Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

The first snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) of the season, spotted on a walk the other day

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Everything is all set, the tree is up, the presents spread out underneath it, and I am sitting down with a big pot of tea (rose green tea from Kusmi, one of my current favorites). Wishing everyone very happy holidays!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Tears of a Queen?

My specimen of queen's tears (Billbergia nutans), which I have had for just about a year and which has tripled in size in that time period, is just beginning to bloom again. So far there are three inflorescences, each promising a cascade of green blossoms edged with shimmering peacock blue suspended from an arching stem covered in pale pink bracts.

Queen's tears (Billbergia nutans)

These are fast becoming my favorite bromeliad, although I would also like to have some Aechmea fasciata again like I did as a kid in Germany. Back then I got the offsets from my great-aunts, who all had windowsills full of that species. I very rarely see it in nurseries and florist's shops now and when it does show up the price always seems outrageous for what is often not even a particularly sturdy and well-grown looking plant...

Happy Fourth Advent Sunday!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Flowers for the Season

Two trips to Trader Joe's in the last couple of days each had me returning home with some bargain-priced holiday cheer of the floral variety. Three days ago I came back with a $2.99 poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Today it was a beautiful Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) priced at $9.99 - three weeks ago the fancy florist's shop down the street wanted $29.99 for specimens that were in no way any nicer!

Red poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

 Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

Meanwhile, the forsythia branches I brought back from the Michigan garden to force have begun to open their first buds, over a week ahead of schedule.

Forced forsythia branches blooming

Sometime in the next couple of days I should also go and get a Christmas tree before all the nice ones are gone...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Bit of Inspiration

This summer I came across this brief article - more of a photo essay really - about myriad small yellow flowers appearing in the lawns around the Tomb of Humayun in Delhi during the summer monsoon rains. Somehow the images stuck in the back of my mind; I think it would be a lovely effect to try to recreate in the garden.

City Nature - Yellow Flowers, Humayun's Tomb

The flowers are yellow rain lilies (Zephyranthes citrina). They are native to Mexico and are only supposed to be hardy to zone 7 but I wonder if in a sheltered spot and with some winter protection they might make it here. They certainly seem to be carefree and prolific in climates that agree with them.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Indoor Garden

A little over a year ago I visited a friend in New Orleans. I came back with a bag full of plants and lots of seeds, including several handfuls of Canna indica seeds gathered in the lush, overgrown backyard of the building where she was living at the time. In late winter I planted them in a pot and kept them warm and moist on the window sill along with the other seeds I was sowing. Nothing happened. Everything else germinated, but not the Canna seeds. Eventually, some time in early June, I gave up and threw the contents of the pot onto one of the raised beds. Lo and behold, in late July a little seedling finally appeared between the eggplants. Once it had a few leaves I potted it up and brought it to the balcony, and in October it moved to its winter quarters in the sun room. Shortly afterwards it began to send up further shoots from its expanding rhizome - there are three so far! - and today it opened its first flower. I was expecting the typical orange-red most common in the wild form but instead got a lovely bright yellow with striking red leopard flecks on some of the petals.

My Canna indica seedling blooming for the first time

The sun room is looking nice and lush otherwise as well. Here is a quick look around:

One day I will figure out some elegant way to cover up the space below the plant benches. Maybe I can grow enough trailing plants to curtain at least a good part of it. Then again, their pots would take up a lot of space on the benches themselves...

Winter Jasmine!

As I mentioned a few days ago, I was expecting the branches of winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) I cut at my parents' place in Michigan over Thanksgiving to come into bloom very quickly. Today the first blossoms opened, a rich saturated yellow that ought to drive away any winter gloom.

 Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

One ought to have enough of this plant in the garden to always be able to bring in a few branches for forcing. Generally a pretty carefree plant, it really seems to appreciate lots of water throughout the growing season. The plants in the Michigan garden had never before grown as much or set as many buds as this summer, which was much cooler and wetter than usual.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Happy Second Advent Sunday!

