7.1.4 Loveliness
Lovely, Ordinary, Strange
I find I like some plants because they are rare, some because they are peculiar, some because they combine an exceptional loveliness of colour and form. All, or some, of the reasons may be combined. And the loveliness of a plant is not always an individual loveliness, but a loveliness of a few, or many, plants of the same kind growing together in their natural scene. The single plant illustrated on a page in a flower book is an ideal abstraction, and partly a surviving habit from the older days when the expert's job was only to find plants, and divide them up into orders, families, genera and species. We cannot, emotionally, separate a flower from the place, or the conditions in which we usually find it.
Only a few plants are part of the common language of English emotions. The daffodil, or the primrose, or the ivy, or the yew tree, for example. And they are not always the most beautiful. Daffodils, in their right place, are captivating enough–straggling up a slope and just showing their heads in a tangle of brambles and grass, or under the trees and between the rocks along the bank of a stream. But analyse a daffodil, and it turns out to be a flower that owes as much to the daffodil tradition and to its way of appearing early in the spring and in mass, as it does to its own beauty. Many excellent plants which come out at a crowded time of the year have hardly even the small recognition of a common name.
I am not sure, either, that primroses deserve, in themselves, all the honour they are given. The primrose smells of a new year, its leaves have an endearing crimple, but taken as an individual, it cannot really claim exceptional loveliness of form or colour. It is a plant homely and ordinary in detail beside a yellow-centred, elegant stitchwort. The way it grows, its relation to the ground, to the brown debris of a previous year, its scattered abundance, its earliness, its candour and eye-openness, are its virtues.
We should be all for every possible mixture of virtue in any plant. The formal beauty of an individual specimen is only the first requirement. Ruskin, who is responsible for a good many of our likings to-day and our notions of preserving ancient buildings and protecting rural England, wanted in flowers the 'right' placing of the leaves, and flower, and bud, and stem, combined with pure colour and rich surface, and still further associated with moral lessons.    He did not approve of peculiarity, or believe as Samuel Palmer did, "that all the very finest original pictures, and the topping things in nature, have a certain quaintness by which they partly affect us ;  not the quaintness of bungling–the queer doings of a common thought; but a curiousness in their beauty, a salt on their tails, by which the imagination catches hold on them."  
I prefer Palmer's view.   I would go along with Ruskin's belief that "the flower exists for its own sake –not for the fruit's sake . . . the flower is the end of the seed–not the seed of the flower."   But no flower need be admired simply for its loveliness, or for the traditional feeling about it.    It is human to prefer what is interesting in appearance, in behaviour, and in history.    It is human to make symbols out of dry ground or clear water, and everything associated with them. If Professor Salisbury tells me that some of the southern rarer species came into England possibly with the Megalith builders or if Clement Reid provides evidence that fumitory–Erdrauch, earth-smoke,  to  the Germans–which is anyway one of the loveliest of plants, came in with the Neolithic farmers about 4000 B.C., then I find fumitory, and those southern flowers, all the more attractive.  
Ruskin was very much repelled by ideas, still fresh in his life-time, about the relation of colour in flowers to insects and natural selection.   Science didn't allow the flowers to be the end of the seed (a fiction, if you like, but one that every botanist accepts in his own flower garden).   
All the same, the attraction of any plant is increased, and ought to be increased, by any curious fact about it.  I prefer facts about history and distribution and adaptability, the facts of the plant itself.    Nettles are more interesting to me because they like the nitrogen of decay, and because they can sting.    When the Linnaean collections were being photographed at the beginning of the war, the photographer was stung by a nettle which Linnaeus had dried two hundred years ago.    I like a particular frail catchfly, which occurs in several English counties, because it is lovely, yes–and also because the purple spot on each one of its five white petals seemed to Linnaeus like one of the five wounds of Christ.    So it was called Silene quinquevulnera.    But I'm afraid that is a reason outside the plant.   
Bogbean I like for the lacy exquisiteness of its white beauty and pink buds rising out of black bog water, and also because I know it to be an ancient hardy plant which was here before the Ice Ages, and which grows in the Arctic, in Greenland, and Iceland, as well as alongside the snipe's nest which I found one year in Pembrokeshire. Forget-me-not I think of not only beside a slow river like the Mole or the Cherwell, but rooted in slime, just below the point where a hot spring trickled out of a black volcanic slag heap, and steamed up into, the cold of the Icelandic air, opening its eyes like the blue flower of Novalis. And so on.
A poor, exclusive reason for liking a plant is certainly because it splashes a big area with its own uniform colour; and in this way, in the last hundred years or so, several plants have pushed themselves into an emotional prominence that I do not think they deserve. Heather and bluebell, for example. I doubt if a wide area of purple was much felt to be beautiful before 1850 or 1860.
Geoffrey Grigson, Nature in Britain, (1950); Country Book Club