The power of flowers — how they accompany us, heal us and ‘make us gasp with pleasure’

‘Just living is not enough... one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower,’ wrote Hans Christian Andersen. Jay Griffiths explores their emotional pull.

‘Archangel,’ said a friend, picking one of the plentiful wildflowers in my garden and introducing me to it as to another friend.

Flowers are companions for us. They can be company in a lonely present, witness to memory and a promise for the future. They are characters: the chalk-pale, but still courageous snowdrop, the irrepressible daffodil, the flamenco-dancing fuchsia or the loyal nasturtium.

Flowers — whether the British wildflowers that surround us, or those that we plant — mesmerise the senses. Their translucent colours seduce sight, their velvet petals petition our sense of touch, their presence in food is an especial grace to taste and their scents beguile that most elusive of senses: smell.

For hearing, bluebells, Canterbury bells and gentle harebells work a synaesthetic enchantment as their shape rings out. ‘The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers,’ wrote Basho.

We play with buttercups and dandelion clocks from childhood. We cultivate flowers, give them and send them as messengers: we paint them, photograph them, gaze at them and write about them. But why?

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Flowers are healing, as gardeners in physic gardens and monastery gardens knew and as research demonstrates today. Patients in hospital rooms with flowers need less pain medication, are less anxious and have lower blood pressure and pulse rates than patients in rooms without. Research in Tokyo shows physiologically measurable beneficial effects from observing roses for as little as four minutes. Put simply, flowers make us happy.

‘The earth laughs in flowers,’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Studies in evolutionary psych-ology show that giving flowers to women elicits the Duchenne smile, the ‘true’ smile, not the merely well-mannered one, and that women who were given flowers reported a more positive mood three days later.

Further, gifts of flowers also improved episodic memory for older people. Research from the Netherlands shows that restaurant diners with fresh flowers on their tables seemed to be in better moods.

‘When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one and a lily with the other,’ advises a Chinese proverb. We humans depend for our very lives on food from flowering plants, but it’s an emotional as well as a physical need. ‘Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower,’ to quote Hans Christian Andersen.

As bees are for flower’s pollen, so are we for their beauty. Some evolutionary psychologists argue that cultivated flowers have evolved to induce positive emotion in humans so that we will assist their propagation in seed or tuber dispersal and in protecting the plant from predators or dangerous environments. We protect what we love.

As author Michael Pollan comments, floral attraction may be an evolutionary strategy for our ‘pleasure, memory and maybe even transcendence’.

Wood sorrel, which blooms at Eastertide, is called alleluia in much of Europe, for the radiance of its flowers and its leaves that lift a praise to the skies. Like beloved friends, we give flowers eloquent nicknames.

Honesty is so named for the transparency of its seedpods. Biting stonecrop, which grows on roofs and walls, is also called ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk’. The chutzpah of antirrhinum is well conveyed in the name snapdragon. The bright-blue speedwell is truly a walker’s companion.

Like many people, I’ve always found it easier to learn flower names from a person than from a book, but it was a book that properly introduced me to the daisy or ‘the poet’s darling’, according to Wordsworth. Daisy is from ‘day’s eye’, reflecting the eye of the day, the sun itself, its gold centre and rays of petals and also the eye that opens at dawn and closes with the dark.

Of all flower names, my favourite is one known across many languages. Ne m’oubliez pas in French, nontiscordardimé in Italian, nomeolvides in Spanish and similarly in Dutch, Norwegian, Greek and Swedish. What is its story? In a German folktale, a knight picked a bunch of small blue flowers for his love as they were walking beside a river. He slipped and fell into the water and, drowning, threw the flowers to her, crying ‘Vergiss mein nicht’. So it remained in German as the name of the flower and Coleridge transplanted the name to England as the forget-me-not.

The language of flowers — floriography — assigns specific meanings to flowers, far more diversely than a red rose for love. Violets suggest faithfulness, daffodils symbolise domestic happiness, larkspur suggests levity and lightness and gladiolus speaks of strength of character.