Our somewhat improvised Advent wreath

Thursday, December 4, 2014


December 4 is Barbaratag, the feast day of Saint Barbara, which according to German tradition is the day to bring in branches of flowering trees and shrubs to force into bloom for Christmas. I actually cut mine a few days early when we were at my parents' house in Michigan for Thanksgiving last week. Like last year, I got some big branches from the forsythia hedge, but this year I also cut a small bundle twigs studded with flower buds from the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum).

Forsythia branches... Disregard all the unsightly technology in the background

Twigs of winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

The jasmine is a bit of an experiment, but considering that even outside it will start flowering during mild spells in the middle of winter - in the milder and wetter climate of my childhood hometown in southwestern Germany it produces veritable cascades and curtains of bright yellow for much of the coldest part of the year - I suspect that it will actually begin blooming well before Christmas.

Monday, December 1, 2014

More Saffron!

Today was an unseasonably warm day, and I came home to find a few more blooms in my new saffron bed in an otherwise wintry garden.

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) in the garden today

Also, since in my last saffron post I included an 18th-century Persian-language reference to the saffron crocus from India, here is another text about Crocus sativus and its cultivation from the same time period but a rather different cultural context, namely England:

Saffron culture appears to have been quite important in England during that time. The town of Saffron Walden even got its name from the pretty little spice plant.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy First Advent Sunday!

As long-time readers of this blog might remember, in Germany it is customary to mark the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas by successively lighting the four candles on an Adventskranz or 'Advent wreath', one more on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. My mom likes to be creative with this tradition and comes up with a new arrangement each year - you can check out those of the previous couple of years here, here, here, here, and here.

This year's Adventskranz at my parents' house

Fliegenpilze or fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) are considered symbols of good luck in German culture and are therefore very commonly represented in New Year's Eve decorations and party paraphernalia. To a somewhat lesser degree they also crop up in Christmas ornaments, as illustrated in the ones my mom recently brought from Germany and used in this arrangement.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Blooms Back Home

My parents' house is home to a sizable collection of houseplants, in large part because of my plant-hoarding tendencies. Something is almost always in bloom.

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

Flower close-up

A classic African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha)

An old white florist's cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum cv.) - not an impressive specimen but still returning faithfully each year to bloom through the winter months

The Dendrobium hybrid I recently posted about here

A bougainvillea (Bougainvillea cv.), brought many years ago from a Florida vacation, and flowering well for the first time in years after being repotted into a much larger container early this summer

The weather is supposed to be a bit milder over the weekend, so I will spend some type cleaning up in the garden and properly mulching and covering the more tender perennials and shrubs before returning to Boston. Despite last winter being extraordinarily long and harsh, almost everything in the garden grew beautifully this year, due to abundant rain and mild temperatures, so there is lots of growth and foliage to be cleared - and hopefully a lot of buds set for next year!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fingered Citrons!

The Whole Foods near my parents' place in Michigan - I am back home for Thanksgiving (on the topic of which, watch this if you need a good laugh) - has a whole bunch of beautiful and beautifully fragrant Buddha's hand or fingered citrons (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis):

Fingered citrons (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis)

Of course they were not price-tagged and I had the well-meaning staff of the produce section running around for a good while in trying to figure out what the price of this weird fruit no one else seems to be buying might be. Eventually, it was established to be $4.99 a piece, which was much better than what I had expected

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Some Good, Some Bad

The blog has been neglected this past week or so, in part because I took one of my general exams this past Friday - this one went under the heading of "Indo-Muslim History and Culture" - and in the last days leading up to that pretty much every free minute was spent in frantic attempts to cram more and more information into my brain by reading and re-reading stacks of books and articles. However, this is also the time of year when I often feel as though there is nothing positive to report from the garden. The garden outside has largely gone into hibernation, and between being moved inside and the generally low light levels and short days many of the tender plants in containers appear to be deteriorating noticeably. Then there are the little moments of frustration, like this morning when the last flower bud on my young camellias dropped off just before opening, the tips of a few bright pink petals already showing. There had been five buds between the two plants that had been developing well all summer but in the last two months they dried up and dropped off the plants one after another. The plants are still very small and they seem to be healthy otherwise, so perhaps I will have better luck next year. And of course other flowers will begin to bloom eventually in my little indoor garden - Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera cv.), forced narcissi and maybe some hyacinths, freesias...

