draw those phallic bud tips. A more mature cone dissembles into scales, each a diamond with an impressed oval at its highest point. When I turn the cone upside down I see the scales are actually rectangles, fanning out from a central point like blades in a fan. The growing cone resembles a miniature pineapple, with a flush of chartreuse green beneath the brown scales. By the time I am done, my fingers are covered with sap. A little bug crawls out of the cone and onto my page. I whisk it outside. The scent of pine fills the room, evoking Christmas.

Nothing gets you up close and personal as quickly as sketching a plant. You take it apart like the pieces of a puzzle, poring over each fragment, sniffing out its mysteries. So many ways to look at it. Prying open the petals to count the pistils and stamens. Twirling the stem in your fingers. Outlining it with a pen, while pinning the plant in place with a fingertip. Tracing the network of veins on the leaves. Shading in the shadows on the folds of the petals. Noticing the tiny star on the base of the berry.

As I handle the plant, turning it upside down, flattening it, pressing back the petals, fondling the leaves, details emerge that surprise and delight me. It’s like exploring a lover’s body during those lazy hours you spend in bed at the start of a relationship. A snowdrop has never been the same since I peeled back its petals and found, to my surprise, striped green sepals inside.

I learned my favorite drawing technique—contour drawing–years ago in a high school art class. Betty Edward also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The instructions are simple. Look at your subject. Put your pen down on the page. Outline the contours of the object with your pen. Do not look at your paper. Do not take your pen off the page. Resist the temptation to peek at your drawing as you proceed. This often turns a lively sketch into something stiff and stilted (though perhaps more accurate).

Why does this technique work better than conscious imitation? What we believe we see is not what we really see. Try drawing a cup while looking at the cup. Then draw it again using contour drawing. I think you will be surprised by how much more the second version actually resembles a cup. We have a notion of a cup shaped by our three-dimensional experience with it but it’s not the cup our eye sees.

I used contour drawing throughout high school and college classes to capture portraits of my teachers, other students, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get an undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it’s as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible.

Then take your pen (Siegel encourages the use of a pen, as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, pretend you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of each petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the subject with your fingertip, the gentle caress of a lover. After tracing the outline, you can begin to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way as well. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.

And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

 

 

 

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at my favorite café, Pettirosso, one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.

Assignment for April, Week 1

Try doing a contour drawing of a plant this week. Don’t despair if your first version is a bunch of squiggles. Try again. Do a drawing a day. If you start to feel comfortable with the contour drawings, try a spirit drawing. Then write up a report on how it went.

If you’d like to share your sketches, you could post them on Facebook, either in the private group for A Year in Flowers 2017 (you need to “friend” me on Facebook and I can invite you) or on the Living in Season page.

For lesson 2 of Portraits of Plants and a new assignment, go here.

 

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