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Botanical Garden

Botanical Writing at its Best


British naturalist Paul Evans could be reinventing botanical writing.

When it comes to botanical literature, there is no-one quite like Paul Evans. Nature writer, professor at Bath Spa University and “forest lurker”, Evans has a way of telling things that makes us feel as if we’re right there with him, taking a stroll down English vegetation that is also a literary anthology. Historical and folkloric references associated with each plant he finds along the way blossom from his articles. In “Startled by an emerald visión in the monochrome gloom – an aberrant fern”, for example, he tells us that the Victorians, in a fanatical pursuit of novelty, collected the rarest ferns in the world. He stumbles across one that would undoubtedly have left them “in a tizz”. “The western polypody, if that’s what it is,” Evans says, “is morphing into something else. As ferns have done for over 300 million years, […] is the kind of hybrid which subverts our fixed view of nature; strange and beautiful.”

Snowdrops Catching the Sunshine in Cleobury Mortimer

In this way, more than a monthly botanical report, what he does is write a journal and internal monologue full of analogies that connect us with the behavior of plants. Evans celebrates hybrids and aberrations, and the softness of every single sprout which, in addition to being magnificent, allow him to imagine all sorts of scenarios. A raspberry is a robin, and a robin is the red fruit that twists the branch of a tree as red as a Maple, red as the sunset of the night before.

Field Notes from the Edge

In one of his articles, the Englishman writes about white sweet violets. He says that, in addition to being indistinguishable from snowflakes during a storm, they are also a medieval cure for melancholy. They “‘moisteneth the brain’, and is a cure for melancholy and heaviness of spirit,” he says, quoting a book written in 1653 by Thomas Jenner. Robert Burton, curiously, also mentions them in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, as “accident correctors”. We should recover this forgotten use for flowers, whether true or not, for the simple aesthetic of believing it is true. Evans also draws a link between these and nymphs of smell:

Another violet enigma story says you can smell sweet violets only once. It’s a myth but the fragrance contains the chemical ionone, which deadens smell receptors in the nose. Ionone may come from the ionian nymphs who gathered the first spring flowers for Ion, mythical forefather of the Ionians, the Hellenic tribe of Asia Minor (Turkey).

“If [these flowers] symbolize purity,” asserts Evans, “it is of a sensual kind.”

To read his monthly article concerning seasonal plants, follow this link.

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