Then again, even today there were not just dropping buds and yellowing foliage and the beginnings of infestations of whitefly and spidermites but also a bit of a success, as the very first bloom appeared in my little bed of saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus).

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

Also, for lunch we had, among other things, a lovely bowl of mâche (Valerianella locusta) salad, also from the garden. Mâche is perhaps the most German thing I grow, despite the French name I use for it in English. In Germany it is a very popular salad green in the colder part of the year, and we always wish it was more widely available here. Unsurprisingly, given how common and traditional it is in German-speaking countries, it has many names in German: Feldsalat, Ackersalat, Rapunzel (as in the name of the fairy tale, in which a pregnancy craving for these greens forms a part of the plot), Nüsschen, Nüssli...

 A salad of our home-grown mâche; the dressing is yogurt and lemon juice with some salt and pepper

The cultivation of saffron, incidentally, features prominently in all of the historic Persian-language horticultural texts on which I have been working, not surprisingly perhaps considering that even today Iran is the world's largest saffron producer. The Irshād az-zirā’ah, for example, devotes over two pages to this crop in the modern print edition, significantly more than for most other plants. Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ, too, discusses the saffron crocus in his Mir’āt-ul-Iṣṭilāḥ or "Mirror of Terminology" (1745). Here is what he writes, in the original and my attempt at a translation:

ویران شهر: نام جایی است که در آنجا زعفران به هم می رسد. سلیم گفته

از حال خراب من خبر می گوید
رنگم که چو زعفران ویران شهری است

معلوم باد که به هندوستان زعفران همین به شهر کشمیر پیدا می شود و به مملکتهای دیگراز آنجا به تحفگی برند. اگرچه راقم اوراق به کشمیر نرفته ام، لیکن گل زعفران سیر کرده ام. چه ناظم کشمیر در چمنهای چوبی بته های زعفران نشانده، برای نواب صاحب وزیر الممالک اعتماد الدوله (چین بهادر) مرسل داشته بود و بعد رسیدن به شاهجهانآباد به موسم خود گل کرد. رنگ گلش بنفش بود و ریشه های زردی داشت که زعفران عبارت از آن است. آصفی گوید

کبودی رخ زردم ز سنگ اغیار است
تو را خیال که گل کرده زعفرانزار است

گویند چون آصفی وزیرزاده بود، این مطلع گفت، بنا بر نازکی معنی تا سه روز نقاره شادی نواخت

Vīrānshahr [possibly a locality in what is now the far northwest of Iran]: This is the name of a place where saffron is found. Salīm has said,

My color, which is like saffron from Vīrānshahr, 
Tells of my distraught condition.

May it be known that that in India saffron is found in the region of Kashmir and is sent to the other kingdoms from there as a gift. Although the compiler of these pages has not gone to Kashmir, I have seen the saffron flower. For the governor of Kashmir planted saffron clumps in wooden containers and sent them to Navāb Ṣāḥib Vazīr ul-mamālik I'timād ud-daulah (Chain Bahādur) and after arriving in Shāhjahānābād [Delhi] they flowered in their proper season. The color of its flower is violet and it has a yellow stigmas which are what is properly called saffron. Āṣafī says,

The purple bruising of my pale, yellowish face is from the stones of rivals
To you it appears like a saffron field in bloom.

They say that since Āṣafī was the son of a minister, when he recited this opening couplet due to its delicacy of meaning the drums of celebration were beat for three days.

