Tag Archives: flowers

When I said my favorite color was brown

one time, everybody laughed.

In writing class, teachers use a prompt to get everybody’s creative juices flowing. I hiked the Old Croton Aqueduct trail today, using brown as a prompt.

The familiar sandy light brown soil. Hadn’t been here for a while. The sound of the mid-afternoon breeze rustling the leaves, late summer insects’ buzz. Black cherry trunks snake up, brown.

Underfoot, my own personal school-days madeleine, a horse chestnut, glossy brown in its miracle of a small spiky package. 

Sun-browned old brick from one of the brickyards along the Hudson, a booming business back in the day.

Across the river, the light brown strip of the Piermont marshes, ancient, brackish, mysterious in a canoe.

Thinking about dog-nose brown.

Iced-coffee brown. Always great, but especially when consumed recently at MoMa before paying homage to Matisse’s magnificent canvas The Red Studio.

I’m not saying how much coffee I drink, only that if it keeps me up, the more interesting thoughts I get to have. Recently stumped by midnight riddle: what would happen if you combined orange soda with grape soda? The answer? Plenty of sugar buzz. But also the color brown, carbonated.

Thinking about young-hair brown.

On the trail, wizened mulberry trunk brown. Where I live, somebody petitioned the Village wanting to remove an elderly specimen from their property, saying the fallen berries were “messy.” Really? Messy is good, it’s what makes us alive.

I love mulberry trees with their misshapen mitten leaves.

Brown shadows. In the immortal lyrics of John Prine, Shadows. Shadows!

Fungi brown.

Fruiting bodies, if you want to sound like a supercool arborist.

Thinking of cattail brown.

Peegee hydrangeas’ pink tinged ever so slightly brown.

Oak leaves verdant, still, yet stems and acorn cap brown.

Grey cherry trunk with its delicate brown lenticels, my favorite feature, the stitch-like pores that allow oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.

Finally, coming home, the brown face of a late-summer sunflower.

You may have your run-of-the-mill rainbows. I will take my beautiful brown all around.

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Arlow Burdette Stout

had a great name, and also revolutionized our thinking about day lilies. Never thought much about Hemerocallis? The name Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words for “day” and “beautiful”.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance. John Ruskin wrote that. I don’t believe that peacocks are useless however; nor are day lilies. I have been walking past a beautifully planted border of day lilies for the past month at Ellis Island, where the flowers are as diverse as the multitudes of immigrants that passed through over the years 1892 through 1954, when the facility closed. I get the feeling that many visitors just hustle past them every day in a rush to find their ancestors on the Wall of Honor, or to get a quick sandwich in the café before jumping on a ferry to Liberty Island. Everyone is in such a hurry, even on vacation.

Tens of thousands of cultivars exist. Arlow Stout alone produced over one hundred Hemerocallis hybrids, reawakening popular interest in the flower, which was introduced to America by European settlers—probably brought from Asia along the silk roads. By the 1800s they were naturalized in the U.S., and still what is called the “tawny” variety can be found springing up by the roadsides all over the country. Ancient Chinese paintings depict glowing orange day lilies.

It’s not actually a lily.

In the department of Harumphh: in 2009, under the APG III system, day lilies were removed from the family Liliaceae and assigned to the family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily HemerocallidoideaeXanthorrhoeaceae was renamed in 2016 to Asphodelaceae in the APG IV system. Will someone wake me up when this is all sorted out?

Growing on long stems called scapes, flowers bloom for one day each. You can gather them, eat them, press them, present them to people you love. Hybridizers like our friend Stout like to fool around with properties like height or scent, ruffled edges, putting contrasting “eyes” in the center of a bloom, or creating an illusion of glitter called “diamond dust.”

Sylvia Plath also wrote about them, in a poem from 1962 called “Crossing the Water.” Stars open among the lilies./Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?/This is the silence of astounded souls.

But we don’t need such a hard sell. Their season is almost over. Go out and be agog over one, before their beauty sleep ’til next year.

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Are some trees bad?

Well. Depends who you ask.

