Flowers and Folks

EVERY order of intelligent beings naturally separates the world into two classes, — itself and the remainder. Birds, for instance, have no doubt a feeling, more or less clearly defined, which, if it were translated into human speech, might read, “ Birds and nature.” We, in our turn, say, “ Man and nature.” But such distinctions, useful as they are, and therefore admissible, are none the less arbitrary and liable to mislead. Birds and men are alike parts of nature, having many things in common not only with each other, but with every form of animate existence. The world is not a patchwork, though never so cunningly put together, but a garment woven throughout.

The importance of this truth, its farreaching and many-sided significance, is even yet only beginning to be understood ; but its bearing upon the study of what we call natural history would seem to be evident. My own experience as a dabbler in botany and ornithology has convinced me that the pursuit of such researches is not at all out of the spirit of the familiar line, —

“ The proper study of mankind is man,” — whatever the author of the line may have himself intended by his apothegm. To become acquainted with the peculiarities of plants or birds is to increase one’s knowledge of beings of his own sort.

There is room, I think, for a treatise on analogical botany, a study of the human nature of plants. Thoroughly and sympathetically done, the work would be both surprising and edifying. It would give us a better opinion of plants, and possibly a poorer opinion of ourselves. Some wholesome first lessons of this kind we have all taken, as a matter of course. “ We all do fade as a leaf.”“ All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.” There are no household words more familiar than such texts. But the work of which I am thinking will deal not so much with our likeness to tree and herb as with the likeness of tree and herb to us ; and furthermore, it will go into the whole subject, systematically and at length. Meanwhile, it is open even to an amateur to offer something, in a general and discursive way, upon so inviting a theme, and especially to call attention to its scope and variety.

As I sit at my desk, the thistles are in their glory, and in a vase at my elbow stands a single head of the tall swamp variety, along with a handful of fringed gentians. Forgetting what it is, one cannot help pronouncing the thistle beautiful, — a close bunch of minute rose-purple flowers. But who could ever feel toward it as toward the gentian ? Beauty is a thing not merely of form and color, but of memory and association. The thistle is an ugly customer. In a single respect it lays itself out to be agreeable ; but even its beauty is too much like that of some venomous reptile. Yet it has its friends, or, at all events, its patrons (if you wish to catch butterflies, go to the thistle pasture), and no doubt could give forty eloquent and logical excuses for its offensive traits. Probably it felicitates itself upon its shrewdness, and pities the poor estate of its defenseless neighbors. How they must envy its happier fortune ! It sees them browsed upon by the cattle, and can hardly be blamed if it chuckles a little to itself as the greedy creatures pass it by untouched. School-girls and botanists break down the golden-rods and asters, and pull up the gerardias and ladies’-tresses ; but neither school - girl nor collector often troubles the thistle. It opens its gorgeous blossoms and ripens its feathery fruit unmolested. Truly it is a great thing to wear an armor of prickles !

“ The human nature of plants,”— have I any readers so innocent as not to feel at this moment the appropriateness of the phrase ? Can there be one so favored as not to have some unmistakable thistles among his Christian townsmen and acquaintance? Nay, we all know them. They are the more easily discovered for standing always a little by themselves. They escape many slight inconveniences under which more amiable people suffer. Whoever finds himself in a hard place goes not to them for assistance. They are recognized afar as persons to be let alone. Yet they, too, like their floral representatives, have a good side. If they do not give help, they seldom ask it. Once a year they may actually “ do a handsome thing,” as the common expression is; but they cannot put off their own nature ; their very generosity pricks the hand that receives it, and when old Time cuts them down with his scythe (what should we do without this famous husbandman, unkindly as we talk of him ?) there will be no great mourning.

