Sunday, April 06, 2008


What’s growing in the area: More apricots and daffodils are blooming; Siberian elms, mossy phlox, tansy mustard, and dandelions are coming into bloom; Bradford pears have buds; bittersweet has leaves; white sweet clover, heath asters, pigweed, and horseweed are back.

In my yard: Forsythia, puschkinia, and hyacinth are blooming; lilac, privet, rose, spirea, red-leaved sandcherry, barberry, Russian sage, sweet pea, soapworts, and perky Sue leaves are emerging; daylilies, daffodils, tulips, catmint, salvia, ipomopsis, hartweigii, vinca, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, and fern-leaved yarrow are emerging; leaf buds are more obvious on tamarix, snowball, and Siberian pea

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, bougainvillea; coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Small red ants are out; horses have been brought in to pasture down the road.

Weather: Winds and daily temperature swings are threatening tea rose stems; some forsythia, hyacinth, and puschkinia flowers have been killed by cold mornings; last rain 5 March, but ground in north garden still holds water; 13:18 hours of light today.

Weekly update: The pale puschkinias blooming in the shadow of June grass on the west side of the house are true children of the enlightenment that spread through the deracinated German nobility of northern Europe in the eighteenth century.

Peter I was the first Russian czar to discover western technology, partly through contacts with German, Dutch and English merchants in cities like Yaroslavl on the river route to Archangel. He ordered his nobility adopt western manners, and founded the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1724.

He married his daughter, Anna, to the duke of Holstein-Gottorp. His wife, Catherine I, married the grandson, Karl Peter, to the daughter of an Anhalt-Zerbst prince. Sophie became Catherine when the renamed Peter became czar in 1762. Within months, she deposed him, ostensibly for supporting the aggrandizing Prussia in the Seven Years War.

Catherine II revived Peter I’s interest in western thought by founding the Saint Petersburg School of Mines. She eventually became a patron of Denis Diderot, whose encyclopedia symbolizes the enlightenment faith that it was possible for humans to define all useful knowledge and for the leisured class to make significant contributions in several arts or sciences.

At least some of the nobility followed their German leader’s example. Aleksei Ivanovich Musin-Pushkin became an archaeologist in Yaroslavl. His contemporary, Apollo Apollossowitch Mussin-Puschkin, experimented with chromium, platinum, and carbonic acid. Although distantly connected to the poet, Alexander Pushkin, the family maintained a plot in the same Wiesbaden cemetery where the academy head, Ekaterina Dashkova, would be buried.

In Britain, Augusta of Sachen-Gosha married the son of German-speaking George II, then settled into an estate at Kew when her Hanover son rose to the throne in 1760. Her gardener, William Chambers, began gathering plants from newly discovered parts of the world as a physical manifestation of the encyclopedists’ premise that all things could be comprehended if brought together. Joseph Banks expanded the effort when he took over the gardens in 1772 by sponsoring expeditions and requesting colonial leaders cooperate with the royal effort.

The entanglement of the enlightenment with colonial aspirations was flourishing when Catherine’s son, Paul I, took over Kartli-Kakheti in eastern Georgia in 1801 as part of Russia’s ongoing dispute with Persia over its southern border. The next year, Count Apollo explored transcaucasia with a Saint Petersburg trained botanist, Johannes Michael Friedrich Adams.

Apollo Apollossowitch sent 206 Caucasian plants to Banks in 1804. The next year, Adams introduced Puschkinia scilloides, a small, subalpine bulb with five-petaled, bell-shaped flowers on 5" stalks, to readers of the Saint Petersburg academy journal. From there it moved into commerce. William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll were growing the dark-blue veined member of the lily family by the end of the century.

I’d probably still have this plant if there had been no Russian enlightenment, if Catherine had not usurped her husband's role, if Persia had not not a threat.. My subspecies, libanotica, might still have been discovered by bulb traders in the levant. After all, new species tulips and daffodils are being introduced every few years. But, I wonder, what would I call the earliest blooming spring flower that some mistakenly refer to as striped scilla.

Photograph: Puschkinia with dead blades of June grass, 5 April 2008.

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