Norway maples, callery pear, ailanthus, ash. Spotted lanternfly adores laying its disgusting eggs on the bark of the ailanthus, commonly known as the tree of heaven.

So ailanthus deserves to get whacked. But what about grape vines? Apple trees? These host the same invasive insect.

As for the callery pear, you might have some gracing your downtown sidewalks or your apartment complex. Offering bright white blooms for a week or two in early spring. Arborists’ assessmen: Pyrus calleryana is a nightmare. Why? Inquiring minds (mine) have investigated. These trees, originally from China, were widely introduced by landscapers in the 1960s, and displace native trees and plants. Also, they don’t smell sweet, as you would expect them too. Communities around the U.S. can’t cut them down fast enough – some are even offering rewards to those who destroy them.

Ash trees play host to another noxious bug, also imported from Asia, known as the emerald ash borer. Cities are eliminating dead trees by the thousands as well as infected ones as a kind of stay of execution. Last year I accompanied a crew in Queens that was feeding axed ashes into the chipper.

Whole blocks were decimated, and once-graceful allees of mature trees vanished, much to locals’ shock and confusion. Everywhere these strange diagrams exposed by peeling bark, the sure sign of disease.

Where is the tree I grew up with, whose branches swayed outside my window my whole life? No more birdhouses.

Thinking about the nature of bad and good trees as I stand in the grueling heat of an early Queens morning. The parade of Norway maples along 145 Street in Flushing provides the only shade separating residents from an New York-style Hades.

People tend toward puzzlement when the sidewalk crew comes along. Are they taking down our trees?

Don’t get me wrong. Sunshine is good! If you asked medical pioneer Florence Nightingale, she would have touted its healing properties. In the nineteenth century, she espoused the wondrous effects of sun and fresh air in the absence of cures we take for granted, antibiotics and penicillin and the like. One approach in the 1930s was to suspend a babe in need of fresh air out a tenement window!

But today, what we now call the heat island effect afflicts neighborhoods like this one in Flushing disproportionately. They need all the cooling they can get. Even the shade of the “invasive” Norway maple plays a part.

Researchers have noted that individuals with mental health issues (e.g depression, for example) are more at risk when faced with high temperatures and “need to take extra care” as cognitive performance has been shown to be differentially affected by heat. People with diabetes, are overweight, have sleep deprivation, or have cardiovascular/cerebrovascular conditions should also avoid too much heat exposure.

Residents need shade. These trees, in the words of an arborist friend, are working hard. And they’re not getting paid, either!

What’s the use of being house proud, like so many Queens-ites, if you haven’t any trees?

Residents love their flowers.

Some even plant small-scale farms – more ambitious than my raised tomato beds.

But others bake. The heat island effect means that people are cooked, literally, in their homes and neighborhoods. Fried like so many sidewalk eggs. Within the United States alone, an average of 1,000 people die each year due to extreme heat.

Mainly poor people. Those without recourse to decent air conditioning, swimming pools – and trees. Trees are a necessary feature in combating most of the urban heat island effect because they reduce air temperatures by 10 °F and surface temperatures by up to 20–45 °F.

Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. The process of taking up water through its roots, up through the leaves and out again as vapor into the air, called transpiration, is something all trees excel at. It’s nature’s air conditioning. Canopy cover is always important, but nowhere more than in the places where it can’t be taken for granted.

In the suburbs we have grand old tall cedars.

In urban areas, not so much.

Nothing makes up for the simple, absolute value of coolness in hot weather.

Some surprising trees make it to a good old age on these mean streets. A Siberian elm somehow thrives in a 4×4 inch tree pit.

I stand outside a nondescript bungalow on 107 Avenue.

There is a robust swamp white oak. How nice.

These are some of the exotics you might stumble across in the boroughs of New York. Older specimens have obviously offered shade to strollers for quite some time. London planes thrive in the most destitute circumstances, and we are all the better off for it.

When you hear about property owners razing “good trees” to build additions or housing projects or basketball courts, it’s common sense to mourn their loss. Mature oaks, sweetgum, lindens don’t just spring up overnight and surely don’t deserve to be disappeared. We know we need them, though some knuckleheads will always come along to say they don’t matter and remove them.

