…offerings of flowers
are pleasing to the gods.
They loathe those who come before them
With uncrowned heads.
–Sappho, Greek, 6th century BCE
…offerings of flowers
are pleasing to the gods.
They loathe those who come before them
With uncrowned heads.
–Sappho, Greek, 6th century BCE
P ink lace with frills is stylish in Spring
E levating all around to grandeur
O pening soft petals in continuity
N ever remember snowy days in February
Y ellowing petals under the summer sun’s heart.
–Nell Geiser, 1998
The first peonies have opened. Bright pink and bosomy. There are others to come: more pinks (the classics), the deep red Philippe Rivoire, a white, and a yellow hybrid.
Peonies – Paeonia — are native to Southern Europe, Asia and Western North America. In Colorado, in the Rockies, there’s a town named for them. And throughout the U.S. — perhaps elsewhere, too — they are the flower most often laid on graves on Memorial Day.
In Asia, the peony is considered the flower of longevity and indeed they are long-lived, and can easily outlive the gardener. In the second year after planting, they are likely to show one blossom. The next year, two. The next three, and so on. The crones of the flower world, gorgeous floral hags (or hagiographers), peonies keep time and therefore history. Some folk believe that if the plant displays an odd number of flowers, there will surely be a death in the house before the year is out.
Among certain pagans, peony’s magic powers are protection and exorcism. When the flower is worn, it guards the body and soul. In the home they not only make beautiful arrangements, but ward off evil spirits. The root is used to cure lunacy and is sometimes a substitute for mandrake in casting spells, though unlike the mandrake, peony does not – to anyone’s knowledge – cry out in pain when it’s dug up. A necklace of peony root, if worn by children, will prevent convulsions.
Coming soon: the Japanese tale of Princess Aya and the peony.
The world is running out of peat moss. Horticulture is largely to blame. Peat moss is the partially decomposed remains of formerly living sphagnum moss from bogs. It purifies air and mitigates flood damage. They are among the myriad wetlands that are under threat. The Netherlands once had large areas of peat. And they are diminishing, damaged or destroyed, at an astonishing rate in Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand.
Ken Druse writes on Garden Rant — http://gardenrant.com/2009/04/ken-druse-dishes-the-dirt-about-peat-moss.html — that “because peat moss is nearly impossible to re-wet once it’s dried, it repels water and makes terrible surface mulch. The biggest problem with peat moss is that it’s environmentally bankrupt.
“Peat moss is mined, which involves scraping off the top layer of living sphagnum moss. The sphagnum peat bog above the mined product is a habitat for plants like sundews, butterwort and bog rosemary, as well as rare and endangered animals like dragonflies, frogs and birds, not to mention the living moss itself. Despite manufacturers’ claims that the bogs are easy to restore, the delicate community that inhabits the bog cannot be quickly re-established. Yes, peat moss is a renewable resource, but it can take hundreds to thousands of years to form.”
Druse – a garden podcaster whose work can be found at http://www.kendruse.typepad.com/ — goes on to give a strong, convincing argument about why it is imperative that we give up using peat in our gardens.
Recently, I heard from my friend Andrew that there is a possibly perfect alternative, one that is endlessly and quickly renewable: sheep’s wool. This is exciting news. Check out Herdwick wool compost at http://www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk/latest-news/news/2014/5/ewe-nique-herdwick-wool-compost-launched-at-rhs-chelsea-flower-show.aspx. If it works well enough to put the peat mines out of business, let’s hope it will soon be available to US, as well as UK gardeners.
This blog is not meant to be a how-to, but to be about lore. I can find very little about peat moss, so far, although it was once burned in fireplaces and there are all kinds of otherworldly beings with names like bogy, bogey-beast, boggle-boos, bogies, and more (no bloggies or blogey-beasts), and if we speculate wildly, we could imagine their geneses are the mysterious moss and peatlands.
And what of the bog people? What are the true stories of those ancient bodies discovered almost perfectly preserved in the peat bogs of Scandinavia? Why were they there? Were these ritual deaths? The burial grounds for supernatural creatures or space aliens?
