Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mum’s NOT the Word: On the Not-So-Secret Life of Plants

Legend has it that the Danes decided to sack Scotland—and did so in a most un-chivalrous manner: by attacking under the cover of darkness. One barefooted Danish soldier allegedly stepped on a thistle and yelped out in pain, thereby alerting the Scots of the impending invasion. Soon thereafter the grateful and victorious Scots adopted the thistle as their national symbol. As an additional act of gratitude, the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s very own knighthood, was founded in 809 (and is today headed by the Queen of England herself).

Speaking of that country south of Scotland, the rose—the Tudor or Union Rose to be exact—has served as the heraldic emblem of England since the War of the Roses (1455 – 1485). The Tudor Rose conjoins the White Rose of the House of York and the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, and thus symbolizes the union of the feuding families. For 117 years, the House of Tudor reigned until all of its descendants died and one Scottish king, James VI, inherited all of the lands of the British Isles (and who thenceforth became known as James I). But we all know what happened to the Stuarts: absent the protective powers of the rose, off came Charles I’s head, Cromwell and his Parliamentarians succeed in battle, Cromwell is eventually defeated, Cromwell dies, the Stuarts are restored, but the House of Hanover eventually takes legal control over the Isles. Perhaps the Stuarts should have adopted an emblematic flower…

On the other side of the world, the chrysanthemum served other-worldly and this-worldly purposes. Long revered by the Chinese for its power of life and for its symbolic mediation between life and death (interesting side note: the Europeans have long considered the chrysanthemum as the death flower), the chrysanthemum appeared in Japanese lore as the “solar flower,” perhaps a parallel to the meaning bestowed upon this autumnal beauty by the Chinese. Given the associations of the sun with life, as well as the Japanese belief that their first emperor, Jimmu, directly descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese monarchy—the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world—adopted the chrysanthemum as its crest as early as the reign of Emperor Go-Daigon (early 1300s).

I haven't an emblematic crest, but I do have chrysanthemums (though not thistle or roses). Each autumn, I experience an inner frenzy caused by heightened anticipation of the opening of my chrysanthemums. They tease ever so: the buds grow and grow over a period of many weeks. They appear as if they are about to open (a bit of color shows through the sepals, tempting, tantalizing), but each day one checks the buds, they do not appear to be any nearer to exposing their glory than during the last inspection. 

This past weekend, Miranda Orange chrysanthemum began to bloom. Despite the flowers' surprisingly small size--perhaps an product of months of record heat and drought--the effect remains the same. I am elevated. I am in awe.

No wonder flowers are so often adopted as official seals, emblems, and crests by political bodies: they transport us to another realm, elevate the mood, soften the proverbial (sharper) edges of life. And in doing so, they redirect our attention away from the dirt in which the flower grows, and the dirt which invariably accompanies political bodies themselves. 

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