David Seff is a mathematics professor residing in the New York Metropolitan area. When he is not in the classroom or tutoring students, or doing his own research,in good weather, you may very well find him gardening. His affinity for flowers and gardens began as a child when he planted his own garden with flowers and vegetables. As he got older, he began taking courses in horticulture and botany at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as well as read a number of books and articles on both gardening and on horticulture.
The color, beauty, medicinal properties, and culture relating to plants has fascinated David’s multi-faceted personality. And, of course, gardening is a very pleasant way to get exercise, fresh air, and sunshine.
For many years, David was a member of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The beautiful 52-acre botanic garden is located in the heart of Brooklyn. The garden includes a number of speciality gardens and plant collections with over 10,000 taxa of plants.
David has a special appreciation for cherry trees, and in his reading on them, discovered that Central Park actually holds a variety of over 250 different types of cherry trees. David was first attracted to cherry trees for the simple reason that his parents had one in their own backyard when he was a child. All his friends loved to climb on the cherry tree, as it had low branches and was not tall like an oak tree, making it easy for young children to climb. And when the cherries were ripe, many friends and relatives would come to pick cherries, and his grandmother would bake cherry pies.
Another attraction to the cherry trees was the beautiful pink blossoms. While not all cherry tries have purely pink blossoms, they come in many different shades, some also white. Cherry wood is also quite attractive and the source of quality furniture. The size, color, and shape of the blossoms were fascinating to David, as well as the different types of wood and bark. Consequently he started studying about different types of blossoms, of other trees, as well as of flowers, and once planted a garden that provided, in different sections, multiple colors, various fragrances, and different times of bloom throughout the day, as well as different season throughout the year.
He even designed an old-fashioned English “flower clock.” Since not all flowers bloom the entire day, but only at certain hours, a flower clock is an array of different types flowers that has a different set or small patch of flowers opening its blossoms at each different hour of the day. This arrangement is the standard “flower clock.” He, though, had two innovations. First, he was planning to have a large analogy clock placed on his lawn, and second, the numbers on the dials would be made out of the flowers. For example, the number “four” on the clock would be the shape of a small patch of four-o’clocks. This project would combine his interests of math and physics in designing and building the clockwork and gears, as well as his love of flowers. Unfortunately the project had to be abandoned due to the difficulties involved in making a viable outdoor clock with moving hands that was weather proof to be anchored into the ground.
His favorite flower is the Sweet William, and his gardens have almost always included those, but also a wide range of colors, with flowers intentionally planted in proximity to have contrasting colors, such as blue and yellow, or orange and purple.
As these color combinations have fascinated him, he once taught a course at The New School, entitled “Color, Beauty, Light” combining the scientific study of color with its artistic qualifies with an emphasis rainbows, halos, glories, and other natural displays of light, as well as on flowers and butterflies.
He has also planted vegetables, most notably tomatoes. Aside from the fact that he loves tomatoes, as is typical of his insatiable curiosity, he has made a study of medicinal plants, and is convinced that eating store-bought tomatoes is actually harmful. Fruits and vegetables that do not ripen naturally—and tomatoes are generally picked when hard and green from farms in California, lest, if shipped when ripe and soft they would be badly bruised in shipping—have a significantly different chemical content than those that ripen naturally. Of course, a consumer cannot tell the difference by visual observation, as wholesalers ripen fruits and vegetables artificially by putting them in special warehouses (near the retailers) with alcohol to cause a quick ripening. (Canned tomatoes, however are generally picked when ripe and therefore safe to eat.) Only homegrown tomatoes or those bought at local farmers’ markets are truly safe.
Similarly, cherries, unknown to most experts, are a great brain food. Some chemicals in cherries go straight to the brain, almost immediately after eating, and boost one’s brain power. David has also studied the plants of Central Park that have medicinal properties. Many scientists are now beginning to realize that a lot of folk medicine, used by so-called primitive tribes in the Amazon jungle or the South Pacific Islands have very useful medicinal properties, and now there is a greater call to stop the deforestation of the Amazon jungle for fear many species of fauna and flora, especially those of potentially great medicinal value, may be lost forever. Indeed, an article in Scientific American, appearing about twenty years ago, mentioned the significance of the medicinal potential of “folklore” medicine based upon tropical rainforests.
(Only recently have Western scientists discovered that the “sweat” of yellow or other brightly colored frogs in the Amazon jungle, used by the tribes there as the poison put on the tips of the darts used in hunting, has great value as an anesthetic and is now actually used in hospitals. The American Museum of Natural History—one of David’s favorite places to visit—recently had an entire display dedicated to this newly discovered genus of frogs.)
Culturally, aside from the medicinal properties, there is much of interest in the world of plants. For example, there is the Japanese legend that is the basis of the Cherry Blossom Festival involving the escape of a woman from her pursuer. Or for another example, consider the use of mistletoe, in the Norse legends, by Loki, to kill his enemy. The origin of the shape of the crown of the king, also comes from plants—King Solomon designed his crown with its spikes to be shaped like the spikes of a pomegranate, one of the seven fruits which the Bible says the Land of Israel is blessed, in Deuteronomy 8:8. The Talmud, and other traditional Jewish sources are full of praises of these fruits for their nutritional, medicinal, and spiritual qualities.