The Garden Gate: Celebrate July with a bang and patriotic floral hues

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
July is a month of celebrations historically, patriotically and religiously — and for just plain summertime fun.

In spite of its hot, humid days and nights, July is a month filled with picnics, fireworks, swimming pools, sunshine, thunderstorms, watermelons and corn-on-the-cob.

And let’s not forget serious remembrances of important religious and patriotic observances.

The Christian festival of Pentecost grew directly from the Jewish Feast of Weeks.

We learn of the first Christian Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles as they are gathered in the upper room, praying on the Jewish festival day.

We often speak of this moment as the birth of the Church, and it changed forever the way Christians would look at this feast.

It is often referred to in Scripture as the Feast of Weeks, as it occurred seven weeks, (a week of weeks) after the Passover.

By the time the United States declared independence from the British Empire, John Adams and several of his contemporaries called for fireworks to celebrate the event.

We have been doing likewise ever since.

No one knows with any certainty just when or where fireworks came from.

Most historians believe they were invented in ancient China in the second century B.C., at the time of the discovery of gunpowder.

According to ancient scholarly records, the discovery was an accident.

Legend says someone threw what they thought was salt into a cooking fire, and the resulting colorful flames led to fireworks.

The Chinese believed loud explosions would frighten away evil spirits, so they used fireworks in celebrating weddings, victories in war and in religious ceremonies.

At about this same time, the use of fireworks spread to the Islamic areas of Asia, and the Arabs perfected the use of gunpowder.

Sometime in the 15th century, gunpowder technology changed somewhat when by chance some gunpowder got wet and dried into a hard mass.

Thought to be spoiled, it was thrown away. But someone thought to grind up the cake of dried gunpowder, and the resultant substance was found to be an improvement over the old form and was easier to store.

By 1040 A.D., the Chinese were wrapping gunpowder. With the addition of chemical color pigments, they made a type of fireworks much like the ones we have today.

The ancient Romans knew about fireworks, too. Roman soldiers were using fireworks to frighten their enemies by 670 A.D.

The Germans, too, were doing this by the early 1300s.

The first Europeans, descendants of the Romans, made fireworks on a very large scale until the end of the 17th century.

Italian fireworks were used all over Europe to mark great occasions. Even the earliest settlers in the New World used fireworks for special occasions and, incidentally, to frighten the Indians on occasion.

Most of today’s fireworks are made in factories, where they are assembled and packed by hand.

It is a simple but rather dangerous system, since modern fireworks have many of the same ingredients the Chinese used centuries ago.

Some of the first firecrackers were made of bamboo.

Until the 16th century, people who made or displayed fireworks were called firemasters.

It is somehow appropriate that so many of the flowers in our gardens in July have the red, white and blue colors of our Star-Spangled Banner itself.

Examples are the brilliant reds of cannas and redhot pokers, the blues of larkspur and the white of syringa, magnolia and daisies.

Some municipal gardens have flower plots arranged in the form of a flag with the appropriate colors of flowers arranged in stripes and stars.

In many gardens, one sees borders of red, white and blue, too.

It is as if the world of horticulture bows in lavish deference to our national patriotism.

Flowers have always been used to symbolize and signify ideas and emotions.

In the Chinese flower calendar, the lotus is the flower for July and summer.

The Japanese, however, give credit to the mountain clover as the flower for July and the symbol of domestic virtue.

The flowers of July sometimes seem to echo silently the noisy colors of the fireworks displays we all love to see.

Another trademark of July and summer is the watermelon. No Fourth-of-July picnic would be complete without one.

Watermelons have been cultivated in Egypt and Palestine for uncounted centuries.

They have been used to make medicines, beverages and food in Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land and throughout all that part of the world.

The watermelons of Egypt often are so large that they weigh more than 30 pounds.

They were introduced into England, and thence to the rest of the world, in the middle of the 16th century.

Many historians believe that the watermelon is the one which the children of Israel longed for in the desert of Sinai.

According to legend, in the Holy Land, the prophet Elisha became so incensed at all types of melons and gourds and cursed them angrily because of a bad experience he had with them.

A field full of large melon-shaped rocks on top of Mount Carmel are said to be the petrified melons which are the products of Elisha’s wrath.

Your garden can express your patriotism and personality with the colors and scents and tastes of July’s plants.

Perhaps there is a silent echo of the smash of fireworks, the hum of bees and the lilting songs of birds.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.