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The Language of Flowers, Neanderthals and Texas

When flowers take on a meaning, to me at least it can seem sentimental and Victorian. I suppose the Victorians were a bit mealy-mouthed and were unable to spit out their thoughts and feelings in any direct kind of way as it wouldn’t be proper! Social propriety was imperative for success. So they found ways to communicate in ways which kept their behaviour unimpeachable. But, I am wrong in my Victorian association as plants and flowers have been used as symbols since ancient times, in fact probably since humans developed the capacity to think in terms of symbols and metaphors (which I suspect was very early indeed).

It is interesting to note that the remains ancient funeral flowers indicate that there were roses, lilies and daisies were placed in Neolithic graves around 12,000 years ago and although, of course, we cannot really know why or what they meant by it, I think we all understand the impulse towards ritual and symbolism at a time of grief. Even more intriguing is the Shanidar Cave in modern day Iraq. Not only was it a refuge for Kurdish families during the reign of Saddam Hussein, it has been used as shelter over millennia. A “graveyard” of 35 people was discovered there by archaeologist Ralph Solecki in 1960 and was dated to more than 10,000 years ago. Further excavations famously revealed Neanderthal remains dated more than 45,000 years ago. These Neanderthals were men, women and children and included an older man with a disabled arm, deafness and a head trauma which probably affected his eyesight. There was a good deal of pollen discovered and this was controversially interpreted as flowers having been placed in the graves. While it is not even conclusive that these bodies were actually buried, the thought that yarrow, chamomile and other wild flowers were placed there intentionally chimes with my soul. Surely if an old, disabled man was looked after and provided for in those times, his passing would be marked? I hope further investigations support rather than disprove that Neanderthals had funeral rituals. If you would like to read more about ongoing excavations there you can visit the University of Cambridge page about it at

Today, we still understand the language of flowers even although many of us are more removed from nature… Red roses for love, especially on Valentine’s day might be the most obvious. In Christian tradition the Lily is a symbol for Mary and represents purity, virtue and renewal. Cherry blossoms encourage us to embrace transience, the lotus flower emerging from the mud and growing through the water to bloom beautifully in the air encourages us to seek enlightenment. Daisies represent youth, innocence, purity. And it’s difficult not to smile when you see sunflower heads, representing loyalty, longevity and happiness,  nodding at you over a garden wall or along the roadside verges. They are just so cheerful!

When I moved to Texas, I met a whole new range of native plants. Unsurprisingly, given the roller coaster nature of the Texan climate, nearly all of them are said to represent resilience. After only a few seasons here in Texas I am an admirer of any plant that thrives despite the temperature swings and harshness of the weather and the terrain.

The state flower, the Bluebonnet is a sign of springtime and renewal while the state tree, the Pecan, represents the agricultural heritage of Texas. The prickly pear cactus has vibrant flowers and edible fruits. It symbolises strength, endurance and adaptability as it pops up all over the place. The yellow rose is an outlier among the plants associated with Texas, being more cultivated. Associated with a folksong which emerged during the period when Texas was a Republic and popular during the Civil War, the longing of a soldier for his sweetheart back in Texas has been transmuted to love, longing and pride in the Lone Star State. As a Scot living abroad, the nostalgia and longing for the mythic old country is familiar.

Perhaps my favourite Texas plant, though, is the extremely drought-tolerant silvery grey Texas sage. It too, represents resilience and endurance in harsh conditions. But occasionally, just before it rains (and I don’t know how it knows!) the one in my front garden is absolutely covered in beautiful deep purple flowers. They only last a day or two but I appreciate them while they last. Texas can be tough and to live here can require a bit of tolerance and grit but it can be outstandingly beautiful.

Today, we find it increasingly difficult to embrace transience. We're being encouraged to resist ageing, we are increasingly removed from nature; birth, illness and death often occur out with the home, hidden from us. We have the ability to record everything, rewatch films, listen to the same music track for decades, photograph all our experiences, talk to friends and family on other continents. The flower which blooms for a short period was always a good symbol for the transience of life and experiences. Never more so than now. We see another flower bloom and we remember, although it's not the same flower. It's hard to accept that from moment to moment our lives are different. It's hard to embrace transience as we cling on hard to the now and the past.

The magic of a live performance is that it will never happen again and we feel the energy and emotion of enjoying something that will end. At some point our ancestors found ways to adopt the acceptance of change and transience into ritual acts, to give due importance to a momentous change but to move on. The flower fades, but produces a seed which allows it to bloom again. And when we see it bloom again, we remember the past and we see how far we have moved on.

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