Maybe next fall my saffron crocuses will bloom a bit earlier and there will be enough flowers to clothe the saffron bed in purple in such a way as once allowed that clever poet to make that startling comparison between a blossoming saffron field and a purplish bruise on pallid skin.


Mukhli, Ānand Rām. Mir’āt-ul-Iṣṭilāḥ. Prakashika Series. Delhi: National Mission for Manuscripts, 2013.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Bit of Floral Decadence

This luxuriant bouquet currently holds pride of place in the display window of a small shop for antiques and decorative items near our place:

Rather out of season, with all those roses and tulips, but oh-so-sumptuous

Similarly fancy flower arrangements frequently make an appearance in that window; I remember one week there was a large bouquet positively spilling over with pure yellow gloriosa lilies, and at one point in spring almost the entire window was filled by large branches full of fluffy double pink cherry blossoms.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Late Fall Gold

I tidied up the raised beds in the garden downstairs today. Much of the summer's growth was ready to be cut down and cut up for the compost pile but the pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis 'Resina') are still lovely, clearly relishing the moisture and cool temperatures, and the 'Tashkent' French marigolds (Tagetes patula 'Tashkent') are still holding on valiantly.

Calendula officinalis 'Resina'

Tagetes patula 'Tashkent'

Now if only the weather could stay mild and sunny as it was today, instead of getting ever colder...

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Poetic Talk of Prosaic Things

Among the vast corpus of poetry in the Urdu language, there is an often overlooked genre known as Rekh in which male poets took on female voices and addressed matters thought to pertain specifically to the world of women. Flourishing from the late 18th century onwards, Rekh has somewhat of a voyeuristic quality and much of it was certainly meant primarily to titillate male audiences with its imaginative portrayals of women's spaces and their private thoughts and feelings, though to the credit of the poets it ought to be pointed out that their depictions are often quite nuanced and deeply sympathetic to women's concerns, and that they do not shy away from using the female voice to ridicule stereotypical male behaviors. Same-sex romantic and sexual relationships between women also feature prominently in much of this poetry - as does romance between men in the more mainstream Urdu poetry in the male voice - and needless to say, British colonial scholarship and the heavily Victorian South Asian literary establishment of the 19th and early 20th century that it spawned abhorred this kind of poetry and effectively excised it from the canon. The male beloved in poems with a male speaker, though uncomfortable for the homophobic codifiers of Urdu literary history, could be explained away by declaring him entirely a symbolic representation of the divine, since Urdu poetry, like the classical Persian poetry from which it inherited many of its forms and tropes, often plays with an ambiguity between earthly love for a human beloved and a spiritual quest for union with the divine. Rekh, with its emphatically feminine speaker and often similarly unambiguously earthy objects of desire, both male and female, did not really allow for such a maneuver. To be fair, Rekhtī poems can be very sassy as well as quite bawdy, as illustrated by this verse by the later Rekhtī poet Mīr Yār 'Alī Khān Jān Ṣāhib (1810-1873), given here in the original Urdu, a Roman transliteration, and my attempt at a translation:

ہمیشہ سے نہیں کچھ مرد کی رنڈی کو خواہش  ہے
مری نارنگیوں سے آپ کا بہتر نہیں کیلا

Hamesha se nahīṉ kuch mard kī ranḍī ko khwāhish hai
Merī nārangiyoṉ se āp kā behtar nahīṉ kelā

A woman does not always wish for some man
Your banana is not better than my oranges

Why, you may now be asking, do I write about this poetry here, on a blog ostensibly about garden- and plant-related matters? Well, apart from the fact that I think it is cool and much of it quite beautiful and that I deal with this poetry as part of my research, its focus on the realm of female experience means that it makes much more extensive, detailed, and realistic references to the material culture of 18th- and 19th-century northern India than the more well-known genres of classical Urdu poetry that import much of their imagery from the established catalog of Persian poetry. As a result, there are glimpses of Indian vegetation and garden practices of a rather different sort than those found elsewhere - note the banana in the naughty line above! This is borne out well in the Rekh poems of one of my favorite Urdu poets, Inshā' Allah Khān Inshā (1756-1817), known more today for his prose Rānī Ketakī kī Kahānī or "The Story of Queen Ketakī" and for the first study and grammar of the Urdu language, entitled Daryā-i Laāfat or "Ocean of Pleasantness". Once again referencing bananas, but this time the plant and not just the fruit, he writes:

