Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dia: Beacon Landscape

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, last Sunday I went to Dia: Beacon for a day trip (evidently making the most of our short, warmish interlude between snowstorms). Today I'll post some photos of the landscape that was installed for the new space.

Artist Robert Irwin designed the landscape for Beacon and though I like it enough, I'm disappointed that commissioning Irwin infers that an artist can take on a landscape design interchangeably with a landscape architect. Now, in all fairness, Irwin also did most of the planning for the gallery spaces themselves and as I said, they are extraordinary. But the landscape - to me - doesn't offer any revelations.

Above you have the aerial hedges of Carpinus betulus. Second to birches, I'd say that straight rows of columnar architectural hornbeams are the go-to design gesture for museums. It's a touch cliche, really. I understand that in an urban environment the tall narrow canopies of Betulaceae-family trees make sense, but with so much opportunity on this site, it's disappointing that no risks were taken. Particularly when you consider that risk - even indulgence - can be concomitant with works of contemporary art. Why none of that expressiveness in the landscape?

I did like the detailing - the raised decks on corten steel refer to the Serra pieces inside and also protect the root zones of trees. Though I think I would have tried to come up with some more elegant way to hide the concrete footings (see image below). But at least they are not sonotubes -- nothing is more annoying than seeing the end of a sonotube peaking out of the ground, with the cardboard wrapping slowly peeling away.

The mitered pieces of decking were subtly elegant details as well. Though I wish we would see more use of composite wood for its environmental benefits.

The front lawn entrance changes from lawn to concrete and then to asphalt with the use of turf blocks - concrete honeycombs which allow turf to grow in the voids while (presumably) allowing a solid enough surface for firetruck parking and other heavy vehicular traffic (like cranes that will install large pieces of artwork).

Of course, that's my practical assumption as to why the turf block was used. I did read a review of the space at this link which interpreted the landscape as a "front garden, with concrete diamonds instead of open lawns. Tufts of grass peek through holes in the grid, as if desperate to escape the symmetry." Right.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sycamores and Dia: Beacon

Last Sunday was a gloriously warm day for New Yorkers - of course, by late February, the bar for 'glorious' is set pretty low: I was thrilled to have temperatures surpass the 40° mark.

In any case, a friend and I celebrated this warmer weather with a trip to Dia: Beacon.

Dia: Beacon is a contemporary art gallery housed in a former cardboard box factory. The large, expansive rooms of the factory, which once housed industrial machinery, now are now indulgently large galleries, flooded with natural light from the pitched skylights. The massive size of the building also allows for quite a few massive (as if there are any other kind) Richard Serra pieces.

The trip itself is lovely as well. Metro North runs a line along the Hudson River and the walk from the train station to the gallery is less than half a mile. During the walk back to the train station, I couldn't help but pause and take a few pictures of this perfect specimen of sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).

I have mentioned sycamores before in my post about London plane trees. Indeed, London planes are a hybrid of sycamore and Platanus orientalis - the plane tree more often found in Europe. Sycamores have larger leaves and whiter bark. The base of the sycamore trunks also have a scaly bark, and only becomes a smooth exfoliating bark further up the tree.

This sycamore is located in a fairly typical microclimate. Sycamores are often found on slopes near riversides and can handle damp spring soil fairly well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

MTA: Fail

This was taken at the Broadway-Lafayette Station in Soho. New Yorkers who spend far too much time below-ground may be able to tell what's wrong with this picture:

If you can't figure out what's off, the Q line is yellow and never runs on the same platform as the B, D & F. Instead, that Q shoulda been a V for the V line.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Here's the last few shots of some beautiful hybrid orchids from Adore Florist in Noho. Most plant enthusiasts probably know that the orchid family, orchidaceae, is the largest family of flowering plants. There are, approximately, 880 genera and 22,000 species of orchid.

I'm guessing that these beautiful fuchsia stems are hybrids of the Vanda orchids, as Vandas may have magenta flowers, take easily to hybridization, and are popular among florists. But with all those genera to chose from, I'm only hazarding a guess. I love orchids, but only as much as the next person. Someday, when I live elsewhere than New York City (and thus have light and can avoid the searingly dry heat that comes with steam-powered radiators every winter) I will experiment further with orchid care. For now, I'm focused on keeping spider plants and sanseveria alive.

When I was a kid living in Malaysia, we had orchids - mostly Oncidiums, I think - growing in the trees of our yard. Like most of the orchids in subtropical or tropical regions, these plants were epiphytes; that is, they lived in the canopies of trees, benefitting from the canopy's microclimate without detriment to the host tree (just like the previously-mentioned Spanish moss).

Orchids in temperate regions are usually terrestrial, so New York natives like Platanthera and Spiranthes appear quite different from the orchids we see in flower shops. What groups such seemingly different looking plants into Orchidaceae are several characteristics: they are monocots (more primitive flowering plants that exhibit parallel veins); they have one modified petal that's called a lip or labellum; and finally, the reproductive parts of the orchid's flower are fused into one column (similar to, but different from the staminal columns of, for instance, Hibiscus).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More from the Florist, & my memories of working at one

When I was in college and grad school, I worked at a florist during the busy periods, namely Homecoming (lots of mum boutonnieres), Mother's Day (whatever arrangement was being pushed by FTD) and of course, Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day was arduous; we would begin working all-nighters starting around the 11th or 12th, putting together arrangements, stripping roses of thorns, taking orders.

