The clocks have sprung forward, and Spring is pulsing everywhere. There are tight green buds unfurling into brand new leaves on every tree and bush. Primroses, violets and daffodils jubilantly celebrate the Spring sunshine, and other flowers are waiting invisibly in the wings. As soon as the sun comes out, country walks and beautiful gardens beckon, as do the garden centres with their rows of pretty packets full of flower seeds.
I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I have spent the last few weekends completely outside amongst trees, spring flowers and budding bushes. So back at work, trying to conjure up Spring again, amidst torrential rains hammering on the roof, these two books in our Darwin Rare Books room caught my attention this morning.
“Common Wayside Flowers” by Thomas Miller, published in 1863, is exquisitely illustrated by Birket Foster, each picture looking as if it has been individually hand-painted, such is the quality and colour tones in every illustration. It is written in a lyrical manner, describing the flowers poetically, and referencing other writers and poets in the descriptions. It quotes Shakespeare, Chaucer, Anacreon, Issak Walton (of The Compleat Angler) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, as well as many others, including the great herbalist, Culpepper.
It starts out with chapters on the first flowers of the year; celandine, snowdrops and violets, and works through the flowers of the year gradually, ending with the holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew of December.
This book is a charming mixture of literary reference, social history, botanical detail and fairy land. Describing cowslips, we are taken through a picture of children making and selling cowslip wine, to the botanical structure of the cowslip with it's alternating petals and calyx sepals forming bell-shaped flowers, to the "fairy-like mazes, golden canopies fit for Titania and her attendant fays to dance beneath, while the crimson spotted bells of the flowers tremble above their heads."
Next to the delicate illustrations, there are poems dedicated to the Dandelion, Rose Campion, Wild Hyacinth, Daisy and the common Bramble. It also has a hand written and dated inscription to Miss Fox, "from an old friend." How pleased she must have been to receive this book. It's cover is very decorative with four panels of flower details, and a gilt ivy design all around. This book is a complete homage to wild flowers and a real old-fashioned entertaining delight to read. What a lovely gift this would have been. Lucky Miss Fox.
The Language of Flowers by Robert Tyas, is another Victorian charmer. Its illustrations are bolder in design and the flowers in each picture are arranged in bunches, or mixed posies. It alphabetically lists a huge array of plants, from the everyday daisy to the more unusual sounding Mandrake, Candy Tuft, Scratch Weed and Sea Thrift.
Each plant has a short visual description, followed by stories, anecdotes or poems describing and illustrating what the plant symbolises. There is a whole cornucopia of fascinating facts and fanciful fictions that charm you as you read.
Animals, birds, plants and flowers have long been used as emblems to signify meanings, feelings or characteristics. Embedded deep in our collective psyche we have associations and connections to many aspects of the natural world. Much of this we have lost from consciousness, but these kind of books resurrect the lost charm and power of the meanings and significance attributed to different plants and flowers. The introductory preface elaborates on the use of these emblems in the art of paying homage to a woman. It's a complicated business it seems. A Rose-bud stripped of its thorns says "There is everything to hope for." Stripped of its leaves, it says, "There is everything to fear." Each flower or plant has a very specific connotation, and not all good! Basil signifies hatred, Black-Thorn difficulty, Borage rudeness, and Black Mulberry says "I will not survive you" and has a whole Romeo and Juliet style Greek story about why.
On the other hand, the Cowslip signifies early joys, the Crocus, pleasures of hope, and the Crown Imperial... power, of course. There are many other beautiful connotations of love, hope, constancy, glory and affection, with stories of origin, and numerous poetic quotes.
Too many other flowers, however, signify inconstancy, indiscretion, ingratitude, treachery, horror, “I declare war against you” and “Your looks freeze me.” Strong stuff. So think twice before you present someone with a bunch of flowers!
Alternatively, come into the Darwin room and purchase this lovely little book pronto, so you can gem up on the true meaning of all the flowers and plants in your bouquet. Don't visit the florist without it!
Both “Common Wayside Flowers” and “The Language of Flowers” are available directly from The Darwin Room at Bookbarn International. We also currently have in stock several other botanical reference books with beautiful illustrations, so take a break from the garden, use one of these rainy days to pay us a visit soon, and come and enjoy the charmed world of old botanical writing and illustration.
-Written by Diane Newland, Darwin Bookseller.