Garden Books

Seven Flowers and How They Shaped the World

Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World

Have you ever been asked to name your favorite flower as you walked a visitor through your garden? For most gardeners, the answer would depend on the season and the location in which the question was asked. The beauty of irises in spring, roses in summer, asters in fall, or hellebores in winter would probably furnish answers from gardeners in the Southeastern states.

British botanical historian, Jennifer Potter, would not have to ponder that question; her favorite would be roses. After writing a book on the history of the rose, Potter extensively explored other flora that had significantly influenced religion, art, medicine, and mythology in various cultures. Seven Flowers And How They Shaped Our World (The Overlook Press, 2015) was the result of her research.

Potter’s book presents the cultural history of the lotus, lily, sunflower, opium poppy, tulip, orchid, and her favorite, the rose. Each flower’s unique history is fascinating as it moves far from its origin’s location to gardens around the world.

Particularly interesting to me was the information on sunflowers, the only flower of the seven exclusively from the Americas. Because of its beauty, ease of growth and the edibility of its oil and seeds, sunflowers spread rapidly across Europe from its introduction in the 1500’s.

Symbolically, sunflowers first developed as an expression of ardent love. This love and the sunflower’s supposed ability to follow the sun were religiously translated into a symbol of Mary’s love for her son, Jesus. The various sizes and colors of sunflowers made them frequent subjects for artists, including Van Gogh, William Blake and William Morris.

Over time the sunflower’s visual popularity in art and in gardens has fluctuated while its agricultural value has grown enormously. The use of sunflower oil is now exceeded only by palm and soybean oils. Surprisingly, the world leaders in sunflower production today are Russia and Ukraine.

The orchid, a flower of increasing popularity in America, has been perceived differently in Eastern and Western cultures. To Asians, orchids symbolized virtue and reverence. For Europeans, it was a metaphor for sexual desire. Orchids, also, have the distinction of being Charles Darwin’s favorite flower. Darwin’s preference was probably based on the numerous survival adaptations evolved by the species enabling orchids to exist on every continent except Antarctica.

The chapters devoted to the remaining flowers offer memorable insights into their history. For example, the narcotic properties of opium poppies were described even in the writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors. Among the Dutch in the 1600‘s, the adoration of and competition for tulip bulbs caused one of the first major financial crashes.

Unlike mysteries and beach fiction, Potter’s book is not a page-turner. A fuller appreciation of this book will result from attention to its numerous details, identities of historical persons and dates of described events. Imaginary travel with these seven flowers to other times and places is an enjoyable way to spend your time reading.

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the JC Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.