Pied Beauty

As a gardener I know there is more to horticulture than flowers. But, if I’m brutally honest, grasses, foliage and ferns are just so many kinds of exotic foreplay, flowers will always be the money shot.

But why? Why flowers? Why do they hold such an appeal, be they in the garden, on the windowsill or clasped between the teeth? In essence why am I devoting my life to colourful films of water and carbon?

Where to begin.  A mainstay of academic aesthetics over the last century has been the theory of cultural conditioning.  We like flowers because  Shakespeare writes about them, because Wordsworth writes about them, because Blake, Burns and Dickinson write about them; because people have painted them, printed them and pressed them. According to this view, accrued meanings and cognitive habits gave rise to the flowers’ power and, we all go along with it because, like teenage girls at a Twilight premier, we are programmed to fit in.

Programmed to fit in

Cultural conditioning cannot easily be dismissed, after all I remember the early 90’s when we were conditioned to find centre partings and sportswear sexy. But it won’t wash with flowers. Every culture, no matter how historically or geographically diverse, has found flowers attractive. Ancient gods are celebrated with flowers, some of the earliest art is floral and pollen from ornamental flowers have been found (in statistically meaningful amounts) in graves dating from around 10,000 BC. Nearly every insulated tribe discovered by westerners in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is recorded as having used flowers as ornamentation, you can bet that none of them had ever listened to Wordsworth’s Ode to a Daffodil or Seal’s Kiss from a Rose.

So is the human attraction to flowers evolutionary, and if so, why? Nicholas Humphrey, in his 1973 essay on the biology of aesthetics, The Illusion of Beauty, argues that the beauty of flowers lies in their huge variety on a limited plane. Most flowers are similar in size, height and location, and they are all easily recognizable as flowers, yet there are almost unlimited variations among them.  As such they invite classification; people like to distinguish, say, an Aconite from a Delphinium or 132 named cultivars of geranium from each other. Humphrey argues that this is not high end horticultural geekery, but a fundamental  evolved human pleasure, as powerful as the drive for food and sex.

 Without the ability to classify the world, eg dangerous tribe, friendly tribe, humans would not have managed to reach its sophisticated social heights – to appreciate flowers is to assert what it is to be human (this also explains the appeal of music, or classifying sounds and rhythms as I like to call it)

O.K, sounds slightly farfetched, but it would explain why horticulturalists never want to stop learning, and why they never have a ‘favorite flower’ for more than a few months. There are a plethora of other evolutionary flower theories out there. Flowers represent genitals – think baboons. Flowers are tasty – think Nasturtiums. Flowers signify a land of fertility and plenty – think any Edenic vision. My personal favorite is that any hunter gather who can spend his time foraging around for flowers has obviously got his shit together and is definitely shag-worthy.

Others ignore evolutionary theory and focus on symmetry and scale. The old ‘Golden Ratio’ theory crops up again and again in forms of nature we find attractive. That flower in your garden is not just a pretty collection of petals, it’s the Acropolis, The Parthenon, Vitruvian Man, and Le Corbusier – all rendered in carbon, water and pretty shades of pastel.

Man in full bloom

 The young Gerald Manly Hopkins discussed the nature of symmetry and asymmetry in nature in his essays, diaries and poems. In an early undergraduate essay he forms a platonic dialogue between an undergraduate and a professor. They sit in a college garden debating whether a six or seven fanned chestnut leaf is the more beautiful, a scene I wish I could recognize from my undergraduate life. Eventually they decide the 7 lobed leaf is the more pleasing, because the leaf is ostensibly asymmetrical yet its internal structure shows an almost perfect symmetry.

This speaks to me. Most of my favorite flowers have an uneven number of petals, yet all contain symmetry in the petals, sepals, carpals and stamen. Later in life Hopkins, now a respected poet,  writes: ‘I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature; for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, shape, effect, etc. Then when the passion, so to speak, has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, and acknowledged with admiration and interest ever after.’ If this isn’t Nicholas Humphrey’s biological aesthetics writ poetically large then god knows what is.

Young Gerard

So if it ever comes down to the crunch, and I am forced at knife point to confess just exactly why I like flowers, and why I have chosen them over more conventional goals, such as one day being able to afford a house, I will say with confidence “because I am a poet, because (1 +√5) ÷ 2 is finest ratio going, but most of all BECAUSE I AM A MAN.

