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.