Hungry ? Try some of our bloodroot. Just leave the
wild ones alone, you can get the extract from natural
food shops. Excellent in small doses, but lethal in
large. © Val Druguet
Chapter 4: Flower power and the business of poetry
April 11th 2006. A quick flurry of words to let you
know that for the past four days Valerie and I have
been running around NYC and seeing it like it was
a candy store (or Willy Wonka's chocolate factory).
Callery Pears in Chelsea look like giant sugar cones,
Staten Island Magnolias like strawberry softies, Brooklyn
cherry trees like cotton candy, Manhattan forsythia
like yummy blobs of golden pudding. Tulips everywhere,
armies of lollypops. It's no exaggeration; these plants
are sweet and full of nectar and smell of honey. That's
because they are candy. Bee candy. Bonbons for beetles.
Instantly gratifying sugar fixes for the insect world.
Val and I stop to wonder: did flowers invent the flying
insect? Or vice-versa?
You know the story of pollination, right. The humble,
hard working bee (be it a bumble-, a honey- or a stingless
bee) gorges itself on nectar, in exchange for which
the plant uses the insect (as a flying penis) for
some vicarious sex. We've elaborated on this before:
it's called mutualism. Today I have a royal flush
of new words and metaphors for your consideration:
how about 'contract', 'currency exchange' 'non-zero
sum agreement', 'merger'? Join me for a second in
redefining pollination as the ultimate win-win business
deal, something enormously lucrative to both parties
from which plant and insect both walk away enriched
with food, life or progeny. Namely, survival - something
so expensive it's actually priceless. Life, the fortune.
Alexander Hamilton, may you 'rolleth' in your grave.
Where was I…Ah yes, Cherry trees in Central, Daffodils
in planters on Park, petunias peeking out of window
sills in Tribeca, all very nice and appetizing and
sweet and aesthetic and evanescent and refreshing
and yadda-yadda… For Val and I there are flowers more
discreet, rare, demanding than your average downtown
pansy. Don't get me wrong; we love street-side Ginkgos
and such, it's just that contrived nature turns us
off (a little), like when plants are confined to cement
sidewalks and giant marbled winter-garden planters
and stuck behind bars…
We need (we all need) something a tad more functional,
more precious, delicate, gentle. Something community-based,
in the ecological sense of the word. Plants that grow
from soil that feeds off of death and detritivores
that are trampled by mammals and sung by birds and
live under 100 year old trees and belong to space
and volume and time. An ecosystem. Something open
to iteration, transformation, growth - in Greek, that's
metabole, the process of change. Something Robert
Wright has hypothesized as the real meaning of life,
i.e.: the freedom to evolve, diversify, recycle and
grow, outwards. It's been the ongoing project of planet
earth for the past 4,6 billion years - incremental,
ornate complexity, the unfolding of 'meaning' itself.
From proto bacteria to the human mind. Life creates
knowledge. Some call it Nature, today I feel like
calling it Psyche, from the Greek 'spirit' or 'breath
Because in the beginning there was nothing, and then
there was habitat, and in it, bewildering, mind-boggling,
clusters of mad-hot steaming wildflowers, of which
NYC still has its fair share - you just gotta know
when and where to go to see them. And just how far
and how long its gonna take you to get there. Inwood.
Van Cortlandt. Pelham Bay. Mt Loretto. The last 'natural'
areas of NYC. A day on a bike? A week on foot? Psyche
to me is like a cat: irresistible, but demanding of
distance and patience and time. Eternity time.
Take the poppy family (I dig natural medicines and
dreamtime drugs), and consider one of its sexiest
members: the lovely celandine poppy - as bright as
butter! All over Inwood Park in northern Manhattan.
Beware its golden-orange sap - it's toxic (I wear
it as war paint nonetheless… I smear a streak of it
on my cheek bones and hope I don't faint. Big deal.
My friends the Ye'kuana of southern Venezuela rub
poisondart frog secretions into topical cuts and this
improves their vision for night-time hunting trips.
Understand that at low levels the alkaloids act to
enhance visual acuity). Poison, you know, is actually
just a matter of dosage. A little bit can actually
help you, a lot of it will simply kill you.
Consider yet another solid, serious member of the
poppy family: bloodroot. Equally beautiful. Equally
deadly (again, in high doses). The plant is named
for its venomous red sap that can work, so I've read,
in low doses as an alternative cure to cancer. Native
American woman apparently smeared it all over their
bodies as a purifying body paint and mosquito repellent
or when summoned to sleep with Captain Smith. Today
the Bloodroot grows abundantly in a place called bloodroot
valley, on Staten Island, thanks to botanist Richard
Lynch who reintroduced the species there, on a slope,
a small ravine and streamside from which it had disappeared.
