Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why Australia Day?

down under cropeedAustralia Day celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. Also known as Foundation Day, this national holiday celebrates Australia's first permanent settlement in what is now the city of Sydney.  

But why does Boyce Thompson Arboretum bother to celebrate this island country from the southern hemisphere, 7500 lonely ocean miles from the west coast of the U.S.? The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.

The tallest gum trees that you see dominating the skyline along the Main Trail--including our largest red gum tree, "Mr. Big"--were planted in the mid to late 1920s and early 1930s. As these trees grew, even more were planted, many with exotic-sounding names like tea tree, mallee, she-oak, ironbark, and gimlet. Over the years, these plants eventually formed a dominant forest canopy and understory that is unmistakably Australian. Volatile eucalyptus oil fill the warm air, and long sinuous strips of bark peal and pile at the base of every gum tree each summer, just as it does in Australia. Yet, as impressive as this eight acre collection of plants had become by the late 1980s, it had never benefited from a formal development and interpretive plan.

The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.       

In 1989, a landscape architecture firm was retained that specializes in exhibit development within botanical gardens. Over the span of nearly three years--with input from Arboretum staff and other experts--an exhaustive document was created that identified and described eight distinct Australian plant communities. Detailed plant lists were included for each community and authentic cultural amenities added to augment the realism of the overall exhibit. Several Arboretum staff members spent three weeks in Australia in 1995 to see the country first hand and develop sources for wild collected seed that, once grown and planted, became the Mulga, Mallee, Shrubby Woodland, Blue Bush, and other plant communities that you see today. The Benson Outback Bridge across Silver King Wash, the Drover's Wool Shed, Papuana Pass, the Aboriginal Seep, and the Aussie Pavilion all sprang from this landscape plan (directly or indirectly), corroborated by hundreds of photos taken by our staff of the cultural landscapes in the outback of western and southeastern Australia.

With one of the finest Australian Desert exhibits in North America, we think it fitting to celebrate our version of Australia on the same day that the Aussies celebrate theirs (that is to say, on the Saturday that is closest to January 26).  So, for over 15 years, we've featured Australia's most famous musical instrument, the didgeridoo, along with the botany, food, lore, and culture of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on Australia Day. So say "g'day," and spend one Saturday a year down under--on top.   

Kim Stone

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Fleur-de-lis

The fleur-de-lis—lily flower in English—ranks up there with the Nike swish, the peace sign, and the one-finger salute as one of the most iconic symbols of all time.

From the scepters of kings eight centuries ago to the uniform patch of the City of Louisville swat team, it’s difficult not to find it incorporated somewhere in any locale with even a petit morceau of French history. It gets scuffed, scraped, and crunched on the helmets of the New Orleans Saints. It’s in all four corners of the Quebec flag and one corner of the flag of Montreal. A slightly modified version has been sewn on the uniform of every Boy Scout since 1919. And mother-of-pearl inlays of the fleur-de-lis are a common ornament on the peg heads of older Gibson guitars, banjos, and mandolins, though the French connection is more tenuous here.  

In the span of a year, I saw it as a formal topiary, sheared and shaped from grey Santolina chamaecyparissus at La Citadelle in Quebec City, and then again as another formal topiary created from European boxwood in front of George Washington’s stone greenhouse at Mt. Vernon.  A classic wrought iron fence would be incomplete without finial fleurs-de-lis crowning the top of each of the metal pickets, while living room curtain rods are just abrupt stubs without one attached to each end.  It also figures prominently in the tattooist’s repertoire.

From a botanical point of view, the fleur-de-lis looks much more like an iris than a lily, and some historians think that its origin is patterned after Iris pseudacorus, a common iris that grows in wetlands throughout Europe. All irises have the same basic flower structure, comprised of three upright petals (standards) and three sepals called “falls” that arch gracefully downward, the middle sepal often tongue-like. So, really, any local iris growing in the French countryside a thousand or so years ago could have served as the inspiration for the symbol.

Its significance begins with the French monarchs of the 12th century who considered the fleur-de-lis to be a symbol of purity. For French rulers, it imparted a state of saintliness to their reign. Through the centuries, it has been incorporated into many coats of arms and flags, spreading throughout Europe and crossing the Atlantic with French settlement. The petals are thought to represent faith, wisdom and chivalry, while the religious context aligns them with the three parts of the holy trinity. The Boy Scouts added two stars, representing truth and knowledge, and gave each petal one of the three parts of the Scout Promise.

The fleur-de-lis is highly stylized, iconic, and instantly recognizable throughout the world. And while it will may never be as familiar as the almighty dollar ($) sign, or create the brand recognition of a bitten apple,  its plant-based design and rich, centuries-old history places it squarely in the world’s top ten enduring symbols.

Kim Stone