Monday, May 19, 2014

On Plants that Have Gone Out of Style

From The New York Times comes this interesting article on garden plants and how they are subject to trends:

 You're Planting That Old Thing?

An interesting read and I very much agree with much of what it says. While I certainly buy things at the big box stores, the very limited assortment of plants they usually offer and that consequently shows up in almost every yard - think Knock-Out roses and Bradford pears - is really rather pathetic and without much charm in comparison to all the wonderful plant material that is out there and of which most people are barely aware.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nerdy Fun, or, What I Am Studying for My Exams

As I mentioned in my last post, I have spent most of my time studying for two big exams, the first of which I took on Friday and the second of which is scheduled for tomorrow morning. These lengthy tests are two of the four "general" or "qualifying" exams that I have to take as part of my PhD program, with each of the four focusing on a different area of knowledge and scholarship relevant to my dissertation project and my academic discipline more generally. Friday's exam was about Urdu and Hindi language and literature and included, amongst other things, questions about and translations from the Urdu novel Umrāʼo Jān Adā, which I previously blogged about here. Tomorrow's examination is similarly supposed to test my knowledge of Persian (Farsi/Dari) language and literature. Apart from the great classics - think Sa'dī and Ḥāfiẓ - I have been studying various historic Persian-language horticultural texts. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the  Irshād az-zirā’ah or "Direction of Agriculture" (though the term zirā'ah or zirā'at really tends to encompass all plant cultivation, including that of garden ornamentals) written in 1515 in the city of Herat in what is now Afghanistan by one  Qāsim ibn Yūsuf Abū Naṣrī Haravī. It is an intriguing and at times enigmatic text which combines literary aspirations - a lengthy introduction in ornate prose and verse, poetry scattered throughout the text, Arabic quotations - with loads of practical instruction and advice that is often presented in terse, formulaic language. The pharmacological properties of each plant according to a system ultimately derived from ancient Greek medicine - Galen is cited repeatedly - are indicated, and there are recipes for making jams and preserves, rose water, vinegar, and other garden-related products. The brief eighth and last chapter of the book is a detailed description of a layout and planting plan for a model pleasure garden. This last chapter, though it is not included in all manuscripts and edited versions of the text, has received a bit of attention from contemporary scholars, who have sought to mine it for information on the stylistic development of gardens in Timurid Central Asia and its successor formations, such as the Mughal Empire in South Asia. 

Morning glories (Ipomoea sp.) blooming in a Cambridge frontyard during a previous summer

To illustrate the general style of this work, here is the entry on morning glories (Ipomoea sp.) from the section on flowers, first in the original Persian and then in my attempt at a translation:


نیلوفر - سرد و تر است، خواب آورد، باد را مضر است، مصلح وی گلقند


از عمر کم خویش شده نیلوفر آگاه
زان جامه کبود آمده کز ماتمیان است

از سفید ورسمی، بذر آن را یک روز در آب نموده در حمل کارند وچون سبز شود بر چفت میرود بواجبی خبردار باشند و رسیدن آن در جوزاست و گل آن از صبح تا چاشتگاه است

Morning Glory

Morning glory - it is cool(ing) and moist, brings sleep, and is harmful to the respiration; its antidote is preserve of roses.


The morning glory has become aware of her short life-span
Thus she wears dark blue clothes, for she is one of the mourners

It comes in white and the regular (i.e. dark blue) kind; its seeds are planted in Aries after having been soaked in water for one day and when it germinates and grows it climbs on a trellis. It is looked after as necessary and comes into bloom in Gemini and its flowers open from morning until late breakfast/early lunch time.

Notice the use of the names of the signs of the zodiac for months, instead of the months of the Persian solar calendar or the Islamic lunar one; apparently this is typical of the region of Khurāsān in what is now northeastern Iran and western Afghanistan. The Persian name for morning glory used here, nīlufar, derives from the Sanskrit nīlotpala which originally described a blue waterlily like Nymphaea caerulea or Nymphaea nouchali. The name was presumably transferred to morning glories in the Iranian and Central Asian context because of the similar color. It continues to be used for waterlilies in South Asian usage as well in Arabic.

Haravī, Qāsim ibn Yūsuf Abū Naṣrī. Irshād az-zirā’ah. Tihrān: Dānishgāh-i Tihrān, 1967 (1515).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day May 2014

I am back in Massachusetts and have been busy studying for two important exams which I am to take tomorrow and on Monday. During my breaks from studying I have largely been gardening rather than blogging about gardening, it being spring and all. I am afraid I do not have terribly much to show for it, since it has largely been a matter of potting things up and setting out as-yet inconspicuous seedlings of vegetables and annuals. There are, however, a few pretty blooms on the balcony and in the partly communal garden downstairs, so here we go:

Pansies on the balcony - this variety has not shown itself to be particularly floriferous so far, put I love the colors and pattering of the flowers

Some white lilac - the same hedge also has two purple varieties, one single and one double

A particularly intense tulip in the frontyard

Now if something comes of my study-break labors, there should be much more to show in coming months:

The raised beds downstairs, freshly planted and seeded

Seedlings on the balcony still waiting to be potted up or to find a place in the garden

Now I am going to go study some more but I promise I will be back soon with more and more exciting garden-related matters!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Back in Michigan

This past winter has been particularly long and hard throughout much of North America but I had not quite grasped how harsh it had been here at my parents' place in Michigan until I realized that the flower buds had frozen off most of the fruit trees and flowering shrubs - though not any of the magnolias. However, the peaches, apricot, and plum in our garden are sprouting only leaves, despite being thick with flower buds in the fall, and the forsythias only have a few yellow specks around the bottom foot or so of each bush - in other words, that part of the plant that was covered by snow all winter. Even so, we were lucky exactly because there was so much snow throughout winter. Always insulated by a foot or more of fluffy white stuff, most plants that were under the snow and not directly exposed to months of frigid air appear to have survived more or less unscathed. The needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) only appears to have lost a few leaf tips, the Japanese fiber bananas (Musa basjoo) are sprouting again and even perennials like Montauk daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) and Agapanthus seem to have made it.

Magnolia stellata 'Centennial', getting more floriferous

A frilly purple anemone

A Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), on of our loveliest wildflowers, in the woodland adjacent to the backyard; the blue of the flowers is much more vibrant in real life than it looks in the picture

Thanks mainly to spring bulbs and some herbaceous perennials and biennials like primroses, cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma), and honesty (Lunaria annua), there is a fair bit of color in the garden now, even with the damage to larger woody plants. Narcissi and hyacinths are the main bulbs; there are tulips, too, but many of them get nibbled on by deer and other critters before they actually get to flower. Almost all the spring-flowering plants in the garden now I have planted over the last couple of years but my absolute favorites at the moment are two clumps of a delicate, sweetly fragrant jonquil (!) narcissus that I inherited from the previous owners of the property. I believe it is the variety 'Trevithian', with rounded flowers of luminous saturated yellow carried two or three to a stem and emitting a strong scent more reminiscent of Oriental lilies than what I am used to from narcissi.

Narcissus 'Trevithian'

Some white narcissi I planted last fall

A deep blue hyacinth

A young hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus)

A primrose that has done particularly well

There is still room for loads more spring bulbs and early-flowering perennials, so hopefully the spring garden will only get more colorful in coming years. After winters like the last one lots of color is all the more bitterly needed.

Thursday, May 1, 2014