Is it then an unpardonable offense for a plant to defend itself against attack and extermination? Has the duty of non-resistance no exceptions nor abatements in the vegetable kingdom ? That would be indeed a hard saying; for what would become of our universal favorite, the rose ? On this point there may be room for a diversity of opinion ; but for one, I cannot wish the wild rose disarmed, lest, through the recklessness of its admirers, what is now one of the commonest of our wayside ornaments should grow to be a rarity. I esteem the rose a patrician, and fairly entitled to patrician manners. As every one sees, people in high station, especially if they chance to possess attractive social qualities, are of necessity compelled to discountenance everything like careless familiarity, even from those with whom they may formerly have been most intimate. They must always stand more or less upon ceremony, and never be handled without gloves. So it is with the queen of flowers. Its thorns not only serve it as a protection, but are for its admirers an excellent discipline in forbearance. They make it easier for us, as Emerson says, to “ love the wood rose and leave it on the stalk.” In addition to which I am moved to say that the rose, like the holly, illustrates a truth too seldom insisted upon; namely, that people are more justly condemned for the absence of all good qualities than for the presence of one or two bad ones.

Some such plea as this, though with a smaller measure of assurance, I should make in behalf of plants like the barberry and the bramble. The latter, in truth, sometimes acts as if it were not so much fighting us off as drawing us on. Leaning far forward and stretching forth its arms, it buttonholes the wayfarer, so to speak, and with generous country insistence forces upon him the delicious clusters which he, in his preoccupation, seemed in danger of passing untasted. I think I know the human counterparts of both barberry and bramble, — excellent, people in their place, though not to be chosen for bosom friends without a careful weighing of consequences. Judging them not by their manners, but by their fruits, we must set them on the right hand. It would go hard with some of the most pious of my neighbors, I imagine, if the presence of a few thorns and prickles were reckoned inconsistent with a moderately good character.

As for reprobates like the so-called “poison ivy” and “poison dogwood,” they have perhaps borrowed a familiar human maxim, — “All is fair in war.” In any case, they are no worse than savage heathen, who kill their enemies with poisoned arrows, or than civilized Christians, who stab the reputation of their friends with poisoned words. Their marked comeliness of habit may be taken as a point in their favor; or, on the contrary, it may be held to make their case only so much the blacker, by laying them liable to the additional charge of hypocrisy. The question is a nice one. and I gladly leave it for subtler casuists than I to settle.

How refreshing to turn from all these, from the thistle and the bramble, yea, even from the rose itself, to gentle spirits like the violet and anemone, the arbutus and hepatica! These wage no war. They are of the original Society of Friends. Who will may spoil them without hurt. Their defense is with their Maker. I wonder whether anybody ever thinks of such flowers as representative of any order of grown people, or whether to everybody else they are forever children, as I find, on thinking of it, they have always been to me. Lowly and trustful, sweet and frail, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” They pass away without losing their innocence. Ere the first heats of summer they are gone.

Yet the autumn, too, has its delicate blooms, though they are overshadowed and, as it were, put out of countenance by the coarser growths which must be said to characterize the harvest season. Nothing that May puts into her lap is more exquisite than are the purple gerardias with which August and September embroider the pasture and the woodland road. They have not the sweet breath of the arbutus, nor even the faint elusive odor of the violet, but for daintiness of form, perfection of color, and gracefulness of habit it would be impossible to praise them too highly. Of our three species, my own favorite is the one of the narrow leaves (Gerardia tenuifolia), its longer and slighter flower-stems giving it an airiness and grace peculiarly its own. A lady to whom I had brought a handful the other day expressed it well when she said, “ They look like fairy flowers.”They are of my mind in this : they love a dry, sunny opening in the woods, or a grassy field on the edge of woods, especially if there be a seldom-used path running through it. I know not with what human beings to compare them. Perhaps their antitypes of our own kind are yet to be evolved. But I have before now seen a woman who might worthily be set in their company, — a person whose sweet and wise actions were so gracefully carried and so easily let fall as to suggest an order and quality of goodness quite out of relation to common flesh and blood.

