The flower is the poetry of reproduction. It is an example of the eternal seductiveness of life.– Jean Giraudoux, The Enchanted
John Lennon said that ‘love is a flower’. Speaking literarily he is not far off, but he is certainly not quite on the mark. Perhaps he was exercising an unsurprising symbolic prudery common to the latter half of the 20thcentury. From Shakespeare, through Manet and even to Robert Mapplethorpe (though he claims innocence) flowers have stood as symbols of supreme eroticism. On a superficial level this can be accounted for by the similitude between human erotic organs and the appearance of flowers. But there is more to this literary history of representation than meets the eye. Or is there?
Flowers are often associated with women, but this is facile, and is more likely due to the larger compendium of poetry written by men about women than women about men, or men about men etc. A flower could just as easily be representative of a man, given the erectile, obtruding stamen or stamens. But it is not exactly, or at least, not only the similarity between flowers and sexual organs that is being raised throughout the canon of Western literature. It is rather the transitoriness of the flower that bears symbolic significance, the momentary blossom. As in the following quote from the Book of Job(ch.14,v.1.):
Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down.
Of course we can read more into this if our mind is so inclined. Nonetheless the chief significance is the motif of the life short-lived. The same sentiment, now addressing the beauty of woman, occurs in a poem of Samuel Daniel from the 16thcentury:
Men do not weigh the stalk for that it was, When once they find her flower, her glory, pass.
Or again, still more explicitly put, in a poem of George Peele from the 16thcentury:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen; Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.
Youth and beauty, obviously, are fair subjects of comparison; youth that blooms, beauty that fades. In ancient Greek the word for youth is the selfsame word as that for the bud of a flower. Presumably the comparison between youth and beauty and the brief lifespan of a blossom can be carried over ages and continents. It must be noted, however, that the above quote, blatantly contradicting John Lennon, places love beneath the ground, in the sodden dirt soaking up nutrients to maintain the whole life process of the plant. Here we are getting closer still to the root of the problem. But let us remain with the 16thcentury for a time. If we know anything of the 16thcentury, from our reading of Shakespeare at the very least, it is that the period was not one to gloat in the naivety of its populace. The works of Shakespeare abound with double entendres, with lewd inferences and comic crassness. Pretty much anything from a pipe to a baldrick can stand as a veiled reference to sexual organs. Here, then, there would be nothing special about a flower, just another instrument of sexual symbolism.
But there is a further signification clutching to the flower. It is not only life that is brief, or beauty or youth; indeed there are other experiences within the tapestry of life that are notable for their blossoming brevity. A love affair, perhaps: an all too brief affair that must be enjoyed while it lasts like the ‘flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la’ (Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado). Or something still more specific? in the words of Honore de Balzac: “A young bride is like a plucked flower, but a guilty wife is like a flower that had been walked over.” Virginity? Perhaps, but that is perhaps a little too specific. What about the buzzing attraction of the bee to the flower? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. What is brief, short-lived exultation, as much tainted by death as life, sometimes elusive, mystifying for men when it belongs to women, and as sought after as youth, beauty and strength?
To borrow the frame of Deleuze and Guattari, we could say that ‘flower’ is not a metaphor, but an assemblage: an assemblage of representation with sex infiltrating every aspect, organs, emotional investment, reproductive potential and so forth all included. And also death, little and big. For the significance of the flower, just as for orgasm, is its very finitude. It is something that will not endure; it is plucked, ravished, savoured for its fragrance only for us to see it droop and wither. We wonder at its sweetness because the one sure thing is that it will shortly fail and cease to be the wonder we experience it as.
On that anticlimactic note let us revise the two questions that have been left hanging. Are all these insinuations to be discovered in the mere appearance of flowers? And, besides the obvious, what precisely does a root have to do with the maintenance of life? To these a third can be added: what has this to do with the Tarkine?
Epacris Glabella and Micrantheum Serpentinum
These two species have one or two things in common. They both boast tender little white flowers, their populations are rare and highly at risk, and they are both endemic to Tasmania where they are found only in very few locations of unusual serpentinite geology in the North-West of the island.