It's always amused me that florists are depicted in romantic comedies as mellow, sensitive, easy-going souls. Most recently, Ashton Kutcher plays one in the insipid-looking Valentine's Day. I never saw the movie, but Jennifer Aniston played one in that movie with Aaron Eckhart too, and both trailers would suggest their characters - Aniston's & Kutcher's - support this stereotype. Me, I'm remembering Christian Slater in Bed of Roses - he falls in love with Mary Staurt Masterson from afar, and then sends her flowers anonymously. I think there's also a scene where he's spying on her outside her apartment, which once again prove that whatever's supposed to be angsty and romantic in movie life is actually stalker-y and crazy in real life (I'm looking at you, Lloyd Dobler).

Anyway, this image of the peaceful florist always makes me laugh, because I remember the first one I worked for. She was the most high-stress woman I'd ever met. 5'1" and barely 100 pounds, she was a ferociously hyper, chain-smoking handful of woman (once we actually had a customer complain that her flower arrangement smelled like cigarettes. Oops.). You can understand the pressure, too. On Valentine's Day, a florist has maybe tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, all of which is highly perishable. I don't know the exact statistic, but it'd be safe to say a typical florist can probably make around 10% of their annual profit on this one day. So, I understood my boss being a bit...edgy.

The other thing that's rarely touched on, is that florists really know everything that's going on in a small town. They know who's dead, who's getting married, who's birthday it is. They even know who cheats. I remember a man coming in and giving me two orders, to two different women. One got an order of roses, the other got carnations. My boss told me, after he left, that the girlfriend got the roses, the wife got carnations. Yuck.

Sadly, I realize this post would have been far more topical last week - it may have even gotten picked up by another website. Alas, it was only after this past snow that I was antsy enough to go find some greenery! Perhaps it's just as well; maybe we're happier to think that florists are zen Earth-mother or father figures. Even if, to me, the more relatable movie character for a florist may be Seymour Krelborn.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ranunculus, and a plaintive plea for spring

I am so, so very sick of this snow. February is, to me, the bitterest month. It's cold, it's bleak and this month, the snow has been relentless. I've yet to see even the tiniest bit of Crocus foliage sprout and the snow makes it hard to even spend much time outdoors.

But, the days are lengthening, ever so slowly. And there is always the Duane Reade official sign of spring, the Peep (TM):

It's getting me so rammy that I finally decided to take some snapshots of plants at a florist. So I walked over to Adore Floral in Noho to see what they had blooming in a climate-controlled showroom.

I'll post a few other shots later this week but today we'll focus on Ranunculus asiaticus, or the Persian buttercup. This species of Ranunculus is native to the Mediterranean region and is a protected flower in Israel. It prefers a dry light soil, hot summers and mild winters.

Because it comes in a wide variety of colors and the big flower heads (with rows and rows of petals), it's a popular favorite in the floral industry, though the blossoms are still quite fragile.

Ranunculus are commonly called buttercup due to the buttery yellow color of another Ranunculus species, R. acris. Ranunculus itself is Latin for "little frog" (Rana=frog) because some species of this genus can be found near wetlands, which are also frequented by frogs.

Speaking of etymology, if the species name acris caught your eye, you'd be interested to know that indeed it is given this name because the plant has a bitter acrid taste that can be fatal to livestock if ingested fresh. It's unlikely, however that a cow or horse would eat much of it, due to the taste and the mouth blisters that animals will get after eating only a little of this plant. If humans handle the plant too much, they will also get a case of dermatitis caused by chemicals that can be released from the plant.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rose. Or, well the Rose Center, that is

Back in December, I posted this photo from the NYBG holiday train show - it's a model of the Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium made completely from plant material.

Last night, I passed the real thing, designed by James Polshek and built in 2000. Since my camera's been taking decent night photos - like the ones I took during the Wolf Moon - I thought I would post this.

Polshek says his intention was to build a 'cosmic cathedral.' I'd say he succeeded. Last night it was particularly beautiful, the orb glowing blue in the snowy park that surrounds it. What's more, the planetarium doesn't mar the integrity of the adjacent building, which houses the rest of the American Museum of Natural History. When you encounter the original structure on Central Park West, built by Jacob Wrey Mould and Central Park architect Calvert Vaux, you don't really notice Polshek's addition*, nor the marked contrast of the 133 years that separate the structures. It's not until you turn the corner on 81st Street that you are wowed by Polshek's design.

*Technically, the Polshek's design was not an addition but a renovation of a pre-existing planetarium.  Technically the building is in fact an addition not a renovation. The original planetarium was built in the 1930s and demolished. The design was created by Todd Schliemann and James Polshek of Polshek Partnership.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Plumbago auriculata

While we New Yorkers can rest a little more easily now that the snowstorm has passed (and we really weren't hit too badly at all; apologies to those of you snowed in further south!), there's still scant plant material to observe. So...I'm posting today about a plant in our office, Plumbago auriculata.