جاکے کیلوں میں چھپو سب سے اکیلے ہوکر
تاڑ لے کوئی تو تن جائیو کیلے ہوکر

Jāke keloṉ meiṉ chipo sab se akele hokar
ṛ le ko'ī to tan jā'iyo kele hokar

Go and hide among the banana plants, alone from everyone
Should someone notice stand still and straight and become like the bananas

In another set of couplets, we get an idea of domestic vegetable gardening, alongside the emotional drama:

آگ لینے کو جو آئیں  تو کہیں آگ لگا
بی بی ہمسائی نے دی جی میں مرے آگ لگا 
نہ برا مانے  تو یوں نوچ کوئی مٹھی بھر
بیگما  تیری کیاری میں نیا ساگ لگا

Āg lene ko jo ā'īṉ to kahīṉ āg lagā
Bī bī hamsā'ī ne dī jī meiṉ mere āg lagā
Na burā māne to yūṉ noc ko'ī muṭhī bhar
Begamā terī kiyārī meiṉ nayā sāg lagā

When she came to get fire somewhere else caught fire
The neighbor lady has set fire to my heart
"If you do not mind, may I just take a few handfuls?
Madam, new greens have sprouted in your plot"

Yet another verse has a flower - or is it a girl named after the flower? - talking to the garden bed, the kiyārī, itself: 

 بولی  نرگس کی جو کیاری  میں نہ دیکھا پانی
ہے ہماری طرح تجھ کو بھی کیاری روزہ

Bolī nargis kī jo kiyārī meiṉ na dekhā pānī
Hai hamārī t̤araḥ tujh ko bhī kiyārī roza

Said the narcissus when it saw no water in the garden bed:
"Like us, you too, garden bed, are fasting"

In another poem by Inshā's friend and contemporary Sa'ādat Yār Khān Rangīn (1758-1835) the play on the names of flowers doubling as women's given names is sustained with a veritable list of plants, at least most of which are also names. He includes ketakī (Pandanus odorifer) - the name of the queen in Inshā's famous tale! - and campā (Magnolia champaca), nargis (Narcissus sp.), cambelī (Jasminum grandiflorum), mogrā (Jasminum sambac 'Grand Duke of Tuscany'), gendā (Tagetes erecta), and basantī (yellow spring blossoms, such as those of the mustard plants Sinapis alba and Brassica juncea). 

There were - and are - female poets in Urdu as well, of course, though prior to the 20th century they tended to write in poetic voices that were at least grammatically masculine, and with much the same stock of tropes and the same ambiguous beloveds - is it a girl? is it a guy? is it God? - as what has come to be thought of as the mainstream of Urdu poetry. Inshā, incidentally, liked to both play with and subvert these ambiguities not just in his Rekh but also when waxing poetic in the male voice, dropping a sassy couplet here or there that makes it abundantly clear that in this instance he is talking about human love, and what the gender of the object of desire is. Thus he writes,

جان نکلے ہے او میاں دے ڈال
آج وعدہ نہ ٹال بوسے کا

Jān nikle hai o miyāṉ de ḍāl
Āj va'da na ṭāl bose kā

My life is leaving me, o mister, give me one
Today do not go back on your promise of a kiss

And elsewhere he takes a guy too defensive of his masculinity down a notch with a healthy dose of humor about himself:

گر نازنیں کے کہنے سے مانا برا ہو کچھ
میری طرف کو دیکھیے میں نازنیں سہی

Gar nāznīṉ ke kehne se mānā burā ho kuch
Merī t̤araf ko dekhiye maiṉ nāznīṉ sahī

If some offense be taken at being called "sweetheart" 
Look in my direction - I am definitely a sweetheart 


Argalī, Fārūq, m. Reḵẖtī : Urdū ke nāmvar reḵẖtī go shāʻiroṉ ke kalām kā mukammal majmūʻah. New Delhi : Farīd Buk ḍipo, 2006.

