Sunday, May 19, 2013

Meditations on White

A long, long time ago, in a city far, far away, my photographs were never in color.  It wasn't only that black and white film was a lot less complicated to develop and print; I just didn't much care for color. (I also spent a lot of time going to Ingmar Bergman films by myself, if that helps). And I had very little interest in gardens, although I lived in a climate of four-season flowers.

Now I live where growing time is limited and color is precious. So white flowers don't really do that much for me. Yes, they light up dark areas in a garden and do a good job of attracting pollinators in forests. But there's something too cold, even forbidding about them.

White in western culture brings to mind purity, innocence, even a clean-slate. Brides, babies, and new beginnings. But most East and South-Asian cultures wear white to funerals.  And in "The Whiteness of the Whale" chapter from Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes of the fear induced by the paleness of the dead, the white shroud, the ghost that arises. Then there's the horror experienced when confronted by the abyss that is no color and all colors.  When staring up at the star-filled night sky, Ishmael wonders if the indefiniteness of whiteness "shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?"

carrot flowers
(Daucus carota subsp. sativus)
 And there's just something sort of creepy about white flowers.  The flowers on the left that bloomed from carrots I never dug up have that "bride of death," horror film feel to them.

 The sweet-smelling yet highly toxic Lily of the Valley below is often used for bridal bouquets.  Seems like an odd or at least an ironic choice.
Convallaria majalis


Maybe my aversion is more about the idea of purity and innocence.  
Actual innocence is a kind of blankness, a lack of experience.  Do we exalt that state because it is valuable or because we mourn our spotted lives, our lives cluttered with good and bad, right and wrong. We long for a chance to begin again, to try for perfection by consciously returning to a state of perfection. But it doesn't work that way.

Life is messy. We all do terrible things. And we must live with that. What could be more poignant, what could be more human? This is not to say we should celebrate our mistakes. We celebrate that we live with them. And every experience, every spot and every tear, adds to that life. And, for me, a touch of color adds to, even redeems, the whiteness of a flower.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Fine Art of Botanical Self-Defense: Spines

So you think spring is the time of soft, green grass; brightly, colored flowers; and sweet smells. And it is. But don't be fooled. That innocent-looking garden is armed and (somewhat) dangerous. Welcome to the world of thorns, spines, and prickles.

First, a quickie lesson and/or review.
Roses don't have thorns--though many poets would have it so.
Roses have prickles.  They can--with the right gloves--be scraped off.  Thorns and spines, not so much.

The sharp plant bits that snag our clothes, puncture our gloveless fingers, and surprise unwanted guests are defined by their tissues rather than the pain they produce.

Thorns are modified branches: think hawthorne trees and flowering quince
Spines are modified leaves: think cacti and holly
Prickles are modified bark or skin (sort of), basically epidermal tissue: think roses

The spines in my garden come in two varieties:  ones that appear at the leaf margins and ones erupting from the branches.

Some California Lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) have small holly-like leaves.  And for most of the year, they're really all you see.  But when the flowers begin to bloom, I often lose sight of the rest of the plant, and want to lean in for a better look

Ceanothus gloriosus ' Pt. Reyes'

But they are so small and the flowers are so very small, that you're practically nose-to-nose with them before you realize how close you're coming to some less than friendly spines.

Barberry (Berberis spp.) was one of the first new plants I encountered when we moved up here. I loved the textures and the colors; it seemed both fierce and graceful and now I have four of them.

The darwinii has these amazingly orange flowers, and, like the Ceanothus above, it has small, spiny leaves.

Berberis darwinii 
Berberis thunbergii 'Rosy Glow'

On the other hand, the lovely 'Rosy Glow' has smooth, soft leaves. But the spines hide underneath them. 

These spines do more than frustrate the tactile gardener; they protect the plant from actual predators. Neither large animals nor small insects (with relatively large mouths) like munching or even walking through "armed" (truly, the technical term) plants.  Which is probably why these particular shrubs make charming hedges for those whose neighbors are less than congenial.