“Sweetest of All Things”

This article is Reverend Connell’s ode to springtime in Victoria, to the native plants and flowers of the region, and to all life of the botanical realm in general. Strongly reflecting Connell’s own British roots, it is also an ode to one of his literary and philosophical mentors and inspirations, the English nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-87).

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, March 7th, 1937.

While the spring bulbs are thrusting themselves up into the air with a variety of leaf form as great as that of the succeeding blossoms, I am going to write today about our wild plants in general and flowering ones in particular. I shall not treat them descriptively or in detail, but as objects of pleasure, sentiment and knowledge to be cared for and truly honored and respected, as well as loved. I am moved to do this because in recent months there has been born in the city a new society whose object is to interest the public in the conservation of our native plants, to stir up a feeling in favour of legal protection where necessary, and to crystallize that feeling in such measures as may ensure the protection and preservation of our wild flora. The aim of the Society for the Preservation of Native Plants of British Columbia is so excellent that I propose to show some reasons why it should be supported by all lovers of wild nature, and indeed by all sensible people without exception, a support that is sure to be given by those who appreciate what flowers mean to us all.

There is a sentence in [Richard] Jefferies “Nature Near London” which may will furnish a starting point: “A great green book, whose broad pages are illuminated with flowers, lies open at our feet.” He was writing of Kew Gardens in London (his words are equally if not more true of us who live in Victoria) and he had in his mind, I think, one of those beautiful old missals which the ancient monks delighted in beautifying with charming little pictures from the world of Nature and man, coloured with an exquisite richness that makes them the rivals of jewels.

A richly illustrated page from the 15th Century “Book of Hours”.

Now suppose yourself to be in possession of one of these by lucky purchase or inheritance. It is certain that you would not only refrain from tearing or cutting out the pictures and prevent your children from doing so, but you would preserve it carefully so that your enjoyment of it, and the enjoyment of those who should succeed you, would be perennial. But in the “great green book” of nature we are liable to be careless and indifferent, or even to be wilfully destructive, often preferring to attain the brief triumph of a car filled with dogwood branches or a vast bundle of fawn lilies or lady-slippers to the annual pleasure we and thousands more may get from the restraint of our predatory instincts.

In Great Britain, I believe, the systematic and intensive gathering of certain wildflowers, such as the daffodil or Lent lily, has led to a very serious diminution, if not extermination, of their numbers in some districts. This, of course, is due to the demands of the London market. Many plants, however, do not suffer from the free picking to which they are subjected. The worst that can happen is the diminishing of the amount of seed produced, but the plants are such profuse bloomers that nature has probably all she requires.

Indirect Assaults

My opinion is that wildflowers generally suffer more from the indirect effects of men’s activity than from his direct assaults. Thus in agricultural districts grazing by cattle and still more by sheep and goats is a very serious factor in flower existence. I think there can be a little doubt that the scarcity of wildflowers along our road sides is the result of excessive and close pasturing in the days before by laws prohibited it. It must be remembered that one reason why the danger is great from this cause is that we have a comparatively long dry summer and when, years ago, cattle roamed the countryside about Victoria in no small numbers, the herbage was in consequence very closely cropped. Then the carving out of farms and later the extension of suburban areas are forces before which certain wildflowers and trees tend to disappear.

Thirty years ago the handsome blue lily variously known as Hookera, Brodeia, and Triteleia douglasii [Triteleia grandiflora/wild hyacinth] was to be found in the vicinity of Victoria. For many years I have not come across it except in one restricted spot some miles to the west, and there during the excavation of a building the excavated soil of the basement was distributed over the whole of the area occupied by the flower. The beautiful orchid known as the mountain lady-slipper or moccasin flower, bearing from 1 to 3 blossoms with large purple-veined white sacks, grew many years ago in the Oak Bay district, but has long been extinct. The amazing growth of the alien broom has been responsible for the extinction of wildflowers over large areas. I think particularly of one moist and shady hollow where the sweet-scented white violet grew: today and for many years past the whole of that delightful nook has been occupied by a course thicket of broom, to the obliteration of violets and all other flowering plants. This is an example also of the very local character of certain very pretty and interesting plants, a character which, unless some knowledge and care is exercised, leads only too easily to their total extinction.