Monday, November 3, 2014


I planted two varieties of tulip this fall, Tulipa acuminata and Tulipa 'Elegans Rubra', both historic lily-flowered - or even dagger-petaled - varieties of uncertain origin. They are supposedly about as close to the Istanbul tulips popular in the Ottoman Empire during the 18th century as any tulips available today. Maybe they are even survivors from that very age, as postulated in the Old House Gardens catalog. Based on the pictures available online, both do look quite a bit like some of the tulips featured in an Ottoman florilegium known as the Lale Mecmuası or "Tulip Album". 'Rubra Elegans', for instance, seems to come quite close to this beauty:

It would be wonderful if by some happy accident some of these historic varieties, all presumed lost, were in fact recovered somewhere. If they were half as pretty in real life as their painted representations than as far as I am concerned they would really give most modern tulip cultivars a run for their money.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Last Hurrah

My two China roses - 'Old Blush' and 'Slater's Crimson China' - are still flowering beautifully, even as the fall leaves accumulate around them on the balcony.

'Old Blush'

'Slater's Crimson China'

'Old Blush' again

Also... Happy Halloween! Not my favorite holiday - never been a fan of dressing up or decorations that purposefully try to be ugly, though I do love pumpkins - but I hope everyone is having lots of fun with their costumes and candy!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New Beginnings

As almost all vegetation outside is declining, inside some plants' growth cycle is just beginning. About a week ago I repotted last winter's freesia bulbs that had spent the whole summer tucked away in a corner of the back stairwell in some dry potting soil in a clay pot. They began sprouting with impressive speed, much more quickly than last fall.

The freesias (Freesia cv.) sprouting in the sunroom

We will see how they will do this year; last winter they flowered well but then developed a horrible spider mite infestation which persisted as long as the foliage remained and probably rather reduced the reserves that the little bulbs were able to store up for this season.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Settling in for Winter

Earlier this week I moved all the tender container plants inside. All that is left on the balcony now are the roses, a bigleaf hydrangea, and a few perennials, namely Hosta plantaginea and Petasites japonicus var. giganteus. All of these are normally hardy here, but seeing as they are in containers on a second-floor balcony I might bring them inside and put them in a cold, dark corner for the coldest part of winter just to be on the safe side. The sunroom, meanwhile, looks lusher than ever.

The sunroom the other day - when there was sunshine, rather than yesterday and today's gloomy darkness and torrential rain

On a separate note, happy Deepavali/Diwali everyone! दीपावली की हार्दिक शुभकामनाएँ!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cactus Surprise

Since last winter I have had an Epiphyllum specimen which I took to be a Dutchman's pipe or queen of the night epiphyllum (Epiphyllum oxypetalum), associated in much of South and Southeast Asia with a popular fairy tale about a prince, a fairy named Bakāvalī, and the fairy's magic flower with healing powers - in Malay it is even known as bunga bakawali or "Bakawali flower"! Tonight my plant's first bloom opened, and it has turned out to not be Epiphyllum oxypetalum at all but Epiphyllum strictum, very similar but with spidery flowers of even purer white.

