Can you be a revolutionary & still love flowers?
May 4th, 2023
In an essay originally published for Mal Journal No.3, Daisy Lafarge writes about the moralized protaganists of nature.
This piece was first published in Mal Journal N°3 (April 2019). Mal is a journal themed around radical approaches to sexuality, gender and the erotic, published with support from Feeld. The theme for issue 3 was “Plant Sex.”
I first saw documentation of Camille Henrot’s work Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers? (2012) tacked to the wall of a friend’s studio at art school. Henrot’s odd, ungainly take on ikebana immediately drew me in, with its crushed petals adorning a slumped car tyre, a wigwam-like structure topped with lemons, awkward vases and imperfect, wall-mounted circles formed from twigs and hand-sized leaves. Later digging unearthed the esoteric impulse I now recognise as characteristic of Henrot’s work: a desire to ‘translate’ titles from her library into flower arrangements, returning the books to their plant-matter state. Motivated by Henrot’s ambition to undermine Western mental hierarchies that have ‘a tendency to idealise the arts of discourse and to undervalue the everyday arts such as flower arranging’, the project’s title cites one of Lenin’s colleagues:
‘You start by loving flowers and soon you want to live like a landowner, who, stretched out lazily in a hammock, in the midst of his magnificent garden, reads French novels and is waited on by obsequious footmen.’
The equation of flowers and gardens (and literature) with bourgeois excess is by now familiar: decadent and decorative trappings for those who no longer have to worry about daily subsistence. Similarly, in an article published shortly after 9/11, reflecting on the millions of flowers, four to five bouquets deep, placed by mourners on the streets of New York, Michael Pollan reinforced this association: ‘Flowers are a luxury (…) They’re not useful. They’re high maintenance. You don’t worry about flowers until you’ve solved a lot of other problems in life.’
Class guilt, false or otherwise, is not the only misgiving to haunt the would-be plant lover. In the years that followed my encounter with Henrot’s work, I began to notice instances, historical and anecdotal, in which plant life served as the projection screen for prevailing ideas of femininity and female sexuality. What issues from this twinning, on deeply engrained associative levels, is a marginalisation of plants and women that shifts between pedestalised reification, demonisation, oppression and outright exclusion. Given the ways in which the vegetal world has been symbolically yoked to a sanitised iteration of floral femininity on the one hand, and dangerous, exoticised sensuality on the other, my response to Henrot’s question is to ask it another way: what does it mean to love plants, whose names encode histories of violence against women and people of colour, or species whose widespread availability is the outcome of colonial extraction? Why aren’t boys named after flowers too? Can the love of plants ever be truly progressive?
During my time at art school, male tutors routinely insinuated that the artwork I was making – incorporating live and not so live flowers and plants – was ‘too pretty’. This happened time and again, even when I offered up the particular references I was clumsily trying to comment on, or critique. When I tried to talk about the feminisation of flowers, or the florification of female sexuality, all they saw were flowers whose ‘prettiness’ made them panicky, as if sentimentality was infectious. Critique that is aesthetically pleasing, they seemed to be trying to school me, is automatically forfeited, voided of critical capacity.
My sketchbooks were filled with scraps and anecdotes. Among them: accounts of plants put on trial alongside women during witch hunts, because they were believed to be evil co-conspirators; the accusation of Joan of Arc for wearing a mandrake on her chest; the widespread burning of women for possessing mandrakes, which they were accused of bathing, clothing and feeding. It does not take a great analytical leap to suggest that what was so threatening to the male authorities about this mothering of mandrakes is that it presented a lethal threat to patriarchy’s dependency on women’s reproductive labour. If women were too busy tending to their gardens, or growing plants known to induce abortion, who would raise the next generation of good Christian men? According to some scholars, the irrevocable destruction wrought against women by the Inquisition and subsequent witch trials is responsible for Europe’s relative lack of indigenous herbal medicine, not to mention its colonial destruction of these practices overseas.
Later, during the 18th century, when Linnaeus’s name came to act as a stand in for botany – the academic study of which had developed slowly in Europe, via belated translations of Arabic translations of classical texts – plant life was no longer seen as the malevolent accomplice of female heresy, but a reinforcement of the ‘natural’ (hetero)sexual order. When he came to naming the plant’s sexual organs, like a postlapsarian Adam, Linnaeus christened the stamen and pistil as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, and extended the metaphor in a strange, botanical boudoir:
‘The Calyx then is the marriage bed, the corolla the curtains, the filaments the spermatic vessels, the antherae the testicles, the dust [pollen] the male sperm, the stigma the labia or the extremity of the female organ, the style the vagina, the german the ovary, the pericarpium the ovary impregnated, the seeds the ovula or eggs.’
