Chasing Nature

Bryan Pfeiffer is, by his own description, a “field biologist, recovering journalist, fledgling geezer, boy explorer. I chase flying things (mostly birds and insects) and worthy ideas about human nature.” His online newsletter, Chasing Nature, publishes “dispatches on wildlife, wild places, and the human condition.” Here’s an example:

WTF No. 6: The Eroticism and Mythology of the Naked Bud

And the Mischaracterization of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flower Portraits

January 14, 2022

ALTHOUGH IT IS HARDLY my intent, this winter bud might evoke for you the sensuality of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. It is, after all, what botanists call a “naked bud.” 

And yet this week’s WTF allows me to address misperceptions about O’Keeffe’s flowers and about plant parts like this — the terminal bud of a forest shrub called Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides).

In the arena of gender and sexual politics, our cultural linking of flowers with femininity and fertility is at the very least botanically invalid. Flowers are male or female or both — or even fluid. And art, like sexuality, can be … you know … complicated.

Until the impressionists, men didn’t much paint flowers. They painted animals and gods, men and women, warfare and landscapes. Women didn’t paint — or when they did they were probably too often expected to paint pretty things like flowers. (Martina Pugliese who writes Doodling Data Cards points out in comments below that Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi was among notable exceptions.)

Men also critiqued art and controlled public discourse on sexuality during O’Keeffe’s career. Her flowers were cast not necessarily in the light and wonder of nature, but in the defective ideas of Sigmund Freud. It didn’t help that O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, saw a marketing opportunity in likening her flower portraiture to soft-core porn — an artistic intent she steadfastly denied for decades.

As a modernist, Georgia O’Keeffe gave us the desert and other landscapes, and flowers that were biologically intimate and psychologically contemplative. “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it,” she once said, “it’s your world for the moment.”

So, regardless of its sensuality, in life and on canvas, sometimes a flower is just a flower. And most of the time a flower can be your world.

More to the point of botany, my naked Hobblebush bud above is an expression of potential: two undeveloped leaves clasping a nascent flower, waiting for the light and warmth of spring. (Scroll up and have another look.)

Most woody plants aren’t as explicit as this in winter. Their developing leaf and flower tissue is usually sheathed in specialized leaves, overlapping like fish scales, called cataphylls, more commonly “bud scales.” (An example is the American Beech bud below.)

Conventional thinking is that bud scales protect the developing leaf or flower from desiccation or damage in extreme winter conditions, and from herbivory by birds or mammals. As a result, naked buds are supposedly rare in colder, temperate climates.

But perhaps not as rare as we had thought. Kristel M. Schoonderwoerd and William E. Friedman, writing in the journal New Phytologist point out that naked buds aren’t so rare in winter — and that among certain plants bud scales aren’t necessarily required for surviving low temperatures.

Rather than simply scaled or not scaled, the authors describe no fewer than six different ways a bud can be naked. Wet summers, leaf size and structure and development during an entire growing season may figure more so than cold in a plant’s adaptation to go naked in winter.

I won’t go into the details — you can read them for yourself in the journal article. Or not. As always, your prerogative here is to simply enjoy the form (even sensuality) of a Hobblebush bud naked to the world or a cloistered beech bud that is not — and to remember that botany, like sexuality and art, is nothing if not complicated.

WTFs are weekly Wild Things Flying, Fornicating, Feeding, Flirting, Faking, Flowering or Flashing — a provocative or evocative image and relevant thoughts about the world every week or so here on Chasing Nature. (I guess these plants buds are Wild Things Flirting with our senses.)

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