Serpentinite is a metamorphic rock which is presumed to be very widely spread in the earth’s mantle, i.e. deep beneath the earth’s crust. It is less commonly found in the upper parts of the earth’s crust (ultramafic). For this reason, the habitat of these two bushes is highly restricted. For the same reason their limited habitat is under significant threat from mineral exploration and extraction, as well as the ongoing threats of mismanaged fire, regulation of river flows, the construction and maintenance of roads and power easements, all of which introduce weeds and the risk of infection by exotic soil-borne pathogens, such as Phytophthora cinnamomi.Obviously human disturbance is the key danger to these rare little plants. The few areas where they have been found are within reserves, which are however subject to mining exploration and extraction, including the profound disturbance that comes with open cut mines and quarries. Their preservation argues in favour of the expanded Tarkine area as a national park protected from adverse human activity.
A brief introduction to these little known bushes might begin with Micrantheum serpentinum and its family. It is a member of the unflatteringly named ‘spurge’ family, otherwise known by the scientific name Euphorbiaceae, in the order of Malpighiales. The spurges are a family of plants that are highly useful for their waxes and oils as sources of food and medicinals (e.g. castor oil, candlenut oil and rubber). This species is a rare native shrub known only in a few areas of serpentinite geology in western Tasmania. I said their flowers were white, but they are more a yellowy white, like nicotine-stained teeth. The narrow oblong leaves are arranged in threes, suggesting the common name trident bush, of a sub-glossy, dark green above, paler below, with the tiniest of microscopic hairs on the edge of the upper surface. The bush is scrubby with lots of straggly branches crisscrossing one another and grows to a maximum of two metres in height. They are monoecius, which means separate male and female flowers occur on the same plant. The male flowers have six stamens and a vestigial ovary, and the female flowers have three styles. The fruit is a tiny yellow-brown oval-shaped capsule with three locules, each with two ovules. Its seeds are pale, creamy- brown, oblong. Their flowering season is from September to early November, with fruit ripening by mid-January.
Similarly, Epacris Glabella flowers around mid-spring and also reaches a maximum height of two metres. It is, however, marginally more elegant than its neighbour, with slender branches and long, ovate-elliptical flat leaves of a smooth lighter forest green, giving rise to the pretty name Glabella, which means smooth, hence the common name Smooth Heath. In Latin the Glabellais more particularly the soft, smooth surface of the forehead above the nose and between the eyebrows, reminding one of a beautiful woman or a young child’s pure soft skin. The noticeable aspect of the heath is its flowers, which are ivory white with five, geometrically placed petals opening out to form an attractive bell shape. Floral characters are prominently exserted anthers and stigma, a funnel-shaped corolla tube, and a long style that reaches to the anthers or beyond.
But there is something else of interest about the Epacris Glabella, and that is its familial relations. Up until very recently it was classed among the family Epacridaceae. However, in the year 2002, five formerly recognised distinct families (Empetraceae, Epacridaceae, Monotropaceae, Prionotaceae, and Pyrolaceae) were all included as subfamilies within the now larger family of the Eraciceae. This move considerably increased the morphological and geographical range of the family Ericaceae, extending the number of genera within the family to 124 and of species to the huge number of 4250. The root name Ericawas used and the plants described by Linnaeus in the 18thcentury, but the name itself dates back to Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the lyceum in Athens in the 3rdcentury B.C., and was the name given even then to bushes of the heath variety. Now, the full taxa for our little flower is the following:
The genus Epacris was first formally described in 1797 by the Spaniard Antonio José Cavanilles, who had himself never approached the shores of then Van Dieman’s Land. Cavanilles used the system of taxonomy introduced by Linnaeus in the middle of that century. In 1983 Edward Groesbeck Voss (no, not that Voss, this one’s much later, and besides, he’s American) nominated Epacris longifloraas the lectotype, that is something like the representative species, for the genus Epacris. Every genus has a lectotype and oddly enough it is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alcibiades or even Claudia Cardinale but Carl Linnaeus who is the lectotype for homo sapiens. The genus Epacriscontains about forty species of flowering plants, native to eastern and southeastern Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand. This alteration in taxa is actually more unusual than one would think. Although new plants are constantly being added to the list of known plant species (Australia being among the few places on earth that contribute still unrecorded species to the annals of botanical reference), it is less likely that entire families are removed from one class to another, and any change in the naming of plants only occurs under the supervision of the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (a code whose name itself changed from ‘the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature’ during the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne in July 2011). Although the authority for the definition, description and understanding of the 374,000 different species of plants in known existence today belongs to any number of different botanists, taxonomists, hobbyists whose activities in the realm of name-giving can assumedly be traced back to Adam, there is a certain obvious juncture in this evolution of botanical nomenclature dated to the middle of the Enlightenment and attributed to the aforementioned Swede, Carl Linnaeus.