Epiphyllum strictum

The flower has a spicy, grassy fragrance that carries quite far. I am very pleased with it. Though of course now I will also have to get a real Epiphyllum oxypetalum.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Last-Minute Success

Today may well have been the last really mild day of the year - temperatures are predicted to plummet tomorrow - and this morning when I looked out the kitchen window, I discovered a single beautiful bloom on the little moonflower (Ipomoea alba) that has been growing slowly and modestly all summer.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)

This may well turn out not just the first but also the last flower this specimen manages to produce but it really was gorgeous. I wonder if there is some trick to getting these to flower earlier, or whether it is just a matter of getting them plenty of heat and sunshine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yet Another Language and More Historic Texts

Like Sanskrit, Arabic has a sizable corpus of premodern texts dealing with agriculture and horticulture, beginning with the Nabatean Agriculture (الفلاحة النبطية  Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah)  produced in the early 10th century by the Iraqi Ibn Waḥshīyah, supposedly as a translation from Syriac. They have been studied much more extensively than their Sanskrit counterparts, especially the subset of gardening manuals that were written by medieval Arabic-speaking agronomists in what is now southern Spain. There is even a cool project focusing entirely on the extant collection of historic Arabic garden writing and the existing scholarship about it:

Have a look - there is a lot of fascinating stuff there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Fruit of Beautiful Trees

Today was the final day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, named for the hut - Hebrew סוכה sukkah, plural סוכות sukkot - that families traditionally put up for the duration of the holiday in commemoration of the temporary shelters used by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt and later on during the seven-day pilgrimage of the holiday itself. However, Sukkot also incorporates aspects of a harvest festival, and one of its characteristic elements is the use of what is known as the ארבעת המיניםarba'at ha-minim  or "four species," namely a fruit of the אתרוג etrog or citron (Citrus medica), a green, closed frond of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), a leafy bough of myrtle (Myrtus communis), and a leafy willow branch (Salix sp.). This is based on the following lines in the Bible's Book of Leviticus, unfortunately often known primarily for its draconian injunctions regarding human sexual behavior and cited all too often in the name of bigotry:

On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:40)

The vague "product of hadar trees" of this translation is more traditionally read as "the fruit of beautiful trees" and taken to mean the etrog, which itself has quite an interesting history and set of associated traditions.

Festtag (Rabbiner mit Zitrone) by Marc Chagall, 1914

Interestingly, the Book of Nehemia later on in the Bible has a slightly different interpretation of the "four species":

They found written in the Teaching that the LORD had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, "Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written." (Nehemia 8:14-15)

Some of those identifications are again uncertain; in any case, this later version of the list - a variant reading of the passage in Leviticus? - somehow did not become entrenched as tradition.


Berlin, Adele, and Marc Brettler, ed. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2014

Things are largely winding down in the garden so pickings are a bit slim for this month - I must make an effort to plant fall-blooming bulbs and perennials next year! - but the marigolds are still going strong. Moreover, their warm oranges, yellows, and reddish browns suit the season perfectly.

Tall African marigolds (Tagetes erecta)

Spontaneous color variation in 'Tashkent' French marigolds (Tagetes patula)

Luckily, quite a few things should be gearing up to flower indoors in the coming months. And I have been buying bulbs for forcing, and I am sure there will be the occasional spur-of-the-moment flowering house plant acquisition as well.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

From My School Readings

The texts I study for my academic research include a genre of Sanskrit texts on the topic of Vṛkṣāyurveda, literally "knowledge of the life span of trees" but more generally to be understood as "horticulture". Large parts of these texts, which are mostly in verse, deal with the minutiae of how to best plant different trees, fertilizer recipes, techniques for warding off and destroying insect pests, and the like. Occasionally, however, they take a step back from such practical matters to touch upon more aesthetic concerns and to ponder the importance of gardens and gardening more generally. In this vein, the following verse opens the first section of two vṛkṣāyurveda texts, the Vṛkṣāyurveda of Surapāla presumably written in 12th-century Bengal and the Upavanavinoda or "enjoyment of pleasure groves" section of the Śārṅgadharapaddhati, an encyclopedia produced in the 14th century in the Central Indian region of Bundelkhand:

