It is dusk. I stoop below a dark-leafed camellia that droops in the spring rain, crimson petals mark the pavement blood-red. I’m reminded of Alexandre Dumas’ consumptive courtesan Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, who announced her availability by carrying a posy of camellias—white for 25 days and red for the other five—these highly prized exotics conveying a secret message to her suitors.
Meanings have been assigned to flowers in many cultures and for thousands of years. Floral word meanings stretch their roots back into ancient Egypt, were propagated by Greek and Roman mythology, embellished by medieval chivalry, infused with Christian symbolism and steeped in Ottoman mysticism. The art of assigning meanings reached its apotheosis among the Victorian romantics after Lady Mary Wortly Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, brought back to Britain the Ottoman Court practice of using flowers to convey hidden messages.
This form of covert communication has a name: floriography. It is more commonly known as ‘the language of flowers’. The first floral dictionary, Le Langage des Fleurs, appeared in 1819, feeding a craze to transmit secret messages through flowers rather than words. Imagine the dramatic effect of receiving a black mulberry tree from a spurned lover (‘I shall not survive you’) or a Japanese rose (‘Beauty is your only attraction’).
Since arriving in Australia a year ago I’ve set myself the task of learning about Australian indigenous flora. As I am an enthusiastic gardener, this will help me to set down my own roots as I plant afresh in my new surroundings. Given that I have left behind my elderly parents in England, it is also a way of paying tribute to my father, an ardent horticulturalist who, though his recent memories may not be exact, can recall the Latin name of every garden and hedgerow flower. But I’m finding that the vernacular names struggle to take root, never mind the Latin. How much easier it would be if, as in Dumas’ story, flowers could talk, if I could anchor their names in mnemonics.
Perhaps I can create my own ‘language of flowers’ for indigenous Australian plants to help me find my own meanings and sense of place in my new surroundings. This leads me to wonder whether the nineteenth-century passion for floriography crossed the oceans with the early settlers and how Indigenous communities arrived at their plant names. I find one answer in a slim pamphlet published in the nineteenth century by George Robertson and Company, The Language of Australian Flowers. To my contemporary senses the preface, penned by the ‘Spirit of the Wood’, reads like a tongue-in-cheek pastiche:
No more shall Western Nymphs complain of the bashfulness of attendant swains; no more shall ardent youths ransack musty tomes for prim words to express the burning sentiments of affection and love which seem too deep for utterance. They shall speak the Language of Nature.
How did the pamphlet’s author derive the meanings for the new unfamiliar flora, so alien to European sensibilities? There is a clue in the introduction. ‘This little work was originally planned and sent forth as a memento of a pleasant week spent on the banks of the Mersey, Tasmania in the year 1864, by a merry party now widely dispersed.’ Perhaps one of the ‘merry party’ was a female settler with a fertile imagination, tired of her husband’s talk of livestock and markets and supplies. Or maybe the author was a mischievous dandy who, flittering through Melbourne’s society salons, identified an appetite for febrile excitement that he could satisfy by slipping this pamphlet into circulation. Whoever wrote the pamphlet certainly exercised their imagination. New exotics were gifted new meanings and those that had British counterparts were bestowed with different affinities to those circulating in Victorian Britain. In a London parlour honey-suckle conveyed ‘generous and devoted affection’ whereas the Spirit ratcheted up the intensity to ‘love at first sight’.
This play on names and meaning was far from the mind of Ferdinand von Mueller, a dedicated and ambitious scientist appointed as Victoria’s first government botanist in 1853 and director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens in 1857. His stated aim was to identify and record every species of Australian flora. To support this work he assiduously courted a network of more than 3000 collectors to supply him with specimens and observations, many of them women, encouraging them through an extensive correspondence of up to 6000 letters a year.
I like to think that these women were too busy to play parlour games as they engaged in the serious work of discovering, drawing and collecting new species. After all, why indulge in a play on the hidden meaning of flowers when you could have a plant named after you or be cited in scientific journals or letters? The women collected, but it was the men who claimed and named Australia’s flora. Mueller had no patience for vernacular names. He knew that new species needed their Latin label to meet established conventions in science or commerce, and in his relentless goal of achieving widespread recognition he was the man to do it.
The expectations and constraints placed upon many women limited their role in Mueller’s endeavour. Their collecting activities were subordinate to marriage and domesticity. Others hid their scientific or artistic identities behind pseudonyms. A few were more spirited in the chase to find new species. In Collecting Ladies Penny Olsen records how Margaret Forrest wore out three relays of horses in an eight-hour chase to see a mottlecah before sheep ate the flowers. The professional collector Amalie Dietrich reputedly wrote to her daughter, ‘I stride across the wider plains, wander through virgin forests … I cross rivers and lakes in a small canoe, visit islands and collect, collect, collect …’
On my first full day in Australia my partner takes a picture of me laden with a huge armful of flowers, as we celebrate the start of our new life together. The flowers are quintessentially English: pale blue delphinium (new opportunities), roses (desire), peonies (bashfulness), sweet peas (gratitude) and pink stock (passion). Through the spring, the smell of jonquil—‘return my affection’—permeates our little house in Fitzroy as I hack back the profligate passion fruit, nourish the neglected lavender, rescue unknown species from overgrown borders, saw branches off the spreading fig tree, plant tubs that soon spill over with colour. And indoors I transform our home with ferns, palms and orchids. It is our peaceful haven of tranquillity where we can shed the turbulence of recent separations and departures, and nurture our future.