Carl Linnaeus’ main claim to fame in the plant world (though he no doubt would bid for more) was his introduction of the binomial system. This system organised plants into the taxa we know today, and had the advantage of requiring merely two words to designate any plant, their genus and their species. For the most part this was and is such an effective mode of organisation that all plants are designated as such, and with little necessary variation. Prior to the publication of his Fundamenta Botanica, then more widely distributed in the 10thedition of his Systema Naturae,plants were referred to according to their description, which could easily contain as many as seven or eight different words or more. Of course, this was not linguistically economical, and had botanists performing tongue twisters every time they wished to convey the name of a plant. Needless to say, the common populace also had any number of different names for the same plant, which varied according to locality and dialect. So the binomial system really took off quickly, even assuming the help of Linnaeus’ 17 apostles travelling the world to spread the word, and Cavanilles’ use of it within a half century of the first publication was not terribly remarkable.
And yet binomial nomenclature was not what Linnaeus himself considered his most noteworthy contribution to the science of botany. When he first left Sweden for the hallowed halls of Oxford, it was not his Species Plantarum or his Philosophia Botanicathat he had tucked under his sweaty armpit, but a manuscript with the arousing title of Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum, a ‘prelude (literally foreplay) to the betrothal of plants’. This was what he himself termed his systema sexuale, wherein he outlined a system of tabulation for plants according to the sexual parts of their flowers. Illustrated by George Dionysius Ehret, one of the most esteemed botanical illustrators of the 18thcentury, the system reveals a grouping of plants according to the variable quantities of pistils (female) and stamens (male) in any given flower. Of course botanists had long explained flowers in regard to their male and female parts, their reproductive organs, as it were. But nobody had explained it with quite so much lurid candour. He referred to pistils as wives, stamens as husbands and their arrangement in a flower as a ‘marriage’. As he noted, in some plants, the ‘bridal bed’ became rather more crowded than the civil morality of Georgian England could handle, and he managed to offend even the sensitivities of other botanists.
With Linnaeus, what was symbolic about the flower is no longer its simple power of representation, as a symbol. It is as if he was searching within the flower for the cause of the flower’s symbolic value, and with his systema sexualeit is as if he has found the hidden clue to the flower’s power of erotic representation. It is not merely on account of the flower’s similitude with human sexual organs, it is not merely that the flower, otherwise neutral as a signifier, represents or symbolizes the erotic because of its similarity with something that is itself intrinsically erotic. No, the erotic meaning or the power of the representation clings to both sides. It belongs as much to the flower as to human sexual organs, which is to say that the flower is not only symbolically erotic, rather it is in a flower’s nature to be erotic. The flower itself becomes an erotic subject, and a controversially non-monogamous one at that.
In the second volume of his Systema Naturae, dealing with the vegetable world, he names and describes the variety of sexual anatomy in plants, giving all the combinations of male and female parts. A flower with two stamens and a single pistil he names Diandria, which he describes as mariti duo in eodem conjugio, ‘two husbands in the same nuptial bed’. Well and good, but then the number of husbands increases until we arrive at the scandalous Polyandria, ‘twenty husbands or more in the same bed chamber with a single woman’. The names are all highly suggestive, such as Polyadelphia, which refers to cohabitation of ‘brothers’, Polygamia‘many wives’, and my favourite, Cryptogamia, a ‘clandestine marriage’ in which the pistils and stamens are concealed. The Adonis flower is therefore characterised as a mass orgy with a hundred of each sex. ‘The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation,’ stated Linnaeus, in uncompromising terms, ‘serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bedcurtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents, in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity.’ It was this language more than the anatomy that was therein expressed that seemed to be problematic to some, and enticing to others. Among those who warned of the potential misapprehension of Linnaeus’ licentious terminology was the Bishop of Carlisle who was concerned that ‘a literal translation of the first principles of Linnaean botany is enough to shock female modesty. It is possible that many virtuous students might not be able to make out the similitude of Clitoria.’ On the other extreme, Charles Darwin’s father, Erasmus Darwin was so impressed by this sexual system that he composed a poem ‘the Botanic Garden’ in a Dantesque style, based upon the system. The first canto is titled ‘The Loves of the Plants’ and even includes a preface outlining Linnaeus’ system and a table of illustrations of the various flowers.
Sweet blooms Genistain the Myrtle shade, And ten fond brothers woo the haughty maid…
The freckled Irisowns a fiercer flame, And three unjealous husbands wed the dame…
With charms despotic fair Chondrilla reigns O’er the soft hearts of five fraternal swains;
And so forth.
As to the question posed earlier, whether there is more to a flower than meets the eye, according to Linnaeus exactly no. The very appearance of a flower is its erotic being. That said, Linnaeus got in just in time before anatomy really took off, when flowers, plants, animals and humans were still to be judged by their appearance to the naked eye. Not by dissection, which was to become the main tool of the science of anatomy over the next century, but by observation, i.e. using what nature itself made visible to us, or as the 18thcentury botanist would describe as observing god’s creation. Linnaeus, in his writings at least, claimed to be god-fearing in this respect. Though of course that didn’t stop him from the Babelian task of fabricating a new botanical language, an aspiration that didn’t seem to trouble scientists of the 18thcentury as it would have those of the 17th. But they were still reticent to delve deeper into the natural world than the human eye permits. The microscope was used, but it was used to observe the parts of the species’ that were already available for observation, using the microscope in a more limited function than it is today. And as to his search for the hidden language of plants, Linnaeus conforms to the tendencies of his time, pulling a significant number of names from his Ancient forebears and remaining with the Greek and Latin tradition of name giving. But then, what’s in a name?
O Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm: Has found out thy bed, Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.
In the 18thand 19thcenturies when lues venerea was rife, a cankerous weed may well have been the symbol for these sexually transmitted diseases so direly affecting the fond blooms of a loved one. Today however, in Australia again, when we see a weed we call it a weed. No need for symbolism here. These proliferating and predominating noxious infestations of Ulex europaeus(gorse), Cytisus scoparius(english broom) and Rubus fruticosus(blackberry) are dogging our steps wherever we humans trail our muddy boots and drive our dusty cars. The poor little Micrantheum Serpentinumand Epacris Glabella are particularly at risk from these noxious weeds. At and close to the Tunnel Hill quarry on the western side of the Murchison Highway you can see the proof of the dangers to the Serpentine Hill subpopulation of the spurge.
Unlike his other contributions to botany, Linnaeus’ sexual system hasn’t lasted the test of time, discarded by 1830 in favour of other systems of classification. Interestingly enough and despite his fame during his lifetime, Linnaeus’ scientific endeavours were not sufficiently lucrative to maintain him and his young family, so he also practised as a doctor, unsurprisingly specialising in the treatment of gonorrhoea and no doubt on account of which he was appointed physician to the Admiralty.
But if that flower with base infection meet, The basest weed outbraves his dignity: For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
–Shakespeare, sonnet 94.
“The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus” Wilfrid Blunt, Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd; 3rd edition (2002)
Christenhusz, M. J. M. & Byng, J. W. (2016). “The number of known plants species in the world and its annual increase”. Phytotaxa.
Micrantheum Serpentinum, Tasmania: Threatened Species Link
Epacris Glabella, Tasmania: Threatened Species Link
Epacris Glabella, Australia: Species Profile and Threats Database
Caroli Linnaei, Systema naturae per regna tria naturae :secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis.Holmiae : Impensis Direct. Laurentii Salvii, 1758-1759.Volume 2, p838ff. (available to read on line in the original Latin at: Biodiversity Heritage Library