The preservation of our native flora deserves our support because of the contribution flowers make to the natural beauty of the countryside. Compare a piece of forest road in winter with the same in spring, when the dogwood‘s sprays break against the sombre greenery of the evergreen trees and the light and foamy bitter cherry flowers are overhead. Compare the forest floor in the resting period, with its brown carpet of needles, with the same expense brightened with starry wood-anemones or sprinkled with the pink and white star-flowers, overhung by the sweet scented lady-slippers or the delicate little bells of the twin-flowers whose perfume attract one long before the glossy mats are seen. The arbutus is a delight in winter, but what shall we say of it in summer, with its myriads of creamy flowers? Look at the transformation of our lakes when the golden pond lily rises above its gleaming leaves and the shores are gay with violets and speedwell, forget-me-knot and wild roses, and the air is full of the aromatic odor of the sweet-gale.

Jefferies, in the passage from which I take my title, says: “Of all things there is none so sweet as sweet air. One great flower it is, drawn round about, over, and enclosing like Aphrodite’s arms as if the dome of the sky were a bell-flower drooping over us, and the magical essence of it filling all the room of the earth. Sweetest of all things is wildflower air.”

Love of Country

Then the preservation of our native flora is bound up with love of one’s country, for I am sure that to everyone to whom affection for his native or adopted soil is a real thing, the trees and flowering plants are no trifling ingredient in his sentiment. The wild flowers of Britain are inseparably connected with the land through its folklore. There is a history of the people written in the familiar, colloquial, and provincial names that seem to have sprung up as naturally as the plants themselves. The ancient and undying superstitions, the old religious habits of thought, the simple human needs and affections are all reflected there. There are names that are older than the Reformation, others older than Christianity itself. Some express the loves of lads and lasses; some tell of quaint ideas of healing based on the Doctrine of Signatures. The countryman’s playful humour and his fears of the unknown are found in these old-fashioned names that every child learns and that long pre-date the learned titles of systematic botany.

We know more today… but perhaps we feel less.

Down in California they have a very handsome violet: the children call it “Johnny jump-up”. In Oregon the same name is given to our common yellow violet of grassy places, distinguished by its hairy leaves. The name is not an American invention, but was brought across the Atlantic from England, where the name under such forms as “Jack-behind-the-garden-gate” and “Jump-up-and-kiss-me” is applied to the wild heartsease or pansy. Two other village names for it are “Three-faces-in-a-hood” and “Love-in-idleness”, which you will remember Shakespeare uses:

A little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with loves wound,
And maidens call it Love-in-Idleness.

We have our children’s names for native flowers, and I can imagine one who has grown up here exiled in some far-off land recalling the flowers about the Upland’s and Mount Tolmie by the old fashion names of his school days rather than the scientifically correct ones of the student. Thus our lilies and shooting-stars, our satin-flowers and sea-blush, our milkmaids and blue-eyed grass, and a host of others of whose local names I am ignorant, or which are unnamed because little known, will have their place in the hearts of our people and be part of their tradition of affection for our beautiful country, and should therefore be fostered and preserved.

Pleasures in Names

Jefferies, in another interesting note, says: “The first conscious thought about wild flowers was to find out their names – the first conscious pleasure- and then I began to see so many that I had not previously noticed. Once you wish to identify them there is nothing that escapes, down to the little white chick-weed of the path to the moss on the wall.” Here is where we pass from the common and colloquial name to the scientific. It is not so alarming a passage as it may sound. For as Jefferies suggests, it opens up an amazing vista of discoveries. There is no valid reason why the scientific knowledge of plants should dry up the springs of sentiment. In my own personal experience, the result of such knowledge has been exactly the reverse: I love plants and their flowers better than I ever did, and never weary of them. A knowledge of their scientific names opens up the door to acquaintance with their family relations, their habits, their life history, their place in the vast panoramic picture of Life and its development, and their wonderful services to men and to all animal nature.

The idea of a botanist as a dry-as-dust collector of dried specimens may be true of some individuals: I have never had the opportunity of meeting them. Instead, the history of botany shows us men of deep feeling, indeed almost childlike sensitiveness. Linnaeus on his knees thanking God for the beauty of the gorse may be a legend such as gathers about great men, but such legends have a substratum of solid truth, and the lives of the great botanists show them to have been, so far as I can recall, singularly susceptible to the wonder and charm of their field of study.

Of John Ray, an Englishman of the seventeenth century and the founder of modern botany, it is said that “his leisure was that of a student; he loved to observe nature, to study the little gems of the garden and the country.” Nor can he be said to be devoid of deep feeling who says that in every field of botanical study “we find ourselves at once on the shore of human ignorance”, and that man is the “one animal capable of the reverent study of nature. “

Buttercup as Example

As an example of the advantage of some knowledge of systematic botany in opening up our powers of observation and extending our knowledge, we may take the buttercup.