But what about the specimens sometimes dismissed as trash trees? Are honey locusts expendable simply because they are so common in this city?

I think that logic is mistaken. Honey locust has its own sharp-shouldered beauty.

Even the city version without the spikes can make itself welcome as a shade tree where we need shade.

Trees can’t help the species that spawned them, or the whims of the city planners who once planted these sometimes struggling urban forests. A Norway maple has gotta right to live too! And we deserve their shade. All of us.

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Fragrant, spicy, lemony, lush and voluptuous

are some of the inadequate terms we use to describe roses, but equivalent to the terms oenophiles employ for the equally ineffable flavors of wine. Oaky, fruity, tannic, et cetera.

Really, no word can describe the experience of sticking your nose in a bloom and inhaling. My friend needs little encouragement to dive in. Swoon.

The thing to do if it is available to you (as they say in yoga class, referring to your ability to hold a pose) is to simply wander about a rose garden like the one at the Lyndhurst Estate and, yes, stop and smell the roses. We are so fortunate to have this magical place within walking distance.

What I love is that delving into botanical literature you find that roses have stories, roses are stories. The Lyndhurst rose garden was first planted in 1914 as the project of Helen Gould, the eldest daughter of robber baron Jay Gould, who bought  the estate in the 1880s. Over time and with successive owners who weren’t quite as enthused about the project it almost died out, to be revived by the Garden Club of Irvington-on-Hudson starting in 1968. Now 500 plants in five concentric rings thrive at the garden’s peak each June, and the lot is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Each ring features different kinds: the outer ring has been planted with shrub and old garden roses, the middle hybrid teas and grandiflora, and the inner with polyanthas and floribundas. The ones I like best have labels, barely legible old keys to each one’s provenance.

Pink Knockout, for example, is a bubblegum-pink sport – meaning, basically, offspring– of Double Knock Out. Kind of like race horses.

Another, Soaring to Glory, developed as recently as 2018, is a sun lover that is especially resistant to disease. Something to like in a rose.

One of the arches bears a mysterious old plaque, Zepherine Drouhin.

It’s a special flower, dating back to 1868, described in the rose literature as a vigorous climbing Bourbon rose with masses of highly fragrant, semi-double, carmine flowers, 3 in. across (8 cm), counting up to 30 petals. Born on thornless, purplish stems.

The world might be complicated, tedious, awful. The only complexity of rosa is how many petals each one has, what shape its whorl, how the heck you describe its scent to differentiate it from all the other spectacular specimens. There is no bad rose.

One reminds me of a wild rose we once found in a neighboring meadow. Why it strayed from a domestic border I don’t know. That flower had no name that I ever knew; it was anonymous yet ravishing. I dug up part of it when we sold the house and replanted it when we moved to suburbia, careful to leave some of the roots so the plant would bloom for the new occupants.

Some efforts fail, as in life outside the rose garden. Some deaths remain in the borders as if to remind us that existence is in fact fleeting. Such as Summer Surprise, surprisingly a nonstarter.

Or Voluptuous, which doesn’t quite live up to its hype.

You must time your visit to the 67-acre Lyndhurst properly. We have been overeager and jumped the gun with a visit when the season has barely started, only to find tight buds, not yet coaxed into blooming by sun and rain.

On the other hand, if you go too late in June, much of the fragile prettiness has shattered. Already, today, petals litter the lawn.

But still we find swaths of buxom beauties.

It’s difficult to take a bad photo of a rose, try as you might.

This is what one looks like close up.

Though it’s tempting to click, best to pocket your phone and simply drift from bed to bed, under the perfect sky, in a state of rose-addled bliss.

The frame of a greenhouse designed in 1881 by Lord & Burnham, when it was built the largest in the country, rises beyond a hillock. Once the foremost metal-framed conservatory in the country, now a ruin. You know I love ruins.

When Jay Gould had it built, he was inordinately proud of the orchids that were raised here – with a full-time staff of 16 gardeners, what could go wrong? – and used to run the plants down to gift to grateful New York City residents, with a steam heater to keep the flowers warm. Now there are just three gardeners to run the whole estate, and the greenhouse is nominally off limits.

