Saturday, April 23, 2011

Notes on Flower Enthusiasm

The love of flowers is a peculiar form of fandom. It is not about loyalty to a team, the power of aesthetic experience, or a feeling of intimate connection with a star, but it nevertheless involves desire, identity, and marked devotion, including rituals of cultivation, collecting, pilgrimage, and story-telling. Flower enthusiasm, especially, creates powerful social bonds; garden lovers, like sports and music fans, seek each other out to discuss their latest discoveries and insights, or to marvel at each other’s beds and plots; the American “garden club,” a phenomenon that started generally among women in the 1920s, is not all that different from the charitable organizations or concert societies forming around the same time. But flower culture has a world history that spans centuries. Historical evidence of this culture lies in seed catalogs, countless poems and books and magazine columns about flowers’ symbolism, and accounts of various “manias” for particular flowers, from the rose to the cactus. Flower-culture, like many instances of fan-like enthusiasm, has sometimes been the subject of mockery by outsiders but, for its followers, it provides a source of deep human feeling.

While gardeners love flowers' beauty, they more specifically love the process of nurturance, growth, and display. Flowers' dynamism is, in fact, often associated with people or nations and with human qualities and emotions, from Charlotte Elizabeth's "biographical garden" to preacher Henry Ward Beecher's invocation of flower-enthusiasm as an earthly leveler of all men.

From: Charlotte Elizabeth, Floral Biography (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1840).
Botany is doubtless a very delightful study; but a botanical treatise is one of the last things that I should be found engaged in. Truth shall be told: my love of flowers—for each particular petal—is such, that no thirst after scientific knowledge could every prevail with me to tear the beautiful objects in pieces. I love to see the bud bursting into maturity; I love to mark the deepening tints with which the beams of heaven paint the expanded flower; nay, with a melancholy sort of pleasure, I love to watch that progress towards decay, so endearingly bespeaking a fellowship in man’s transient glory, which, even at its height, is but as “the flower of grass.”…But there is yet another, and somewhat fanciful view, that I delight to take of these fair things, my course has lain through a busy and a chequered path; I have been subjected to many changes of place, and have encountered a great variety of characters, who have passed before me like visions of the night, leaving but the remembrance of what they were. I have frequently in my lonely rambles among the flowers, assimilated one and another of them to those unforgotten individuals, until they became almost identified; and my garden bears a nomenclature which no eye but mine can decypher.
From: The London Quarterly and Holborn Review, vol. 24, p. 50, April 1865.
Floriculture adapts itself to a leading instinct of human nature. Much of the life of the florist is spent in making provision for the future. He sows his seeds in hope of a reward that is to be. Supposing him not only to cultivate flowers after the ordinary fashion, but to set himself to obtain new and improved varieties, this same instinct finds fresh scope and satisfaction. The reader must himself be a florist if he would understand with what enthusiasm the first blooms of seedling plants are watched by the expectant grower; how eagerly he notes such of them as seem to merit preservation; and what wholesome stimulus body and mind alike are apt to receive from the entire process of his occupation. Perhaps the adaptation of floriculture to satisfy certain instinctive cravings of our nature has quite as much to do with the all but universal passion for it as the love of flowers for their own sake.
From Henry Ward Beecher, Pleasant Talk About Fruits, Flowers, and Farming (1874), 50.
Floral insanity is one of the most charming inflictions to which man is heir! One never wishes to be cured, nor should any one wish to cure him. The garden is infectious. Flowers are “catching,” or the love of them is. Men begin with one or two. In a few years they are struck through with floral zeal. Not bees are more sedulous in their researches into flowers than many a man is, and one finds, after the strife and heat and toil of his ambitious life, that there is more pure satisfaction in his garden than in al the other pursuits that promise so much of pleasure and yield so little. It is pleasant to find in men whose hard and loveless side you see in society, so much that is gentle and beauty-loving in private. Hard capitalists, sharp politicians, grinding business men, will often be found, at home, in full sympathy with the gentlest aspects of nature. One is surprised to find how rich and sweet these monsters often turn out to be! 


Between 1634 and 1636, in Holland, tulips became the object of sustained public fascination. Most of the writing about this moment is focused on the alleged absurdity of the commercial speculation on tulip bulbs (known as tulipmania or tulipomania). Few scholars, however, have really looked at people's deep engagement with tulips. Was it simply mass hysteria? Or can we perhaps recognize it also as a complex form of fan-like desire?

From Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Volume 1 (1841), 147-148.
Many persons grow insensibly attached to that which gives them a great deal of trouble, as a mother often loves her sick and ever-ailing child better than her more healthy offspring. Upon the same principle we must account for the unmerited encomia lavished upon these fragile blossoms. In 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade. As the mania increased, prices augmented, until, in the year 1635, many persons were known to invest a fortune of 100,000 florins in the purchase of forty roots…The operations of the trade became so extensive and so intricate, that it was found necessary to draw up a code of laws for the guidance of the dealers. Notaries and clerks were also appointed, who devoted themselves exclusively to the interests of the trade. The designation of public notary was hardly known in some towns, that of tulip notary usurping its place. In the smaller towns where there was no exchange, the principal tavern was usually selected as the “showplace,” where high and low traded in tulips, and confirmed their bargains over sumptuous entertainments. These dinners were sometimes attended by two or three hundred persons, and large vases of tulips, in full bloom, were placed at regular intervals upon the tables and sideboard, for their gratification during the repast.
From: Phineas Taylor Barnum, The Humbugs of the World (New York: Carleton, 1866), 205-206.
This tulip business is, I believe, the only speculative excitement in history whose subject-matter did not even claim to have any readl value. Petroleum is worth some shillings a gallon for actual use for many purposes. Stocks always claim to represent some real trade or business. The morus multicaulis was to be as permanent a source of wealth as corn, and was expected to produce the well known mercantile substance of silk. But nobody ever pretended that tulips could be eaten, or manufactured, or consumed in any way of practical usefulness. They have not one single quality of the kind termed useful. They have nothing desirable except the beauty of a peculiarly short-lived blossom. You can do absolutely nothing with them except to look at them. A speculation in them is exactly as reasonable as one in butterflies would be.
From: “The Florist, No. II,” The Royal Lady’s Magazine (1830), 254.
The principal beds of tulips near London, open to the pubic, are not very numerous; though many private cultivators delight in showing their collections if applied to. Mr. Clarke of Croydon has, perhaps, for new, good, and scarce flowers, the best collection in Europe; some varieties which no one but himself possesses. Mr. Lawrance of Hampton, the host of the Red Lion Inn, has also a very superior collection, which has been visited repeatedly by their present majesties, when Duke and Duchess of Clarence, with great delight, and is annually exhibited in May to many distinguished persons, who rarely fail to dine there once during the tulip bloom. Mr. Strong, of Brook Green is an extensive, we should almost say the most extensive of the private cultivators, and blooms, sometimes, eight or ten large beds. It was one of this gentleman’s flowers that we gave in No. XIV, under the title of Strong’s Princess Victoria. 
From: Vick’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1 (August 1878), 241.
I don’t know of any flowers that afford me more pleasure than my Tulips, because they are so sure and so little trouble. At least, good results are sure to follow the labor taken. With many other things we labor and wait, and the result is not always certain, as few things can be in this world, especially when liable to be affected by the weather, insect enemies, &c. My Tulips flower in May, or early in June. A few weeks after this the leaves begin to turn brown, and I take up the bulbs, dry them a little, and store them away until October, when they are planted again. To occupy the Tulip ground, secure a few Petunia plants, or Portulaca, and sometimes Verbenas. In October these have done flowering, or nearly so, and the Tulip bed is made again. In this way I get two season’s of flowers on the same bed in one season. I have but little garden ground, and thus make the most of a little.
Orchid-mania or orchidelirium was a fascination with orchids that reached its height in the middle of the 19th century. Part of the appeal for Westerners was their exotic origin. As Luigi Berliocchi explains in The Orchid in Lore and Legend (Timber Press, 2000), “With the passage of time, attitudes toward these plants changed. Initially they represented lushness and mystery, miraculous mirages of tropical forests, with a frisson of savagery in the exotic. Then, with the century, they began to be tinged with fin de si├Ęcle associations, living symbols of exclusive preciousness and privilege, and a voluptuous, perturbing sensuality.”

From: The Garden Oracle (London: W. H. Collingridge, 1865).
The horticultural world, like every other “world,” political, scientific, &c., has always on hand a mania of some sort. It allowed the aquariam mania to pass with little notice, because it then had on its hands a fern mania. Though this has not yet cooled, an orchid mania has arisen to compete with it, and soon we shall see all the middle-class amateurs engaged in orchid-growing. Mr. Shirley Hibberd, the well-known writer on horticulture, has a peculiar faculty of foresight in regard to mania—as witness the success of his books on aquaria, fern-culture, &c. To encourage the orchid mania, he has hit upon the ingenious plan of arranging in the “Garden Oracle” for 1865 a list of orchids to bloom every day throughout the year, and has added a paper on the course to be pursued by beginners in orchidology. We now learn that steaming hothouses and expensive appliances are not necessities of orchid culture, and that, by the judicious expenditure of a few pounds, an amateur may enjoy the luxury of a well-stocked orchid-house.
From: Longman’s Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 153, (1897), p. 535.
We have glanced at many successive manias for flowers, but have not yet called attention to the all-absorbing one for orchids at the present time. These wonderful flowers have an immense influence on this age of gardening. How much has been done by enthusiastic collectors to obtain them, and how much has been sacrificed for them! Their exquisite beauty none can dispute, and the length of time their blooms last in perfection adds to their charm. Something mysterious there is too about them, as if they could tell us strange tales of the life in those tropical virgin forests they inhabit….
From: The Orchid Review, Vol. 6. (1898).
The Japanese in an Orchid Craze
The following amusing paragraph is going th round of the papers: “The latest craze that has made its appearance in Japan is the Orchid craze; and if reports are true, the Tulip craze in Holland of several centuries ago may well look to its laurels. According to the Tokio Asaki (Morning Day), a new variety of a small Orchid, jointly owned by the well-known gardener of Shitanya, Marn Shin, and by two others, is at present enjoying the highest reputation. It is called ‘Amakusa,’ for every rare variety has its own special name…The fame of the ‘Amakusa’ has sent all the circles of Orchid hunters into a flutter. Numerous applications have been received by the triple owners, asking them to part with even one leaf, for Orchids, as is well known, can be propagated by root separation. But all these applications have been courteously declined. The other day, says the Asaki, a delegation, representing ten villagers of Chitagori, Okari, came up to Tokio. They were all men stricken with the Orchid mania…
There are others, of course: rosemania in ancient Rome, Hyacincth mania in Holland in the 1730s, Dahlia mania in England during the 1820s, the cactus mania of 1830 in the United States; fern mania and carnation mania in the U.S. in the late 1800s. And I thought Jenny Lind mania was a big deal!--lots more to research.

No comments:

Post a Comment