As I explore my new neighbourhood, peeking over walls and through fences, I see that European aesthetics still have a hold on Melbourne garden design. The nineteenth-century rush to identify indigenous flora hasn’t translated into their widespread planting among the roses and azaleas. The landscape was claimed and tamed by settlers to reflect their home country and there was scant interest in the ornamental or practical uses of indigenous plants, even those that could have saved the lives of early settlers. The tone was set by William Dampier’s 1688 exploration of the Kimberley coastline and his comments on the diet of the Indigenous people: ‘… the earth affords them no good at all. There is neither Herb, Root, Pulse nor any sort of Grain for them to eat.’
With no obvious new crops to cultivate, settlers relied on the familiar. In doing so they played havoc with the sensitive ecosystem that fed the Indigenous communities. The yam daisy, a staple of the Indigenous diet, grew profusely across the once spongy and fertile plains of Victoria. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century more than 1.5 million sheep and cattle had trodden down and hardened the soil so that the yam would no longer grow. At the same time, European plants were transported to Australia in the millions. Thomas Lang, a Ballarat-based nursery man, imported in just 12 years more than 150 varieties of apples, 60 of plums, 50 each of grapes and cherries, as well as 120 varieties of dahlia, gladioli, roses and hollyhocks.
It is late spring and I visit the nearby Melbourne Museum with my partner. We enjoy the moment and are not in a hurry to look at all the exhibits. We can come back at any time—the future is ours. Our exploration takes us into the Milarri garden, a tranquil reserve behind the museum missed by many visitors. A winding path weaves past a pond and we read a sign that warns visitors to ‘Beware of the eels’ before the path rises towards the enclosed canopy where birds flitter in their giant aviary.
The garden displays plants significant to the Indigenous people of south-east Australia. I enjoy the plant labels for their strange vernacular names—poo-eat, pigface and the running postman, and wonder whether I should continue my quest of coming up with my own personal language of flowers when faced with such creativity. I am also struck by how many of the plant labels state that there is no Indigenous name, among them some of the most common plants: the hemp bush, New Zealand spinach and crimson bottlebrush. There are several possible explanations: not having asked the right questions of the right people, multiple languages and dialects, the challenge of transcribing differing pronunciations, or different names given to the same species.
The linguist John McEntee found examples of multiple names in his study of the South Australian Adnyamathanha language. In one community a straight-limbed mulga tree was described as the ‘spear tree’, whereas another nearby with curving branches was the ‘boomerang tree’. He also recorded how plants could take on specific local meanings: the woolly cloak fern was called miya-vuthi, or sleeping dust, referring to the custom of brushing its leaves over a child’s eyelids to bring on sleep. A young man kicking the puffball fungus vurdli-vuthi (‘star dust’) to release its yellowish spores into the air was ‘pulling down the stars’, a reference to falling in love with a girl in the wrong kinship group.
A few months later we visit Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, but this time we pay little attention to the plant labels. Events have overtaken us. We pause to watch the men prepare the punts for the day—an excursion we had booked, although we predict that the tickets will remain unused as we are now short of time and the next few months are laden with uncertainty.
We appreciate William Guilfoyle’s imaginative garden layout, blending expansive views of the city with intimate glades. He replaced Mueller’s geometric patterns with sweeping curves, a landscape designed for leisurely strolling. Clearing eucalypts and other local flora, Guilfoyle planted exotic natives from Queensland and New South Wales as well as plants from further afield. Beneath a clear blue-fresh sky we hold hands and stroll in quiet reflection, grateful for Guilfoyle’s lush legacy as the fernery enfolds us in a dark green half-light, calming our thoughts before we head off to the hospital where my partner will be operated on later that day.
Although Mueller the scientist, publisher of more than 1330 books and papers, accused his successor William Guilfoyle of having a ‘taste for growing daffodils for dandys’, Guilfoyle’s garden set a standard for Australian garden design that permeated public and private gardens alike. With Guilfoyle having replaced him, Mueller’s influence declined. This coincided with a public loss of interest in indigenous flora to the extent that in 1930, well after Mueller’s death, there was little embarrassment when Brisbane, the first Australian city to choose a flower emblem, selected the red poinsettia from Mexico over a native flower.
