These Fragile, Gaudy Flowers

One of the best things about living in a Northern climate is rounding the curve that takes us from winter to spring, from cold to warm, from brown to green, from no flowers to a land lush with flowers. As we move from May to June, the whole land seems to be in bloom. Few flowers are more typical of the Midwest and of rural life in general than the peony. (Most of the farm gardens I have seen–my mother-in-law’s in particular–have had long lines of peonies.) Every year in early June, these gaudy, short-lived beauties burst on to the scene, extravagant in their fragrance. Pink and violet and purple and white, the fist-sized blossoms are as fragile as they are gaudy.

The poet Jane Kenyon calls peonies her favorite flowers, remarking that peonies “are not Protestant work-ethic flowers. They loll about in gorgeousness; they live for art; they believe in excess. They are not quite decent, to tell the truth.”

Another contemporary New England poet, Mary Oliver writes of “their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, / their eagerness,/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever.”

The name peony comes from the Greek, paeonia, after Paion, a name for the Greek god Apollo, who was the physician of the gods. The flower was called peony because it was believed for a long time to have healing properties. Sylvester writes in 1591: “About an Infant’s neck hang Peonie, It cures Alcydes cruel Maladie.” Phillips writing in 1709 says that the peony roots have great use in physic, that is, as medicine, or perhaps, in particular, as a laxative. Clearly the peony has been around for a long time and in fact might have come to us from the Romans via the English.

Phlox are also profuse right now, both as domesticated flowers in people’s yards and as wild flowers blooming on the edges of rivers, woods, and ditches. The phlox I see most often are pinkish lavender, but apparently they can be white, red, and bluish as well. The word phlox comes from the Greek phlegein, meaning “to flame or burn.” I can only surmise that the colorful phlox flamed out of the grasses and woods like a fire, a conflagration, occasioning the name. In 1706 Phillips writes of the phlox as a flower “of no Smell but of fine Flame-colour.” (Incidentally, the word flagrant, which we usually use to mean “outrageous,” comes from this same root and means, “burning, glaringly bad, notorious.”)

The aster is, of course, a star and comes from the Latin astrum for star. Most often the asters we see are purple with a gold center. The New England Aster is one of our native prairie flowers. Actually, if you think about it, the asterisk on your computer is shaped very much like the flower and both resemble stars as we see them from a great distance. “Ab aspera ad astra,” the high school Latin teachers of the past used to say. “From scars to stars.” Good advice in an age and culture that rarely teaches Latin or points young people to the stars.

David Schelhaas teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is a member of the editoral board of Perspectives. This essay is from the book, Angling in the English Stream: 100 Ordinary English Words: Caught, Filleted, and Served up in Tasty Little Essays, published by Dordt Press.