Garden Museum Blog

I have starting blogging for The Garden Museum. This is the address. Bensgardenblog shall remain c0mpleatly unaffected, so have no fear sporadically-updated-cod-historical-garden-blog-fans. The new site is slightly better grounded in reality, and I shall be using to it do prosaically garden blog things, like talk about plants.

Anyone who thinks the tedium of me writing about plants might be too much to bare – read my friends comics blog instead.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Fancy Flowers

Continental drift is unarguably impressive, and really can’t be rivalled in the field of volcano creation, but as a method of pan-national plant exchange it is inefficient to the point of redundancy. So, international plant fans, give thanks for today’s horticultural hero, the man who saved us from the caprices of tectonic tango and gave flora the freedom of the globe. Father to a thousand botanic gardens, husband to a million bastardised ecosystems, step forward Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward!

Dr Ward: Dreamt of Moss

Nathaniel Ward was a simple man with a simple dream – to ‘possess an old wall covered with ferns and mosses’. A mossy wall is a modest dream to most of us spoiled future dwellers, I once lived in a flat that even had a mossy ceiling, but given the fuliginous atmosphere of early nineteenth century London he might as well have wished for moon beam tea – ferns and mosses just do not  grow in air thick enough to support weight.

One mid morning in the sticky summer of 1829 the disconsolate and fernless Doctor was sitting in his study, peering at a bottled Sphinx Moth and thinking about moss, when he noticed something strange about the bottles substrate, something had germinated. There, nestled in the mould, on a windowsill in filthy East London, was a tiny seedling of Dryopteris filix-mas, the Male heart fern.  If you dare to dream nothing is impossible! Within half a decade Ward had his mossy wall, albeit a wall behind glass. He also had a fern-covered soapstone model of the west window of Tintern Abbey  – sometimes it’s hard to stop at a plain old wall.

A Wardian Case Yesterday

But you all know the story of the Wardian Case. This post is not about Hooker, Kew, Rubber plants and sailing ships, you can read about that far more exiting world here. This post is about horticultural signposts on the road to damnation. You see, this morning I was reading Ward’s On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Case (its pissing down outside), and found a chapter where the author ruminates on his terrarium, and its possible impact on the impressionable souls of the lower classes:

But I must here caution the poor against indulging a taste for what are called fancy flowers… Believing that all human pursuits ought to be estimated in exact proportion to as they tend to promote the glory of God, or the good of man, let us for a moment compare the empty chase after fancy flowers with the legitimate pursuits of horticulture and floriculture. So far from the love of god, and the good of his fellow creatures, being the end aim of the fancy florist, he values everything in proportion as it is removed from Nature, and unattainable to mankind.

An excellent sentiment, for the road to hell is indeed paved with fancy flowers. But It seems no-one is concerned about the horticultural predilections of the lower classes anymore. The latest issue of Horticulture Week, for example, reviews gardening utility vehicles, and focuses wholly on superficial categories such as; ‘weight including fluids’ and ‘ground clearance’. Truly important specifications such as ‘most likely to see its owner living in a garret with a common prostitute’ and ‘most likely to see its owner grown rich and sheriff of London’ are ignored. Gardening it seems has sadly lost its perceived right to comment on the moral status of the working class, and without this it’s really just a load of boring old plants.

A Misguided Gardener Living in a Garret with a Common Prostitute

So, how’s this for my new-latest-doomed-to-failure-television-pitch/saving-horticulture-from-its-self-project: Soul Digging – Lionel Blue, Archbishop Rowan Williams and I travel middle England in a three seat transit performing two day ‘miracle makeovers’ on  gardens and gardeners. Think Thought for the Day crossed with Groundforce. I’ll take control of the heavy landscaping work and play the part of blundering sinner, always being rescued on the verge of covetousness or simony. Rowan can be the plant man and give the scriptural reasons why hybrid lilies should be uprooted (Gen 1:11) and why God Hates Figs (Mark 11:12-14). Lionel can be in charge of wise cracking, sucking up to the common man and champagne opening.

With the success of this program gardeners should once more be able to take up their places in the moral pantheon, somewhere between County Coroner and Secretary of State, we can stop all this trendy getting muddy and wet and miserable business, and resume leading people back into the vegetable kingdom of heaven. I’m sure Dr Ward would approve; television is nothing but a glorified Wardian case, and Soul Digging its Tintern Abby.