Okay. But an original fountain in the center bubbles, its bowl upheld by… pelicans perhaps? Or some mythological creature with bird feet?

When Helen Gould first dreamed up the rose garden, she planned for the folly to have only pink climbing roses. After her death, the estate passed to her younger sister Anna, the Dutchess of Talleyrand-Perigord, who had gained a divorce from her new husband’s cousin Boni, the Count of Castellane, he who had bilked her of $10 million of her inheritance. The heiress had two children in this second marriage, Howard de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan (1909-1929), who died of a self-inflicted gun wound when his parents refused him permission to marry until he was 21, and Helene Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord,  who married Comte James Robert de Pourtalès, divorced him, then married Gaston Palewski, former Minister of Scientific Research, Atomic Energy and Space Questions. Lives perfumed with the best of the best, aside from that unfortunate suicide. By the time Anna went to the rose garden in the sky in 1961, few of the shrubs were left.

Jay Gould enriched the lives of his swanky city pals with orchids. Perhaps he might have sent roses.

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My father fell for an orchid

late in life. It was a simple series of white flowers on a stem, nothing fancy, yet he insisted that it accompany him from the hospital to his room in the Care Center. A friend had brought it as a gift, and it somehow spoke to him, he who had never had a thought for plants earlier in his life. Orchids can be magical.

The ones at the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show practically knocked me to the ground.

I was lulled by the piped-in yoga-class soundtrack. Then reawakened again and again by the five greenhouses’ worth of tropical specimens.

How can something be unique yet generic, astoundingly beautiful yet ho-hum, run of the mill? That was my honest assessment of the oxymoronic goods on hand.

The orchids went on and on.

Moth orchids, ghost orchids, slipper orchids, rainbow orchids. Moonlit orchids, which attract nocturnal pollinators, and are also especially fragrant by the light of the moon.

Sugary.

Clownish.

Ever so slightly obscene.

A bit of TMI, thank you very much.

Easy on the signage, New York Botanical Garden horticulturalists! Sometimes I prefer my facts optional, at least when viewing the natural world.

I found myself admiring other living beings in the vicinity, anything not obviously pretty, the ones with thorns, like the South American floss-silk tree.

Or the non-orchid plant that that presented itself in an extraordinary, almost indescribable shade of green – a jade vine, it grows only in the Philippines.

I was drawn to the womb of a tunnel that connected parts of the exhibit.

And my fellow visitors clicking, clicking, clicking, intent on capturing the essence of a particular flower. Human beings, cameras, nature, always fascinating. Note: it is impossible to take a bad picture of an orchid.

Outside, the catkins dangled from the April birch.

A prickly sweetgum seedpod lay nestled in the grass beneath its parent, a sweetgum tree not yet leafed out.

And the equally prickly human being waiting on our bench for the next tram.

The orchids are always going to be splendiferous, whether they come from the supermarket or the Enid Haupt Conservatory show. The ones I saw today made me realize how exquisite everything else is, too.

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Are butterflies intelligent?

Yes. If intelligence is the ability to seek out nectar and pollinate flowers, yes. In terms of long-term travel to their southern climes and back, Monarchs in particular never cease to amaze.

But are they dependable? In terms of showing up when they’re expected, to bask in humans’ adoration? Not so much. 

The events of the day at Wave Hill, the century and a half old estate that is now an arboretum and horticultural center, were supposed to highlight butterflies. There was a “Nature Walk: Butterflies in the Garden” and special arts and crafts activities for families. The last expedition had just gone out when we arrived mid-afternoon, so we thought we’d go it alone.

We saw brilliant flowers.

Of all colors.

Shapes. Sizes.

Surely some that would appeal to a butterfly.

Look, there’s a monarch! said Gil. But it had vanished.

I see a little white one, said Josefa. A cabbage moth, corrected Gil.

There were some bees of different types. Where there were bees wouldn’t you expect butterflies?

