A Plant That Takes the Summer Off

The genus Cyclamen first entered my consciousness during a visit to Copenhagen. They were for sale on the street outside of florists and neighborhood food stores. I seemed never to be quite out of sight of a constellation of plunging pink or white flowers suspended above a tumble of sturdy variegated leaves. I’m pretty sure it was November 1993.

Cyclamen persicum

The so-called “florist’s cyclamen” is descended from Cyclamen persicum. There are about 20 species in the genus. C. persicum is found in Turkey south through Syria and Lebanon into Israel and Jordan. It also occurs on the islands of Crete, Rhodes and Karpathos and in Tunisia and Algeria. Given this range it is not surprising that it is not particularly frost tolerant.

According to the Cyclamen Society Web site, C. persicum generally flowers between December and May, but a single population found near Jericho (in the occupied West Bank) flowers in the fall. Genetic material from this population has been used to produce many of the cultivated varieties sold by florists. These were apparently the plants that I saw for sale in early November in Copenhagen.

The most frost tolerant species of cyclamen is C. hederifolium, which can be grown outdoors to Zone 5a. Species other than persicum are not usually found at your average nursery and might have to be ordered. Cyclamen grow from a tuber and prefer to be planted under large trees; their native habitat is usually forested or scrubby. The tuber should be planted just below the surface.

Many of the cyclamens can be kept inside in a pot year after year. The leaves generally appear in the fall and the plant flowers in the spring, but as summer approaches the foliage and blossoms wither and die back. Cyclamens aestivate, which is a period dormancy in response to heat and dryness, a characteristic Mediterranean summers.

If you are keeping the plant in a pot, when the vegetation dies back put the pot in a poorly lit, cool, dry place (outdoors) and place it on its side so that no water gets into the soil. If the soil remains damp, then the tuber will rot. The leaves will begin to appear around September, at which point resume watering and feeding the plant, and move it indoors to a location with bright indirect light. (Start watering it in October if no leaves have appeared.)

Green and gray foliage

Through the winter the foliage will grow best if the plant is not exposed to temperatures above 70 degrees F. Even if cyclamens never flowered their foliage might supply adequate beauty. The leaves are dark green with striking patterns of gray, varying according to the species.

True to their Mediterranean origins, cyclamens like to be watered heavily and then allowed to nearly dry out before being watered again. C. persicum and several other species flower in the spring, but many other species (generally the ones adapted to cooler weather) flower in the fall. C. africanum flowers before the leaves appear after aestivation. Cyclamen fanciers like to say that a member of the genus flowers during every month of the year.

C. purpurascens showing "circle form"

The flower colors range through shades of pink to snow white, but they are often dappled with darker patterns. They are five-petaled and reflexive, which means that although the stamens and pistil point toward the ground on an arched stem, the petals curve backwards 180 degrees to point skyward. The part of the corolla where this reversal of direction takes place forms a circle around the sexual organs of the flower, which may be the source of the genus name: kyklamenos means “circle form” in Greek.

While I was in Copenhagen that autumn, I was staying with my friend and his wife in a studio apartment. After a few days it was getting a bit crowded in there and, sensing that the married couple needed some privacy, I went out for a walk around the city. On my way home in the evening, I stopped at a florist and bought a cyclamen (with white flowers, if I remember correctly) and brought back to the apartment. It was the right thing to do.


A Clean, Well Lighted Place


A European city: narrow masonry buildings on winding cobbled lanes, over which bicycles bump, along which tiny dun-colored cars are parked. The streets are interrupted by canals that no longer seem to serve any commercial purpose, but are undeniably picturesque. Into the pattern of the city are woven parks studded with personable trees and crisscrossed by walks and water.

When I visit I am returning to a familiar place, a city where I was student for a semester, a place where I was actually living on my own for the first time, separated from the intrusion of parental supervision and the improving ideas of a willful girlfriend. Away from the self-serving suggestions of others, following my own volition forward, struggling out of a cocoon.

It is October and the train has brought me from the business portion of my trip to the personal portion, to visit two old friends, the city and the man I met in this city a decade before: my co-conspirator, my correspondent, my traveling companion, my doppelgänger.

Like me he is a romantic (he thinks things are bad, but they could get better); like me he lives in his head (he is friendly, but many think him odd); like mine his first marriage is imperfect (his, unlike mine, still exists as my train pulls into the station).

It is 1992. He has not yet embraced the convenience of e-mail communication. We have kept in touch by letter and by a quasi-annual phone call on Christmas Day when he, several time zones ahead, has usually been quite potted. The greetings in train stations during the 1990s are therefore awkward and an immediate visit to a bar is, without discussion, the first sojourn.


