Literary Taxonomy of Flowers

This idea had its origin in a feeling of injustice, and if I were a better scholar this “taxonomy” would be principle among my endeavors.

The orchid is my favorite species of flower. It is both the strangest and most beautiful of flowers, capable of the most varied morphological differences while still maintaining its distinctive stylistic consistency: three petals, three sepals, and for some reason a certain succulence whether earthbound or epiphyte.

I find the symbolic negligence with which writers and poets have treated this bloom unconscionable. Granted, the lotus and rose are incredible to behold — but do they warrant the great spiritual weight with which they have been invested? Even the insipid lily is treated with more (royal) dignity. Mythologically, flowers like the anemone, the hyacinth and the narcissus get to spring as memorials from the tragic blood of demi-gods. But the orchid? It has its mythological origins as a punishment for an over lascivious satyr (the bulbs of the terrestrial species common in Greece resemble testicles: orkhis is Greek for testicle). Ovid did not even consider this transformation worthy of inclusion in his Metamorphoses.

Is a love potion and an aphrodisiac (a midwife’s remedy for infertility) the best we can do for this supernal plant?

For a long time I played with the idea of trying to rectify the orchid’s symbolic malestimation. I began taking notes for an essay I would entitle “Orchids and the Anomalies of Logic”. My ambition was nothing less than to wrestle with three thousand years of folkloric and literary tradition and win for my favorite flower a place of real meaning and conceptual beauty.

To me, the orchid is such a combination of odd components — great as both a mimic (for example, moths and bees: Phalaenopsis amabilis, Ophrys apifera) and as an originator (Bonatea speciosa, Cirrhopetalum gamosepalum); an inexplicable blending of often ugly, weed-like leaves with bewitching blooms (Dendrobium miyakei), and also the opposite (Macoda petola) — that, like a sphinx or a chimeara, strung together from disparate parts, it deserves to represent those moments of thought where reason reaches its limits and begins, like a parabola, to bend back upon itself. Those points of logic that escape behind a fog and leave in their place, like a changeling, a swollen paradox. The orchid is a freak of the most arresting kind; a parasite for which its host should be honored; frankly, it should not exist.

Ultimately, my ambition was that whenever someone contemplates a Paphiopadelium or Encyclia, an Oncidium or Cattelya, the “sbaglio di natura” and the “ultimo segreto” will come to mind — the rip in the net. That is to say, not the state of the lotus or rose, where opposites are resolved and salvation rises from the mud of life; rather, the states where logic fails and ties thinking into iron-tight knots. States of terrifying confusion. The Old Testament God . . . because the orchid is sinister.

Now, for such an endeavor to be taken seriously and succeed, one glowing assumption had to be addressed: that this was not an arbitrary move. Therefore, in order to prove that a mistake had been made with the orchid, I also had to prove that no mistake had been made with the rest of the flower kingdom, that the lotus deserves its lavish attention and the lantana to be ignored. Otherwise a door to the universe of relativism could be opened and threaten a long tradition of symbiotic symbology. So I began both a botanical and literary study of flowers, and as I struggled to compile a complete list and sketch small symbological essays, two ideas occurred to me: 1) this would require enough research to shock an army of paralegals into pillars of salt 2) this Literary Taxonomy of Flowers (as I was beginning to call it) might be a worthy resource in its own right.

At first I made lists of flowers and under each one collected the quotes and verses where any of them were so much as mentioned. Thus, stacked beneath the geranium one would read Pavese’s “dove sono parole / antiche e fatica sanguina / e gerani tra i sassi”; for the poppy I had Rimbaud’s “se recrie le demon qui me couronna de si aimables pavots . . .”; for the forget-me-not I recorded Nabokov’s long passage of dragon-love between Van/Ada Veen in the woods, while Lucette was bound up like Andromeda, but with a jump-rope and to a tree (pale blue blooms on soft pale skin); the sunflower had Montale’s “il girasole impazzito di luce”.

