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. In the cityside or countryside. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound.
Humans have a decisive, endearing impulse for the companionship of flowers.
American Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be among them. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding and companionship idealized by a floral realm:
kindly stayed open waiting for me, its owner.
I began to feel my misery in pallet on floor, listening
to music, my misery, that’s why I want to sing.
The room closed down on me, I expected the presence
of the Creator, I saw my gray painted walls and
ceiling, they contained my room, they contained
as the sky contained my garden,
I opened my door
The rambler vine climbed up the cottage post,
the leaves in the night still where the day had placed
them, the animal heads of the flowers where they had
to think at the sun
Can I bring back the words? Will thought of
transcription haze my mental open eye?
The kindly search for growth, the gracious de-
sire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing
The privilege to witness my existence-you too
must seek the sun…
from “Transcription of Organ Music”
We too must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, wrap them around us.
We turn to flowers in moments of profound uncertainty, pain, and fear. We ask them to witness our pain and speak of it in their own way.
Edouard Manet spent his life capturing the often-barren truth about people, cities, social situations, but he painted only flowers during the last months of his life. A grasp for life amidst death?
Henri Matisse likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms in his country home, Chartwell House, following the Great War.
Similarly, America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood. Wrote General Washington:
I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon than be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.
George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood.
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 paid homage to the gillyflower.1
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 but beguiled by an unseen force to bend towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.
Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his beloved 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. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today.
I imagine Van Gogh would have adored 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. As physicist Richard Feynman famously noted, understanding the beauty of a flower begins with understanding the flower itself.4
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. Science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.
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.
from “Transcription of Organ Music”
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?5