It seemed entirely logical to the father of taxonomy that plants, created by God, would perfectly mirror human sexuality as he believed it was intended to be: the monogamy of man and wife. This kind of botanical essentialism – that plants were microcosmic proof of some ‘natural’ social and sexual order – was taken up and extended in Linnaeus’ lifetime; English botanist William Withering wrote a book outlining the ways in which the vegetable kingdom was analogous to the kingdom of England, matching Linnaean classifications to social classes. More recently, scholar Amy M. King has written extensively on how Linnaeus’ ideas filtered into and influenced literary culture, most evident in the young eligible women or ‘blooms’ that reoccur in late 18th and 19th century novels:
‘The Linnaean system made bloom a safe lexicon for the novel, one that held in tension both the sexual reference of a bloom and its potential insertion into a proper plot of marriage; in other words, it was the Linnaean sexual system that brought that tension – between sex and marriage – into a prominent sphere of representation.’
These precedents set the stage for the Victorian era, when the florification of female sexuality reached its zenith. Flowers were becoming firmly rooted in cultural life and expression: glasshouses brimming with exotic specimens sprung up in the gardens of the wealthy, inculcating epidemics of pteridomania or ‘fern crazes’, and discreet, romantic messages were encoded in floriography, a flower language that involved correspondence via selected flowers. These ‘talking bouquets’ would often require the recipient to possess a floral dictionary in order to decode their contents. Such floral affectations would seem harmless were it not for the post-Linnaean literalisation of the metaphorical bond between women – specifically young girls – and flowers that underpinned them. Most evident of this is historian Jules Michelet’s 1860 text La Femme, a stuffy, dispiriting read, whose moralistic allegories attempt to chart the social and sexual development of woman, from ‘the little human flower’ to mature specimens:
‘Women, especially the female child, is all nervous life; and so the plant, which has no nerves, is a sweet companion to it, calming and refreshing it, in a relative innocence.’
La Femme reinforces the virgin-whore dichotomy of the Victorians’ attitudes to plants, that on the one hand young girls should be encouraged to engage with the vegetable world, ‘in all its naïve and sacred truth’, and on the other should be shielded from exotic, aromatic specimens, dangerous influences that might ‘penetrate’ the girl into a ‘sensual expansion’:
‘It is a bad and dangerous intoxication for the sedentary little lady, deprived of fresh air and exercise, to inhale in a parlour the concentrated emanations from an amorous bouquet of flowers (…) They would no less powerfully trouble the little girl, by hastening the sensual crisis, and forcing the blossom that should rather be delayed.’
These passages – evoking ‘intoxicating’ plant species domesticated in the wake of colonial plant hunts – reek of the racialised exoticisation which lumped sensuality, foreignness and female sexuality into one alluring but ultimately dangerous ‘other’. La Femme also calls to mind Foucault’s repressive hypothesis that, far from its self-declared scrupulousness, 19th century bourgeois society was one of ‘blatant and fragmented perversion’. Vegetables are vanilla; orchids are kinky.
When John Ellis, a plant trader for the East India Company came across the Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap) in North Carolina in 1769, he wrote to Linnaeus of his ‘discovery’; but Linnaeus refused to believe there was such a thing as a carnivorous plant. He maintained that the plant must just be shy to the touch like Mimosa pudica(also known as ‘Shameplant’) whose leaves curled up demurely when brushed or shaken. A plant with a carnivorous appetite would have fatally corrupted Linnaeus’ wholesome vision of plant matrimony (and perhaps also tapped into perennial fears of the vagina dentata) whereas ‘shy’ plants – like blushing virgins – would not.
Unfortunately for Linnaeus, Dionaea muscipula – along with around a thousand other species – did prove to be carnivorous. The Venus flytrap also testifies to how the perversions and sexual predilections of men have been encoded and perpetuated in acts of naming throughout botany’s far from scrupulous history. Archived letters between Ellis’ botanist contemporaries prove the bawdy allusion in the flytrap’s Venusian appellation; unofficially referring to the plant as ‘tipitiwitchet’, Dionaea muscipula’s two sensitive, hairy rouged lobes reminded the men of the female genitalia of their own species. When the 73 year old governor of North Carolina, Arthur Dobbs, married a 15 year old girl, his botanist friends joked about the reason for his recently straying attention: ‘It is now in vain to write to him for seeds or plants of Tipitiwitchet now He has gott one of his Own to play with.’
An undertow runs beneath botany’s essentialist narratives, disrupting their one-way flow. I collect these anecdotes as an herbal inoculation: I think of the radical reinterpretation of the biblical story of the fall by 12th century polymath St. Hildegard of Bingen, in which Adam is cast out of Eden for refusing to inhale the scent of a white flower. In Hildegard’s version, Eve’s sinful appetite is nowhere to be seen, and instead sensual engagement and arousal is aligned with – rather than opposed to – the sacred. An accomplished botanist, Hildegard was as interested in collecting the folk names of plants and local herbal remedies from laywomen passing her abbey in Eibingen, as much as she was in studying classical texts and herbals.
Centuries later, Hildegard’s contribution to herbal medicine was commemorated by a genus of trees – Hildegardia – named after her. There’s also Northia, in honour of Marianne North, the Victorian plant biologist and illustrator, who undertook trips around the globe to paint previously undocumented specimens in forests, jungles and deserts. North’s colossal achievements weren’t enough to grant her access to the male-dominated botanical elite; when she conceived the idea to present her collection of 832 paintings at Kew Gardens, she was expected to pay for the construction of the gallery herself. Beatrix Potter, an avid mycologist, was laughed out of London’s Linnaean Society after applying to present an illustrated paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’. The Society did not allow women to join or participate in its research, and one of its male members, William Turner Thiselton-Dyer (also then director of Kew Gardens) waved Potter’s ideas off with patronising and openly misogynistic comments.
