Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Equinox in the City: An Iris Blooms!

It's not a glamorous photo but it records a sighting that made my heart leap with joy! The first iris bud of the year. Spotted at the corner of Broadway and John in Seattle on the first day of spring.

When I went to write this into my phenological journal, I noted that the first iris bud appeared in the front yard of the apartment building across the street a week earlier (Mar 13) in 2005. I wonder if there is one over there right now? I will have to go check.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Besotted by Violets

I spent the last week in a happy haze of violets.

It all began when I bought a chunk of violet-scented soap from Lush, my favorite source for hand-made soap and bath bombs.

It was named Gratuitous Violet in an internal rhyme that made me smile. Immediately, it became my favorite soap, a pleasure to slide over my skin, the sumptuous scent lingering on my skin in a shimmer of fragrance for hours. It reminded me of the scent of irises (and I have since learned they share a common chemical compound: ionone) which I love. It is floral without being pretty, sweet without being saccharine, with a hint of dark spiciness. It did not seem familiar to me, and this is probably good, since many people seem to associate the scent with old ladies doused with violets and powder.

The soap soon became an addiction. Alas, on my last trip to Lush on Winter Solstice, I discovered they were discontinuing this soap. I bought the largest piece I could afford and am still doling it out, one little slippery shard at a time, but meanwhile it was time to look for a new supply of violet scent.

I’ve been haunting perfume review sites for some months, eavesdropping on the fabulous discussions of perfumes far too expensive for me to dream of buying a bottle, where I learned about the Perfumed Court, a small company run by three women perfume addicts who got the bright idea of selling samples of decanted perfumes from those big expensive bottles so people like me could try these extravagant pleasures for a minimal price. I searched for “violets” on their web site and found that they offered a violet sampler which I immediately ordered.

While I was waiting for my violet sampler to arrive, I received an email from a Living in Season reader who had read my wistful comment that I had never smelled a real violet as I didn’t believe they grew in Seattle. Not so! She replied. Martha had violets growing in her yard and she volunteered to give me some for my garden. So last Sunday I drove to Martha’s house and we got on our hands and knees and pried them out from among the day lily bulbs.

Martha had several varieties: parma violets with their almost psychedelic red-violet color, and delicate pale apricot colored violets, but the real prize for me were the sweet violets (viola odorata). The tiniest of the lot, you couldn’t smell them unless you got down on your hands and knees and stuck your nose inches from the soil. No wonder violets are so often associated with humility (in the language of the flowers) as they bring us so low to appreciate their fragrance. But the scent! It was intoxicating! Martha told me she picks a few stems and floats them in water. The scent, she said, is so strong it imbues the water with fragrance.

I rushed my transplants home and planted them in my plot in the community garden. The apricot-colored violets have been the happiest with the transfer, but the others are surviving, though they still look a bit crushed. I did pluck three stems of the sweet violets and placed them in a glass of water on my desk where I could periodically reach out and bring it to my nose. The scent is heavenly.

And then my perfume sampler arrived. Thus began a week of prying open tiny glass bottles, one at a time (remembering one of my prized possessions as an adolescent, a box of perfume samples packing in skinny glass ampules, as thin as toothpicks, which you snapped open to release the few drops of liquid inside). Every night I daubed my wrists with violet-themed perfumes, then spent a happy hour trolling the Internet reading perfume reviews.

The jargon amazed and baffled me. Reviewers raved about silage and top notes, threw around terms like dry-off and dark base. It was like being at a wine tasting with a bunch of snobby connoisseurs. One reviewer found notes of blond hay, tobacco, mint, aniseed and violet in a perfume where I smelled merely intense, obnoxious sweetness. To my delight, the perfumes I liked the most were the simplest and the most true to the violet scent: Violetta di Bosco and Violettes de Toulouse, named after the French city which celebrates the violet with a festival every year. I think I will have to visit next year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Song of the Plants

This is a picture of the first quince blossom I saw this year, taken February 25. But I didn't choose this picture to illustrate that important phenological event but simply because it's the best photograph I've taken to illustrate the rather mysterious topic of this blog.

When I first launched my project of getting to know the plants in my urban neighborhood, it wasn't really because I wanted to learn their Latin names or know what date they bloomed in a particular year but because I wanted a deeper connection with the natural world.

All through February I've been tracking and annotating the buds and blossoms, the proliferating of twigs on branches and the reddish haze at the top of the linden trees, even the elusive scents that are drifting through the spring air. But my phenological observations while helping me engage more with the natural world, still keep me at a distance. The plants are the objects of my scrutiny but they are still objects, data pinned in the pages of my notebook.

Then about a week ago I was walking home from work in the dark. And I became aware that my mind was churning over my list of to-dos, as it used to do during my walks before I became distracted by the plants. One of the lovely things about walking as a phenologist is that I'm freed from this sort of incessant mind chatter. But in the dark, it seemed I had no plants to observe.

My friend Janis had just remarked on how much she was enjoying reading one of Stephen Buhner's books about plants. He writes about how native healers in different cultures learn about the herbs they use medicinally. They say the plants speak to them, some say the plants even have specific songs that tell something about their character.

I wondered if I could tune in to the plants in the dark, so I walked a little more slowly, with curiosity, my head tilted a bit to see what I could hear. I was blown away by what I experienced. Every plant I passed was singing its own song. Mind you, I heard no distinct words, no instructions for their uses. But their personalities were distinct. Some were lively, some greedy, some dispirited (that was the English ivy).

I've felt the energy of trees before (I wrote an essay for my newsletter on tree hugging) but
this was more like walking through halos of energy, or clouds of lyrics sung in a foreign language. Walking in the dark past the plants and being aware of their presence was a miracle. I think maybe life is really like this all the time but we don't notice it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Daffodils for St David

Last year I wrote a long post all about daffodils on this day. This year I thought I'd share photographs I took of the daffodils blooming in my neighborhood.

The daffodils on the left are growing in the garden of a nearby apartment building. The daffodils below, usually the earliest to bloom in our neighborhood, are in front of Horizon, the used bookstore on 15th.

I also went in and bought some cool gardening books during their 50% off sale. I got a copy of a hardcover book called called A Paradise out of a Common Field: The Pleasures and Plenty of the Victorian Garden by Joan Morgan and Allison Richards. Looks like it will be good for my Victorian historical novels as well as my garden research. Also a book with beautiful flower arrangements called Country Flower Style by Jane Newdick. Jane recommends displaying daffodils in bunches or with twigs. She says that they cause other flowers to die more quickly (I wonder why?).

I also got an amazing book called Lilies of the Hearth: The Historical Relationship Between Women and Plants by Jennifer Bennet. It covers, among other things, the way medieval women used plants in their stillrooms, plants and convents, the way botany became a pleasing area of study for 19th century women, and ends with biographies of some my plant heroines like Maud Grieve and Rachel Carson.

My rule about buying new books is that I have to take some off the shelf and give them away when I put more on. But I can't resist buying more books about plants and I'm not willing to give up any of my old ones.