The walk toward a beverage reintroduces me to my other long-unseen friend, the city. We move through crowds of people who are preternaturally alone, past storefronts that offer goods in a dignified manner, through a built environment constructed with varied textures and painted with muted colors that glow at odd moments when the light is briefly right.

In October the clouds are like a gray fabric, in motion and yet seemingly permanently in place. In mid-afternoon the sun drops below them, lighting up the top halves of ocher buildings, while in the streets the shadows merely deepen. As they darken the vended flowers seem to come on like street lights, popping out of their pots and bundles in their places next to piles of fruit along the sidewalks.

In this city you are perhaps never out of sight of a floral presence that is either being offered for sale or has been purchased and put somewhere to bring light and focus to the space. When we arrive at the bar, order glasses of lager, and my friend lights his fifth cigarette of my visit, there is a pewter vase in the window to my left holding a single aster.

His wife does not join us; there are unspecified difficulties and tensions. In the United States we have democratized the legacy of Freud; everyone speaks of others’ inner lives in a vocabulary that is simply in the air, like sports metaphors and Yiddish. In this European country psychologizing is for the upper classes. My friend is from a small island and proud of his agrarian roots; he has disdain for narrative tropes that douse for hidden causes. The problem in his marriage is a nameless cloud; it will blow over or it will not.

Their apartment consists of two rooms and a bath. The kitchen is an alcove off the L-shaped space that is their dining and living area. The bed fills the shorter end of the L that extends toward the street. A curtain provides a modicum of privacy. After two days the curtain is not sufficient privacy.

Neither my friend nor his wife is employed. They have a lot of time and not much money. I am informed sheepishly that periodically his wife feels the need to simply hole up in the apartment with him, away from the demands of interaction with her other unemployed friends. My visit has coincided with one of those intervals and I must go for a walk. It is time for me to spend time with my other friend, the city.

My walking takes me to old haunts: bookstores, museums, cafés, park benches, streets that crystallize the personality of this place. It is overcast, windy, and damp; it is beautiful. I buy a pair of gloves. I sit, drink fresh beer and read. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had bothered to learn the language and dared to return here to live.

On the way back to the apartment at the end of the day I see what I have seen repeatedly through the day wherever I have gone: potted cyclamens huddled on either side of the doorways of fruit shops and florists, their downward looking blossoms quaking in the brisk breeze. Around the corner from the apartment I select a white-flowered plant.

Their heads are hanging down, dragging on cigarettes; they have been here all day. The cloud of smoke drifts around the room. I tell her that I have brought her something. Her face is more bewildered than surprised. I hold out the cyclamen. She smiles.

Grave Occasions

Grave of E.A. Poe

A mysterious person, known as the “Poe Toaster,” has visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe every January 19 since 1949. Because the visitor has been arriving on Poe’s birthday for 58 years, it is assumed that he represents a tradition carried on by a series of Poe admirers. Each year, however, the ritual is the same: he kneels, drinks a toast of Martel cognac and leaves the half-empty bottle on the grave, along with three red roses.

The Mexican “Day of the Dead” corresponds with the Celtic Samhain and is a pagan tradition that marks the transition from the light half to the dark half of the year. Pagan religions hold that there were ‘corners’ of the year halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, where the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead are stretched thin. On the Day of the Dead, when spirits are thought to be able to leave the afterlife to visit the living, it is customary to scatter the petals of orange marigolds (cempazúchitl; “the flower with four hundred lives”) between the grave of a relative and the house inhabited by the surviving family members; the strong fragrance helps the dead find the way home.

Theosophist, activist and writer Annie Besant wrote of a custom in Yorkshire: the hanging of a garland of flowers in the chancel of the church when a girl dies unmarried. The fact that the wreath was placed in the chancel, and that it was considered unlucky to carry away a piece of the ribbon with which the blossoms were tied, and the still more significant fact, that as the wreath decayed, the pieces were reverently buried in the churchyard, indicates that it was looked upon as an offering to the dead, rather than a sign of condolence with the living.

Coffin-basket-Church-Garland_Sunflowers-1024x768Perhaps because flowers are such an exuberant representation of life—they are the reproductive organs of the plant—they often have a prominent place in the rituals of death, both at funerals and at the graveside. This is not, however, unanimously the case. Flowers are not appropriate at an Orthodox Jewish funeral, for example. They are strongly discouraged at all Jewish funerals because they wither in a few days time, reminding the family of their loss. Catholic churches may not allow flowers in the church, insisting that they remain at the funeral home, but many Protestant churches allow them.

The flowers that are sent to a funeral are emphatically for the living and are given in sympathy. In other words, the flowers are not about death, but rather about life going on in spite of death. One can consult florist after florist and perhaps the only feature that a flower arrangement that is to sit next to a casket will have in common is that they are large. Caskets are large; flower arrangements must not be dwarfed by the casket. If one is sending an arrangement to the funeral parlor or the church (if that is culturally appropriate), then size matters.