In 2010 a commemorative rose was unveiled by the Beatrix Potter Society, the Beatrix Potter™, described as ‘shapely’ and ‘the softest pink’. As for Justina Davis, the 15 year old wife of governor Dobbs and the butt of his friends’ leering jokes, there is little recompense; in 2006 biologist Barry Rice established the cultivar name for a previously unnamed Venus flytrap clone, the Justina Davis. Rice comments on his website:
‘I boldly like to think that this minor but prurient contribution (…) places me in good company with the crude botanists of prior centuries.’
These acts of naming, scant and belated, do little to redress the balance. Ineffectual at best, offensive at worst: botanical blandishments that smooth over centuries of exclusion and the reality that, while women were symbolically and sexually associated with plants, they were not allowed to be the ones discovering them – let alone the ones creating allegorical plant-paradigms in which to frame ideas about sex and gender. Names are important, but, as nature writers so often remind us, plants don’t know the names we give them. No wonder the best disruptions of patriarchal and heteronormative botanical narratives come from plants themselves, unaware of their status as moralized protagonists.
Following On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s next publication dealt with a more exclusive concern: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and On the Good Effects of Intercrossing (1862). The ‘various contrivances’ to which Darwin refers are the complex pollination strategies of many orchid varieties. He was particularly fascinated by the Ophrys genus, bee orchids, whose forms appeared to perfectly mimic the (sexually available) bodies of female bees. While some orchids engage in a somewhat mutualistic relationship with bees or other pollinators – offering nectar in exchange for pollination – Ophrys use a combination of bee-like appearance and bee-like pheromones, evolved over thousands of years, to attract their pollinators without – according to botanists – having anything to offer in return.
Darwin was unaware of this behaviour, first recorded in 1916, and so we can’t attribute to him the vocabulary that has since been used to describe it, including the scientific terms ‘pseudocopulation’ and ‘sexual deception’. Some botanists go as far as to call Ophrys ‘prostitute’ orchids, presumably because they offer the fun of sex without the biological baggage. Studies have shown that in many cases, male bees prefer to copulate with Ophrys specimens than with the ‘true females’ of their own species. I don’t know why it is so delightful to read, in straight-laced scientific journals, about male bees becoming so aroused during copulation with Ophrys that they ejaculate onto the flower, causing ‘costly sperm wastage’ – but it is. Discourses of natural selection frame this as the male bee getting its just desserts; any species exhibiting such desire-blinded stupidity deserves the possibility of extinction, apparently.
I can’t help but be fascinated by – and deeply uneasy about – the language used to describe bee and Ophrys behaviour, by the all-tooeasy distinction between nature and artifice, the morally weighted invocations of deception and prostitution. That convincing female presentation and accurate chemical profile is still distinguished from the ‘true’ female. Don’t these characteristics actually problematise the notion of a true female? Sex without reproductive results isn’t pseudosex. Self-presenting according to desire isn’t deception. The orchid isn’t a ‘real’ girl, but then who is?
In The Language of Flowers, published in 1929, Bataille’s elliptical prose traces the projection of human emotion onto flowers. The association between flowers and certain emotions, Bataille says, particularly the symbolism of love, reveals something of our own sexual displacement:
‘(…) the substitution of juxtaposed elements for essential elements is consistent with all that we spontaneously know about the emotions that motivate us, since the object of human love is never an organ, but the person who has the organ. Thus the attribution of the corolla to love can easily be explained: if the sign of love is displaced from the pistil and stamens to the surrounding petals, it is because the human mind is accustomed to making such a displacement with regard to people.’
In other words, if flowers first came to symbolise love because of their promise of fertilisation and pollination, why do we associate the outer parts of the flowerhead – petals and sepals, corolla and calyx – with love, when it is the plant’s more hidden sexual organs that carry out its reproductive functions? Victorian floriographers didn’t send each other posies of bare pistils and stamens, even if fertility was the intended message. The Language of Flowers is a complication of essentialism, in which human and plant bodies are symbolically linked but with ample room for desire and its intrinsic illogics and displacements, disentangled from anatomical ‘truth’.
I would like to know what Bataille would make of Ophrys behaviour, or Europe’s oldest tree, the sexually ambiguous five thousand year old Fortingall Yew of Perthshire, a previously male, pollen-producing tree that has recently begun to demonstrate female behaviour – putting out red berries in autumn. A blog published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh comments bluntly that yews, amongst other separately- sexed conifers, have been observed to ‘switch’ sex. It helps pass the time. If we do, inevitably, have to project human significance onto plant life and search for correlations to inform or reinforce our own behaviour, can we not take a leaf out of Oprhys’ or the Fortingall Yew’s book? The only language I want to read in flowers is one that makes the idea of a ‘true female’ die back for good, and takes its propagators to orchid school.
- Sex Positivity