Of the bog folk, so-called Tollund Man is the best preserved from the 4th century BCE and looks for all the world like a peacefully napping Charleton Heston.
The Oriental poppies are coming on as we reach Memorial Day. Since the 19th century, poppies of all kinds have been associated in Europe and North America with war and those who died in battle. The seeds sit dormant for years, then sprout when the soil is disrupted. The association of poppies with heroic death probably started with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when red poppies appeared after the bloody field was plowed.
Lettuce, lactos, galaxy, opium are among the words that mean milk. Squeeze the center of a lettuce and it will exude the same white juice as the poppy stem (thus causing many a salad eater to flunk a drugs test).
Dry the poppy juice and you have opium. In Afghanistan — where before the 1979 Soviet invasion, smoking opium was largely a weekend recreation, rather than a full-time addiction — it’s said that if you make a tea from the seed hull it will strip you of the burning desire for more.
My Oriental poppies are mostly traditional, bright orange, explosive, intense. Over the years I’ve added reds, magentas, pale pinks and an exquisite coral-colored variation. Cauterize the stem before putting them in a vase … even so, the fragile, extravagantly hued tissue-like petals will fall within a day or two at the most.
My grandmother and I made poppy dolls, little ballerinas and princesses, contrived by turning the flower inside out, using the split stalks for arms and legs, tying grass around the dolly’s “waist,” and drawing a face on the seed box with a pin. I made a house for them under a boxwood, with furniture fashioned of leaves, pebbles, and acorns.
In Ireland and England, poppies are sometimes called “headaches,” probably because of the flower’s reputation as a soporific and the hangover afterward. Picking poppies was also said to cause blindness, earache, and nosebleeds. It was considered particularly bad for unmarried women to touch them. Perhaps the belief has something to do with their vulnerability to the aggressive desires of men, and is related to old customs of abducting brides.
And remember how, in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West causes poppies to materialize on Dorothy’s path, so she and her allies fall asleep, giving the nasty winged monkeys the opportunity to carry her away to the Witch’s castle.
Persephone, on her way to becoming Goddess of the Underworld, was drawn one morning to poppies planted by Hades to attract her. As she plucked them, he rose from underground and stole her away.
In one variation of the tale, the poppy was created by Somnus, Greek God of Sleep, to help Persephone’s mother Demeter rest and forget after the fervent, disappointing search for her daughter. And when she awoke, soothed and refreshed, the crops began again to sprout. Thus many European farmers believed poppies in the field were essential for the well-being of the grain.
My friend Nan’s daughter Rose Anna lives up to her name, winning prizes at rose competitions. Her latest was for a Gloire de Dijon. I love the mustard, and the city of Dijon on the Cote d’Or in Burgundy is ancient and stately. But I had never heard of the rose. Its crumpled layers are breathtaking, glory indeed.
Bees are considered the wisest, most intelligent of insects. The goddess Demeter was known as “the pure mother bee,” and her priestesses were also called bees, Melissae, named for the nymph Melissa who first brought humans honey. Actual bees were thought to be the departed souls of the Melissae.
There are many variations on the Melissa story. Most tell how she saved the life of baby Zeus, bringing him to strength and health by feeding him honey, so that he could survive the wrath of his father Cronus, who had an appetite for his progeny. In revenge, Cronus turned Melissa into an earthworm, but Zeus stepped in and transformed her into a beautiful bee.
Strange that I have never seen a bee on the Melissa in my garden.
There is such pleasure in weeding Melissa, also called lemon balm. It is pretty-but-plain, spreads almost as quickly as mint — say at the pace of oregano — but it is such a joy to pull, its scent so divine (not quite as strong as lemon verbena), that I simply let it go.
Melissa is said to be an anti-depressant and although the tea is bland with none of the glorious fragrance of the live plant, drinking it will nonetheless soothes a troubled heart. After weeding the lemon balm, rubbing it in my palms and on my arms, I wash a handful and stuff it in a glass gallon jar with water to make sun tea.
