25 January 2009

Composite Poetry

In September 2008, Karen Quinlan and I led a workhop on Composites for Shirley Heinze Land Trust. Composites are plants in the family Asteraceae, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. They are called composites because they typically have two different types of flowers (ray flowers and disk flowers) making up a single flower head. Think daisies, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, mums... these are all typical composites. That round disk in the middle of the flower head... that's a group of disk flowers. Look more closely the next time you see one of these, and you'll see the tiny flowers with petals fused into a tube. The appendages you pulled off as a kid, saying "she (he) loves me, she (he) loves me not," those aren't petals. They're each ray flowers. You can often see three to five strap-like petals fused together to form the flower. Pretty neat, huh?

As part of our workshop, we put together a slideshow of plants in the Asteraceae, and as we showed a slide we read a few sentences of poetry. Below are some of my favorite poems/quotes.

One dark and stormy night in 1994 I was awakened from a deep sleep by a loud thump. Creeping carefully down the stairs, I discovered to my astonishment that a large bouquet of Aster on the dining table had disappeared! In its place was a cornucopia of composites, including Symphyotrichum, Ionactis, Eurybia, Sericocarpus, Doellingeria, Ampelaster, and Oclemena! Once again, a plant taxonomist had struck in dark of night, taken a simple two-syllable genus with the same English common name, and replaced it with a handful of four- and five-syllable Latin tongue-twisters. Whatever can we do about such things?
-Alan Weakly, The Curious Case of the Disappearing Asters

When on the breath of Autumn's breeze,
From pastures day and brown,
Goes floating, like an idle thought,
The fair, white thistle-down;
O, then what joy to walk at will,
Upon the golden harvest-hill!
- Mary Howitt, Corn-Fields

All summer she scattered the daisy leaves;
They only mocked her as they fell.
She said: "The daisy but deceives;
'He loves me not,' 'he loves me will,'
One story no two daisies tell."
Ah foolish heart, which waits and grieves
Under the daisy's mocking spell.
- Helen Hunt Jackson (Helen Hunt), The Sign of the Daisy

Flowers construct the most charming geometries: circles like the sun,
ovals, cones, curlicues and a variety of triangular eccentricities, which
when viewed with the eye of a magnifying glass seem a Lilliputian
frieze of psychedelic silhouettes.
- Duane Michals, The Vanishing Act

Little girls, and boys come out to play
Bring your dandelions to blow away
Dandelion don't tell no lies
Dandelion will make you wise
Tell me if she laughs or cries
Blow away dandelion, blow away dandelion
-The Rolling Stones, Dandelion

One by one the prairie species come,
Fill every niche of time and light.
Their names spill into poems on the tongue,
Liatris, aster, needlegrass. We watch
The wash of Renoir's colors through
The bluestem grass, the herons sweeping
Home. In evening light the junipers
Could almost be bison, gently grazing.
-Robin Chapman, Prairie Restoration

Look at this vigorous plant that lifts its head from the meadow,
See how its leaves are turned to the north, as true as the magnet;
This is the compass-flower, that the finger of God has planted
Here in the houseless wild, to direct the traveller's journey.
Over the sea-like, pathless, limitless waste of the desert,
Such in the soul of man is faith.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

I am half dead with Aster. I got on very fairly until I got to the thick of the genus, around what I call the Dumosi and Salicifolia. Here I work and work, but make no headway at all. I can't tell what are species and how to define any of them ..... I was never so boggled ..... If you hear of my breaking down utterly, and being sent to an asylum, you may lay it to Aster, which is a slow and fatal poison."
- Asa Gray, late in his life

Upon a showery night and still,
Without a sound of warning,
A trooper band surprised the hill,
And held it in the morning.
We were not waked by bugle notes,
No cheer our dreams invaded,
And yet at dawn, their yellow coats
On the green slopes paraded.
- Helen Gray Cone, The Dandelions

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