Picked to death. No wonder, because the flower is
a lovely, snow-white and delicate sundial of multiple,
elongated petals revolving around a hub of bright
yellow stamens. Do not touch or even sneeze: so fragile
this plant will fall apart.
An early bloomer, bloodroot slithers up out of the
underworld in the first days of April and protects
itself by hiding its flower within a folded leaf against
late snows and cold spells. Sometimes when I look
at the emerging white bud of a blossom I see a small
white head of a man wrapped in a cape (the closed
leaf, yet to unfold). Flower or Dracula ? Then there's
the r-rated description: Clitoris sheathed in labia.
What can I say? Naturalists are lonely, under-socialized
people, especially botanists, like those who gave
the butterfly pea the Latin name Clitoria ternatea,
for its suggestive appearance. Here I pause to quote
my own wife's words when she first smelled the fly-pollinated
flower of the Skunk cabbage: "yuk, old genitalia!".
True, the flower does whiff a bit of nuoc man (Vietnamese
sauce made from dried fish), which is how it attracts
Take yet another favorite poppy of ours: Dutchman's
Breeches. If you've never stood eye-to-eye with one,
crouching in the undergrowth, spread-eagled out on
the forest floor in botanical contemplation of the
universe, then imagine in your mind (you can shut
your eyes for this experiment) that you're caressing
fern-like basal leaves as soft as goose down from
which heroic albeit fragile stems emerge, covered
in pearls which at closer inspection look like miniaturized,
16th century underwear hung out to dry on a laundry
line. Evolution bears such creativity.
Scientific footnote: there is a theory that these
early spring plants (also called spring ephemerals
because they don't last long) grow on forest floors
and emerge way before leaves emerge on the trees in
order to profit from in-coming sunrays for photosynthesis
before they're shaded out by the forest canopy and
of course, to benefit from the early rising bumblebees
and other pollinators. File and remember. Better yet,
follow us into the field next time you're in town.
We host regular field trips on Saturdays, open to
the public. One note of caution: we do the MTA. We
straphang. We're underground.
Last Friday we took the number one all the way up
to Van Cortlandt (last stop), in the Bronx. Then on
Saturday we took some students to Inwood (last stop
on the A train). Then Sunday, we jumped on to the
ferry then made the bus to the middle of Staten Island.
4 hour round trips. Entire days in the field. All
of this to see and to film and to study and to ultimately
share with you here on these pages our desperate love
for early spring wildflowers. Someone's got to do
it (fide Ed Abby).
Let's focus on the Van Cortlandt trip, the one last
Friday. Arriving at the end of the subway line, Val
and I proceed to walk 4 miles into the 'north' woods
of the park. We sweat our way up a slope. Bare silver
trees. Brown leaves. The forest, a skeleton beneath
a big blue sky. We salute a passing morning cloak:
spring's first butterfly, fluttering by. We catch
its milk-chocolate wings, cappuccino cream-colored
margins, rimmed with flakes of grape skin. Epiphany
or gourmet food? Synesthesia rules. We pass joggers
on trails, we greet other walkers in the woods, bird-watchers,
we see anglers at ponds, turtles on muddy banks, lonely
old geezers staring at Canada geese, Canada Geese
that stare back. Early pine warblers. Palm warblers.
Phoebes. Three Wilson's snipe, in a small swamp. Squirrels
and woodpeckers busy switching trees. Early robins
stuffed full of early worms. We slog on, we have one
search image, one specific prize. We're into oak and
tulip forest. Up another slope. There's black walnut
There ! At the base of the trees, carpets of singular,
arrow-shaped, green leaves freckled with brown splotches,
supporting long stately stems crowned with long, inverted
golden petals and sepals. Something like the frilled
collars of 16th century royalty. Trout Lily… my favorite,
from the lily family, of course, the most populated
of plant families in the world (factoid: the lily
family includes asparagus and onion).
We look, we feel, we take pictures, we sniff each
flower. The stamens are brick red. I decide that trout
lilies rule. One patch can top 1300 years. Their roots
interlace beneath the leaf litter, they network within
the soil, create nodes and circuits of resilience
like the mycelia of mushroom, like strands in the
world wide web, like dark matter in the universe;
they live on, together, interlocked, intermeshed,
indivisible, a fabric - somewhat like naturalists
meeting in the woods, in city parks, reconnecting,
beneath the surface of things, going underground.
Today's roots, tomorrow's flowers. Trust the trout
For Val and I these spring ephemerals constitute one
precious chapter in a year-long animistic pilgrimage.
Our ceremony, our celebration. Lilies are the bread
we break and the wine we spill. Idem for celandine.