It was only in the mid twentieth century that the idea of stocking more indigenous flora resurfaced at the Royal Botanic Gardens; by then there was no space in the South Yarra garden. In 1969, after a protracted search, suitable land was bought at Cranbourne. It took another 20 years for the Australian Garden project to gather momentum. According to Philip Moors, former chief executive of the gardens, the landscape designer’s brief was to capture the essence of the Australian landscape. The traditional owners of the land were not invited to give their input into this design. Moors says this wasn’t a conscious decision, but there wasn’t the same level of sensitivity then to Australia’s Indigenous heritage. My research is making me realise how our understanding of the natural world is influenced by politics, commerce and culture.
When we visit Cranbourne for the first time, on a blustery autumn day, I am entranced by rows of long delicate stems topped with tiny fan-like clusters of velvety paws. The garden is hosting a kangaroo paw celebration. That plant was originally a native of Western Australia and is now that state’s floral emblem. I had already spied it hopping from one pot to another across Fitzroy verandahs. Well before it had taken root in Australian gardens, nurseries in Jordan, Israel and California were growing the kangaroo paw, realising its potential for cut-flower displays. Appropriated globally, it is only now celebrated locally, and we are invited to vote for our preferred hybrid, using pebbles dropped into a box beneath our chosen pot, each planted with a single variety.
I read that the Noongar name for kangaroo paw is nol-la-mara. It doesn’t feature in the settler-inspired ‘language of flowers’. So a name is mine to claim for my ‘language of flowers’, a way of coding my own story. What will it be? The plant’s waving velvety paws make me happy; the kangaroo paw will always remind me of those first few blissful months, when the prospect of Australian summers stretched ahead endlessly. In my private lexicon I index it under ‘innocent optimism’ and ‘joy’.
Moors says that the 200th anniversary of European settlement in Australia stimulated thinking about what it meant to be Australian and this extended to the nation’s flora. Even so, it is only in the last 20 years or so that Australian nurseries have focused on cross-breeding native plants to create showier hybrids. At the same time interest has grown in the knowledge of the practical, medicinal and culinary uses of native plants accumulated over thousands of years by Indigenous Australians. During the twentieth century ethnobotanists studying native plants were increasingly having to contend with the accusation that they were appropriating Indigenous knowledge. It took until 2010 before the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre was set up at James Cook University and its first Indigenous ethnobotanist was appointed. The centre aims to bridge Indigenous knowledge and Western science in ‘innovative ways for a sustainable future’, to support traditional owners in keeping their knowledge strong and to help them benefit from new discoveries. This means everyone owns and benefits from shared endeavour.
This thinking is far removed from the antagonism described in George Seddon’s 2005 book The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People. He recounts how a slogan appeared on a wall at Melbourne University, ‘Wog plants go home’, coinciding with the planting of a new avenue of plane trees, many of which were vandalised in protest at such horticultural imperialism. I am reminded of an avenue of mature eucalyptus trees towering over the main road to the Bozburun Peninsula in southern Turkey; until a couple of years ago it was my cue that I’d nearly arrived at my summer home, a coastal village on the Turquoise Coast where the Mediterranean merges into the Aegean and the pine forests hum with honey bees. This was before I uprooted myself from the old world, taking just books and a few belongings to a new country.
I hadn’t thought then about where these trees had originated but I wonder now whether the Melbourne protestors would think that this fine avenue of Australian imports should be vandalised too. And should chainsaws be taken to the eucalyptus forests that are now common in California, Portugal and southern France? And what about the Australian melaleuca that covers more than 200 000 hectares of the Everglades, the fern Cyathea australis that has colonised Hawaii, or the acacia that grows wild in South America? In exploring plant names I now appreciate how they can hold many private and public meanings; the ‘language of flowers’ tells just a part of their story. My own journey has made me realise that relocating any form of living organism between continents brings rewards and risks, many unforeseen.
I am in the cancer ward of St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. I watch the steady drip, drip of ‘vanilla bean’ into my partner’s vein. It is our name for vinorelbine, one of my partner’s cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. It is the last infusion of four three-week cycles. In the first week it is the energy-sapping, nausea-inducing cisplatin followed by a vinorelbine chaser; in the second it is a single shot of vinorelbine and the third week is drug free, leaving time for the body to recuperate from its toxic onslaught. Vinorelbine’s role is to stop cancer cells dividing, ironic as it is derived from the vigorously spreading Vinca, better known as periwinkle. The Latin meaning of the name though is apposite: to bind or fetter. I’ve only known it as a trailing weed-like creeper with dainty mauve flowers, the spreading roots clawing back the soil sliding down my now neglected sloping English garden.
Vinca is native to Europe, north-west Africa and south-west Asia. It isn’t important to me where it comes from: I am simply grateful that it has been appropriated by science. Neither does it matter what floriography has to offer, although many of the descriptions are surprisingly apt: ‘hold on to the things you cherish for as long as possible’, ‘existence throughout eternity and extending your time with what you love’, ‘everlasting love’ and ‘the pleasures of memory’. No, I will not rely on others to create a meaning for this delicate flower. To me there is just one: hope.