Plumbago is native to south Africa but is a common site in California and other Mediterranean climates. It's a vigorous grower and blooms as long as it has full sun and warm temperatures. Ours here, overlooking Crosby Street, would never live outside but the southern exposure has kept it blooming since December.

On a hunch, I checked to see if plumbago was related to phlox or vinca, since the flowers look so similar. No such luck; all three plants belong to different families (Plumbaginaceae, Apocynaceae and Polemoniaceae, respectively).

See below the fibers that protrude from the calyx? Those sticky fibers (commonly referred to as glandular hairs, though technically they are too substantial to be simply hairs) will remain at the base of the flower (look to the far right) and when a seed is ready for germination, they may attach to any animal that happens to pass by the plant. To be sure, I've seen more than a few plumbago seed capsules stuck in my boss's hair after she's watered this plant. These hairs also secrete a mucilage that can trap and kill insects.

The name plumbago is derivative from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. That's because it's believed this plant can cure lead poisoning. The plant is believed to also be a remedy for warts, broken bones and wounds. Indeed, hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is commonly called leadwort.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Zuccotti Park

Back when I used to work for the Department of City Planning, I'd spend a lot of time downtown in the financial district. On lunch breaks, I'd check out Century 21's newest inventory or browse the mall that once existed beneath the twin towers.

I had a friend who worked downtown, too and when the weather was nice we would sometimes eat al fresco at Zuccotti Park (also known as Liberty Plaza Park). That was back before 9/11 so I am not as familiar with the renovated design, designed by Cooper Robertson & Partners, and opened to the public in 2006.

Last Friday was certainly the first time I'd been near the park at night and I was struck by the lighting display. From a distance, I had to stop and wonder if it was some kind of art installation of fluorescent tubes, but then it became clear that they are flush with the paving.

I like it...but I can't help feel that inspires a touch of dread. I instantly associate that lighting with some kind of souless cubicle farm and I begin to worry about finishing my TPS reports.

Friday, February 5, 2010

New Commenting Procedure

Hi all,

A short note to say that you'll need to enter a captcha word when you comment now. If you've been reading recent posts you will see that I've been getting the worst comment spam lately.

I hope it's not an inconvenience. Please keep coming back!


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pieris japonica

As I mentioned last December, seeing the fattened flower buds of trees and shrubs this time of year really keeps me pert during the otherwise dreary winter months. Pieris japonica may very well be the showiest plant when it comes to winter bud display, as you can see from the specimen below, growing in Herald Square.

It seems appropriate that I post about Pieris on the heels of an astronomical post, since Pieris shares its common name with the constellation - and galaxy - Andromeda.

Andromeda was a princess from Greek mythology whose mother, Cassiopeia, was a bit too conceited - she claimed she was more beautiful than the Nereids, daughters of the sea god Nereus. I guess Nereus and Poseidon were tight, so as punishment to Cassiopeia, Poseidon had Andromeda chained to a rock and sacrificed her to Cetus the sea monster. Luckily, Perseus - drunk with his victory of killing Gorgon Medusa - was able to slay the sea monster and rescue Andromeda. They got hitched shortly after.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, perhaps it's because you remember that 'classic' 1981 flick, Clash of the Titans which, incidentally, has been re-made and should be coming to theaters soon.

Anyway, back to the plant. While Pieris japonica is still referred to commonly as Japanese Andromeda, use of this name is discouraged, since there is another plant, bog rosemary, whose scientific name is Andromeda polifolia. Yet another example of how important it is to know the botanical names.

is in the Ericaceae, or heath, family and is related to mountain laurel, rhododendron, azaleas and blueberries. But Pieris is unique from some species those genera because it's not native to the US and, more pragmatically, it is toxic to animals. As a result, deer tend to stay away from it.

As you can see from the images, the plant comes in white and red (as well as pink) flowering varieties.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Last Friday's Wolf Moon

Chances are, many of you readers were forwarded some email or received a facebook post about the moon last Friday. Last Friday the smallest distance between the moon and earth, or its perigree, was reached. Actually, to be more accurate, the moon was as close to earth as it can get - 221,577 miles - at 4:04 AM on Saturday morning.

These photos were taken around midnight so the moon was actually moving closer to us at this time. It's not common for the perigree to occur at the same time that the moon is full, which is why this is considered a special event.

What made it even more unusual, was that Mars was "at opposition" last Friday, too. That meant it was opposite the sun and thus rose with the moon. On January 27, the red planet was nearest to the earth at a mere 61 million miles and was still quite close to us two days later on the 29th (click image above to enlarge).

The name 'wolf moon' was applied by Native Americans who often viewed this midwinter moon with the accompaniment of hungry, howling wolves.

Regular readers know I had to get a new camera recently. I have to say, I think my fairly everyday Canon 10x Zoom did pretty well with these shots. Now if only there was a bit more plant life to shoot!