(9) The Pedigree Of Your Flowers
By GERALD WYNNE RUSHTON As you wander, chatting with friends, or alone, pleased, admiring, along your garden path, planning perhaps fresh flower glories (those glories we all plan and somehow so seldom achieve) do you realise the historic background, the claims of long descent, the wealth of legend, fact, myth, that belongs to the massed blooms about you? Here is pride of pedigree if you like, before which the splendid quarterings of Habsburg, or Bourbon, or Windsor, are as yesterday. The Rose and the Carnation (Coronation of Edmund Spenser), and Lily, are aristocrats unquestioned of course, but what of the Primrose, the Hollyhock, the Batchelor's Button, the Sweetbrier, the Pansies, the Iris, the Rosemary, and the Bay Laurel, and the Daffodil and Narcissus.
" Just a Primrose "
Here is romance all ablowing and agrowing that takes us back at a step to ancient Egypt, to the great son of Mantua, to the Courts of Love in Provence, to Mohammed and a host of other names as historic.
" A primrose by the river's brim, A simple primrose was to him And it was nothing more."
Is it anything more to you? Do you know where its name comes from? This is the Primerole of Chaucer. Old Herbals and MSS tell us that it was called " Pryme Rolles of Pryme Tyme because it beareth the first flour in pryme tyrne." Pryme time—the first time or season, the ancient name for Spring—how the work takes us back to the Middle Ages. It lingers yet in Prime " the first office of the day sung in the Roman churches.
The old English name is from the French Primerverolles, Italian Primaverola — the first spring flower. Prime rollcs as they were first called, soon got familiarised into primrose, and we hear the flower being called the first rose of spring.
Anything less like a rose in form or colour it is difficult to conceive. And thereby hangs a tale. The first flower of spring with us is the primrose — but the name comes from the Italian and in the south the first flower of spring is the daisy; a common and inconspicious flower there while the primrose in Italy is extremely rare.
In all the old Herbals like the Augsberg Edition of the Ortus Sanitatis (1486) it is the daisy that is called primerverolle but the name is used indiscriminately for both the daisy and the primrose by Parkinson in his great work.
Lyre is the most accurate authority. " Petie Mulleyn " is what he calls the primrose, giving in Frenchified form, its botanical classification.
• • . Daffodils
That come before the swallow dares and take The winds of March with beauty."
Philosophers Took Heed
Sophocles associates this exquisite flower with the garlands of great Goddesses. "And ever, day by day, the Narcissus with its beauteous clusters, the ancient coronet of the mighty goddesses, bursts into bloom by heaven's dew"—while Mohammed loved the flower so that he said, "He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for a flower of the narcissus; for bread is the food of the body, but narcissus is the food of the soul." The very name of daffodil touches our imagination. It is an exquisite corruption of the Greek Asphodel—affodile—affodyle—daffodil. Indeed as Wilde very truly said of the flower itself, " They are like Greek things of the best period."
Rosemary as a name hails direct from the Latin rosemarinus—the botanical name of the shrub. Most botanical names are a nightmare of the hideous; but this one is a very perfect example of that felicity that Emerson refers to when he says, speaking of words generally, "Their origins arc lost in the mists of time but each in itself is a stroke of genius."
Rosemarinus means sea spray, and it was so named because it grew on the sea coast; but to me the shrub in flower recalls the sea—the dull opaque green of sea water crusted with flowers of foam.
Equally, sweet-briar comes from Provence, which fact we learn from its older lovelier name of Eglantine that is the Provencal aiglentina Englished. The aethereal quality of the sweet-briar perfume after rain is a very troubadour's song—from some ancient Court of Love.
The Iris, of course, is the fleur-de-lys— and presumably that is all there is to be said about it. An old French book of heraldry tells us " Louis VII dit le Jeune, prit le premier des fleurs de lis par allusion a son nom de Loys (cornme on ficrivait alors). On a dit dans ce temps-la Fleur de Loys, puis Fleur de Louis, enfin Flew de Lis."
Louis le Jeune lived in 1147, but long before his day it was a common device in ancient decoration, notably in India and Egypt where as the attribute of the God Horus it was the symbol of life and resurrection.
It is really all Shakespeare's fault that we get the Iris mixed up with the liliesPerdita that flower-sick heroine calling for " lilies of all kinds the fleur-de-luce being one."
Poor Man's Orchid
But the older name is that of a daughter of the Gods—Iris the daughter of Ocean— the Messenger of the Gods, who whenever she wished to come down to earth threw her rainbow scarf across the sky and descended on that.
The purple and orange and yellow and blue tints of the rainbow indeed live again in the glorious blossom of the Iris, so rightly called " the poor man's orchid"; and one can understand why the Egyptians placed its stately flower upon the head of the Sphinx as the symbol of eloquence and power.
Hollyhocks•are stately too, and have an Eastern origin. The name is Welsh, and was originally hocks—plain and unadorned, from the word hocys, a mallow. But when it was known that they came from Judea they were also called holy—hence hollyhocks.