पुंसां सर्वसुखैकसाधनकराः सौन्दर्यगर्वोद्धुर-
क्रीडालोलविलासिनीजनमनः स्फीतप्रमोदावहाः ।
युक्ताः सन्ति गृहेषु यस्य विपुलारामाः स पृथ्वीपतिः ।।

puṃsāṃ sarvasukhaikasādhanakarāḥ saundaryagarvoddhura-
krīḍālolavilāsinījanamanaḥ sphītapramodāvahā
yuktāḥ santi gṛheṣu yasya vipulārāmāḥ sa pṛthvīpati

He is the lord of the earth in whose abode there are spacious gardens,
Endowed with wide, gleaming ponds with an abundance of lotuses opened by buzzing bumblebees,
Which provide the means of men's greatest delight
In the manner of beautiful women thrilling in amorous play, unrestrained in pride in their beauty, flourishing and bringing joy.

 Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) at a nursery in Michigan

Another endearing - if much less polished - verse from a shorter treatise rather prosaically entitled Vṛkṣādīnāṃ ropaṇādiprakaraṇa or "the method of planting, etc., of trees and more" takes a somewhat sassier tone:

न खाताः पुष्करिण्यो ऽपि रोपिता न महीरुहाः ।
मातुर्यौवनचौरेण तेन जातेन किं कृतम् ।।

na khātāḥ puṣkariṇyo 'pi ropitā na mahīruhā
māturyauvanacaurena tena jātena kiṃ kṛtam

What is achieved by the birth of a child that robs the mother's youth
(But) by whom no lotus pools are dug nor even any trees planted?

Clearly these texts are trying to make a claim for the importance of horticulture that goes well beyond the merely practical to include moral or ethical notions and a particular vision of earthly success and accomplishment. Grand gardens are a prerequisite of kingship - or, more generally perhaps, of elite social status - but they are also "the means of men's greatest delight" and thereby that which makes such good fortune truly enjoyable. A life entirely devoid of gardening, on the other hand, is envisioned as a waste not only of that individual's time but of the self-sacrifice made by the person's mother in giving birth to and raising him or her.


Gopal, Lallanji. Vṛkṣāyurveda in Ancient India (with Original Texts and Translation). New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 2000. 

Śārṅgadhara. Upavanavinodaḥ. Girija Prasanna Majumdar, ed. and trans. Calcutta: Indian Research Institute, 1935.

 ———.  Upavanavinodaḥ. Kṣṇānandajhā-viracitayā Śyamalayā Hindīvyākhyayopetaḥ. Darbhaṅgā: Kāmeśvarasiṃha Darabhaṅgā Saṃskr̥ta Viśvavidyālayaḥ, 1984.

Sureśvara. Vṛkṣāyurveda: Das Wissen von der Lebensspanne der Bäume. Rahul Peter Das, ed. and trans. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1988.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Unexpected Orchid

Yesterday morning my mom said she would send me some pictures of an orchid that had started blooming in my room at the house in Michigan. I was expecting it to be some kind of Phalaenopsis or allied hybrid, of which there have always been a few somewhere in my collection of houseplants. I was surprised, then, when the pictures came and the blooming orchid was in fact a Dendrobium hybrid which I had bought at Trader Joe's when I was still in high school and which had not flowered in many years.

The Dendrobium in question, against the background of my parents' Mid-Century Modern sitting room

This makes me wonder what triggered it to bloom after all these years. For the one other Dendrobium that I had owned before this back in Germany, the trick appeared to be a noticeable difference between night and day temperatures during the summer, best achieved by putting the plant in a sheltered place outdoors. I wonder if a change in temperatures was involved here as well.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Other People's Flowers

There is a garden near our place that is a stunning riot of color from early spring through late fall, with a different set of flowers predominating in each season. I usually make a detour on my way home from work every couple of days, just to track the changes. Spring, for instance, sees huge masses of tulips, daffodils, and other spring-flowering bulbs, followed by tree and herbaceous peonies and rhododendrons. From late summer through fall, tall dahlias are the stars of the show, interspersed with various other late flowering annuals and perennials.

Many gardens around town are  quite manicured and there is no shortage of creative design either, but hardly any have such diverse and labor-intensive plantings all through the seasons.