Pay attention to what fades into the background

Coming home today from the farm, I looked out the window as High Park slid by my window. The trees looked like they were draped with diamonds with all of the rain drops refracting this afternoon's light. As I walked up my street and to my apartment, I stopped to look at the drops that had gathered on the crocuses. 

If you haven't noticed, in the last few posts in the blog, I have been presenting a series of flower stories. It's part of a larger piece of writing I'm mulling over and trying out. I enjoy researching the history, use, and meanings behind flowers. Today, drawn in by the ultraviolet crocuses, I knew I found my muse. However, today I thought I might take a different tack. Today I want to share my flower story, relating to the crocus.

I may have mentioned this on the blog before, but when I was growing up, I literally believed sometimes that spring might never come, that winter would have won in the fight of seasons.

My Mom planted gardens all around my home growing up. Many of my memories are of her, outside, with a giant floppy hat and an old Syracuse University rugby shirt she stole from my Dad (you may or may not find me sporting the same outfit around Downsview Park these days-photo flashback to 2013!). My Mom was forever at war with the deer, especially when it came to the tulips. One perfect bud would form, start to crack and color and then--SNIP! Here today, gone tomorrow. But daffodils and crocuses seem immune to the critters.

Every spring they never fail to arrive and to me, they are my harbinger of spring, my little bit of hope at the end of the long winter.

April is a special month to me. April 22nd, Earth Day, is truly a sacred and special holiday to me. I know its made up and people should think about the environment everyday, but I like having a special day to celebrate. April 23rd is my favorite day of the year because its my Mom's birthday. These are linked in my mind--celebrating and remembering the Earth, everyone's mother and my own. The first all around me and the second taken far too early from me. Its bittersweet, but that's spring. As we rejoice over all the new flowers, birds, and all things new, we can't help but remember those we lost in the long winter.

Crocuses are a simple, nothing special flower. They are not the focal flower in the arrangement. They are the backdrop in a wallpaper. But to me, they are much bigger than they appear.

To protect those who would defend

I have struggled lately with focusing and a good case of cabin fever, waiting for winter to release its hold on the north. The last 2 months I started a bunch of seeds that I hoped to plant outside in early April.

One of the seed packs I mistakenly planted and have since regretted are my Echinops ritro, or Globe Thistle. It’s my first year growing them and somehow I got it into my head they should be planted early. They are the biggest of my seedlings, quickly establishing roots and outgrowing their cells.

I should have guessed something in the thistle family might be a little tenacious.

Every year at the farm, I’ve done battle with the Canada thistles. They love our heavy clay soil and because the farm is surrounded by uncut meadows, we have literal snow storms of them during the summer—their pretty down flies into our neat plots to poke us with their needles and challenge us with their tap roots.

Despite their trouble, I have to admit I love the thistles. There is just something about their stubbornness that I find admirable.

I got thinking about the thistle because a week from today, I’ll be heading into the Highlands of Scotland for a road trip around the UK with my husband. Scotland and I have unfinished business. I went when I was 20 and I was head over heals smitten with the place. It was wild. Open. Windy. Rainy. I saw 3 rainbows in 1 hour. Pure magic. I swore I’d come back to see the Highlands. Its taken 10 years, but I’m finally going back.

The thistle is the national symbol of Scotland. The legend is that invading Norse troops tried to sneak up upon sleeping clansmen. They took off their boots to be stealthier. One man stepped on a thistle, let out a cry, and alerted the Scots against the invasion. The thistle saved them.

The thistle was also used to establish the Order of the Thistle, an old chivalric order in Scotland, who’s motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, no one provokes me without impunity.

Try putting that on your office door.

The person who tries to wound a thistle is in turn wounded. It is a proud and stubborn plant. It is not a surprise to me I feel an affinity to it—simultaneously embracing and struggling with pride and stubbornness within me.

