Say it with narcissi: flowers to celebrate the Chinese New Year

How a scented Mediterranean flower ended up bewitching the Far East

[~ 6 minutes]

Listening to: Yoko Kano,  Aqua

’Tis said that the sense of smell is intimately connected with memory, something that Proust and his madeleines apparently turned into an incontestable truth.

I am not usually assailed by memories when smelling anything in particular; however, there’s one scent that does trigger a Proustian recollection within me, the scent of a flower that blooms every winter in my parents’ garden: paper whites, or Narcissus tazetta L.

Although narcissus aren’t flowers you’d usually associate with Spain, it turns out that the Iberian peninsula actually boasts the greatest biological diversity of this genus: we have them in all shapes, sizes and colours. The ones I’m familiar with belong to one of the few divisions, the Tazettae, whose members bloom profusely on each flower stalk (instead of producing a single bloom at the tip).

Narcissus tazetta

If I had to choose a single word to describe them, if would be fragrant. Their perfume though can be dangerous, or so the ancient Greek myths would have it: some versions of Persephone’s descent into the Underworld featured the narcissus as the sweet-smelling flowers that Hades used to lure the young goddess into his clutches.

Indeed ’tis said that the name narcissus could be related to the Greek root narkao — the same that gave us words such as narcotic. Continue reading

Tulips, Turbans & Turks

 The story of an obsession

[~ 5 minutes]

Listening to: Devaldi, Istambul’s Night

{Versión en español, aquí}

Let’s make an experiment.

Choose five people and ask them, What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when hearing or reading the word tulip?

When I did it, the unanimous result was… Holland.

Because that’s what the Netherlands are to us: windmills and tulip fields.

Dutch tulip field by Pepa Llausas
You’ll have to picture the windmill. The tulips are impressive enough by themselves, aren’t they? (Photo courtesy of Pepa Llausás)

Some may even be familiar with Tulipomania, possibly the most (in)famous economic bubble in history. For a few decades at the turn of the 17th century, Dutch society’s common sense apparently went out of the window, and a market for tulip bulbs valued at exorbitantly stupid prices grew and grew until it burst… or so the story goes.

Although there’s more to tulipomania than these facile interpretations, I won’t be talking about European tulip stories today.

Because these elegant flowers are tightly woven into another country’s history —one we don’t hear much about, despite owing them both this flower’s arrival into our gardens, as well as its name in many Indo-European languages.

Can you guess which country I’m talking about? Here’s a clue… Continue reading

[Book-a-Leafing] Renoir’s Garden

(Fell. Frances Lincoln 1991)

Listening to: The Cinematic Orchestra, Les Ailes Pourpres (BSO)

{Versión en español, aquí}

When colours are alive, we paint gardens.

Many landscape gardeners might agree with the sentiment, portraying themselves as artists whose paint tubes are full of seeds, shrubs and trees, eager to enrich the blank canvas of soil with texture and colour. Others, however, will frown upon such a comparison, finding fault with it for being too limiting, or perhaps too generous.

The relationship between art and gardens is a rather thorny issue. To some, gardening is an art form; to others, the two things aren’t remotely alike. I personally harbour no doubts on the subject: a garden can be a work of art. Perhaps not every garden is one, just as not every sketchy drawing may deserve to be called “a masterpiece”. But some gardens are doubtlessly works of art.

In retrospect, the movement that helped the most to enthrone gardens as artistic subjects worthy of admiration and respect might have been Impressionism, with Claude Monet’s famous statement referring to Giverny as his “most beautiful work of art”.

‘Summer Landscape’ (1875), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The fascination that gardens exerted on many of the Impressionists was strong.

The stories about these relationships have been explored in countless ways, whether in books, exhibitions, or even films; indeed, the names of some of its characters are rather famous, even among people who aren’t particularly well-versed in the history of painting. Such is the case with Monet himself, the “prince” of the Impressionist team, the main character —albeit rather by accident, not by his own design— in the whole show.

Before we go on, I’d like to make something clear: I love reading, seeing, researching about Monet. In the BBC show The Impressionists, Claude was my favourite. We all love Monet, we are entranced by his Nymphéas, his wisterias, the agapanthus, the poppy fields, the rose-covered cottages, and all the rest. I even like the flowers he didn’t paint, of all things.

However, I’m even more attracted to the stories that posterity, with her mysterious laws, has deemed less worthy of interest, and thus forgets to dust and polish as often —or at all. Just as I enjoy talking about the flowers nobody talks about, I feel drawn to shine a light on those gardens to which time has paid little attention. I am lured in by the very dimness they live in, by the promise that I shall find some delightful surprise that’s still a secret known by just a few of us. The intellectual equivalent of discovering something off the beaten track.
Continue reading

Les non-fleurs de Monsieur Monet {EN}

(that is, Mr. Monet’s Non-flowers)

[~ 12 minutes]

Listening to: Marika Takeuchi, Far Away

{Spanish version can be read here}

Tis the year 1895.

Seven months before the Lumière brothers publicly demonstrate how movement can be captured onto still film, a man works in his garden a few kilometres north of Paris.

Twelve years have passed since he chose to set roots in that corner of the world and began puttering around in his garden, transforming what had once been a provincial patch of nondescript greenery into a little piece of plant paradise. Yet he’s no common gardener: the whole world admires his canvases, his brush-strokes’ exquisite ability to capture the fleeting impression of a moment. He has painted stations, oceans, fields and cathedrals. However, and unbeknownst even to himself, a new chapter in his artistic life is about to begin.

’Tis 1985, and while elsewhere wars are kindled, scientific discoveries made, writers convicted for ‘gross indecency’… in a small French village, a love story between a man and a plant has begun. For no less than twenty-five years, the artist’s brushes shall return to his green muse with the devotion of a loving spouse. And, in his tireless tracing of her oval leaves and stellar bursts of blushing petals, he shall consecrate her status as an iconic flower in the history of painting.


Yes, you do know who I am talking about. The painter is Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926).

And his green Muse? Why, his beloved Nymphéas, or course. Continue reading