Through their wilting, falling, rooting, rising and then, behold, blooming, no other living thing – save perhaps humankind – has inspired quite as many poems, songs, stories, love affairs and romances. Flowers are ever present at weddings, funerals, first dates, and peace offerings. They are there when a heart breaks, and more so when it mends. And over the course of our history, these seven flowers have – in whatever measure, great or small – changed the world.
bees came for honey
flowers giggled as they
for the taking
the sun smiled
– the second birth
Imagine the waters of the Nile just before dawn. The surface is covered with shiny egg-shaped leaves, from which tiny conical buds rise, growing taller than a foot above the surface. Then, as dawn breaks, the buds open, releasing a heady, sweet fragrance that subtly permeates the morning air around the riverbanks. At noon, however, the lotus retreats, sinking back into the water. This sun dance continues for two days, distracting from the fact that the lotus only grows in the muddiest waters. But the fact that its petals and leaves are always immaculate has associated this flower with a purity that is often symbolic of religious life and has captivated the imaginations of millions – from the East to the West – for more than 5,000 years.
In biblical times, it is said that the lily’s beauty surpassed even the majesty of King Solomon. Bronze Age frescoes by the Minoans of Crete and Santorini reflect an age-old human desire to capture something of its magnificence. The lily’s fragrance has even been distilled into perfumes and ointments since ancient Egyptian times. As a symbol of purity, the lily often occurs in Ancient Greco-Roman myths and is used to signify Mary’s virginity in the New Testament. But perhaps the most famous symbolic incarnation of the lily is the fleur-de-Lis (French: flower of the lily) emblem.
Ever since the opium poppy was first domesticated in the western Mediterranean 6,000 years ago, its use has been controversial. To this day, the at once delicate and vibrant floret is banned in many countries for fear of its mind-altering qualities, while other cultures couldn’t imagine getting through tea without a lemon and poppyseed muffin. Perhaps even more impressive than the sight of a poppy field in bloom is the phoenix-like ability of its seeds, which can lay dormant for more than a hundred years and still germinate when called upon to populate a meadow.
When conjuring an image of a sunflower, we might imagine a Van Gogh landscape, the rolling hills of Tuscany, or a Free State roadside. But the sunflower originated in the Americas over 50 million years ago, only making its first journey across the Atlantic in the early 16th century. More so than any other flower – spurred on by its name and resemblance to our nearest star, as well as its ability to track the sun’s journey across the sky – the sunflower is associated with warmth and a sunny disposition, which, depending on the current zeitgeist, is either loved or loathed.
Like the sunflower, the rose has prehistoric origins. Fossils of this timeless flower that date back 35 – 40 million years have been discovered in both China and Alaska. Today, China is said to be home to more than half of the 150 wild rose species in the world, although France is leading the way in the breeding of hybrid roses. Few flowers are as alluring as a rose, as no other possesses its unique combination of beauty, usefulness and a bewitching fragrance. And the red rose is an age-old symbol of love and romance all around the world.
At the height of “tulip fever”, this beguiling bulb was worth more than gold, and could bring even the wealthiest and most powerful men to their knees. An essentially scentless flower, however, the tulip relies solely on its beauty to cast its spell. Although the tulip is most often associated with the Netherlands, it actually hails from Turkey. One tale of its arrival in Europe tells the story of how an Antwerp merchant had received a bagful of bulbs from a friend in Constantinople. Mistaking them for some sort of onion, he proceeded to roast them. As was to be expected, the taste did not agree with him – so much so that he buried the uncooked bulbs in the garden as compost. Spring was never the same again. Today, the tulip industry is estimated to be worth $1 billion.
Despite the flower’s fragility, the orchid is one of the largest plant families on earth, comprising over 25,000 species, including that essential culinary ingredient, vanilla. Their distribution across the planet is so vast that orchids are believed to have existed at least 100 million years ago, before the split of the supercontinent, Pangaea. Some claim the flower is even more mesmerizing than the tulip (“orchidelirium” was a certifiable condition in Victorian Britain) and to this day, its pursuit is reserved for the bold and the brave. The practice of growing orchids is considered to be a skill no ordinary gardener possesses.