Fibonacci in the Garden—Take 2

Just a couple of Fibonacci thoughts after a weekend in the garden…

Siberian Iris | Image by Joseph D'Agnese

Mystery of the Sixes

Many times I’m asked, “Why do so many flowers have six petals? Six isn’t a Fibonacci number.” Well, it’s true that six isn’t a Fibonacci number, but three is, and many times the flower you’re examining isn’t truly a six-petal flower at all. It is, instead, a three-on-three petal flower. Here’s one of my favorites—the Siberian iris. At first glance, it is a six-petal flower. But then, notice: the three center petals are different from the three outer petals. The dark outer set unfurled first, and set the stage for the lighter-colored inner set of petals. Let that be a lesson to us all. That which appears to be un-Fibonacci sometimes proves to be Fibonacci times two!

Columbine Flowers and Saint Francis Statue | Image by Joseph D'Agnese

Columbine Flowers

These pretty yellow columbine flowers just popped in my garden. (I like to pretend that the little statue is of Fibonacci himself!) Looking closely, I discovered an inner set of five petals and an outer set of five petals. Fibonacci numbers circling Fibonacci numbers...

Flame Azaleas | image by Joseph D'Agnese

Azaleas Yes, Fibonacci No.

These gorgeous flame azaleas used to pop every spring in front of our first house in North Carolina. The old, brittle shrub wasn’t planted in the ideal spot for azaleas, and always struggled in the heat of the summer. But we loved seeing its riotous color every spring.

Azalea flowers typically have 5 petals, which is indeed a Fibonacci number. (This bottom pic of pink ones shows this clearly.) But another source tells me 5 to 7 is the the normal range. This used to make me nuts. Five to seven? Why, oh why, couldn’t it be five to eight, since eight is a Fibonacci number? The answer is, nature does whatever it wants. Statistically speaking, seven is close enough to fall into the Fibonacci range. But you’d have to count a million azalea flowers to chart the results and prove it for yourself...

Pink Azaleas | Image by Joseph D'Agnese

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Fibonacci in the Garden

Bunching onion photo by Joseph D'Agnese

This is such a wonderful time of year because there are so many great discoveries to be made in the garden. I spotted these two fun items this past weekend. 

At the bottom is galium aparine, an edible weed that I recognize from my time in Italy, where it’s called “attaccamano,” or “attach-[to]-hand” or “attack-[the]-hand.” In English it’s better known as cleaver, stickywilly, or stickyweed because its leaves cling like Velcro to human skin. (It’s sometimes called Velcro plant.) At my old house I used to find them with whorls of five leaves—a Fibonacci number—but Dr. Internet says six to eight leaves are typical. If you know my children’s book about Leonardo Fibonacci, you know only five and eight are Fibonacci numbers.

At the top is a bunching onion. We planted a bunch of these last spring and forgot to pull all of them up at the end of the season. The onions were dormant all winter and started putting up spiral-shaped seed heads in spring. The onions are still quite delicious, by the way. I’d love to see how far the spirals go, but I am too tempted to pull them because I need space in the garden bed…and because they are so tasty.

Galium acarine photo by Joseph D'Agnese

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Flowers, and the One Where I Phoned Ellroy

Cosmos flower, photo by Joseph D'Agnese

The weather changed for the worse this weekend in my neck of the woods, but not before I shot some photos of the last few flowers struggling in my front yard. It later occurred to me that both of the flowers I shot had literary connections for me.

The cosmos, which displays its customary 8-petaled Fibonacci number, reminded me of an interview I conducted with organic farmer/poet Scott Chaskey some years ago when I was writing The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life, with my co-author Nell Newman. Chaskey, who later went on to publish a charming book entitled This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm, told me then that cosmos are one of his favorite plants: 

“I know they’re simple and gaudy, but I like them. Last year I planted a long hedge of them, and people would immerse themselves in these six-foot plants and come out happy.”

I myself find these plants really delicate. Every year I dream of sowing them in a thick hedge like the one Chaskey speaks of, but never manage to pull it off. I love watching them bob on their spindly necks. I can’t plant enough of them, and thankfully there are lots of different varieties.

Another Fibonacci eight-petaled flower is the dahlia, which isn’t perennial in most parts of the U.S. In colder climates like ours, if you want them to come back, you have to dig up the tubers at the end of the season and carefully preserve them indoors for planting the following season. I haven’t been able to pull that off successfully either. (Whaddaya want? I’m a writer, not a farmer.)

But I cannot look at these lush flowers without thinking of crime fiction. These days anyone who knows anything about mystery fiction has heard of the famous Black Dahlia murder, probably thanks to James Ellroy’s fictionalized version of the case, and the subsequent film based on the book. But far fewer people probably remember the 1946 film noir called The Blue Dahlia, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix. The film was produced by John Houseman and is best remembered as the work of Raymond Chandler, screenwriter.

Back a hundred years ago, before I knew anything of Ellroy or the gruesome murder case, I saw the Ladd-Lake-Bendix film at a library film series near where I grew up in New Jersey. The series, introduced by a local college professor who specialized in detective fiction, opened my eyes to a bunch of films that I would never have seen otherwise. I also remember thinking it was cool to have a job as a professor analyzing and writing about mysteries. Who knew that they would let you do that? 

Years later, I became obsessed with Ellroy’s work after reading his Dahlia novel. I bought a bunch of his signed, first editions from The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, and read them all in quick succession. Then, one day, I came across an article in People magazine that mentioned that this mad genius lived in a basement apartment in Easchester, New York. 

Gee, I thought, that’s not far from me. I could call him and tell him how much I like his work. Or something. I wasn’t thinking too clearly on this, I have to admit, but I called information and dialed the number.

“Ellroy,” the great man answered.

I panicked, and hung up the phone.

See what beautiful memories come from a walk in the garden?

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Fibonacci Phlox

Phlox image by Joseph D'Agnese

Chillier here today after a massive thunderstorm last night. But these little guys hung in there. They are Emerald Pholox (“phlox subulata”) which display Fibonacci 5 in their petals.

I have not spotted any flowers that show six or four, so I think the number is pretty consistent across the board for the cultivar.

If I had to pick a flower to plant now to share later with kids, I’d pick this little guy. Fun selection for a Fibonacci garden...

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Fibonacci Vinca

Vinca vine image by Joseph D'Agnese

Vinca vine flowers display a Fibonacci 5 configuration, one of the most prevalent numbers in the plant and animal kingdom. (Think starfish, apple seeds, etc.)

These pale blue flowers are blooming now in our area. I like the asymmetrical cast of the petals, which give them a slight sense of movement. They look a little like a child’s pinwheel, designed to catch the wind.

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