Years ago my husband told me that the place nobody notices in a room is the ceiling. Since he was a talented amateur decorator, I took him at his word, and made it a point from then on to look at every ceiling I encountered. As a child of big cities, I’d always looked up at tall buildings, so ceilings were easy to add. After this lifetime of looking up, I was rewarded the other day when I spotted a vine supporting some strange looking growths on the very highest part of the park Botanical Building’s lath ceiling. After staring for a while, I realized they were huge, dirty-pinkish, floppy flowers. One that was halfway up the wall had what appeared to be two eggs in an open frame suspended beneath it. I stared so long that other people began to stare as well. There was no sign to identify it, so I returned puzzled to the office.
Back at my desk, I tried to Google this newly encountered specimen without success. How does one describe so bizarre a flower? I asked my co-worker Lotus, the office’s resident horticulture expert, about it, but it didn’t ring any bell. So I called the Park Rangers’ office. Again, I described the flower and its location to Ranger Ryan Robertson, who promised an answer. A man of his word, he called about eight minutes later to tell me that I had seen an astrolochia gigantea, aka, Dutchman’s pipe or sometimes Pelican Flower, a native of Brazil.
I have now become buddies with astrolochia gigantea. (It’s wonderful how well you can acquaint yourself with something on the Internet when you know what you’re looking for.) This huge flower is actually sort of a maroon color with white veining, and its stigma resembles a cross section of bone. To some, the flower resembles lungs; to others, it’s more like a well-marbled cut of meat. From some angles, it looks like a fat Dutch pipe, but when it’s about to open, it reminds observers of a pelican’s expanded throat; ergo the appellation pelican flower. It is variously reported to smell like lemons, dishwater with lemon detergent or rotting meat, all of which are intended to attract flies, the flower’s designated pollinators. Once landed, the fly is drawn to the anther by hairs that then hold it in place for just the amount of time needed to ensure the proper degree of pollen coverage. This accomplished, the fly is released to carry its load of pollen to a waiting female flower.
The tricky ways plants manage animals to achieve reproduction and survival is an ongoing source of wonder to me. For instance, some orchid species mimic female bees and wasps to attract eager males. Before the male insect realizes he’s been seduced and duped, he’s covered with pollen just as the orchid intended, ready to set off, to find and to fertilize the next orchid of that species.
I’ve had an acquaintance with another odd plant for several years now,costus cosmosus or red tower ginger. Native to Hawaii, there’s one in the Alcazar Garden behind the Museum. It has red bracts, between which bright yellow flowers peep forth at 90-degree angles. The flowers are cylindrical most of the time, and are few in number. If they appear in the right places, the plant will have a face, often one with what looks like a bill, and it has become for me the duck flower.
These curious outside flowers led me to launch a search for remarkable flora inside the Museum. What I found was neither as ribald as the Dutchman’s pipe, nor as silly as the red tower ginger, but the charm of what I found made the hunt worthwhile.
Only in NATURE, TRADITION, INNOVATION are there real, although dried, flowers. Artist Rumi M.H. Rice of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, created four arrangements in vases from Gordon Brodfuehrer’s collection. Using several shades of dried materials — statice, grasses and dramatic leaves and pods — her compositions will remain fresh for several months. Each of these deceptively simple creations is the product of years of study, contemplation and discipline. Their harmonious shapes and textures encourage quiet examination and reflection.
The Japanese word Ikebana means something like “giving life to flowers” or just plain “arranging flowers.” Floral arranging may have arrived in Japan in the seventh century with Buddhism and its custom of offerings composed of flowers. Although the Japanese enjoyed and wrote about flowers in vases from the eighth century on, Ikebana was not documented until the fifteenth century. In 1462, the Zen monk Unzen Taigyoku noted in his journal a remarkable arrangement by the Ikenobō master Senkei, an arrangement so splendid that all the people of taste in Kyoto flocked to see it. The IkenobōSchool at which Senkei was a master was the first school of Ikebana, Founded in the 1400s by Senno Ikenobō, a Buddhist monk, at Rokkaku-dō Temple, the school continues today, and is run by a member of the forty-fifth generation of the Ikenobō family.
There are more flowers on the Museum’s upper level. A pair of flowered crowns from Guizhou province in southwestern China is on display in the soon-to-depart HATS AND HEADDRESSES (closes October 21). The bigger crown is covered with delicate silver flowers that are guarded by delightful birds. It was made to be worn by a village girl to a festival where she might have met her future husband. The smaller one, for a Lao Han prince, has, besides its engraved flower motifs, orange, white and purple clover springing from each side like flowers in the bud vases of grand, old touring cars. While we’re on the subject of Chinese headdress, there is also a charming baby cap in the shape of a white-striped, green tiger with pink rosebuds on its brow.
Flowers adorn a Turkish teapot. They’re highly stylized, and I’ve had a wonderful time looking at photographs of Turkish flowers trying to identify their derivation. Those that look like the kind I draw, with a circle for the stigma and petals around it, could be morning glories, but the fanciful ones that combine the shape of a thistle with a smooth calyx and some extraneous petals confound me. They could be exaggerated tulips, but the ones that I thought looked most like the flowers on the teapot were the traditionally drawn designs that could have been part of a wallpaper pattern. These fantastic flowers are a triumph of imagination. On the other hand, I recognize some of the flowers that decorate the Austro-Hungarian painted furniture. On the bed and the chairs, for example, I see, among other flowers, simplified roses, lilies and carnations. With time I may discover more familiar blooms. Finally there are the brightly colored, four-petalled flowers on the Guatemalan corte (skirt) in TRUE BLUE. To me they suggest the shape of dogwood. Their bold hues and general execution, however, are a credit to the weaver’s inspiration and skill.
Flowers, imagined and real, awaken curiosity, encourage contemplation, deliver unceasing beauty and can be found everywhere — even on the ceiling.