Grave of Marilyn Monroe

If the arrangement is going to the family home, then it is less about size and much more personal. It has become common for the contents of an arrangement to reflect the tastes of the living relative or the proclivities of the deceased. In the former case, if the mother or spouse of the deceased is well known to enjoy lilies, then sending lilies is the thing. If the deceased was one of those people who reliably exclaimed at the beauty of fields of sunflowers and insisted on stopping the car to buy an armload at each sighting, then rounding up a bouquet of Helianthus would be a suitable commemoration.

Graveside flowers, unlike those at the funeral, are for the deceased. Joe DiMaggio famously had roses sent to the grave of Marilyn Monroe twice a week for two decades, until he himself passed away.

When You Really Mean It

When you send flowers, it is customary to include a note. How many times have you sat there with your pen (or fingers over a keyboard) poised in mid-air wondering, “So, what should I say here?”

If you want to get beyond “Dear … I love you madly … Much love, ….”, then you might consider reading a little poetry. And why not narrow down your reading to verse about flowers? It will soon become apparent that the poetry written about love, death, betrayal, and other significant events and mistakes is full of flower imagery.

Robert Frost is a reasonable place to start. He is well known for his nature imagery and also for penning simple-seeming lines that somehow dive into quite deep waters.

A tree’s leaves may be ever so good,
So may its bar, so may its wood;
But unless you put the right thing to its root
It never will show much flower or fruit.

Robert Frost

The first stanza of “Leaves Compared With Flowers” is an example. The implication in the context of a note with a bouquet is that the recipient is the “right thing” and they are needed for your life to “show much flower or fruit”. Now that is telling someone that they matter.

It is, of course, a complete mistake to browse quickly through some poetry archive, find a poem that mentions a flower and scribble it into your missive. Even if you attribute it to its true author you would be inviting disaster if you sent the following Shakepeare sonnet to a lover.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thout that are now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Pablo Neruda

Accidentally or not, here you would be telling someone “Well, you look good now, but with the way you treat yourself, you’re not going to look like much pretty soon.” If you are going the rather progressive route of the “break-up bouquet”, then this might be just the thing. Otherwise, you’re digging a bit of a hole.

Pablo Neruda was a great sensualistic poet. In the 1994 movie Il Postino, an Italian peasant gets relationship advice from Neruda, who is living in exile on a small Mediterranean island. Here is the last stanza of Poem #14 from Neruda’s collection 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The translation is by W.S. Merwin.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

Walt Whitman

Neruda is expressing a rather possessive attitude here, but his canon is filled with all manner of rapturous yearning and exhilaration.

Speaking of rapturous, Walt Whitman is hard to surpass when it comes to cascades of imagery. The second half of “Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone” recalls Frost’s connection between good conditions and the health of flowers.

Frost-mellow’d berries and Third-month twigs offer’d fresh to
young persons wandering out in the fields when the winter breaks up,
Love-buds put before you and within you whoever you are,
Buds to be unfolded on the old terms,
If you bring the warmth of the sun to them they will open and bring form, color, perfume, to you,
If you become the aliment and the wet they will become
flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees.

The merest grazing of the virtually endless canon of poetry will lead you to not only write a more heart-felt note to go with that bouquet of flowers, but maybe even lead you to think more deeply about why you are sending them.

You Really Should

Bringing a bouquet of flowers to a social engagement is not, repeat, not old fashioned. It is, in fact, just the thing.

peonybouquetIt is not necessary to limit oneself to a bouquet of cut flowers; arrangements in vases and potted plants are also quite welcome, especially if you are not the only guest. If you arrive at a party with a cut flowers wrapped in tissue paper, do not expect them to end up prominently displayed in the middle of the dining room. The host and hostess are likely to be far to busy to have the time to take your flowers, re-cut the stems, find a vase, arrange them suitably and put them out for the admiration of others. The host and hostess are just trying to get the food out, the drinks poured and the seating plan in some order. If you want your bouquet turned into an arrangement, offer to do it yourself.

