My august Valentine

IMG_5085February 14th. Valentine’s Day. Anxious sifting through picked-over piles of roses,squashed together, 12 at a time, and mass-produced in faraway lands. Racks of disheveled cards with canned messages from total strangers, fancy boxes containing a few tiny morsels of mush or nuts covered with chocolate veneers. Restaurants overwhelmed with patrons — only two to a table. Bleary-eyed florists, thankful that this most absurd of holiday deadlines is nearing an end. But love is in the air . . . right? It’s the thought that counts . . . right? Indeed. Let’s not disrespect such an occasion. But can we make it more loving and thoughtful, at least when it comes to those dozen roses?

Towards this noble end, I hereby declare that, in the northern hemisphere:

The Valentine’s celebration is now in August and it shall last the entire month. It may be celebrated any day, or every day, or any times in between. (No procrastinating until August 31st).

Here’s why (with inspiration from Amy Stewart’s masterful New York Times bestseller from 2007, Flower Confidential):

Those dozen roses at the neighborhood big box were most likely grown indoors somewhere in the southern hemisphere. They have never been outdoors; never seen sunlight; never been visited by a bee. They have been sprayed, drenched, or dunked in pesticides, fungicides, preservatives (and even dyes). And don’t bother smelling them. The scent has been bred away. As for their carbon footprint, the flowers are grown indoors (greenhouse gas emissions); intensively managed with inputs of chemicals (emissions); bundled into layers of protective packaging (emissions); shipped with refrigeration halfway around the world (emissions), and retailed in a lighted, heated building in the middle of winter (emissions). Doesn’t the global economy just rock? Compare this to some locally grown flowers in an Iowa August. The flowers are grown outside by the sun and rain, put in a bucket of water, and transported a few miles to a farmer’s market. They are available in a riot of shapes, sizes, colors and scents. To be sure, some inputs and transportation emissions are inevitable, but the contrast of carbon footprints could not be more stark.

In her beautiful and thoughtful books, The 50 Mile Bouquet (2012) and Slow Flowers (2013), Debra Prinzing encourages the local production and consumption of cut flowers. Floral decor from local sources in winter is achieved through the use of branches, berries, and the like — and blooms from forced bulbs or local greenhouses. This is a fine approach for the local economy, and particularly for the climates of California and the Pacific Northwest (the geographies in Debra’s book). But the idea of browsing around outside for twigs in an Iowa February is rather daunting; and sometimes impossible (think blizzard). And an August celebration with flowers need not incur the carbon footprint of greenhouses.

Florists and other purveyors of flowers in the ides of February need not fear. Would it not be a blessing to diminish the mad rush of February 14th, and substitute a more leisurely stroll of increased sales for the whole month of August? Good riddance to a single-day deadline for a highly perishable, out-of-season luxury item.

So how about it? Join us. Celebrate Valentine’s for the whole month of August– pick a day, or all the days. Support your local economy. Reduce your carbon footprint. Create a better world for your Valentine and those who will follow. What could be more loving and thoughtful than that?

Cindy, will you be my august* Valentine?**


Matthew Bailey

August 8, 2015

*The meaning and etymology of “February” and “August” will convince you if nothing else does. The origin of the word “February” seems a bit hazy but has something to do with purification by smoke or burnt offerings (!). On the other hand, “august” means “marked by supreme dignity or grandeur” Slam dunk. Case closed. August it is.

**She said yes.

An Ode to Provenance – On the occasion of Mom’s 80th birthday

imageHappy birthday Mom and Dad.

My Mom (1935) and Dad (1929) were born on the same date, six years apart.   Shortly after moving into their Tennessee home in 1964, Dad dug a small oak seedling up from somewhere on the property and planted it in the new construction debris that made up our front yard (Despite the impoverished site, it became a majestic tree; until a truck rumbled through a few years ago and cut it in half lengthwise to keep it out of the power lines. But hope springs eternal — as we shall see). Upon Dad’s passing in 2000, Mom put a small plaque on the tree and sprinkled his ashes around. Apart from beauty and shade the tree was now . . . important. With this newly christened treasure, I set about to preserve it for all time.

So how does one immortalize an oak tree? Why, collect the acorns, of course. Plant ’em. Help ’em grow.

So I did. The result is three young trees in Ankeny, IA , the largest of which is a strapping thirty-foot teenager. Despite its Tennessee provenance it has thrived through Iowa’s extreme winters with no trouble at all. Dad would be proud.

As we proceed further into a changing climate, these offspring oaks, in Iowa ground and of Tennessee provenance, may have more to give. Iowa may become progressively more like Tennessee (map). Some plant species adapted to Iowa’s past and current climate will struggle or fade away. Indeed, the very notion of “native” species will be turned on its head: what does “native” mean when the “native” environment is repeatedly swept away on timescales of a single human lifespan? The assumptions that “native” plants and plant communities are tougher and better become more uncertain.

“Resilient” will come to more accurately describe plant specimens, species, and communities that are tougher and better in a constantly changing climate. And the clearest path to resilience is diversity. The notion of planning and planting diverse tree communities for resilience to change has precedent. In reaction to the devastating effects of diseases and pests that destroyed virtually every American elm and American chestnut (and other species), a rule of thumb called the 10/20/30 rule has long been suggested: no more than 10% of plantings should be within a single species, no more than 20% within a single genus; and no more than 30% within a single family (original article). The risk of a disease or pest wiping out every tree is greatly reduced.

To hedge against the new “pest” of climate change perhaps we can sprinkle a mindfulness of provenance into our genetically diverse plantings. That is, let’s deliberately move some plants from South to North. So, my oak tree may indeed have more to give. And maybe my bald cypress, which seems to thrive as well on a well-drained Iowa hillside as in a Louisiana swamp. Or my Osage Orange ‘White Shield’ — plucked from arid western Oklahoma — but from a species which achieves its highest densities in repeatedly flooded “bodark swamps.”

I’m looking for more. Mindful of provenance. Plant Resilient.


Matthew Bailey

July 21st, 2015