What a contrast between such lowly minded, unobtrusive beauties and egotists like our multitudinous asters and golden-rods! These, between them, almost take possession of the world for the two or three months of their reign. They are handsome, and they know it. What is beauty for, if not to be admired ? They mass their tiny blossoms first into solid heads, then into panicles and racemes, and have no idea of hiding their constellated brightness under a bushel. “ Let your light shine ! ” is the word they go on. How eagerly they crowd along the roadside, till the casual passer-by can see scarce anything else ! If he does not see them, it is not their fault.

For myself, I am far from wishing them at all less numerous, or a jot less forward in displaying their charms. Let there be variety, I say. Because I speak well of the violet for its humility,

I see no reason why I should quarrel with the aster for loving to make a show. Herein, too, plants are like men. An indisposition toward publicity is amiable in those to whom it is natural; but I am not clear that bashfulness is the only commendable quality. Let plants and men alike carry themselves according to their birthright. Providence has not ordained a diversity of gifts for nothing, and it is only a narrow philosophy that takes offense at seeming contrarieties. The truer method, and the happier as well, is to like each according to its kind : to love that which is amiable, to admire that which is admirable, and to study that which is curious.

A few weeks ago, for example, I walked again up the mountain road that climbs out of the Franconia Valley into the Franconia Notch. I had left home twenty-four hours before, fresh from working upon the asters and golden-rods (trying to straighten out my local catalogue in accordance with Dr. Gray’s more recent classification of these large and difficult genera), and naturally enough had asters and golden-rods still in my eye. The first mile or two afforded nothing of particular note, but by and by I came to a cluster of the sturdy and peculiar Solidago squarrosa, and was taking an admiring account of its appearance and manner of growth, when I caught sight of some lower blue flower underneath, which on a second glance proved to be the closed gentian. This grew in hiding, as one might say, in the shadow of its taller and showier neighbors. Not far off, but a little more within the wood, were patches of the linnæa, which had been at its prettiest in June, but even now, in late September, was still putting forth scattered blossoms. What should a man do?

Discard the golden-rod for the gentian, and in turn forsake the gentian for the twin-flower ? Nay, a child might do that, but not a man ; for the three were all beautiful and all interesting, and each the more beautiful and interesting for its unlikeness to the others. If one wishes a stiff lesson in classification, there are few harder genera (among flowering plants) than Solidago ; if he would investigate the timely and taking question of the dependence of plants upon insects, this humble " proterandrous ” gentian (which to human vision seems closed, but which the humblebee knows well how to enter) offers him a favorable subject; while if he has an eye for beauty, a nose for delicate fragrance, and a soul for poetry, the linnæa will never cease to be one of his prime favorites. So I say again, let us have variety. It would be a stupid town all whose inhabitants should be of identical tastes and habits, though these were of the very best; and it would be a tiresome country that brought forth only a single kind of plants.

The flower of Linnæus is a flower by itself, as here and there appears a man who seems, as we say, sui generis. This familiar phrase, by the bye, is literally applicable to Linnœa borealis, a plant that spreads over a large part of the northern hemisphere, but everywhere preserves its own specific character; so that, whether it be found in Greenland or in Maryland, on the Alaskan Islands or in Utah, in Siberia or on the mountains of Scotland, it is always and everywhere the same, — a genus of one species. Diversities of soil and climate make no impression upon its originality. If it live at all, it must live according to its own plan.

