This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
The Venetian painters must have studied colour in the hues of flowers; for the brilliant, distinct, and warm tone of their works affects the spectator exactly as these rainbow gems; especially when they strike the eye in an isolated position, or surrounded by dim umbrage. Nor is this effect confined to the domesticated flowers; for the richest and most delicate gradations of tint occur among uncultivated and indigenous plants, such as the Lobelia of the swamp, the Saffron of the meadow, and the nameless variety of prairie blossoms. There are few more curious subjects of speculation than the modus operandi by which such an infinite diversity of colours are obtained from the same apparent source. This is an exquisite secret of Nature's laboratory. The physiology of plants has been successfully investigated; and it is interesting to consider that the vitality of flowers is much the same as our own as regards its process, though so different in kind. They have affinities of sensibility; they germinate and fructify; but the elements they assimilate are more subtle than those which sustain animal organisation; yet sun, earth, and air, nourish them according to a nutritive principle not unlike that by which our frames are sustained.
The reciprocal action between vegetable and organic life, and their respective absorption and diffusion of gases, is one of the most beautiful expositions of science. But the instinct of flowers is not less curious; some fold their leaves at the approach of a storm, and others open and shut at particular hours, so that botanists have rejoiced in floral dials and barometers. Their relation to sight and smell is very obvious, but that to touch is less regarded; and yet it is extraordinary how the feel of almost every known fabric can be realised by the contact of leaves. Where the touch is sensitive, experiments of this kind may be tried, much to the amusement of the sportive; for many leaves, if unperceived, and at the same time subject to an exquisite touch, give the sensation of animal, insect, and even mineral substances, indicating how intricately modified are the proportions of fibre, down, juice, and enamel in their composition.
In their associations, however, flowers are quite independent both of rare qualities and peculiar beauty. Almost all great men have loved rural seclusion, and have had their favourite villa, island, arbour, or garden-walk. In Switzerland, Germany, and, indeed, every where on the continent, these places, consecrated by the partiality, or endeared by the memory of genius, are shrines for the traveller. Such are Clarens, Vaucluse, and Coppe. Lamartine's tenderness for Milly, his childhood's home, as exhibited in his late writings, illustrates a sentiment common to all imaginative and affectionate men; but it is observable that sometimes these charmed spots boast no remarkable floral attractions, often only sufficient to make them rural; a grove of pines, a small vineyard, a picturesque view, and not unfrequently a single tree, like the famous old elm at Northampton, amid whose gigantic branches Dr. Edwards, who wrote the celebrated treatise on "the will," was accustomed to sit and meditate; any truly natural object, redolent of verdure and shade, is enough. And the hedges of England, the moors of Scotland, the terrace-gardens of Italy, the scrambling prickly-pear fences of Sicily, and the orchards of America, are attractive to the natives of each country on the same principle.
It is the beautiful distinction of flowers that, gathered into magnificent horticultural shows, or hidden in lonely nooks, they alike address the sense of beauty; so that a little sprig of Forget-me-nots may excite a world of sentiment, and one Scarlet Geranium irradiate an entire dwelling.
Flowers not only have their phenomena, but their legends. The latter are usually based upon some idea of a sympathetic character, as that which transforms Daphne into a Laurel, and changes the pale hue of a flower to a crimson or purple at the occurrence of human shame or misfortune. Even veneration is excited by the mysterious natural history of some flowers, or the idea they symbolise. Thus the Aloe, that blossoms once in a century, and the night-blooming Cereus, which keeps vigil when all other flowers sleep, and the Passion-Flower, in which the Catholics behold the tokens of our Saviour's agony, have a kind of solemn attraction for the eye and fancy.
