Saying it with flowers

'I'm glad that Larousse was brave enough to adopt such a lowly flower as the dandelion as its symbol. It's easy to forget how glamorous it is'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I was 13, and a little swot, I was given as a present a tiny, single-volume French encyclopaedia called the Petit Larousse Illustré. I must have been a little swot, because I thought it was a great present.

When I was 13, and a little swot, I was given as a present a tiny, single-volume French encyclopaedia called the Petit Larousse Illustré. I must have been a little swot, because I thought it was a great present.

I still do, actually. It was much more satisfying than a straight dictionary, because as well as giving the definition of words, it also illustrated them, so there were lots of drawings of everything, from different wrestling holds to all kinds of poisonous plants, which is how I learnt that the French for "laburnum" is cytise. There was a bit on pink paper in the middle containing the most common foreign terms in French, all the way from Noli me tangere to "No-man's-land" (actually, those two were next door to each other), and there was a third section full of proper names, all famous places and famous people.

I still have that tiny encyclopaedia, now falling to bits, and every bit still gives me pleasure and instruction. But what delights me as much as anything is the cover of the book, which features a large drawing of a dandelion with the seed blowing away in all directions, under the slogan: Je sème à tout vent. Literally, it means "I sow in all winds", by which Larousse is trying to say that its information, its knowledge, will go everywhere, fall everywhere, grow everywhere, just as dandelion seeds do. "Wherever the wind blows" might be a better slogan, if a much looser translation...

I am glad that Larousse was brave enough to adopt such a lowly flower as the dandelion as its symbol. The dandelion is such a common, despised, ordinary, pestiferous little plant that everyone has forgotten how handsome and glamorous it really is.

At this time of year, the dandelion makes a fine showing, especially on my lawn, and when I am not cursing it, I am admiring it. The yellow flower heads are magnificent, thick and rich, like hard-boiled egg yolks. The seed heads, before they fly away as brave little parachutists, form an amazing geodesic pattern on the stalk. You can tell the time by blowing and then counting them. You can get white milky fluid out of the stems that will stain your skin. You can grind up the roots to make coffee. They will make you wet your bed. (At least, I think they will. The French word for dandelion is pissenlit, or "piss-a-bed", though I was never quite sure why.)

What a great little flower. And yet, because it is so familiar to us, we notice none of this. If we did not have dandelions in this country, if we encountered them for the first time abroad, we would marvel at them, in the same way that I once saw a South African marvelling at his first nettle here in England, ruefully rubbing his harassed hands and complaining about the vicious jungle hazards of Wild West Wiltshire. I have been in places abroad where for the first time I saw the jacaranda in full bloom, and the poinsettia, and various kinds of flame tree, and when I came back to Britain I saw a tree we have here that was far more glamorous than any of them, namely the horse chestnut, whose candle-pyramids of flowers are out of this world, but which, because we are so familiar with them, no longer even scratch our consciousness.

Well, this year has been an extraordinarily good one for flowers out here in the wilds – the primroses and cowslips, the bluebells and the dazzlingly white wild garlic – but you don't really want to know about that. What you want to know about is all the exotic plants that are hard to grow here. That's what the British love, the plant brought back from its native semi-tropical habitat and given a hard time here. I saw a wonderful display of bougainvilleas at the Bath Flower Show at the weekend, and as I stared at them, in a marquee in a British park, I couldn't help thinking how much better they looked growing wild on a wall in somewhere like Madeira or Greece.

A reader writes: Excuse me, is this getting anywhere? Have you a point to make?

Miles Kington writes: Yes. Do you know where the name "bougainvillea" comes from?

A reader writes: No.

Miles Kington writes: Well, you would do if you had a copy of the Petit Larousse Illustré.

Comments