We learned that Louis Bauer, the horticultural director at Wave Hill, was going to be honored at a party in a couple of days. I met Louis when I sold him a tree inventory for Wave Hill a few years ago. I remember asking him how he kept everything so beautiful in the greenhouses there. I go in three or four times a day and stick my finger in the soil to see if they have enough water, he said. Simple genius.

The greenhouses, of course, had no butterflies, but some prehistoric looking desert plants.

And a buxom cactus.

More flowers. Nothing fluttered by.

Quiet trails.

Vistas in every direction. Some of them private.

The most fabulous view out over the Hudson was getting ready for its closeup with white wedding party chairs.

We just about gave up. Not only did we not see butterflies, we didn’t see anybody looking for butterflies. Was this some colossal joke?

A sculpture on the lawn made use of succulents, moss, and a tire fetched out of the Bronx River.

Wave Hill has a pair of copper beeches to die for. One of the elephantine pair has pristine bark that you just want to go up to and pet. The other’s branches drape down to the ground and hide a trunk covered with a venerable array of  carvings. I have always liked beech bark carvings. It makes for a good place to meet a friend for a private assignation. I feel like I’ve done that sometime, in another life.

We stretched out in the adirondack chairs that make Wave Hill an even more perfect place. In the mellow shade of a white oak. The burnished glaze of fall made us collapse with thirst.

So the winged creatures missed the cameras and the oohs and ahhs. They took the nectar and ran. They had better places to hang out. They’re that smart.

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Outside of NYC

you wouldn’t guess we have

native plants

waterfalls

towering old trees (this one a kentucky coffee tree)

wildflowers

magical floating spheres amid reeds

more wildflowers

But we do.

When you come to New York, go to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, by all means, but visit the Botanical Garden in the Bronx if you want to get your green on.

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I’m tired of flowers

They’re too pretty. They distract you from all the miseries around you, inside you. They are beautiful effortlessly, which puts everybody to shame.

One of my favorite poems, Walking Around by Pablo Neruda, opens with these lines:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.

And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses

dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt

steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

He goes on in that vein for a while.  Then comes the line I’m thinking of, thinking of flowers:

Still it would be marvelous

to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily

So fresh flowers can be pretty outrageous, pretty powerful.

Sometimes I prefer the two dimensional.

That is still-life painter Eliot Hodgkin’s “May.” 

The scent almost wafts off of the nineteenth century Johan Laurentz Jensen’s clutch of lilacs.

It’s a relief sometimes to have flowers that stay safely on canvas.

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How old were you

when you first noticed flowering trees? Think about it.

I had an apple tree in my back yard when I was a kid and I sure never noticed its blossoms. Later, living in my 20s on Manhattan’s upper west side, where the medians were a jungle of pear trees, I remember having the certain knowledge that all the blooms popped open the same night. It was a romantic view and I was a romantic.

Much later, when we lived in the Cabin, we had a magnolia that survived a late winter storm, but one hefty branch fell off, into the marsh below.

It was early spring, the tree was still in bud, and as the weather warmed up, the fallen branch blossomed as generously as the tree itself. It was another kind of romance, the romance of a miracle.

What flowering tree did you see first?

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Take one step

in the desert and you see something astounding. I am parched. I crave liquid, anything, water, iced coffee, beer. Desert plants thrive in the heat of the sun. Without water, they ooze color. Yellow desert marigold, a member of the aster family.

The flame of indian paintbrush.

Or these more delicate desert mallow.

Textures seem improbable, like the flirty catkins of the mesquite.

Or the haunted-house barbs of the fishhook cactus.

The prickly pear, just on the verge of busting out.

Back home on the east coast, so far away, the pretty cherries are in bloom. Daffodils mildly wave their snouts. Forsythia, rich but somehow insipid, you can find it at the edge of all the roads.

Here there is drama.

The blue bell jar of sky covers everything. Magnifies it all. Holds you as if you are pinned, gape-mouthed, in thirst and in awe.

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Gloriousness

It’s kind of murky on this St. Patrick’s Day in the Hudson Valley of New York. Let’s get a little color with a bougainvillea gone haywire:

And a little inspiration from Seneca:

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

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