The aster, on the contrary, has a special talent for variation. Like some individuals of another sort, it is born to adapt itself to circumstances. Dr. Gray enumerates no less than one hundred and ninety-six North American species and varieties, many or which shade into each other with such endless and wellnigh insensible gradations that even our great special student of the Compositœ pronounces the accurate and final classification of this particular genus a labor beyond his powers. What shall we say of this habit of variability ? Is it a mark of strength or of weakness ? Which is nobler, — to be true to one’s ideal in spite of circumstances, or to conquer circumstances by suiting one’s self to them ? Who shall decide ? Enough that the twin-flower and the star-flower each obeys its own law, and in so doing contributes each its own part toward making this world the place of diversified beauty which it was foreordained to be. I spoke of the linnæa’s autumnal blossoms, though its normal flowering time is in June. Even this steady-going, unimpressible citizen of the world, it appears, has its one bit of freakishness. In these bright, summery September days, when the trees put on their glory, this lowliest member of the honeysuckle family feels a stirring within to make itself beautiful; and being an evergreen (instead of a summer-green), and therefore incapable of bedecking itself after the maple’s manner, it sends up a few flower-stems, each with its couple of swinging, fragrant bells. So it bids the world good-by till the long winter once more comes and goes.

The same engaging habit is noticeable in the case of some of our very commonest plants. After the goldeo-rods and asters have had their day, late in October or well into November, when witch-hazel, yarrow, and clover are almost the only blossoms left us, you will stumble here and there upon a solitary dandelion reflecting the sun, or a violet giving back the color of the sky. And even so, you may find, once in a while, an old man in whom imaginative impulses have sprung up anew, now that all the prosaic activities of middle life are over. It is almost as if he were born again. The song of the April robin, the blossoming of the apple-tree, the splendors of sunset and sunrise,— these and things like them touch him to pleasure, as he now remembers they used to do years and years ago. What means this strange revival of youth in age? Is it a reminiscence merely, a final flickering of the candle, or is it rather a prophecy of life yet to come? Well, with the dandelion and the violet we know with reasonable certainty how the matter stands. The autumnal blooms are not belated, but precocious; they belong not to the season past, but to the season coming. Who shall forbid us to hope that what is true of the violet will prove true also of the man ?

It speaks well for human nature that in the long run the lowliest flowers are not only the best loved, but the oftenest spoken of. Men play the cynic: modest merit goes to the wall, they say; whoever would succeed, let him put on a brazen face and sharpen his elbows. But those who talk in this strain deceive neither themselves nor those who listen to them. They are commonly such as have themselves tried the trumpet and elbow method, and have discovered that, whatever may be true of transient notoriety, neither public fame nor private regard is to be won by such means. We do not retract what we have said in praise of diversity, and about the right of each to live according to its own nature, but we gladly perceive that in the case of the flowers also it is the meek that inherit the earth.

Our appreciation of our fellow-men depends in part upon the amount, but still more upon the quality, of the service they render us. We could get along without poets more comfortably than without cobblers, for the lower use is often first in order both of time and of necessity; but we are never in doubt as to their relative place in our esteem. One serves the body, the other the soul; and we reward the one with money, the other with affection and reverence. And our estimation of plants is according to the same rule. Such of them as nourish the body are good, — good even to the point of being indispensable ; but as we make a difference between the baunyard fowl and the nightingale, and between the common run of humanity and a Beethoven or a Milton, so maize and potatoes are never put into the same category with lilies and violets. It must be so, because man is more than an animal, and “ the life is more than meat.”

Again we say, let each fulfill its own function. One is made for utility, another for beauty. For plants, too, are specialists. They know as well as men how to make the most of inherited capacities and aptitudes, achieving distinction at last by the simple process of sticking to one thing, whether that be the production of buds, blossoms, berries, leaves, bark, timber, or what not; and our judgment of them must be correspondingly varied. The vine bears blossoms, but is to be rated not by them, but by the grapes that come after them; and the rose-tree bears hips, but takes its rank not from them, but from the flowers that went to the making of them.

“Nothing but leaves ” is a verdict unfavorable or otherwise according to its application. The tea-shrub would hold up its head to hear it.

