Speaking in Flowers

by Sarah West


It’s hard to ignore, this time of year, how loud the garden becomes. Clumps of leaves that started so slowly are tall as teenagers now: arching, trailing, encompassing their own lush and particular selves. And from their collective body, the once occasional jewel has burgeoned into a genuine treasury. Flowers fill the sunny spots with wide faces, illumine shady corners, ripple like silk across stones. It is their way, you see, of opening their mouths and asking.

This sort of beckoning is pure poetry. Though they are creatures with the ability to forge a meal from (what seems to us) thin air, plants cannot walk. Except by accident, they cannot hold a hand, draw a face near to kiss. So they turn to Shakespearian tactics, sending sonnets into orbit, transforming sunlight, minerals and nutrients into material loveliness. The intent is to allure, and though we are not the primary audience, we too have been hooked by their charms.

When it comes to pollination, flowers are honed instruments. Their shape suggests what sort of mouth their target pollinators have, their color, what sort of vision. The heady scents of gardenia and jasmine are meant to attract something more functional than our praise. Yet we breed them, grow them and give them in true acts of worship. Flowers are a symbolic currency of our culture, and in the case of many species, their numbers on this earth have increased because of it.

I have always loved flowers for their wild shapes, intoxicating scents, saturated colors. As a gardener, I have come to rely on them as moderators. A humble patch of flowers that attract beneficial insects has become a regular part of my vegetable garden. The sorts of flowers that can increase insect diversity in a garden aren’t the showstoppers, though. They are usually small, simple flowers designed for the body shapes and feeding styles of tiny flies, wasps, bugs and beetles. Carrot family flower types, such as fennel, dill and wild Queen Anne’s lace are wildly popular with the crowd we aim to attract, as is the sunflower family, including marigolds, zinnia, and calendula.

To see a garden ecology in balance is a splendid sight: buzzing and whirring with insects of all kinds, insignificant pest populations, birds swooping and singing. I was in a garden recently whose ornamental borders have been completely neglected for over a year. Weeds have filled in between the widely spaced shrubs and perennials and bloomed in continuous succession since early spring. A vegetable patch, the only tended part of the garden, was nearly free of pest damage. Brassica leaves usually beloved to aphids were nearly spotless, while ladybug larvae—great devourers of aphids—crawled on nearly every plant. Hundreds of equilibriums were at work here, visible only by their outcome: a vibrant and productive food garden. By attracting the right kind of visitors, that small prairie of weeds and its modest but functional blooms was the ambassador that invited such fortune in, creating an effect that azaleas alone are not capable of.

To our species, flowers offer another form of moderation. We use them as symbols of sympathy, love, congratulations. And sometimes they are nothing more than an expression of exuberance sitting on the table. I believe this is not an accidental association. Green leaves alone do not effect the change plants require to increase their genetic presence; thus, they transform the desire to exist into a flower. To this creative act we can relate. Flowers mirror our own desire to reach into the beyond, into the next, with purpose and grace. To give flowers is to give poetry, the works of visionary artists, arias.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, July 26, 2012)