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Speaking of flowers

29 January 2016


IN THE past, my work has included training community-garden volunteers. Sometimes, their expectations of the work involved needed retuning slightly. I remember one willing soul on her first day: it was spring, and I instructed her in preparing a mixed border for the new season by cutting down the herbaceous perennials, removing fallen leaves, and tickling over the soil surface with a fork, being mindful of any emerging shoots.

The next week, as she pulled on her gardening boots, she asked, in a hopeful tone: “You don’t want me to clean again, do you?”

Gardening work can be boring. January is pressure-washing time for me in my clients’ gardens. It is undeniably repetitive, and, sooner or later, the damp begins to penetrate my clothing. True, the results can be dramatic, and returning after a tea break and seeing where patches of stone have begun to dry many shades lighter does lift the January gloom.

But there are other benefits. Losing oneself in the process can heighten perception. What helped me through the past few weeks were the precious flowers in the garden.

Of course, they are not there for our benefit. They have evolved to ensure the continuation of each species. Nevertheless, I ponder on that minuscule leap in our soul when we witness a perfectly formed bloom. We don’t generally eat flowers; they serve no practical function; and yet they speak to us.

As the poet Louis Hemmings puts it:


How do flowers bring hope?

How do their silent lips speak?

What dreams their sweet scents evoke?

Flowers give strength to the weak.


It is a mystery I would like to investigate more. Colour may be important. For primitive beings, the ability to spot ripe fruit among vegetation would clearly be useful and bring rewards. And, in my heart, symmetry has something to do with it.

Sexual selection in the evolution of Homo sapiens has valued competence and finely tuned skills, and, quoting Professor Jonathan Edwards, of University College, London: “The beauty of the delicate flower is in the sexy invisibility of an unbelievable intricate act of creation [. . . and] our attraction to [it] is likely to be an exaptation — of no usefulness in itself, but a sign of a useful attraction to things that show ordered complexity.”

Maybe the form of some flowers is not related solely to their pollinators, but also to co-evolution with humans. Plants that produce flowers pleasing to us will have enjoyed some degree of protection and aid with propagation.

The unseasonably mild weather has led to numerous news reports of plants tricked into flowering, and people ask me whether it damages the plants. The answer is: not really: they are resilient. But we should not ignore the peculiarities. In our ongoing co-evolution with plants, they are giving us a clear message.

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