If you are going to bring an arrangement of cut flowers and you actually take the time to do it ahead of time, then this might be an excellent time to recycle on of those cheap vases that you got when someone brought an arrangement of cut flowers directly from the florist to your house. While generally not hideous, they are usually not something you would buy yourself. You can’t bear to throw them out and yet you already have plenty of your own vases. So go to the florist on the way home, re-arrange the flowers in the old florist vase, get dressed and go to the party.

mini phalaenopsis-orchid
Healthy orchid

At a listserv called MacRumors someone called “Leareth” in Vancouver asked what to bring to dinner at friends house. He usually brought wine, but these friends did not drink. The first response was “A potted orchid”. The next two respondents mentioned flowers, but also potted English ivy. Other posters mentioned cut flowers and even specific flower types (Anthurium), but in the end Leareth stubbornly went with ice wine, reasoning that because so little was consumed at a sitting that non-drinkers would drink it, but also included a small pot of herbs to go with a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

The orchid and the ivy define one end of the potted-plant-gift spectrum, which includes those specimens that stand a chance of becoming more or less permanent parts of your host/hostess’s household. The pot of herbs falls closer to the other end of the spectrum, which includes Easter lilies, poinsettias and cyclamen. All of the latter tend to have a half-life. The herbs can potentially persist for months with a certain amount of care and harvesting. The foliage of lilies and the cyclamen inevitably withers a few months after flowering after enough nutrition has been stored in the roots. Real plant people will be able to coax these specimens into the next season, but most mere mortals will chuck them.

man_with_a_bouquetThe potted plants or pre-arranged arrangements are both safe and polite routes when you do not know the hosts well. In many discussions on-line a schism formed that seemed somewhat along generational lines. I.e., younger people are less formal. The older generation may have a problem with company barging into the kitchen with a fistful of flowers and merrily offering to re-cut, re-arrange the flowers in a vase that they hunt down themselves in the hosts’ cupboards.

If these are old college friends with whom you have shared a hundred twenty-something-era pizza and beer parties that erupted rather spontaneously, then they might be rather charmed when they have invited you over for a prepared meal and you show up, rather improbably, with flowers in hand.

Flesh Flowers

Oscar Wilde

A lot of people do not like carnations. They are frilly, somewhat diaphanous flowers that tend to come in rather pastel colors. It is a flower that one pictures inserted into the buttonhole of a lapel on a rented tuxedo on prom night or at a wedding with multiple ushers. And yet the carnation is a popular flower with a long and varied history.

The green carnation is associated with St. Patrick’s Day, as is nearly everything green, but it has a much more interesting history as a coded symbol of homosexuality in the 19th century. The Green Carnation was the title of a roman de clef published anonymously (but written by Robert Hichens) in 1894; it described in veiled terms the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was actually used by the prosecution against Wilde in the 1895 indecency trial that sent him to prison and broke his health, leading to his premature death.

Hichens took the title of his book from the popular custom among late nineteenth century homosexuals of wearing the flower and a red scarf or tie to publicly indicate their interest in same-sex pairing.

The Norwegian progressive metal band called Green Carnation evinces no awareness of the gay past of the eponymous flower. Their website suggests that the green flower represents the hopefulness of spring rising from the permafrost of Norway.

“Carnation revolution” in Portugal

In 1974 the longest dictatorship in Western Europe was overthrown in Portugal in a nearly bloodless coup called “the Carnation Revolution.” A faction of the military decided that the ongoing wars in the African colonies were un-winnable and resolved to give them independence. Protests began in April just as carnations began to appear in flower shops. Soldiers who sympathized with the wish to end the military dictatorship were seen in the street with red flowers stuck in the end of their gun barrels and even in the muzzles of tanks. There were many stories of people inserting the flowers into the soldiers’ guns and the revolution toppled the 40-year old regime almost overnight.

Purple carnations are associated with funerals in France, where the flowers also symbolizes misfortune and bad luck. The French are, as usual, the exception to the rule. In most cultures carnations are associated with quite positive feelings. Anna Marie Jarvis managed to bridge the association with funerals and the positive connotation by making the carnation the official flower of Mothers’ Day.

Jarvis was the daughter of workers’ rights activist Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. The younger woman held a large memorial service for mother two years after her mother’s death in May 1905. The service was the inauguration of her campaign to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday.

Her efforts were all too successful. Anna Jarvis went to her own grave in 1948 after over twenty years of decrying the commercialization of the holiday. Today wearing a red carnation on Mother’s Day means that your mother is alive and wearing a white flower means that she has passed away.

A red carnation

The color of the wild carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is a pale pink and has therefore been used to symbolize the color of European flesh. “Carnation” is a traditional “tincture” in continental heraldry (but rarely used in Great Britain). The hex triplet that produces this shade of pink on a computer screen is #F95A61.

The Oxford English Dictionary hedges its bets a little. It allows that the word “carnation” may be a corruption of “coronation” and an allusion to the crown-like appearance of the toothed petals.

Slightly more convincing though is the connection with the pink color of the wild type bloom and its similarity to “flesh color.” The Italian is carnagione (“flesh color”), the Late Latin is carnatio (“fleshiness”), and ultimately the original Latin word for “flesh” is caro. The English words “carnal” and “carnage” have the same root.