The leaves can also be used in all kinds of salads. Or you can make Melissa wine (40 lbs of sugar dissolved in 9 gallons water, let cool, pour over 3 pounds of lemon balm and a pinch or two or new yeast. Let it stand open for 24 hours, then cover and allow to ferment for at least 6 weeks before bottling. Improves with age.)
Melissa is an insect repellent. All but bees will stay clear of it. Put a bouquet on the table and the flies will avoid landing on your supper. Beekeepers once rubbed lemon balm inside a hive to entice a new swarm to stay. And Pliny believed that lemon balm in or near the hive helped bees find their way home.
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
and falling they are given wings.
My mother quoted that verse of Isaac Watts’ poem repeatedly as a reminder to us that hard work has its rewards. The bee, like the ant, has always been an emblem of exertion, productivity, planning, and organization.
I saw my first honeybee of the year a few days ago. There was a time when I could walk into my garden and be deafened by the chorus of buzzing. Then came a silent summer when there were no bees at all. They’d been devastated by a killer mite. The following year, a new breed arrived, little hard-backed things, almost mean, defensive, as strangers can be when they aren’t sure where or how welcome they are.
Honeybees are liminal creatures, as if they are partially domesticated. “My” bees have always been friendly. They never sting unless I step on them or accidentally grab them when I reach for a flower (mud quickly applied to the wound is the best remedy). The tough new little bees eventually learned that there is no threat.
Now several kinds of bees have come back to the garden, partly thanks to local beekeepers. Each year we get a few of the massive “humble bee,” as the bumble bee was once called. Still, the clamorous chorus is not restored; the bees’ numbers are nothing like they used to be. Worldwide, bees are dwindling at an alarming rate. And because of their devastation, I grow as much as possible that will attract them, feed them, help them return to health and to thrive.
Russian sage is especially popular.
Bees are increasingly vulnerable to bad weather and everywhere besieged by pesticides. What will happen when they’re gone? In China, apple and pear farrmers are now pollinating their trees by hand. About 75 percent of all flora require pollination by bees and sometimes by butterflies, birds, bats, and even flies. We can’t survive without bees and yet they are disappearing.
Springs, streams, creeks, and freshets are under the care of the goddess-saint Brigit. The Well of Brigit in Fouchart, Ireland, among others, is a place of eternal magic and ceremony, where folk hang rags and leave gifts.
Of the thousands of holy wells in Britain and Ireland, only a few survive, the ancestors of today’s wishing wells. Most have been plowed, planted, or neglected. Nevertheless, well worship is by no means extinct. There continue to be well-dressing ceremonies, where bowers of flowers, rushes and other greenery are proffered annually, as at Tissington (see Holy Wells #1). Offerings are often simple and spontaneous, single tokens from passersby. The joke’s on anyone who steals a well offering: the thief merely adopts the trials and tribulations of the one who left it.
Today, we “take the waters” hoping to discard our distresses, mental and physical. There have always been spas, but some were once holy wells, where curative miracles or an appearance by a saint-goddess may have occurred.
Among the most famous of the healing waters in Europe is the grotto at Lourdes, France. Saint Winefred’s Well at Holywell in Wales is much visited since she was beheaded in the Middle Ages by evil Prince Cardoc for refusing his advances. Where her head fell, waters gushed from the Earth.
The White Lady is still seen ascending from holy wells. The story of Winefred—whose name is related to Guenevere and apparently means White Goddess, White Shadow, or White Wave—may be a Christian mutation of an older tale.
In Christianized Arthurian tales, the Lady of the Lake is none other than a latter-day White Lady of Waters, perhaps Brigit herself. The Lady of the Lake guards Arthur’s mighty sword, Excalibur, just as Brigit was matron of blacksmiths and iron.
Water and smithing went together as well in ancient Greece, for it was under the water that the Greek smith god Hephaestus had his first forge, built for him by his foster mother, Amphitrite, goddess of the sea and storms.