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Book Review: The Treasury of Flowers…

July 11th, 2012

This afternoon I stopped off at my favorite charity shop to see if there were any interesting books and I found one called ‘The Treasury of Flowers’ by Alice M Coats (published 1975). I’ve had a fearful fascination of plants and flowers since I was a small child. When I was about 4 and a half we moved out of town to this small farm. One morning I was out in the fields with my mother when she pointed at foxglove and said, “That’s foxglove! Don’t touch it or you’ll die!” The big red mushrooms with pretty white spots in the surrounding forest were similarly pointed out along with black widow spiders. “You see that black spider with the red spot? If it bites you, you’ll die!” Needless to say, along with a fear of imminent death I developed a fascination for flowers. Obviously I didn’t grow into a botanist, but thankfully one doesn’t have to be a scientist to enjoy flowers or even go near flowers. One can look at pictures.

As long as there have been books there have been books on flowers. Coats’ book is a presentation of 118 prints by various artists over the centuries that have been overlooked because they’re small (some of them very small). I didn’t really understand what exactly the book was when I bought it. I just noticed it had prints of flowers starting from the early printing press using woodcuts through to the mid 1800’s and I thought it might be interesting. It is! Coats unearths all sorts of interesting facts and vignettes about the artists and plants in the prints. Plate 32 alone makes this book a treasure.

At the end of 2007 I read a biography, ‘The Man who was Figaro, Beaumarchais by Frédéric Grendel’ (I highly recommend it; Beaumarchais is one of my heroes). For those who might not know, Beaumarchais was a Frenchman born in the mid 18th century. In the biography one of his letters is quoted where he was writing to his father from Spain. In the letter he mentions he has a cold, but he’s wrapped up warm and has taken some fern syrup for it. My ‘weird facts about the 18th century antennae’ went up. At the time I looked up ‘fern syrup’ on line, but there was not a single mention of it. I made a note of it and didn’t think anything more about it because where on earth would I find information about it?

The illustration of ferns from A Compleat History of Druggs by P.Pomet (1712)

This is what Coats has to say:

This, ‘a work of very great use and Curiosity’, was written by the chief druggist to King Louis XIV. The plate reproduced shows what were then called the Five Capillary Herbs, so named after the maidenhair, Adiantum capillus-veneris (literally Hair of Venus). They were the maidenhair itself, used as a hair-tonic and for pulmonary diseases; Ceterach or Speenwort (Polypodium vulgare), used in the Netherlands for arthritis, and by country women for whooping-cough; Wall Rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria), also called Tent- or Taintwort for its use in ‘tent’ or rickets, and Hart’s Tongue (Phyllitis scolopendrium), chiefly for burns and scalds. To these Pomet adds a sixth fern, more esteemed than all the rest; the Canada maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), which was ‘cultivated with great Care in the King’s Garden at Paris’ and prescribed for consumption and coughs.

I nearly didn’t make it through the paragraph, but there at the bottom she mentions a fern being used for coughs. Being a curious wench I’ve just looked up “fern Syrup” again on line and there are now endless entries…as if millions of people are crying out for cough syrup made from ferns. That is truly bizarre! Almost as bizarre as the answer to an irritating five year old question on ferns showing up on my desk in a book called The Treasury of Flowers.

As if that wasn’t enough weirdness for the day… Thinking I was done with my post and being momentarily distracted by the other prints of flowers, on flipping through the pages I found a print of a poppy…

and I thought…that looks just like the one I saw on my bike ride on Saturday…the one I took a photo of…

It was raining, the wind was blowing, but I was determined to take a photo of this poppy next to the road

Yes, it’s just like the one I saw growing next to road…

Coats says:

This flaunting poppy is of the kind that frequently appears in Dutch and Flemish flower-paintings. Elizabethan ladies dubbed it ‘John Silver-pin, fair without and foul within’ because of its offensive odor; but what else could be expected from a variety of the opium poppy? A warning smell should be provided by this useful but dangerous plant, which was once cultivated in England to make laudanum…

Holy cow batman! There’s freaking opium growing at the side of the road? The stuff they used to make laudanum with? The stuff that’s illegal? That is bizarre! That’s one plant I will not be touching when I go back to take some more photos. I’m glad I bought this book and I’m not even a third of the way through it!

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