Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Search for and the Glory of the Blue Flower

Monkshood (this one is Aconitum carmicaelii 'Baker's Variety') is the object of romantic notions of the search for THE blue flower.

This gentian (Gentiana scabra) is so blue it looks fake, like an old time re-touched seed catalog. To my color challenged eyes this looks like a true blue, but if it is what does that make the above monkshood about whose blue flowers so much has been written?

There is something special about genuinely blue flowers. They are mythical, rare, revered, etc. We want a blue rose. Have you seen those preposterous dyed blue orchids at the grocery store? Plant mavens are mad for the special blue flowers of the blue poppy (Meconopsis) which frustratingly only grows in very cool climates. Everyone wants the blue flowers on their Hydrangea, not the pink. And so on and so forth. 

We know all that, more or less, right? But recently I was listening to a podcast by Radiolab, and they said something amazing about the color blue. "...across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last." They posited that if we are not taught the word blue (and its associated meaning) we wouldn't distinguish blue as an independent color! Incredible. Along this line of discussion they noted that the famous Greek poet, Homer, used many strange color references and never once used the word blue. Had the Greeks not developed the concept of blue by his time, or did it have something to do with Homer being blind? (By the way who counted all the color references in Homer's work?:  weirdly, the famous Victorian era British Prime Minister Gladstone.)

In another line of thinking about the color blue, and especially blue flowers I was listening to yet another podcast, this time about a German writer of the romantic period named Novalis. He wrote a novel called Heinrick von Ofterdingen in which the protagonist goes on a search for THE true blue flower. As it turns out that plant is Aconitum (Monkshood or in German Eisenhut). In trying to understand what this is all about I read that the search for this elusive blue flower is symbolic of human understanding of nature and self growth and enlightenment. (That probably comes straight from Wikipedia.) This also ties in with the long tradition of German nature hikes (Wandervogel) and their associated songs and societies.

So what, you say. Well, I guess blue flowers are something special, so why not glory in them along with Heinrick von Ofterdingen. So here are two. See above.