For breeches. Predictably, we share a privileged soft-spot
for Bloodroot. Blood, the Dam in Adam. The blood of
man. The blood of woman. Root, in Hebrew, equals bone.
Bloodroot. Bone man. Symbolic thinking, my secret
pastime (In Ye'kuana mythology, blood explains the
spots on the moon, because Nuna, the moon-man, raped
the primordial virgin). Understand: wildflowers and
the world at large are our pagan, every day Easter.
Year round we celebrate Austran - she who shines in
the east, the rising sun. Renewal, revolution, the
universe. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after,
up until the last, white woodland asters of late fall,
through the milkweeds and goldenrods of summer, our
outdoor alter will be a permanent fertile cluster
of wildflowers. Its host of rambling pollinators.
Business partners. To which I might add: all ye merry
Christians, bring on the bunnies (they're for humping),
and don't forget the eggs (we crave their message
of fertility). Symbolism, humanity's secret pastime.
So we gaze, hypnotized. Locked in, by trout lilies.
We detail their flower heads, they "nod", i.e.: they
point downwards. They remind me of the wives of Henry
the 8th, lining up for decapitation. Or New Yorkers
walking to work, coming out of trains, bowing as they
pass under the ominous dome of Grand Central. Welcome
to work ! Heights command respect. So does ideology.
And some days I wonder if the beautiful trout lily
is bowing submissively to the infinity of the megaverse
above, grateful for the stardust from which we all
descend. Or maybe she's just staring at the earth
because there's no where else to go. Paradise, inside.
The place we all come from. We started as soil. Dirt.
To soil we return. Earth fruit. We do not 'come into'
this world, we grow 'out of' this world, quite literally.
Like a plant. We are out of this world. Trust the
Sorry if all this reads like poetic hogwash but 'Poiesis'
means 'creation' in the first place (not THE creation,
just life, in general) and was originally derived
from the Aramaic : "sound of water pouring over pebbles.."
so I get carried away. Plus, by 'nodding', by bowing
its male and female sexual organs, the trout lily
is actually guaranteeing that it will be reproduced,
thus in a sense re-created ('re-poeticized', as it
were), by its partner in business, the laboring bumblebee.
This I know as a scientific fact: the 'nod', the downward-pointing
pistils and stamens and nectaries make it much easier
for the bee to access the nectar and pollen. A favor
returned by the insect: the flower is more easily
pollinated. So we're back where we started: the win-win
strategy, the perfect deal. The business of poetry…
Last but not least, I would like to share with you
the interplay of seed dispersal that spring flowers
have hammered out over evolutionary time with ants.
A masterpiece of trade and profit. The mother of all
symbiotic 'mergers'. Here's how it goes, in a nutshell:
the plants produce seeds to which are attached little
'cup-cake'-like eliasomes (fide the poetry of my friend
Mike Fellar, chief naturalist at NYC Parks). The eliasomes
are full of lipids that ants like to eat. So when
the seeds are ripe and fertile and the bees and flowers
have done their mutually lucrative wheeling and dealing,
they (the seeds) fall to the ground and the ants haul
them and the attached eliasome away to their underground
dens and burrows, eat the eliasome or feed it to their
young then sort of chuck out the seeds which then
proceed to germinate the next season.
So we have it. Ants are the unknown, unknowing gardeners
of the forest floor; they disperse and plant the seeds
of Trout lilies, Bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, etc,
etc…in return for a meal. An eliasome cupcake. Here
again, a non-zero sum, win-win deal, the ultimate
partnership. Except this time it's more than just
business as usual: here we see no sign of toxic waste,
not one sight of garbage, not one iota of misery,
no stain of pollution, no whiff of exploitation. Nothing
but primary productivity. Earth's bounty. Ultimate
prosperity. True wealth. Nature's economy. Honest
to god sustainable development.
As it turns out, this sustainability shtick between
ants and flowers has been going on for eons. It appears
to be a proven method, i.e.: it 'works'. Nothing like
the trial of time ! 100 million years ago both groups
diversified (exploded) on the evolutionary scene and
then 'realized' they could help each other out. They
collaborated, they diversified. In that order. Judging
by a study published this week in Science, more and
more flower species, then more and more ants, more
and more mutualisms, symbioses, occurred at onset
of the angiosperms, the 'flowering plants'. Plants
and their new associates the ants started hammering
out business deals right, left and center, which in
turn created opportunity for even more and more flower
and ant species to evolve. To exist. To spread and
Life, the ongoing process. Dynamic and intrinsically
inventive. Thanks to Autopoiesis (self creation) -
bubbling, foaming, erupting, ejaculating diversity.
How about we call it 'Flower-power' - the business
of poetry. CEO's and share-holders take note…
David Rosane and Val Druguet