A HEAVEN IN A WILD FLOWER
Naming a thing is giving birth to it, acknowledging its existence and loving it. The common names of wild flowers precede classification, the power that arises from a sense of possession. These names are fashioned out of love, a totally useless, though necessary impulse.
Saying the names of wild flowers is also an act of love, admitting their essence into our bodies and giving it back, setting it free in the breath that forms the syllables of their names, the complex and utterly natural arrangement of lip and teeth and tongue, small buds on a stem of warm air.
A wild flower can never be tamed by naming it. Learning what a plant is called is a gesture of seeing and remembering, honouring each one in its season and its setting. Naming them is in itself an act of preservation, pressing them gently between the roof of the mouth and the mind.
Without knowing it I began a lifetime of discovering the names of hedgerow plants as a child when I collected the cards out of my mother’s Brooke Bond tea packets and glued them carefully into their special album. The images were blurred, unremarkable splashes of colour but the names sang clear in my ears – primrose, campion, thrift – like secret friends. I knew this had something of the spell about it when later I came across Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies in our local library. I admired all their pretty outfits, delicately stitched out of petal and leaf. Even some of the flowers’ names seemed to catch a sense of needle and thread, silk against skin – ragged robin, cowslip, stitchwort, foxglove, cottongrass, skullcap.
Nearly twenty years later when I came to live in the Northumberland countryside after five years in cities, I found the tea-scented names still fresh in my mind, rooted in my imagination. I’d walk the lanes around our house, establishing the lie of the land, and gather them about me like a blessing – germander speedwell, dog’s mercury, bird’s-foot-trefoil.
I made small coloured drawings to record what grew nearby, to remind myself of their persistence and fragility, their beauty and variety as I carried and grew my own two sons. The Reader’s Digest Field Guide to British Wild Flowers (1981) – a birthday gift that first year of living on the top of a hill with no road or electricity just acres of sky and wild flowers – was my favourite bedside reading. It taught me the origins of the names I felt so close to and collapsed the years between their naming and my learning them. I found out that chickweed was good for feeding to chickens, mullein, with its felty leaves, took its name from the Latin mollis meaning soft, the Old French moleine. It satisfied my hunger for language by listing alternatives. Wild garlic was also known as ransoms or bear’s ears.
These nursery years sparked the connection in my mind between wild flowers and self-sufficiency, nourishment and healing. So many of the names are associated with mending and mothering. Another name for shepherd’s purse is mother’s hearts. Then there’s feverfew, self-heal, fleabane, woundwort. Lady’s mantle is explicitly dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
As my children grew up, so did I, and I came to understand the change inside every living thing in a deeper way. I saw the ineluctable wildness in the flowers and every year added new names to the list in my head from walking in a new place, finding a different species and looking it up or talking to a friend. I’ve enjoyed getting to know hay rattle, stinking hellebore, butterbur and, last year on the Northumbrian coast, restharrow. The names get wilder and wilder, like the creatures they are often named after – viper’s bugloss, hogweed, yellow toadflax, bee orchis. This seems to let slip how irrepressible life is, the gentle flame of sexuality that lights up the darkness, the blossoming of the individual open to their own senses and other people’s, the play of the elements.
The names of plants are unashamedly erotic, redolent of scent and texture and tender, secret places. In Sri Lanka, where they are less shy about these things, a man showing me round a Buddhist Temple drew my attention to a little blue pea-like flower. His finger probed the closed hood of its petals as he told me it was called the clitoris flower. We don’t have these in Northumberland but names like honeysuckle and lady’s bedstraw, nipplewort and navelwort reveal our own homespun sensuality. In the past lords and ladies were sometimes called sweethearts or silly lovers. There is some doubt if its other name, cuckoopint, arose from the supposedly strong sexual appetite of the male cuckoo or the old idea of the cuckold.
The erotic is just one aspect of the creative urge captured in the names of wild flowers. Some of the names sound like poems themselves – forget-me-not, meadowsweet, speedwell, traveller’s joy, loosestrife, selfheal – small injunctions to live, to open, to be. Many of them are in the tradition of kennings, intense compounds of habit and habitat – snowdrop, frogbit, bindweed. Their tendrils curl through the leaves of literature, joining here to there in a way that confirms our sense of ourselves, helps us speed well, lose strife and heal ourselves. We have narcissus from the Greeks, the wild daffodil, that remembers death in its nodding golden trumpets; yarrow that lets us know that every Achilles has his heel; Shakespeare’s Mustardseed and Peaseblossom, his rude mechanical flowers as well as the more aristocratic, though deranged, rosemary and rue. The names of the plants are as beautiful as they are themselves and bring all their fragrant and subtle associations whenever they are used.
On National Poetry Day 2006 Prince Charles read Robert Byron’s These I Have Learnt on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It is a poem that creates a map in the memory of the names of wild flowers to pass on to a child not yet born, knowing they need to be saved for everyone’s sake.
If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies
who unfurl green hoods to the March rains,
and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit.
He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers
of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury,
wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris
fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot.
He shall see the marshes gold with flags
and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap.
He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels,
blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut
and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids,
mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up
from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white
with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions.
He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard.
He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw
and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills –
dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind
he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle
of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod,
pinch the ample veitches, and savour the virgin turf.
He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton,
and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river
he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife,
and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives
silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves
and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein,
recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet
the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound,
yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel.
In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws
and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree
for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how…
He’s passing on his love as well as the names of the flowers, a faith in continuity and growth, the rhythm of natural cycles and intimations of the sacred in the ordinary, Blake’s ‘a heaven in a wild flower’. I always told my children the names of wild flowers when we stumbled across them on our walks but they never seemed very interested. They were interested in the elderflowers we made into champagne every July, the wild garlic we chopped into pizzas and the nettles we cooked into a soup that didn’t sting our lips. They made their own undrinkable concoctions out of pineapple weed, sorrel and dandelion. These are the ones that took root. Both my sons, now grown up, earn their living from cooking. The circle is turned and together they and the fruits and blossoms of the earth nourish me.
Time itself is marked in the names of the wild flowers – dandelion clocks, bellflowers, the Lent lily and Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. We see the passing of our own lives in their mirror, reminding us who we are and what we need, how short a time we have. Each flower is a little book we can read, petal by petal, a small heaven we can lose ourselves in and find ourselves over and over again. What would happen if all these books were burned? What would we pass on to our children? How would we know ourselves and each other? The Floating Island Garden is a library for memory’s sake and for the sake of those who’ll come after.