"I suddenly realized what I had really always known," she said in the book's introduction. "It would not make the slightest difference to [the flowers], even while I gasped at their loveliness, if I or the entire human race should die the next day. But if all the flowers died, the world we know would be no more. No flowers, no seeds, no vegetation. If they all died, we would very shortly follow. Flowers are more essential to us than we are even to one another, and if we lost them, we would lose all. Even human grief, our cries into the darkness, is nothing compared to the flowers."
I hadn't ever really thought about flower names before I read Wells' book, except to marvel at some of the more descriptive ones -- love-in-a-mist, bleeding heart, angel's trumpet, bachelor's button. In the neighborhood where I grew up, flowers were largely incidental, their seeds dropped in the spot where they grew, by the wind or some other mysterious hand. No one knew their names.
Next to the back porch, a gnarly, thorn-covered climbing rose grew, which, to my knowledge, was never pruned, fertilized or watered, but came back, nonetheless, each summer, to scratch our arms when we had to retrieve the ball from its center.
Jonquils, narcissus and daffodils were generically referred to as "buttercups," and as far as I knew, they just naturally popped up each spring, beneath towering trees whose names I did not know. On our block only one neighbor, Doreen, actively cultivated a flower garden, and because her lot was inconveniently placed in the middle of the block, it was subject to invasions by our mob of neighborhood kids on a daily basis.
When Doreen shrieked at us for smashing her flowers with a stray kickball, we mumbled under our collective breath, agreeing she was a witch who didn't like kids. In our universe, each of us was the pulsating center, and the environment we played in was there for our taking -- a field to romp in, a limb to swing on, a ditch to jump over.
Thirty years later, I visited the neighborhood I had left as a child. Except for our family, most of the parents of the core families were still there. Doreen still lived in the same house and, the neighborhood now depleted of young children, her flower garden had flourished. We visited across the wire fence. Standing in the midst of a riot of irises in bloom, huge red coleuses and a dense mix of early perennials, she cried as she explained to me she had recently lost her husband of over 40 years, Joe.
"I've been such a mess," she said, wiping her cheeks with shaky hands. "I haven't even made time to weed the flowers."
In that neighborhood, the passing of Joe will be forgotten once Doreen is gone, but her flowers will endure. And long after the skinny legs, scraped knees and scabbed elbows of our pack of sweaty friends left 18th Street, to disperse into the larger world, the limbs of the backyard trees have thickened with age, their roots grown deeper in the same spot.
Doreen ranks in my mind among the intrepid botanists for whom flowers have been named, identified in Wells' book. She was the first flower lover I ever knew, and whether or not I appreciated it at the time, she taught me to honor the lives of flowers, even before I learned to love them and to know their names.
This year, I killed my lawn with layers of wet newspaper and a pile of manure, compost and mulch. For weeks, I've been hunched over like an old witch, waving my hand over the muddy, raked patches, spreading flower seed over the fresh beds -- California and Shirley poppies, blue flax, prairie coneflower, Mexican Hat, black-eyed Susan, yarrow, larkspur, scarlet sage -- all perennials, biennials or annuals that will drop their seed and re-propagate. With a little care, they'll flourish, and long after I'm gone, they'll still be spreading their seed.
Human grief is great, but flowers are greater by far. And to name them is simply to know them and love them a little more.
This essay last appeared in the Independent in April 2002.
100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names
By Diana Wells, illustrated by Ippy Patterson (Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill)