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Bizarre Flowers Wake up the Eye

Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica) originally charmed me with its inch-tall, silver-blue-green leaves, that grow from rosettes to dense mats, making a great low groundcover. But in early summer, it takes on a completely different character, sprouting six-inch stems, each with a cluster of odd little pale-pink flowers that look more like a tuft of fuzz than what I think of as a flower. At first I thought they were ungainly, and especially disliked the fuzz when it shed all over. Now I regard them as funny, and can even see the resemblance to the fur-surrounded pads of a cat's foot.

Jack-in-the-pulpit flowers strike my eye as both weird and graceful. A small stand, started with a gift, has kept going for seven years in my woods -- although they'd like it a lot moister. The "pulpit" -- technically a spathe -- wraps around the "jack" -- or spadix, a round-topped cylinder, with the actual flowers deep at its base: little green berry-shapes for female flowers, and yellow, pollen-covered threads for male. Tiny fungus gnats pollinate this plant: they escape through a gap at the base of the spathe in the male plant, but in the female, there is no exit and they are trapped.

My favorite strange flowers are the tall spikes of lambs' ears, which bear a few sparse purple florets straggling along the bumpy, fuzzy silver baton. Many people cut down these homely blooms, growing the plant for its beautiful foliage alone. I leave them, and try to appreciate the variety they give. Last fall I even found a found a setting where they shone. In an arrangement of tiny, wispy pale purple asters, red flame grass, deep red perilla leaves and perilla's delicate compound spikes of tiny red flowers, the dense white spears became an architectural element, which by contrasting with the others made the whole composition more interesting.

Beauty, I know, is not only in the eyes of the beholder: it's also determined by the culture we live in. For example, I was shocked when I first saw a collection of kimonos: the color combinations within one garment often looked garish to my Western eyes. So when I look at the oddballs in my flower collection, I try to let them stretch my mental horizons. I just learned that the flowers of pussytoes dry well. I wonder what it'd be like to use them in an arrangement?

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 2 January 2004, as "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

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