Pack Art Backstory: Phoenix Nasturtium

A discussion with artist Roger Peet

Endemic to South and Central America, Nasturtium, arrived in Europe as early as the 1500s, where it was eventually named in Carl Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum some two hundred years later. Observing Nasturtium’s peltate leaves and nectar-spurred flowers, Linnaeus thought of the trophy poles upon which the ancient Greeks would hang their shields and blood-stained helmets; so he named this plant family Tropaeolaceae, after the Greek tropaion, meaning “trophy pole.”

Phoenix Nasturtium, named for the mythical bird reborn from its own ashes every 500 years, is something of a trophy for the work of seed savers who kept this variety alive despite its disappearance from seed catalogs over the past century. Having lost the flower fashion wars, this flame-like beauty went underground but was kept alive by gardeners who quietly saved the seed and regrew it season after season. Emerging from obscurity once again, its unusual split-petal, ivy-leaved characteristics are back on the scene. 

To help us celebrate the independent spirit of seed savers, who do so much to preserve the genetic diversity of seeds, we connected with Oregon-based artist Roger Peet.

Roger Peet lives and works in Portland where he collaborates with JustSeeds, a network of artists addressing social, environmental, and political causes of urgent concern. But his colorful and imposing murals can be found all across the country as part of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Mural Project. Roger’s prints, murals, and other artworks focus on “civilized bad ideas, predator-prey relationships, and the contemporary crises of biodiversity and Capitalism and what can and can’t be done about them.” His work with the JustSeeds Artists’ Cooperative, which provides free imagery for activists, calls to mind the future-oriented seed savers and seed sharers who buck the trends, cultivating their own ideas and ideals.

For Phoenix Nasturtium, Roger created an original woodcut print on paper, with hand-colored details in colored pencil. At its center is a single Nasturtium blossom surrounded by–or perhaps emerging from–a nearly symmetrical framework of layered flames, suggesting an instantaneous and powerful explosion. “It's a simple imagining of a flower born in fire,” Roger says. Phoenix Nasturtium, he notes “is quite a wild shape, with equally wild colors–it really evokes the tendrils and shapes of flame.” For us, his image recalls the phoenix bird’s rebirth from a process of self-immolation, but also the tenderness of species surrounded on all sides by threats to biodiversity.

Asked why he makes art, Roger says: “There isn't a specific reason that I make art. It is a means to present ideas to an audience, but it’s also a means of building an audience for your ideas. I’m one of the lucky few able to make a living at it, so that’s certainly a reason as well. I like to imagine my art as something similar to someone changing a tire or making a sandwich–a useful social service that isn’t sacred or self-important, just something that helps the way the world works.”

Seed savers, too, build their audience by supplying others with unique plant varieties that we can all grow; and like gardens, art sustains and nourishes us. “A good seed packet certainly captures my eye when I'm looking for things to plant!" Roger says, "There's a long history of art representing gardens and their products, for sale or as resources. It's nice to be able to join that history with this piece.”

As an extension of his work featuring endangered species, Roger’s art was recently used for an animation produced by Mongabay, to help explain the multiple ways human activities threaten the Sumatran Rhino. Of his influences, he says, “I draw a lot of my inspiration from the natural world and the forms within it, as well as their history and the way their priorities are both similar and different to ours, as humans.” We continue to be inspired by Roger's commitment to species preservation, and we are so grateful for his contribution to the seed story of Phoenix Nasturtium.

Grow Phoenix Nasturtium in containers or along borders where you can appreciate its gorgeous ivy-shaped foliage and flame-like serrated blossoms. The peppery flowers and leaves are edible and high in lutein. And don't forget to save these open-pollinated seeds that will grow true-to-type year after year!

To learn more about Roger Peet and his artwork, visit his website. Prints and apparel with his designs can be found on Justseeds, or shop his Etsy store.

To keep with Roger on social media, follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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