A floral interlude for a (nearly) spring day


In 1884, artist and writer Kate Greenaway wrote a book called The Language of Flowers. Her illustrations are exquisite. You will probably recognize her style. In it she created a veritable dictionary of words and phrases and corresponding flowers. The book begins with a long list of common, and some Latin, names of flowers and their corresponding meaning. Vernal grass means “poor but happy,” corn means “riches,” potato means “benevolence,” the snapdragon means “presumption,” and this startling one, basil means “hatred.” I’ve never thought that humans have had a difficult time expressing that emotion, nor had a need of a flower to express it for them. And what on earth did the humble, sweet-tasting basil do to deserve that coupling?

The second part of the book is another set of lists starting with words and phrases like this one: “Your qualities, like your charms are unequaled,” and the corresponding flower is peach blossom. “Coldheartedness” is paired with lettuce.  Would you give someone you didn’t like a head of lettuce, wouldn’t a look or just avoiding them be more effective and less work?

The third part of the book includes poems where flowers are the star. With a lot of selections by Burns, Shelly, and Wordsworth, the modern audience might find these poems well, overly flowery.  There is even a poem written about how to arrange flowers. To me, after reading this particular poem, it seems like it would create a very large, crowded arrangement if one were to add all the flowers the poem mentions. Let me know if any one of you attempts it.

It’s unclear what sources Kate Greenaway took her information from.  Still, she wrote the book, you can get it on Amazon, and it’s free to download if you google it. It’s worth looking at her artwork alone.  There were a few books before her and many books that followed her lead. It seems to be a subject that still has an audience. 

Kate Greenaway’s book may have reflected a lot of knowledge, seemingly lost today. After all, flowers have been used to express all sorts of human feelings for thousands of years. We have courtiers of the Middle Ages with a “secret” language of flowers, Shakespeare follows suit in Hamlet with some “secret” floral messaging. I’m not quite sure how a secret language works. I suppose it could work between two people, but among hundreds? “Someone grab a pen or a tablet, we need to write this down! I’ve forgotten what basil means!” There’s certainly room for error here. 

We don’t know exactly when flowers became so important in human communication, but we do know from art, dating back at least 5,000 years, that many humans grew and used flowers in religious ceremonies, in offerings to the gods, and in public rituals, symbolically, and for their own private enjoyment. To this day, we refer to the hanging gardens of Babylon as being some of the finest gardens in the world. Writers described them as being a man-made mountain of terraces and fountains with trees shrubs and flowers cascading down it, an engineering wonder. Others ascribe it as a gift of love from a king to his homesick spouse. They’re one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but there’s a lot of controversy around their location and the lack of physical evidence of them. So, they were an absolute marvel, if they even existed. 

Also, in antiquity, we have references that roses were being grown in gardens in China more than 5,000 years ago. The beloved cherry blossoms of Japan have been revered for at least 1,000 years. In fact, there is supposed to be a weeping cherry tree in Japan that is 1,000 years old. The Japanese have an ancient ritual called Hanami, which is commonly known as “flower gazing.” I love this idea! I want this holiday here! Marigolds have been part of Mexican culture since the pre-Columbian era (2,000 to 3,000 years ago). Marigolds were imported into India over 350 years ago and now have a major role in Indian wedding celebrations and other Hindu festivals. Today in Vermont, we use flowers to celebrate just about everything. They’re pretty, they can smell nice, and if you receive red roses, well, they’re not sending you basil.

So, what are flowers, actually?

Botanically speaking, flowers are the physical manifestations of the reproductive structure of angiosperms. What a mouthful! Angiosperms are a species of plant, with over 350,000 varieties, that flower and produce seeds in order to reproduce. Flowers come in every imaginable shape, size, color, and smell. Most flowers have evolved to attract pollinators by their scent, look, and nectar, which allows both the plant and pollinators “to live long and prosper.” We humans have given them a starring role in our emotional lives, now isn’t that interesting?

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