Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World (2013) is a reference book about seven flowers: lotus, lily, sunflower, poppy, rose, tulip, and orchid.
These are the flowers that the author has chosen to explore and to determine how they have exerted power and influence ‘of one kind or another, whether religious, spiritual, political, social, economic, aesthetic or pharmacological’ – for better or worse.
For example, Potter writes of the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) – white, pink, and blue, from Egypt and Tutankhamen’s burial chamber to Napoleon’s scientists; and from the Indus Valley of the Punjab to China. ‘Their appeal is timeless,’ she concludes. The lily (Lilieum candidum) from Europe to the Asiatic is described as ‘Europe’s answer to the lotus.’ Potter discusses its ‘scurrilous heritage’ and that the early Christian Church tried to ban it. The sunflower (Helianthus annuluus) is ‘the brute’ of the flowers for its size. She follows it from the Americas to the subject of William Blake’s, Vincent van Gogh’s and Paul Gauguin’s works, and how some states in America tried to have it classified as a ‘noxious weed.’
Potter writes of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) from the western Mediterranean to Mongolia’s Kublai Khan and to Afghanistan. The rose is the author’s favourite flower, having written about it extensively on its own in her 2010 book, The Rose: A True History. The rose – ‘the chameleon of a flower’ is a native of the northern hemisphere only, from Europe to the Arctic Circle, and appears in Middle Eastern poetry and the recipe for rosewater. The tulip (family Tulipa) is described as having ‘no utility whatsoever’ – unlike the other flowers in the book, yet it is a popular emblem. She finishes with the orchid (family Orchidaceae) from Confucius to Kew Gardens as ‘one of the strangest flowers’ in the world.
Potter adds that she would have like to have included the carnation, peonies, and chrysanthemums, as well as banksias, proteas, and waratahs – but time and space did not permit their inclusion.
Mostly Potter explores the origins of the flowers and how they became part of art and literature, and beyond. She writes of their descriptions, cultural meanings and influences, literature and life, poetry and scents, to myths and legends. While it is not a comprehensive coverage of each flower, it does give readers a sense of their intrigue and fascination over the years.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls