The Language of Flowers

2012.06.24 Punch Bowl(4)
Foxgloves (Digitalis) – Devil’s Punch Bowl, Hindhead, Surrey

I find flowers pretty hard to write about.

I’m also not sure whether there ought to be a comma in that sentence. (Or should it be a semi-colon?)

I find it pretty hard to write about flowers. I get stuck. I don’t know what I should say.

I love their shapes, their colours, their variations, the profusion of surprises they offer in their deceptive simplicity. There must be a way of working this into prose without it becoming too… prosaic? But I get entangled with botanical details and the tongue-twisting vocabulary required to accurately describe them. Panicles and pedicles. Ovate and pinnate. Spadix, spathe, siliqua, anthers, auricles, monocotyledons – even jizz, I’m completely serious – all feature in the glossary of terms I find myself compelled to consult in order to get to grips with the language of flowers. Even if I am being botanically correct, will anyone know what I am trying to say?

I’m stalling as usual. I find it pretty hard to write, full stop.

Red campion (Silene dioica) – St Anthony, Cornwall

It’s that time of year when the British wild flora is at its best for both profusion and variety.  Hedgerows are bejewelled. Underneath it all the greenery is an untidy tapestry of leaf and stem and stalk, like the tangled reverse of an unpractised embroiderer’s handiwork. The red campion’s come out like a bad rash, having started in real abundance about the same time as the bluebells. Red campion is pink, of course, usually a medium-hued sugar pink that wouldn’t look out of place in either of my niece’s wardrobes, but sometimes a bleached, baby-pink (make sure the comma’s in the right place on that one), and less often still the occasional specimen so bright and deep that it’s almost fluorescent. I love that the tenor of their pink exactly compliments the flame blue of the bluebells in the hedgebanks. Then, when the flair of colour and scent of the bluebells’ flowering has given way to the easily-missable decoration of bluebell seedheads, red campion carries the torch for June flowers and the pinks of early summer.

Little robin, red valerian, thrift or sea-pink, the purpley-pink spires of foxgloves. Roses soon – the cultivated ones at the crossroads are just starting, and some tissuey blooms are appearing on their near-cousins the brambles while we’re waiting for the dogroses. Orchids spike up in the grass. Red clover. The sorrel field where the swallows swish and swoop (get that for some conscientious alliteration) such a paprika pink, a brick pink, the tall rusty stalks undulating as the warm wind sweeps down across the headland.

Umbellifers and sorrel meadow – Pennance, Falmouth

Umbellifers too varied and numerous to identify offer up lace-capped heads that smell of sneezes. Skinny arms reaching up fingers splayed to the sky. Stitchworts are scattered stars and buttons. Daisies nearly everywhere: spangling the better-trodden verges, though you might think they’d grow better undisturbed the reverse is true. I love how in the warm evenings after the sun has gone down and the dark is descending so slowly you don’t really notice its arrival until suddenly there are no colours left and you can’t really see, the rayed heads of the daisies stitchworts reflect back the last few photons of light, appearing to glow in the undergrowth like actual stars.

I have just discovered that daisies are ‘composites’ in the world of flowers. I had assumed, like most people do I suppose, that the head of a daisy – the white fringed yellow dome – was a single flower. In fact they are a cluster of many flowers: each of the tiny yellow tufts making up the centre of a daisy is a single flower in its own right, and the white petals round the edge not petals at all in fact, but sepal-like bracts. See what I mean about deceptively simple? Ask any child to draw you a flower and they will probably approximate a daisy. If I were more of a pedant than I already am I could amuse myself by going round and correcting anyone who called a single daisy-head one flower.

Sheep's-bit scabious (Jasione montana)
Sheeps-bit scabious (Jasione montana) – Pennance Point, Falmouth

I think of this when I find my first sheep’s-bit scabious of the year – not quite fully out – the flower heads rounded octagonal platelets filled with a fractal spiral of beadwork in blue, through green, to a near-yellow and darkest green in the centre: like a tiny and more modest version of a sunflower. Each of these beads will open to reveal a separate, tiny flower with strand-like petals clustered together so the whole head looks like one flower on the end of a stalk. They are the sort of colour I don’t really ever think I like but that I can’t stop looking at when I see it produced in the wild. The sort of blue that’s so close to the edge of the spectrum it makes me wonder what colours we miss by only being able to see the limited spectrum between ultra violet and infra red. The long filamentous stamens that stick out from the dome of mini-flowers have lead to the nickname ‘pincushion flower’, much nicer than ‘scabious’ which is stuck between ‘scabies’ and ‘scabrous’ in the dictionary. Apparently the flowers were once considered to be a cure for skin diseases.

I always wish I knew more flowers. And more about flowers.

The truth is, as well as not being able to write what I want to say about them, I’m not actually as consummate a botanist as some people would have you believe. I increase my knowledge bank gradually, usually by photographing something I like the look of but don’t know the name of, with the aim of looking it up in the book when I get home. The result is that I have a whole cluster of unidentified growing objects frozen electronically on my hard drive, awaiting the time I remember to look them up.

Water avens (Geum rivale) – Dovedale, Derbyshire



It works, if slowly. I’ve just added ‘water avens’ to my mental list of recognisables.

Geum rivale – easy to remember because of the connection between the Latin rivalis and rivers and the fact that I photographed it on the banks of the River Dove.

Well, easy in my confused-brain-logic. With that kind of thought-association going on it’s no wonder it takes me so long to get down a coherent sentence.

I find flowers pretty. Hard to write about.

More on this?

For a real authority on flowers you need to read Meg Bateman. There’s an online version of her informative and beautiful poem ‘The Year’s Flowers’ here (scroll down quite a bit – in fact there’s quite a lot of really good flower stuff on the way down the page before you get to that poem, so maybe don’t scroll too quickly). 

You may also like on Open the Curtains:

Flora vernalis II

how deciphering the official and unofficial language of flowers and the obscurities of plant names might be easier than it appears



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