One of the most interesting and suggestive points of difference among plants is that which relates to the matter of self-reliance. Some are made to stand alone, others to twine, and others to creep. If it were allowable to attribute human feelings to them, we should perhaps be safe in assuming that the upright look down upon the climbers, and the climbers in turn upon the creepers ; for who of us does not felicitate himself upon his independence, such as it is, or such as he imagines it to be ? But if independence is indeed a boon, — and I, for one, am too thoroughbred a New Englander ever to doubt it, — it is not the only good, nor even the highest. The nettle, standing straight and prim, asking no favors of anybody, may rail at the grape-vine, which must lay hold of something, small matter what, by which to steady itself; but the nettle might well be willing to forego somewhat of its self-sufficiency, if by so doing it could bring forth grapes. The smilax, also, with its thorns, its pugnacious habit, and its stony, juiceless berries, a sort of handsome vixen among vines, — the smilax, which can climb though it cannot stand erect, has little occasion to lord it over the strawberry. If one has done nothing, or worse than nothing, it is hardly worth while to boast of the original fashion in which he has gone about it. Moreover, the very plants about which we are speaking bear witness to the fact that it is possible to accept help, and still retain to the full one’s own individuality. The strawberry is no more a plagiarist than the smilax, nor the grape than the nettle. If the vine clings to the oedar, the connection is but mechanical. Its spirit and life are as independent of the savin as of the planet Jupiter. Even the dodder, which not only twines about other weeds, but actually sucks its life from them, does not thereby lose an iota of its native character. If a man is only original to begin with, — so the parable seems to run, — he is under a kind of necessity to remain so (as Shakespeare did), no matter how much help he may draw from alien sources.

This truth of the vegetable world is the more noteworthy, because along with it there goes a very strong and persistent habit of individual variation. The plant is faithful to the spirit of its inherited law, but is not in bondage to the letter. Our “ high-bush blackberries,” to take a very familia illustration, are all of one species, but it does not follow that they are all exactly alike. So far from it, I knew in my time — and the school-boys of the present day are not less accurately informed, we may presume — where to find berries of all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some were sour, and some were bitter, and some (I can taste them yet) were finger-shaped and sweet. And what is true of Rubus villosus is probably true of all plants, though in varying degrees. I do not recall a single article of our annual wild crop — blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes, pig-nuts (a bad name for a good thing), shagbarks, acorns, and so forth — in which there was not this constant inequality among plants of the same species, perfectly well defined, and never lost sight of by us juvenile connoisseurs. If we failed to find the same true of other vines and bushes, which for our purposes bore blossoms only, the explanation is not far to seek. Our perceptions, æsthetic and gastronomic, were unequally developed. We were in the case of the man to whom a poet is a poet, though he knows very well that there are cooks and cooks.

It is this slight but everywhere present admixture of the personal quality — call it individuality, or what you will — that saves the world, animal and vegetable alike, from stagnation. Every bush, every bird, every man, together with its unmistakable and ineradicable likeness to the parent stock, has received also a something, be it more or less, that distinguishes it from all its fellows. Let our observation be delicate enough, and we shall perceive that there are no duplicates of any kind, the world over. It is part of the very unity of the world, this universally diffused diversity.

It does a sympathetic observer good to see how humanly plants differ in their likes and dislikes. One is catholic : as common people say, it is not particular ; it can live and thrive almost anywhere. Another must have precisely such and such conditions, and is to be found, therefore, only in very restricted localities. The Dionœa, or Venus’s fly-trap, is a famous example of this fastidiousness, growing in a small district of North Carolina, and, as far as appears, nowhere else,—a highly specialized plant, with no generic relative. Another instance is furnished by a water lily (Nymphœa, elegans), the rediscovery of which is chronicled in a late issue of one of our botanical journals.1 “ This lily was originally found in 1849, and has never been seen since, holding its place in botanical literature for these almost forty years on the strength of a single collection at a single vaguely described station on the broad prairies of southwestern Texas;” now, after all this time, it turns up again in another quarter of the same State. And every student could report cases of a similar character, though less striking than these, of course, within the limits of his own local researches. If you ask me where I find dandelions, I answer, Anywhere ; but if you wish me to show you the sweet colt’s-foot (Nardosmia palmata), you must go with me to one particular spot. Any of my neighbors will tell you where the pink moccasin flower grows ; but if it is the yellow one you are in search of, I shall swear you to secrecy before conducting you to its swampy hiding-place. Some plants, like some people (but the plants, be it noted, are mostly weeds), seem to flourish best away from home ; others die under the most careful transplanting. Some are lovers of the open, and cannot be too much in the sun ; others lurk in deep woods, under the triple shadow of tree and bush and fern. Some take to sandy hill-tops; others must stand knee-deep in water. One insists upon the richest of meadow loam ; another is content with the face of a rock. We may say of them as truly as of ourselves, De gustibus non est disputandum. Otherwise, how would the earth ever be clothed with verdure ?