But there is a side to the thistle that is less known—its ability to shield and defend those that protect us in our farms and gardens. Lady bugs and all sorts of beneficial insects lay their eggs on thistle stems and leaves. As nymphs and adults. they seek food and shelter in its spiny escape.

Thistle therefore is not really a symbol of defensiveness, but of protection. Therefore, as a good farmer, I need to protect those who would defend.

I’ll leave you some facts on Globe Thistles and look for more flower stories to come:

-Sow in late winter, early spring, ¼” deep

-If grown as seedling, plant out after frosts in full sun

-They are large perennials and need 1-2’ per plant and can grow 4’ high

-Bloom July-September

-Drought tolerant and needs good drainage

-Can be used as fresh or dried flowers

-Beware, can spread. They come from a tenacious family.

The flower that stopped a war

Image from globalvoicesonline.org

When I was younger, when winter was at its worst, I honestly questioned if spring would still come. I must admit with the terribly cold temperatures this past weekend, I has the same thoughts creeping into my head. Even with seedlings growing in the greenhouse and spring coming on the calendar, this time of year is a mix of exasperation, impatience, and a little bit of that old niggling fear. 

My husband and I drove back from Vermont this weekend. Stuck in traffic, I got to thinking about flowers, life, death. In my time growing and selling cut flowers, I've encountered people that think cut flowers are a bit grim. Cut mid-bloom, stuck in some water, they are going to fade anyways, they tell me. Well, there's some truth to that. Cut flowers are also associated with a mix of bittersweet life events. Birth, brushes with illness, love, weddings, and yes, death. Even during the happiest of these events, we can't help notices their ephemerality--like the flowers we give. 

One flower that we grow that always seems to be embroiled with mixed feelings is Dianthus. I grow Dianthus barbatus, or Sweet William. Carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus, are also in the same family. We don't grow them because they are the bread and butter for larger growers, but I must admit, after doing some reading and research for this blog, I'm looking at them differently.

I've learned while selling Sweet William not to mention its related to carnations. I've always wondered about that and thought it was because carnations are just a bit common. But then people told me they were bad luck. Both Sweet William and carnations as much as they are symbols of love and affection, are also associated with defiance and death.

One of the legends that sticks to Sweet William (although the name originates long before this) is that is was named for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who was responsible for brutally putting down one of the last independence movements in Scotland at Culloden. This struck a vein because in about a month I will be in Scotland, in Culloden even. Carnations in France were considered specifically a funeral flower. People would also wear them to executions to honor the valor of the convicted. 

Things were not looking good for my defense of this flower until this:

Images from mobilized.cc

In Portugal, April 25th, 1974, a coup brought down a dictatorship and the withdrawal of Portugal from its colonial rule. This revolution was entirely bloodless and accomplished by flowers, specifically Dianthus. It was called the Carnation Revolution because people took to the streets in non-violent protest, placing carnations into the muzzles of guns and giving them to soldiers.

I will never look at a carnation the same. I think in future seasons I'll give them a try.

Over this coming year, I hope to share these sort of stories and history of flowers with you. I've always believed that flowers could move hearts and minds. A Carnation Revolution I believe is proof of "flower power." I look forward to learning and sharing more.

I'll leave you with some practical points and facts about the flower that stopped a war, Dianthus:

Image from unurth.com

Dianthus Facts:

-They are native to Europe and Asia but pockets of them exist in northern Africa and Arctic North America.

-Their name translates to "god flower" in Greek

-They can be propagated from seed, cuttings, and dividing

-Many are biennial but can be grown as annuals if started inside, which is what we do

-They are tolerant to the cold, zone 5 hardy

-They are beloved by butterflies, bees, and birds

-They come in a variety of colors but mainly pink, white, and red

-They grow 18-30" and need to be planted 8-9" apart 

-Deadheading encourages more blooms

-Long vase life--2 weeks I've found!

-Starts in late spring and goes until frost

-Harvest when at least 1/3 of flowers are open