There is no little revelation of character in floral preferences. It accords with the humanity of Burns, that he should celebrate the familiar Daisy; with the delicate organisation of Shelley, that a Sensitive Plant should win his muse; and with Bryant's genuine observation of nature that he dedicates a little poem to an inelegant and neglected Gentian. It is in harmony with the church-attachments of Southey, that his most charming minor poem is in praise of the Holly, the symbol of a Christian and national festival; and no poet but Crabbe would descend to so homely a vegetable product as Kelp. There is no flower more peculiar in its beauty and growth than the Water Lily; accordingly Coleridge, with his metaphysical tendency to seize on rare and impressive analogies, has drawn a comparison from this flower which strikes me as one of the most poetical as well as felicitous in modern literature. Speaking of the zest for new truth felt by those already well instructed, as compared with the indifferent mental appetite of the ignorant, he says, " The Water Lily, in the midst of waters, opens its leaves and expands its petals at the first pattering of the shower, and rejoices in the raindrops with a quicker sympathy than the parched shrub in the sandy desert." The dreamy, half-sensuous and half-ideal nature of Tennyson is naturally attracted by the sweet ravishment innate in the breath and juices of some flowers.
He is fitted keenly to appreciate the luxurious indolence and fanciful ecstasy thus induced; and therefore one of the most effective and original of his poems is "The Lotus-Eaters." Moore's famous image of the Sunflower is a constant bone of contention between horticulturists and poets; the former asserting that it does not turn round with the luminary it is supposed to adore, but is as fixed on its stalk as any other flower; and the latter declaring that the metaphor "se non e vero, e ben trovato".
Few plants are more graceful or versatile in contour than the Fern. One can scarcely pass a group without recalling that line of Scott, which so aptly describes the utter lull of the air:
"There is no breeze upon the fern, no ripple on the lake".
Goldsmith's sympathy with the rural and human is associated intimately with the Hawthorn, " for whispering lovers made." Rosemary has been more emblematic of remembrance since it was so offered by the " fair Ophelia;" and Heartsease is consecrated by the splendid compliment to "the virgin throned by the West," to which it is indebted for the name of "Love-in-idleness." The epicurean utilitarianism of Leigh Hunt recognised " comfort" in the feel of a Geranium leaf; and who that has read with appreciation Miss Barrett's fine poem, elaborating the beautiful sentiment of the Bible, "He giveth his beloved sleep," can see a Poppy, that gorgeous emblem of the drowsy god, without a benison on the thoughtful lyrist? I think that the Yellow Broom must have originally flourished in lonely places. For hours I followed a mule-path in the most deserted part of Sicily, cheerful with its blossoms, whose rich yet delicate odour embalmed the air; hence the significance of Shakspeare's allusion to this flower, " which the dismissed bachelor loves, being lass-lorn." Campbell must have had an oppressive sense of the poisonous horror of Nightshade, from his reference to it in the protest against scepticism, as the natural companion of dismay.
I have always thought the Thistle an apposite symbol, not only of Scotland, but of her martyred queen:
" Its fragrant down set round with thorns, and rifled by the bee".
One of the most popular tales of the day, " Picciola," is based upon the interest which a single flower may excite when it is the sole companion of a prisoner; and the favour this little romance has enjoyed proves how natural is the sentiment it unfolds. The most severely religious minds, however indifferent to art or scenery, are not unfrequently alive to this feeling. The constant allusion to flowers in a metaphorical way in the Scriptures, the rich poetical meaning attached to them in the East, the Lily that always appears in pictures of the Annunciation, the Palm-leaves strewed in our Saviour's path, the crown of Thorns woven for his brow, and his declaration of the field Lilies, " that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them," indicating that his pure eyes had momentarily rested on their familiar beauty, lend to such persons a hallowed sense of their attractiveness. There is yet another reason for this exception to a prosaic view of what is merely charming in itself, which those disposed to bigotry make in favour of flowers; it is, that they symbolise immortality. No common figure of speech is more impressive to the peasant than that which bids him see a " type of resurrection and second birth" in the germination of the seed, its growth, development, and blossoming.
Again, too, there are the associations of childhood, whose first and most innocent acquisitions were gathered flowers, emblems of its own exuberance, offerings of its primitive love. I imagine the sense of colour, now regarded as a separate and very unequally distributed faculty, is one of the earliest developed; it explains the intense gratification even of an infant at the sight of a Tulip; and there is reason to believe that the hues of flowers are the most vivid tokens of enjoyment that greet the dawning mind.
[To be continued.]