Valentines Day 2018: How To Really Say It With Flowers

This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers.

It’s also the perfect Valentines tale; albeit a bit tragic.

Set in the picturesque countryside of La Touraine (Loire Valley), Le Lys dans la Vallée portrays the vibrant but never consummated love affair between Felix de Vandenesse, a young man, and the virtuous Henriette de Mortsauf, a married woman. Desperate to express his passion, Felix scours the countryside for hours a day, painstakingly collecting wildflowers to create elaborate bouquets for his beloved.

Felix hypothesizes that just like musical phrases, the colors and leaves of individual flowers vibrate with their own internal harmony. And when deliberately grouped together, they can create melodies that sing with emotions. During his expeditions, he scrutinizes each flower for its ‘spirit’ and light patterns, studying it not as a botanist, but as a poet. In the process, Felix learns the power of quiet contemplation.

‘I saw a blue in the sky that I had never perceived elsewhere,’ he exclaims.

Back home at the castle, he assembles the wildflowers into impassioned arrangements in the hope that his beloved will understand their meaning.

Wildflower meadow in La Touraine

I love the passage describing Henriette’s surprise when she spies the flowers for the first time. Felix has positioned the bouquets in buckets on the threshold just outside the front entrance. She instantly deciphers the message in the arrangements, returning to them again and again to relive the experiences that have gone into their making.

Chateau de la Chatonnière in Azay-le Rideau 

Felix’s first bouquets for Henriette contained fragrant silver-cupped white lilies and wild roses ringed by cascades of sky blue forget-me-nots, bright blue ruffled cornflower and spikes of violet-blue viper’s bugloss. 

Just for fun, I pulled photos of the flowers that composed the arrangements. Balzac describes the bouquets as a ‘boullionnement’ (a ‘bubbling over’ or fountain) of blooms from the heart of which leap Felix’s aspirations in the shape of white roses.

Felix’s bouquet of love

I love the simplicity of the wildflowers and the juxtaposition of the white flowers with the blue, which Felix describes as the perfect marriage of two virtues: “he who knows nothing” and “she who knows all.” Once I’d arranged them on my screen, the flowers instantly awoke in me a sense of that early 1800’s garden. The bouquet seems so child-like, yet all-knowing somehow.

But clearly, there are more than 50 shades of meaning in Balzac’s vivid description of their arrangement.

What emotions do these bouquets stir in you?

In modern times, “Say it with flowers’ is a common slogan used by floral companies to sell flowers. Certainly the gift of a dozen roses at Valentines Day sends a beautiful message. But there’s something about Felix’s simple arrangement of wildflowers that stirs my heart. Is it the combination of flowers? Or the message conveyed by each?

Perhaps it is the dedication of Felix in collecting each of these blooms to create messages of love that touches me.

Something to think about on this Valentines Day.

 

 

Snowdrops: A Surefire Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning.

Snowdrops have an inspiring ability to survive and grow in the face of much weather adversity. It’s hard not to look at them and draw parallels with life. Louise Glück’s poem articulates this idea beautifully.

This poem always motivates me to go out and do something big. And it certainly makes a person look at snowdrops with a whole new level of appreciation.

About Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Snowdrop, Galanthus, is a small genus of bulbous herbaceous perennial plants that is part of the amaryllis family. The plant gets its name from the Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos meaning flower. Common snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, (nivalis is Latin for snowy) is the best known species of Galanthus. Native to large areas of Europe, it has been introduced and naturalized all over the world.

Diminutive in scale, but built like a warrior, Galanthus nivalis has narrow leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems that produce a single white, tear-shaped flower. The pendulous blooms are composed of six petal segments: three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner three are notched at the tip and have U-shaped green markings.

Common snowdrop flower

In my area (Zone 7) common snowdrops typically flower in February/March. The large-flowered Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, is one of the earliest blooming varieties. And the heirloom Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, double-flowered cultivar if you’re looking for something a little different.

There’s also a larger variety of snowdrop called Giant Snowdrop, or Galanthus elwesii. It has 6 to 12 inch stems and much larger flowers. It blooms later than Galanthus nivalis, usually in March.

How do they grow in such a cold world?

According to Cambridge University, snowdrops have built-in anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that allow them to survive in subzero weather. AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from growing in plant cells (which causes death in the tissue). This protects the plants from severe-weather stresses and also some diseases.

Occasionally, very harsh cold can cause snowdrops to fall over. But not to worry, thanks to AFPs, they’ll perk up again as soon as temperatures rise.

Anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) help snowdrops survive harsh weather

How not to confuse snowdrops with snowflakes (of the botanical kind)

A few years ago, I started renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the spring, hundreds of bluebells and what I thought were snowdrops starting appearing in the woodland. The flowers looked slightly different, though. They were bell shaped. And all of the petals, not just the inner ones, had green markings at the tips.

Leucojum vernum

I had confused snowdrops with another species, Leucojum, with which they are closely related. Leucojum aestivum  (also known as Giant Snowflake) has pendulous flowers as well, but with a couple key differences. The flower is bell-shaped and all six petals are the same size, with green markings at the tips. Snowflakes look a lot like giant lilies-of-the valley.

Leucojum vernum flower/each petal has green markings

Snowflakes bloom much later than snowdrops, depending on your location anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

How to grow snowdrops

Common snowdrops prefer partial shade, but will take full sun. They are deer resistant! Plant clusters of 20-25 bulbs in fall a few inches apart for maximum impact. This is a flower that looks great as a ‘carpet’ under bare trees.

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

Once they’re done flowering, leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow to allow the plant to store nutrients for next year’s blooms.

Snowdrops multiply easily by themselves; however, they can also be propagated by division. The best time to lift and divide snowdrops is when they have just finished flowering.

Toxicity

Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which according to the National Institutes of Health, has shown mild cognitive and global benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. However, it can also cause gastrointestinal distress if consumed in large quantities. Some sites list galanthus as poisonous for humans and animals. For more information on signs of snowdrop poisoning in dogs, click here for wagwalking.com signs and symptoms in dogs. And wear garden gloves when handling the bulbs.

Snowdrop bulbs can be toxic to humans and pets

Only a couple weeks now until the snowdrops will be blooming in my area. I already feel spring around the corner…

Photos courtesy/Shutterstock

 

Bamboo Gets A Makeover Thanks To A California Garden

The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind whose roots advance a foot a day and need to be dug out with a crane. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with a spectacular variety featuring aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica ‘Cheryl Lynn’

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful shrubs wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular lush-petaled blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli Gardens in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

Falling For Wilson Bentley, The Original Snowflake Man

Wilson Bentley Digital Archives of the Jericho Historical Society/snowflakebentley.com   

‘No two snowflakes are alike’ is a saying that many of us have grown up hearing. But few of us are aware of the person who coined it, a farmer from a small rural town in Vermont by the name of Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931). Bentley was the first person to photograph a single snowflake, thus opening a window into this astonishing world of unique crystalline sculptures. Continue reading

10 Resolutions To Make In Your Garden This Year

Every year, I make a list of things I want to achieve or change in my garden. But the year passes, I get busy planning my clients’ landscapes and before I know it, it’s mid summer. That is not an ideal time to start something new in the garden.

I’ve promised myself that this year, however, will be different. All those ideas I’ve jotted down in my garden notebook? I plan to convert at least some of them into reality. And January is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for just how all of it will happen. Continue reading

Longwood Gardens’ 10 Best Christmas Trees of 2017

Orchid Tree/A Longwood Christmas

The Orchid Tree at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the orchid tree above, but this time of year Longwood Gardens is teeming with ideas, especially when it comes to Christmas trees.  Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (an easy two-hour drive from Washington, DC), Longwood is resplendent this December as it pays homage to France. And the eye-popping horticultural displays are nothing short of ooh-la-la. Continue reading

12 Great Holiday Design Ideas From Longwood Gardens

This week I’ll be writing about Longwood Gardens and my annual visit to its spectacular holiday display, A Longwood Christmas. I was thrilled to discover that this year’s show is dedicated to France. Entitled ‘C’est Magnifique!’, it was inspired by founder Pierre S. du Pont and his vision for the property, which was named after his great-great-grandfather, a French economist and writer who immigrated to America at the end of the French Revolution. Continue reading

O Christmas Tree: Why Conifers Smell So Good

 

When I was a teen, a French girl came to stay with us for the summer. She caused quite a stir in northern Delaware with her flat fronted cigarette jeans, lace-up wedge espadrilles and oversized red glasses. But what I remember most was her preference for a men’s cologne named Pino Sylvestre. Wherever she went, a fresh, forest-like scent followed in her wake. Continue reading

US Botanic Garden Presents The Latest Poinsettia Varieties

One of many beautiful poinsettias at the US Botanic Garden

I’ve been to the US Botanic Garden (USBG) many times and have always enjoyed the beautiful displays that change with the seasons. But in December, I bypass the holiday dazzle of the evergreen-draped lobby, work my way through the steamy medicinal plant and orchid gardens and head straight to the restrooms. There, behind the glass atrium in a quiet passage all its own is the USBG’s best-kept secret: a one-of-a-kind poinsettia display. Continue reading