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The Garden Gate: Patriotism paraded in fireworks and nature

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

At the time of the Declaration of Independence of this country, John Adams and several of his associates called for fireworks to express their jubilation ― and we have used them in this way ever since.

July is a celebration month. There is Independence Day on July 4 as the birthday of our nation as an independent democracy. In France, the commemoration of the taking of the Bastille on July 14 is observed as a turning point in the 18th-century French Revolution. And we celebrate summer vacations and our gardens.

No one knows exactly when or where fireworks originated, but most historians think they were invented by the Chinese in the 2nd century B.C., when gunpowder was discovered.

The Chinese were convinced that the loud explosions would scare evil spirits away, so they used fireworks in celebrations of weddings, military victories and religious ceremonies. In the Middle Ages, fireworks were used like a form of flaming arrows against their enemies.

From China, the use of fireworks spread to the Islamic parts of Asia, and it was the Arabs who perfected the use of gunpowder. Gunpowder technology was changed somewhat in the 15th century when, by some chance, some gunpowder got wet and dried into a hard cake. It was thought to be spoiled and about to be thrown out. But someone decided the cake could be ground up. The resultant powdery substance was really an improvement over the old form and could be stored for longer periods of time.

Records show that the Chinese knew how to wrap gunpowder in paper in 1040 A.D. With the addition of a few other chemicals, they made a type of firework very similar to those produced today.

The ancient Romans also knew about fireworks. In 670 A.D., Roman soldiers used fireworks to frighten their enemies. By the early 1300s, the Germans were using fireworks in battle the same way.

The first Europeans to manufacture fireworks were the Italians. They made them on a large scale until the end of the 17th century. All over Europe, Italian fireworks were used to mark great occasions. Even the earliest settlers in the New World used fireworks for celebrations ― and to impress the Native Americans.

Some of the first firecrackers were made of bamboo. Until the 16th century, people who made and displayed fireworks were called firemasters.

Today, most fireworks are made in factories, where they are still assembled and packed by hand. It is a simple but rather dangerous process. Fireworks have mostly the same ingredients the Chinese used centuries ago.

July is a month of hot and humid days and nights. It’s a month of fireworks and celebrations, picnics and swimming pools. And so many of the flowers of July, oddly enough, are red, white and blue. It’s as if nature is celebrating America’s Independence Day.

In some municipal gardens, flower plots are arranged in the shape of flags, with the appropriate colors of floral blooms planted in stripes and stars. But in many gardens, there are also borders of red, white and blue. It’s as if the world of horticulture bows in deference to our national patriotism.

Flowers have always been used to signify ideas and emotions. In the Chinese garden calendar, the lotus is the flower for July and summer. The Japanese, however, give credit to the mountain clover as the flower for this month, and for its symbol of domestic virtue.

The flowers of July sometimes silently echo the noisy colors of the fireworks displays we love to see. For example, the brilliant reds of cannas and red-hot pokers, the blue of larkspur and the white of syringa, magnolia and daisies.

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

Perhaps one can hear a mild echo of the smash of fireworks in the hum of bees and the lilting songs of birds.

All through history, flowers have been so important in so many ways. Garden fashions come and go, and garden ornaments and structures have their fleeting fashions. But the flowers of summer are always the much-loved and very symbolical signs of traditions, emotions and of summer, as they have always been.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.