After the Flowers Are Gone

Metal vase from India

Sure. The flowers are the primary attraction in a flower arrangement, but the vase is not exactly beside the point. A florist will, of course, supply you with a vase when you purchase an arrangement, but is it likely to be (1) particularly distinctive, (2) your taste, or (3) something the recipient will want to keep?

Vases can be made out of ceramic, glass, plastic, or metal, although the last will be prone to oxidation and may supply ions to the water that are harmful to the flowers.

Ceramic vases can be either mass-produced or handmade. With a little planning a gift-giver could even commission a local potter to throw a vase for a particular occasion. After the flower arrangement withers, the vase is a lasting memento of the occasion.

Patronizing your local potters is also good for the regional economy. You will likely have to spend more money than you would simply purchasing a ceramic vase off of the shelf in a store, but the object will be a unique one if it comes from the hands of an artisan.

You may be surprised by how many potters you find in your area, if you start to look for them. In the small village where I live we have Cold Springs Pottery and Salmon Pottery.

Alex Solla's pottery
Alex Solla’s pottery

Alex Solla of Cold Springs Pottery* makes pots coated in deep saturated glazes that are reminiscent of Fiesta pottery of the 1920s and ‘30s. These bright, intense colors may be reflective of his Miami youth.

Mary Ellen Salmon coincidentally also moved to Trumansburg from south Florida and, in addition to throwing her own pots, has taken on the managerial task of gathering together the work of other artists—including Solla—in the gallery adjacent to her studio.

MaryEllen Salmon's pots
Mary Ellen Salmon’s pots

Salmon also teaches people to throw pots, which makes the point that you don’t even have to purchase the vase that you are going to send your flowers in: you can make it yourself. But then that would be the kind of planning that is pretty rare these days.

Glass vases that are made locally would be a little bit harder to come by, but here in the Finger Lakes region it is not out of the question because of the presence of the Corning corporation, its Museum of Glass, and its subsidiary Steuben Glass. In addition to the influence of Corning, the Finger Lakes region is home to at least one independent glass artist: Christian Thirion, whose studio is in Watkins Glen. As with pottery, buying a handcrafted glass vase will be a tad more expensive than getting one off the shelf, but art glass is, if anything, more exotic than hand-thrown pottery and likely to be an appreciated accompaniment to your gift of flowers.

Bakelite beakers
Bakelite beakers

Plastic flower vases don’t have to be as bad as it sounds. Plastic has been around far longer than we tend to think. The first plastic was called Parkesine—it was invented by Alexander Parkes of Birmingham, England—was developed in 1862. But the earliest plastic you are likely to find—and you will have to cruise your local antique stores—is Bakelite, which was the first plastic developed from a synthetic polymer. It appeared in 1909, originating in the Yonkers laboratory of Belgian-born Leo Hendrik Baekeland. During the 1920s and ‘30s many household items were made from Bakelite and the material now has an established ‘retro appeal’.

Virtually any container can be used as a vase. The essential criteria are that it stand upright and that it holds water. Earlier this month (May 2009) the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on the campus of Cornell University featured an exhibit of flower arrangements—created by the Garden Club of Ithaca—paired with paintings. Some of the pairings involve a flower arrangement that is simply similar to the one in the painting. Many of the arrangements, however, have a more oblique relationship to their fellow works of art. The vases that support the arrangements are often as not as interesting and original as the flowers themselves.

*Cold Springs Pottery has since closed. Solla is now a photographer.


Two Celandines and a Swallow

Greater and lesser celandine are not particularly closely related; their shared common name seems based solely on similarly colored flowers. The “greater” variety is also known as the celandine poppy (Chelidonium majus) and, indeed, is a member of the Papaveraceae, or poppy, family. The “lesser” variety is sometimes called figwort (Ranunculus ficaria) and is a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family. The species are only distantly related, as both families are part of the order Ranunculales.

Greater celandine
Greater celandine

Both of these Old World taxa have been introduced to the North America as ornamentals and have escaped into the wild to become invasive species. Lesser celandine is particularly troublesome, as it emerges very early in the spring (late February to March in some areas), before native spring wildflowers and quickly forms continuous carpets of vegetation above the ground and mats of roots and tubers below ground.

Three years ago we received a load of mulch free of charge from the village government. The department of public works collects brush, wood, and bags of weeds from the curb and chips it, creating large steaming piles of mulch down near the sewage treatment plant. Thinking it would be great to have free mulch for our flowerbeds we ordered a load and spread it around the property.

It was apparently full of lesser celandine tubers and the following spring there were large patches of the plant in several locations around the yard. Initially we were charmed by the glossy leaves and bright, cheerful yellow flowers, but the following year we noticed that it had expanded its coverage greatly and began to take steps to rid our nascent meadow garden of this invasive pest.

Lesser celandine
Lesser celandine

Lesser celandine is an ephemeral, which is to say that after it finishes flowering the vegetation withers and dies back, coming back the following spring from the roots using energy stored in its tubers. Because it flowers before many bees are active, the plant has an alternative method of spreading, producing bulbils on its stems, which fall to the ground after the plant flowers and sprout to form new plants. It also spreads vegetatively by sprouting new plants from its root mass.

Two methods are recommended to rid your property of this pernicious plant. Small patches should be dug up with a trowel or small shovel, making sure to get all the roots and tubers. Larger infestations can be treated with glyphosphate-based herbicides (e.g., Monsanto’s RoundUp). Because the plant emerges before native plants, the herbicide can be applied to kill it without harming other species in the same area.

Greater celandine is also regarded as an invasive in some areas, but does not seem to be as aggravating as its lesser cousin. Much has been written about this plant in alternative medicine circles because of its reputed curative qualities. Botanists consider all parts of the plants to be generally poisonous, but, as is often the case, herbalists and other medical mavens outside the mainstream consider small doses of the poisonous isoquinoline alkaloids to be beneficial for curing everything from an upset stomach to cancer.

The plant also exudes a yellowish sap or latex when it is broken open. This substance has been traditionally used on small wounds to sterilize and heal them, although handling the plant can cause mild dermatitis.

European swallow
European swallow

The common name of both of these species, “celandine,” is derived from the Old English celidoine, which through Old French and medieval Latin, is sourced to the Greek word khelidon or “swallow”. Although there are many species of hirundine bird in Europe, generally only one of them is referred to as a “swallow,” the others being referred to as various types of martin. Hirundo rustica is often called the European swallow, but is a Holarctic species; the same taxon in North America is called the barn swallow. It is the only North American or European species with an actual swallow-tail, which is to say, very deeply forked.

European swallows migrate to sub-Saharan Africa each winter, some of them traveling all the way from the United Kingdom to South Africa. The greater celandine was so-named because it begins to flower when the swallows begin to arrive in southern Europe and stops flowering when they depart in the fall. Its other vernacular name is “swallow-wort,” wort being the general Old English name for “plant”.