‘Pansies, that’s for thoughts,’ says Shakespeare’s Ophelia and they’re so-named from the French pensées. She speaks in flowers: giving fennel for infidelity, columbine for flattery or insincerity and rue, of course, for rue, regret and sorrow.

Floriography and floral dictionaries flourished in the Victorian era and people could convey a coded message through the selection of flowers. The recipient could translate the meaning of these ‘talking bouquets’.

The Japanese language of flowers is eloquently precise. Amaryllis: shy. Red camellia: ‘dying with grace’. Habenaria radiata: ‘my thoughts will follow you into your dreams’. Lotus: ‘far from the one he loves’. Cherry blossom represents transience, but the beauty of all flowers is partly because they are ephemeral and their opening is a sudden glee on one unfolded day.

They are profoundly associated with time and timing: Linnaeus created a clock using the different times that flowers opened, so goat’s beard was at 3am, morning glory at 5am, scarlet pimpernel at 8am and the day lily at 8pm.

‘Th’industrious bee,’ wrote Andrew Marvell, ‘Computes its time as well as we./How could such sweet and wholesome hours/Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs.’ In my garden, reading Marvell, I am flower-swept, drunk as a bee in reverie. It is now, it is here, in this flower’s blossoming and that bee’s perfect timing to attend.

Then, the facts that wrench the time out of joint. The National Trust says that ‘seasons are becoming less distinct and more jumbled. Plants don’t know what season they are in’. Flowers need to be timed with the presence of bees, butterflies and other pollinators, but, as plants are flowering earlier, this timing is broken. There’s already a greater separation between the moment of fullest florescence and the timing of butterfly abundance.

A further result of climate change is that flowers will lose their scent molecules as a result of increased ground-level ozone. About one in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction.

New Monthly Magazine commented in 1847: ‘Frankly do I confess that I dislike a wanton floricide. He has robbed the world of a pleasure; he has blotted out a word from God’s earth-written poetry.’ There is something profoundly shocking about a hatred of flowers: when Chairman Mao denounced gardens and declared that flowers were feudal, something deep in the psyche was offended, yet modernity is committing a crime of floricide beyond anything in history.

What is a flower? Strictly defined, it’s the seed-bearing and usually petalled organs of reproduction. They flush and blossom in amorous, generous abundance. They make us gasp with pleasure, all of Namaqualand on our lips and in our eyes. In a flower bed, a proud tip of stamen pokes up and all around, half-laughing, half-longing. The flowers turn like lovers towards the sun, stretching, curling and entwining in drifts and sprays. It is silk, it is dew, it is the lightest touch of a breath across lips that know where pleasure lies.

Artists have long been enraptured by flowers. They are used aesthetically all over the world in profuse variety, in pleasure gardens, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Alhambra, gypsy and barge-art floral traditions, Frida Kahlo’s rampant flower portraits, William Morris’s designs, the flowers of stained glass (the lily crucifix, for example) and, indeed, flowers described as glass. The poppy, wrote Ruskin, is ‘painted glass; it never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it’.

At Kew, the contemporary artist Rebecca Louise Law created cascades of beauty, hanging hundreds of thousands of flowers in garlands alongside preserved Ancient Egyptian funeral garlands from 1,300bc.

Flowers are an inherent part of rituals the world over. Pollen found at ancient graves suggests that flowers accompanied Neanderthal burials. Ancient Rome held festivals for the goddess Flora. In Britain, flowers have been used since time immemorial for spring traditions: marsh marigolds strewn on doorsteps on May eve and wildflowers for garland ceremonies.

They accompany us at times of high emotion, in birth, illness and death, for weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. ‘The Amen of nature is always a flower,’ wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes.

And they mean it. A flower cannot lie. It is an ineluctable emissary of beauty, tendril-ling itself in arabesques of visual poetry. Flowers are our primal aesthetic and, in their symmetry, their radiance and their almost weightless delicacy, they are the incarnation of beauty, effortlessly speaking the language of grace — any old dog-rose a benediction — they are a remedy, healing as dreams and yet, miraculously, real.