Sunday, 21 August 2011

A floral lexicon

'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine.
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:'

from A Midsummer Night's Dream : Act 2, Scene 1   William Shakespeare

A few months ago I read Olivia Laing's first book To the River in which she describes her walk the length of the river Ouse in Sussex one scorching midsummer week in 2009. It is an enjoyable debut and one that is hard not to describe in riverine metaphors as it leisurely meanders through Laing's varied literary interests, mirroring her earthly journey. Chief among these is Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941 and whose ghost stalks the author's footsteps over the course of the 42 miles from source to sea.

Common Knapweed
The Sussex Ouse is not one of Britain's great watercourses. Gentle and sluggish for the most part it has known moments of violence, Woolf's suicide aside, and has witnessed some turbulent history including devastating floods. The river's name is deliciously onomatopoeic, summoning images of brackish estuarine mud, and Laing speculates on its origin. Ouse is a common name for rivers in England and most likely derives from the celtic usa which simply means water. Its similarity to other river names - the Ure, Aire, Wear, Wyre, Usk, Esk, Isis, Erewash etc - suggests a common ancestor. But there are other theories, foremost among them that the name may derive from La Rivière de Lewes as the major town through which the river flows.

Lady's Bedstraw
However, I digress before I have even started. My chief reason for mentioning Olivia Laing's book is that some of its most bewitching passages recount the wild flowers she encounters as she walks. Laing is knowledgeable about floral botany and she identifies each species with enviable facility, reciting their names with a reverential slowness that falls in with the pace of her footsteps. Riverbanks are rewarding places for flower hunters, offering rich habitat and abundant variety. There are successions that change with soil and shade and season, so a walk among meadows and hedgerows is never the same twice.

In a twenty-first century, urban Britain there is something mysterious and occult about flower names. Like the rivers whose margins they populate they have arcane and ancient origins mostly lost to us. They are words only half-remembered, harking back to a time of monastic herbalists and alchemists, pregnant with lore and liturgical significance. Aconite, agrimony, asphodel... they should be in every serious Scrabble player's arsenal! Shakespeare's fairies knew them all, as quoted above, where Oberon describes in floral terms to the mischievous Puck the place where he might find his Titania sleeping, in order to teach her a lesson about love. Equally, Macbeth's hags might have tossed them into their bubbling cauldron, cooking up a dark magic.

Common Comfrey
Betony, bedstraw, burnet... discovering flowers forces us to slow down, to cease from marching on, to take notice of the smallest detail. Perhaps one day I might stumble upon Titania who there sleeps 'sometime of the night. Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;' Apparently there are more than 140 different plants and flowers referenced in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Some literary historians have cited the wide botanical familiarity in his language as evidence that the Bard did not work alone, that he engaged specialist researchers. I prefer a simpler explanation. He grew up a country lad who wrote at a time when the names of wild flowers were still part of the vernacular, within the vocabulary of common folk. He employs flowers both literally and emblematically and he expects his audiences to be familiar with them and to understand their symbolic significance. 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance' Ophelia says, and Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers would at once have heard this as premonitory, for rosemary was thrown onto coffins by graveside mourners.

Devil's-Bit Scabious
Celandine, centaury, comfrey... I lack Olivia Laing's broad knowledge to always identify on the spot what I see. But with the aid of my camera and a bundle of guidebooks I can afterwards hope to put names to most of what I find. It's a pity but to some extent digital photography has supplanted the need for the field notebook and the art of meticulous observation in situ. As I look at the photographs later, from the comfort or confines of an armchair, I am back there walking the riverside path, drinking the aroma of damp earth, hearing the electric crackle of dragonflies, halting every few steps to examine yet another of nature's inexhaustible designs for seducing pollinators. These are a few of my pictures taken on recent river path walks.

Olivia Laing's admiration for tenacious weeds is especially palpable, describing with glee how quickly they re-colonise land laid waste by human vanity or destructiveness. In weeds we find true eternity. 'The rosebay willowherb swells up through the ruins of law courts and cathedrals, the dandelion marches across battlefields and infiltrates the gardens of mansions... these weeds have come and will come again, time immemorial, time without end. It is as well to remember this, for humans believe against all evidence in stasis...' This is wonderful, persuasive writing and I hope to be able to tell her so, for tomorrow I will meet Olivia Laing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Above all I want tell her how much I enjoyed meandering with her along the banks of her chosen river and to thank her for helping me to slow down and expand my floral lexicon.


  1. What a beautiful meander through the lexicon of flora of the riverbank. Lovely! It is true that names which fell so easily from the pages of writers were also well known even to those in our lifetime, namely our grandparents. My grandmother was inspiring as she confidently described every plant on the walk through the country.. I love the names of the flowers you have photographed, although some are perplexing. How can a beautiful concoction of blue and spindly pink be addressed as Devil's-Bit Scabious? Unkind but such fun too, and definitely not static but trembling with life.

  2. Supposedly plants of the scabious family were used in the past to treat various skin ailments, including scabies. Why devil's-bit? I don't know.

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