Artemisia Vulgaris

I recently underwent a few sessions of acupuncture, for the first time, for a sprained finger. In a nutshell, it worked like magic and was more painful and nerve wracking than I thought it would be. It was four sessions over 10 days, one component of which was the application of moxibustion, a lit herb cigar circled over the needles applied to my afflicted finger to further heat and heighten their effect.

This was one of the more pleasant aspects of the process beginning when the acupuncturist's assistant lit the moxa and its soothing aroma filled my cubicle. Although a little anxious during the first treatment when I had no real idea of how close that lit end was supposed to be to my skin, I soon learned to trust the assistant's judgement and enjoy it's marker as the midpoint in the treatment process. Suitably heated, I would then be left to allow the needles to do their work, the light switched off, the curtain to my cubicle drawn.

The Moxa I discovered is dried Artemisia Vulgaris, a common weed in the New York area, described here in nycgarden's excellent local weed atlas. Not only common but also pervasive, I regularly used to pull tons of Mugwort out of the beds in Mamaroneck every year. It's also one of the 12 weeds selected by ethnobotanist Ina Vanderbroek for the Quadra Medicinale installation imagining and demonstrating the possibilites of urban foraged medicine. NYC herbalist Karen Vaughan has more ideas on how to use this weed/herb including dream pillows and mochi. Ethnobotanist Nat Bletter shows how to collect and identify it here.

Herbarium image from Arizona State University, Woodblock image from a medieval herbal.

Towards Abstraction

Having lived more years abroad than at home, the local flora often elicits surprise. Many plants that I am familiar with as potted plants living inside - reside outside here and are much much larger, sometimes unrecognizably so. They are large shrubs and trees, the scale of their parts defy recognition until, oh, wow. Recognition is also less immediate because they are less solitary, not just one plant in a pot but filling up half of a small border.

Take the Sansevieria for example. It's not uncommon to see this planted in pots here too, but they are occasionally let loose in a border mixed with other plants and in that context, they do something quite different visually. They become less sculptural and more like bold gestures on a canvas. Maybe it's the characteristics that help them thrive in the topics that create these visual textures. The foliage here is more rigid, leathery, more deliberate than the herbacious, lacier, kinds found in a temperate garden. Squint your eyes and blur them and you’ll see not an impressionistic Monet or Childe Hassam but an expressionistic De Kooning.

There is a small garden bed that I often see, bound within concrete walls where I took the above photos. There is a mass of purple Rhoeo Discolor, like brushstrokes of green and purple paint edged in fuschia where the sun catches it. A clump of Sanseveria looks like scrapes of a palette knife, gray greens shot with bright yellow. Both have a backdrop of Heliconia leaves, smooth painted areas with flurries of lines created by their stalks. All three have leaves that have begun to decay, but interestingly don’t seem as obviously dead or dying perhaps, due to their said characteristics, only broadening the palette by providing more yellows, oranges and browns.

Everytime I walk by ‘my’ abstract painting garden, I imagine filling the empty spaces with more daubs and strokes of botanic paint. I wonder what a small clump of black bamboo might do visually in the far back corner and some bold strokes of blue green aloe in the front. It’s odd that I’m nurturing a garden design here in my head, so different visually from the kinds I’ve been actively involved with all these years although it seems fitting that the aesthetic roots of these ideas are from my old home, New York City.

Young Red

Our Indonesian maid asked me if I noticed that the lily on our porch had bloomed. She said it was Merah Muda, which is the Malay description for pink or literally translated, young red. Misinterpreting my quizzical look for misapprehension, she quickly added that in Indonesia they would say Merah Jambu alluding to the pink flesh of the Guava fruit (Jambu). Again it was qualifying the color red (merah) or guava red. The color pink it seems doesn't exist here or on the neighboring islands of Indonesia as a singular and separate concept, it's a sub category of red. I didn't misunderstand her, I was just parsing this and a bunch of random but connected thoughts swarming in my head.

My thoughts: First- pink (as I noted previously) doesn't really exist. How interesting that this is linguistically reflected here. Cantonese (fun hong) and Mandarin (fen hong), two other languages/dialects commonly spoken here also use red derivatives ( light red ) to describe pink. Second- the lily wasn't truly pink, unlike the begonia that is also blooming. It's really fine deep magenta lines drawn onto a white ground. But that's just me processing how I might draw or recreate this. Lastly, I'm finding that language is an interesting, additional botanic variable that I have to navigate here. What is this? What do you call this? I find myself asking a lot. It's not just the many languages, there are also ethnobotanical connotations to the flowers plants and herbs that shift not just what they are called but what they 'mean'. The question, what do you use this for? invariably follows.

Yes, I did, I said after all this made it's way through the circuitry. She elaborated that she had got the bulb from one of her friends. All the homes in this neighborhood have Indonesian maids and through the backyard fences they trade things like herbs, cuttings, phone cards to name a few. It's beautiful, I added and she beamed a broad smile. If you've grown something from a seed or a bulb and it turned into something that bloomed you would would have fully understood that smile, no translation required.

Bowl of Peonies

Peering into this ceramic bowl decorated with Peony blossoms at the Museum I visited last weekend, was a poignant moment. I realized, I missed the Peonies this year.

The sheer amount of different flora here, the new scales and luxuriance of the foliage, the strange fruits and herbs have been distracting with their newness or the pleasure of being re acquainted with their long forgotten familiarity. This peony reminder was the first sting of sadness, a realization that there will be things that I will not see this summer and longer.

I wondered if the Chinese immigrants that sailed here with their peony and chrysanthemum decorated bowls found consolation in the floral motifs from the cool temperate homes they left behind. In a bittersweet way it fired up some creative urgency to do more of the floral artwork that I've been meaning to do. It also made me think, thank goodness I have this blog, it's my bowl of peonies and more. I can in a small way relive those delicious last days of May in Mamaroneck, go visit Wave Hill or smell the lilacs at Brooklyn Botanical.

All Posts: