Has anything ever, during all of humankind, been initiated, occurred, occluded, endured, or laid to rest without the comforting company of flowers? Walk a mile and count the flowers. Walk five paces, you’ll see floral. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound. We have a decisive impulse for the companionship of flowers.
American poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be one with them. He too sought the sun. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding, for companionship, for a floral realm:1
The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them. The privilege to witness my existence—you too must seek the sun…
We must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, put them on us.
We turn to flowers in moments of profound uncertainty, pain, and fear. It is almost like we ask them to witness our pain and speak of it in their own way. Manet spent his life capturing people, cities, social situations, but he painted flowers, only flowers, during the last months of his life. Matisse, likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms following the Great War. America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood.
Of particular flowers, we each have our favorite. Wordsworth wrote that chrysanthemums appeared in his mind when he had a heart full of pleasure. Coleridge mused on the forget-me-not, Neruda on the gillyflower. George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood. According to my gardening magazines, British gardeners prefer bright, bold pompom-like styles of dahlias and peonies. 2
For my own company, gather the stalks, those tall, leggy, asymmetrical glads, asphodels, lilies, and crocosmia. Reaching sunwards, bending towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.
Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his sun-turned sunflowers, wrote to his brother in 1877:3
We passed the flower market on the way. How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges: they have been with us from the very beginning.
Van Gogh wrote often of his deep love of nature and thought it was the way to understand art. He sought it out especially in cities. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today. Slowly, they are changing from being places to rest our eyes on colorful things to areas that engage our senses, overhauling them from tedious electronics and carpeted cement. Places that understand the importance of walking about.
Van Gogh would have loved the beckoning and humble landscape designs of fellow Dutchman Piet Oudolf, whose Lurie Gardens in Chicago and High Line in New York City do more than bring us flowers: they bring flowers, us.
Flowers are a safe witness to our life because flowers are life. Striving towards that sun. Abundant and thriving, satisfying our penchant for symmetry, efficiency, elegance, color. They are humble, gentle, and “open to receive.” It is fitting—like Manet, Matisse, Churchill—that we surround ourselves near death with abundant life.
Allen Ginsberg so beautifully, mournfully sought to exist among flowers. With a heart full of pleasure and sorrow, he finds the delight:
I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out to the garden crying. Saw the red blossoms in the night light, sun’s gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were waiting stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered faithfully not knowing how much I loved them. I am so lonely in my glory—except they too out there—I looked up—those red bush blossoms beckoning and peering in the window waiting in blind love, their leaves too have hope and are upturned top flat to the sky to receive—all creation open to receive—the flat earth itself.
Flowers, our greatest witness. If they spoke they’d say much, but only to passing pollinators. That we enjoy their company means little to a flower. Is that why we give them a language of their own?4