After I had a pretty sizable list of entries for twenty or so flowers I began analyzing for a symbolic and poetic consistency. Although it wasn’t totally lacking, there existed enough difference within each flower that I had to break them apart into smaller, more accurate lists. It was at this point I began giving them Latin names.

Whereas now we break the plants, after kingdom, division, class, order and family, into genus and species, I concerned myself only with the last two. In the real world, genus and species help distinguish, for example, between Jasminum nudiflorum (Chinese, yellow, scentless winter bloom) and Jasminum sambac (Arabic, white, perfumed nocturnal bloom). In the useless world of literary pretension biological distinction would not figure. Instead, purely human attitudes, unrestrained and in idiotic glory, will be grafted upon our morphological perception of each flower’s reality — as I think probably happens anyhow.

So, presuming the exact same flower (biologically) is intended throughout, the Literary Taxonomy of Flowers would make a distinction between the white rose that blushed red at Adam and Eve’s departure from Eden, naming it Rosa pudora, and the incognito bloom which cruxed Juliet’s lusty meditation upon names, naming it Rosa ignotum.

This is probably as clear as I need to be, as a general indication of organization. Nevertheless, a few more examples:

Beckett’s hyacinth — “. . . no more than a limp stem with limp leaves . . .” — will be classified as Hyacinthus mortuosum.

Nabokov’s dandelions in Lolita — “. . . changed from suns to moons . . .” — will be classified as Taraxacum decipio.

Ammon’s yucca — “. . . a daylight port . . . lifting temples of bloom . . .” — will be classified as Yucca domestica.

As is probably evident, the genus indicates the flower, making no important distinction between the cultivated red-rose and the wild multifloral-rose. The species indicates how the flowers are used poetically to express an idea or emotion. Every instance where a petunia suggests timidity will be gathered together; and where the same bloom suggests fragility, there will be another entry.

In this way the whole prosetry-lexicon of flowers would be available as a touchstone for originality and mimicry.

Slowly work on the Taxonomy began to replace work on my essay “Orchids and the Anomalies of Logic”. And then, before I knew what had happened, I gave up work on both — to my usual lack of surprise.

So in the hopes that someone with more stamina than I might pick up this project and offer it to the world, I am issuing this little sketch into the ether, like a seed.

Do orchid’s even have seeds? I don’t think I have ever seen one.


~ by Peter on January 19, 2008.

4 Responses to “Literary Taxonomy of Flowers”

  1. I too have pondered the Orchid, although not with your intelligence and precision. I think it is the obviousness of the orchid which has lead to its neglect. As usual a mind bending technically perfect piece of prose that seems to have something mystical and ancient, like an alchemist perhaps, going on just below the surface.

  2. Wow, what wonderful writing. Such precision yet a kind of orthodox abstraction. I have always harbored a strange interest in orchids but have always been to afraid to purchase one because of their fragility. “Literary Taxonomy of Flowers,” makes me what to go beyond my fear and bring home the flower. Even though the orchid is so complex- I have a feeling it could be a Writers best friend.

  3. This was a wonderfully constructed essay. And though I commend this immense task that you took upon yourself, I tend to feel that there should be an unbound, unrestricted individualism in the interpretation of any piece of art – literary or otherwise. It certainly is interesting, however, to seek out the common patterns with which these interpretations are made manifest – but at the same time these patterns should not be metallic chains.

    Orchids hold a special place in my heart too – they are, in some inexplicable sense – in many inexplicable senses, perhaps – very very unique.

    And highly coincidentally enough, I had this dreamy-revelation in my sleep last night, that my previous existence was in the form of an orchid!

    Anyhow. I’ll leave you here with a note of thanks for visiting and commenting in my blog.
    God-speed in orchid-seed hunting! 😉

  4. Good News, orchids do have seeds: vanilla beans.

    Also, in Turkey they make an icecream out of terrestrial orchid bulbs.

    Thank you all for your very kind comments.

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