To most people a buttercup is just a butter cup. But let one understand botanically the buttercup flower and it soon becomes obvious that there are several kinds or species of buttercups, so sufficiently marked off from each other has to be easily identified when once recognized. There is the common buttercup of grassy places: western buttercup [Ranunculus occidentalis]. Along the borders of woods and thickets is another whose flower is so inconspicuous that only an interest in buttercups is likely to attract us to it. This is Bongard’s buttercup [Ranunculus uncinatus]. In ditches and low places in May we find another very handsome species which, instead of the hooked pistils of the meadow variety, has straight ones. It is the straight-beaked buttercup [Ranunculus orthorynchus].

In lower land we find the water-plantain spearwort [Ranunculus ambigens] whose leaves, instead of the usual deeply cut or lobes form, are long and narrow or lance-shaped. Still another slender leaved form is found in the creeping lesser spearwort [Ranunculus flammula], common about the wet edges of lakes and swamps and remarkable for its creeping habit and it’s rooting from runners, something after the manner of a strawberry plant

(Clockwise from top left) Western buttercup/Ranunculus occidentalis, “Bongard’s” or woodland buttercup/Ranunculus uncinatus, White water-crowfoot/Ranunculus aquatilis, European meadow buttercup/Ranunculus acris, Water-plantain spearwort/Ranunculus ambigens

In June the ditches and low places are often brilliant with the large golden flowers of the creeping buttercup, which also spreads by runners but has deeply lobed dark green leaves. And in spring, on the surface of ponds and in quiet reaches of streams, you may come across sheets of tiny floating white flowers, the blossoms of the water crowfoot or buttercup [Ranunculus aquatilis], which has a little broad-lobed leaves on the surface and finely-divided ones below. The last three species, while native here, are also found wild in the British Isles. We have also a stranger butter cup in the European meadow buttercup [Ranunculus acris], which apparently came here in the early days of [settlement]. It differs from our western buttercup in not having the sepals turned down when the flower is open.

Now all this ability to distinguish correctly comes from botanical knowledge, and it introduces one to a wonderful field for study and investigation regarding the habits and haunts of plants, their relations to these haunts and their neighbours in them, how they adapt themselves to their surroundings, and so on. It is of more importance than we might think at first that even from a scientific point of view our native flora should be preserved, for the greater part of all the knowledge we have of the nature of our cultivated plants today- knowledge which has brought about and will continue to bring about wonderful adaptations of plant life to human life and it’s varying needs- is the direct result of the work of scientific botanists in their different fields of research.

Sense of Beauty

In the development of a stronger feeling for the preservation of our native plants I think the sense of beauty- or perhaps I should say the artistic sense- should have a place. With regard to many flowers and trees we can sympathize with the pleasure of Jefferies when he was young, and perhaps no one grudges a child the bunch of wildflowers it has gathered, unless they have either been so picked as to kill the plant or are being wastefully treated. Education will overcome these faults. What Jefferies says is this: “Before I had any conscious thought it was a delight to me to find wildflowers- just to see them. It was a pleasure to gather them and to take them home, a pleasure to show them to others, to keep them as long as they would live, to decorate a room with them, to arrange them carelessly with grasses, green spray’s, tree bloom- large branches of chestnut snapped off, and set by a picture perhaps.”

I quote this because it shows in him something of that sense of the beautifully arranged which the Japanese not only delight in but have developed into a principle of ornament. It is the very opposite of our large masses of gathered flowers, such as people often find pleasure in with the first fawn-lilies of spring, the crowded dishes of lady-slippers, and the inartistic branches of flowering shrubs and trees so often seen. As a recent writer, Frederic de Garis, says in his book Their Japan: “The skill of the Japanese in flower arrangement is known the world around. There are several schools of flower arrangement that vary in their details, but the underlying principles of these schools are not widely different.” In the illustrations he shows an arrangement of shrub branches and thistles, another of a mountain-lotus, one flower and a small piece of branch, a third of thistles, Chinese bell-flower, and micanthus, and a fourth of a maple branch and wild chrysanthemums. The significant thing is the simplicity and the lack of crowding – quality rather than quantity. The receptacle is also an important feature. So beautiful are growing things that they provide the best model for our arrangement.

“Fawn lilies”, an early work by Victoria artist Emily Carr.

If we could only get both grown-ups and children to see the tastelessness and ugliness of a great mass of closely compressed flowers, often half wilted. And if we could get boys to see the foolishness and the silliness of trying to see who can get the largest number of lilies on a spring saturday, we should have accomplished much. After all, education is what tells in life- the education that instills principles of conduct and is concerned with the love of nature and of our country, and the beauty of God’s countryside.

I wish the Wild Plants Preservation Society every success in their endeavours to preserve for ourselves and for generations to come our flowering plants, shrubs and trees- our glory and our delight.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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