But plants are subject to other whims not less pronounced than these which have to do with the choice of a dwellingplace. We may call it the general rule that leaves come before flowers ; but how many of our trees and shrubs reverse this order! The singular habit of the witch-hazel, whose blossoms open as the leaves fall, may be presumed to be familiar to all readers ; and hardly less curious is the freak of the chestnut, which, almost if not quite alone among our amentaceous trees, does not put on its splendid coronation robes till late in June, and is frequently at the height of its magnificence in mid-July. What a pretty piece of variety have we, again, in the diurnal and the nocturnal bloomers ! For my own part, being a watcher of birds, and therefore almost of necessity an early stirrer abroad, I profess a special regard for such plants as save their beauty for night-time and cloudy weather. The evening primrose is no favorite with most people, I take it, but I seldom fail to pick a blossom or two with the dew on them. Those to whom I carry them usually exclaim as over some wonderful exotic, though the primrose is an inveterate haunter of the roadside. Yet its blossoms have only to be looked at and smelled of to make their way, homely as is the stalk that produces them. They love darkness rather than light, but it certainly is not “ because their deeds are evil.” One might as well cast the opprobrious text in the face of the moon and stars. Now and then some enterprising journalist, for want of better employment, investigates anew the habits of literary workers ; and it invariably transpires that some can do their best only by daylight, while the minds of others seem to be good for nothing till the sun goes down ; and the wise reader, who reads not so much to gain information as to see whether the writer tells the truth, shakes his head, and says,“ Oh, it is all in use.” Of course it is all in use, just as it is with whip-poor-wills and the morning-glory. The mention of the evening primrose calls for the further remark that plants, not less than ourselves, have a trick of combining opposite qualities, — a coarsegrained and scraggy habit, for instance, with blossoms of exquisite fragrance and beauty. The most gorgeous flowers sometimes exhale an abominable odor, and it is not unheard of that inconspicuous or even downright homely sorts should be accounted precious for their sweetness; while, as everybody knows, few members of our native flora are more graceful in appearance than the very two whose simple touch is poison. Could anything be more characteristic of human nature than just such inconsistencies ? Suavity and trickery, harshness and integrity, a fiery temper and a gentle heart, — how often do we see the good and the bad dwelling together ! We would have ordered things differently, I dare say, had they been left to us, — the good should have been all good, and the bad all bad; and yet, if it be a grief to feel that the holiest men have their failings, it ought perhaps to be a consolation, rather than an additional sorrow, to perceive that the most vicious are not without their virtues. Beyond which, shall we presume to suggest that, as poisons have their use, so moral evil, give it time enough, may turn out to be not altogether a curse ?

I have treated my subject too fancifully, I fear. Indeed, there comes over me at this moment a sudden suspicion that my subject itself is nothing but a fancy, or, worse yet, a profanation. If the flowers could talk, who knows how earnestly they might deprecate all such misguided attempts at doing them honor, — as if it were anything but a slander, this imputation to them of the foibles, or even the self-styled good qualities, of our poor humanity ! What an egoist is man! I seem to hear them saying. Look where he will, at the world or at its Creator, he sees nothing but the reflection of his own image.

Bradford Torrey.

  1. The Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club for January, 1888, page 13.