The Yellow Gentian At The End Of August, With The Col De Balme And Mont Blanc In The Distance.
There is also admirable occasion for the botanist in these gardens: an enlarging opportunity which his Herbarium can scarcely supply. If Botany is, as the dictionary says it is, 'the natural history of plants,' then it is not merely a question of microscope and Latin names; it is the all-round study and knowledge of plants. What is often spoken of as Botany tends too much to 'drive out nature with a fork,' and our conversation with distinguished botanists is too often a talk with what Emerson would call 'accomplished persons who appear to be strangers in nature.' There are, indeed, some botanists who take no interest whatever in the live plant, and who look upon those who do as 'gardeners.' In the 'Memorials' of Professor C. C. Babington is told a story of how a Newnham girl saw a saucer-full of the red fungus Peziza coccinea and exclaimed, 'Oh! how beautiful! What is it V and when told it was Peziza, she said she had 'been working at that for a week'! Mathematical observation as a department in Botany is, of course, of inestimable value; but it can hardly lay claim to make a complete and final statement of the whole matter. Readily may we grant that 'They only know what Nature means Who watch the play behind the scenes'; but the 'gardener' gets behind the scenes quite as efficiently as does the 'botanist,' and he sees things of which the 'botanist' frequently never dreams. But what may be called the School of Realistic Botany is rapidly gaining ground. We are coming to see that we can be a little too jealously inclined to condemn our sciences to separate and solitary confinement. We are coming to see that no speciality can stand alone in any final sense and yet speak the full, round truth; and that, vital as is particularization, generalization is no less important, and must, in the end, be allowed 'the last word.'
Then, again, a visit to a garden in the Alps offers a convenient opportunity for examining some of the numerous theories concerning Alpines. For example, one of these theories is that the proportion of white and yellow flowers to those which are red, blue, and mauve, is less in the Alps than in the plains. It is a theory which has been put forward both by Dr. Percy Groom and Mr. H. Stuart Thompson, and it is one which is perhaps debatable. Mr. Thompson holds that blues, reds, and purples, are not only more abundant in quantity in the Alps than in the plains, but also, though possibly to a less extent, in species; and he cites the Gentians and Campanulas as example. Now I do think that the gardens can throw some light upon this matter, at any rate with regard to the question of species; with regard to quantity, of course, we must appeal to the wild slopes, rocks, and pastures. My own experience is that, at all events in spring, these Alpine rock-gardens show a striking abundance of white, cream, and yellow flowers, whereas there is but a goodly number of red and mauve flowers, and comparatively few that are blue. That is in the Spring. Later, it is true, the blue flowers increase considerably: and yet, white and cream and yellow blossoms seem to continue to hold their own. Mr. Thompson instances the large tribe of Campanulas and Gentians as an argument for the existence of a preponderance of blue. But against these may be set almost the whole army of Saxifrages and Ranunculus; for, with but few red or mauve exceptions, the Saxifrages are white, cream, and yellow, and, with the exception of Ranunculus glacialis (which, after all, starts its career pure white and only turns red when the insects or the winds have inoculated it), the whole group of Ranunculus is either white or yellow. Moreover - and this is a common occurrence among blue flowers - almost every variety of blue Gentian has its white form, as also have very many of the blue Campanulas. I am inclined to think, therefore, that the balance of colour as regards species is very fairly maintained. Naturally, the only way to set the matter at rest would be to have a list of all the flowers of the Alps tabulated according to colour; but, speaking without such a list, I am inclined to think that if the theory has any foundation in fact, it is but slight - too slight for that it should be phenomenally striking.
Mr. Thompson has, possibly, better material with which to make a case for quantity. There is such an extraordinary wealth of red Rhododendron, blue Gentian, and purple Viola, in the Alps, that all other colours seem to be in a charming minority. But this is only in Spring or early Summer, and in certain landscapes. There are other landscapes at the same season which are yellow with the Globe Flower, or the Sulphur Anemone, each of which is accompanied by Buttercups and Dandelions, Rock Rose, Potentillas and Geums; while yet other landscapes are white with the Narcissus, the limestone-loving Windflower, or the Fair Maid of France (Ranunculus aconitifolius), associated with hosts of Marguerites, Bladder-Campions, and other white blossoms. Here again, then, there appears to be room for doubt: for it seems very much a question of district and of moment.
It is, perhaps, a pity to try and pull so pretty a theory to pieces, and I rather hope that my objections may be ill-founded. For the theory is one which admirably accords with the high nature of Alpine plants, particularly those with blue flowers. Whereas yellow flowers have generally the more primitive organism, blue flowers have the highest; and, to quote Dr. Percy Groom, 'In Alpine flowers there is a larger percentage of the colours corresponding genetically to high organization than there is in the lowland.' Now, the Mystic will tell you that blue is heaven's own colour; and surely it is not a little fascinating to think that the further heavenwards some plants climb, the more intense and profuse becomes the blue of their flowers (in the same way as it is fascinating to be able to think that the sweetness of flowers increases with the altitude, and that hives give a heavier yield of honey in the Alps than in the plains). Few will dispute what appears so obvious - that the blue of the Myosotis and the Gentian, and of Eritrichium nanum, 'King of the Alps,' the highest and brightest of all blue Alpines, is unmatched by any blue in the plains. And then, if red is also so predominant in these high altitudes - well, even here the mystic may have his word. He may say that red stands for the vigour of life, and that for due and proper worldli-ness it is possible to have too much blue; and he may quote as instance the unhealthy state which a thus-far perceptive world knows as 'a fit of the blues.' He may argue that, because of this, and because of the abundant blueness of Alpine circumstance, it is only proper that an abundance of red should exist to keep the healthy balance.
And more, in like strain, the Mystic might argue - if he were allowed! But he must not labour the subject here. We shall content ourselves in hoping with him that Dr. Groom and Mr. Thompson may be right in their theory. We shall hope this for the sake of the yet higher reputation and significance of Amine plants: those marvels which already contribute so much to 'expand the fifth sense of wonder.'
Thistles, Anthyllis, And The Apollo Butterfly, With The Aiguille Du Tour. September.