But why? Why flowers? Why do they hold such an appeal, be they in the garden, on the windowsill or clasped between the teeth? In essence why am I devoting my life to colourful films of water and carbon?
Where to begin. A mainstay of academic aesthetics over the last century has been the theory of cultural conditioning. We like flowers because Shakespeare writes about them, because Wordsworth writes about them, because Blake, Burns and Dickinson write about them; because people have painted them, printed them and pressed them. According to this view, accrued meanings and cognitive habits gave rise to the flowers’ power and, we all go along with it because, like teenage girls at a Twilight premier, we are programmed to fit in.
Cultural conditioning cannot easily be dismissed, after all I remember the early 90’s when we were conditioned to find centre partings and sportswear sexy. But it won’t wash with flowers. Every culture, no matter how historically or geographically diverse, has found flowers attractive. Ancient gods are celebrated with flowers, some of the earliest art is floral and pollen from ornamental flowers have been found (in statistically meaningful amounts) in graves dating from around 10,000 BC. Nearly every insulated tribe discovered by westerners in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is recorded as having used flowers as ornamentation, you can bet that none of them had ever listened to Wordsworth’s Ode to a Daffodil or Seal’s Kiss from a Rose.
So is the human attraction to flowers evolutionary, and if so, why? Nicholas Humphrey, in his 1973 essay on the biology of aesthetics, The Illusion of Beauty, argues that the beauty of flowers lies in their huge variety on a limited plane. Most flowers are similar in size, height and location, and they are all easily recognizable as flowers, yet there are almost unlimited variations among them. As such they invite classification; people like to distinguish, say, an Aconite from a Delphinium or 132 named cultivars of geranium from each other. Humphrey argues that this is not high end horticultural geekery, but a fundamental evolved human pleasure, as powerful as the drive for food and sex.
Without the ability to classify the world, eg dangerous tribe, friendly tribe, humans would not have managed to reach its sophisticated social heights – to appreciate flowers is to assert what it is to be human (this also explains the appeal of music, or classifying sounds and rhythms as I like to call it)
O.K, sounds slightly farfetched, but it would explain why horticulturalists never want to stop learning, and why they never have a ‘favorite flower’ for more than a few months. There are a plethora of other evolutionary flower theories out there. Flowers represent genitals – think baboons. Flowers are tasty – think Nasturtiums. Flowers signify a land of fertility and plenty – think any Edenic vision. My personal favorite is that any hunter gather who can spend his time foraging around for flowers has obviously got his shit together and is definitely shag-worthy.
Others ignore evolutionary theory and focus on symmetry and scale. The old ‘Golden Ratio’ theory crops up again and again in forms of nature we find attractive. That flower in your garden is not just a pretty collection of petals, it’s the Acropolis, The Parthenon, Vitruvian Man, and Le Corbusier – all rendered in carbon, water and pretty shades of pastel.
The young Gerald Manly Hopkins discussed the nature of symmetry and asymmetry in nature in his essays, diaries and poems. In an early undergraduate essay he forms a platonic dialogue between an undergraduate and a professor. They sit in a college garden debating whether a six or seven fanned chestnut leaf is the more beautiful, a scene I wish I could recognize from my undergraduate life. Eventually they decide the 7 lobed leaf is the more pleasing, because the leaf is ostensibly asymmetrical yet its internal structure shows an almost perfect symmetry.
This speaks to me. Most of my favorite flowers have an uneven number of petals, yet all contain symmetry in the petals, sepals, carpals and stamen. Later in life Hopkins, now a respected poet, writes: ‘I have particular periods of admiration for particular things in Nature; for a certain time I am astonished at the beauty of a tree, shape, effect, etc. Then when the passion, so to speak, has subsided, it is consigned to my treasury of explored beauty, and acknowledged with admiration and interest ever after.’ If this isn’t Nicholas Humphrey’s biological aesthetics writ poetically large then god knows what is.
So if it ever comes down to the crunch, and I am forced at knife point to confess just exactly why I like flowers, and why I have chosen them over more conventional goals, such as one day being able to afford a house, I will say with confidence “because I am a poet, because (1 +√5) ÷ 2 is finest ratio going, but most of all BECAUSE I AM A MAN.