It has been pointed out to me that I seem to take a lot of pictures of flowers. Although there is no shortage of more active wildlife here in Winslow, I just don’t have the reflexes to get that perfect shot of a group of deer galloping away at thirty miles an hour, or a pileated woodpecker darting from tree to tree, or a fox or barred owl crossing my path an hour after sunset. So, yes, I photograph a lot of flowers. They don’t run away, they don’t bite, and they’re not likely to kick me in the head.
That said, I should point out that the topic of flowers is not as trivial as it might at first appear. Apart from the obvious symbolism of Official State Flowers(1), Mother’s Day, obscenely expensive weddings, and so on, flowers have frequently intruded into political and economic events with surprising weight.
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In twelfth-century France, the fleur-de-lis, a stylized representation of a lily, became associated with the kings of the Capetian dynasty. This relationship was attributed to the fifth-century king Clovis, and symbolized the divine authority of the French kings: the lily was supposed to have been conferred on the Frankish rulers by none other than the Virgin Mary, demonstrating that they ruled by the direct will of God, without the intercession of the Pope.
Later French kings incorporated the fleur-de-lis into their coats-of-arms, and until the French Revolution (thirteen years after our own) the symbol was used in the French flag.
Today the fleur-de-lis is used as a symbol by the people of Bosnia, New Orleans and Scotland. It’s on the flags of Florence, Italy, Quebec, Canada, and Saint Louis, Missouri, among others. In Mauritius slaves were branded with the stylized lily; it’s part of the seal of the Israeli Intelligence Service; it’s in the logos of the New Orleans Saints and Chevy Corvette.
And, on top of all that, it’s still the symbol of the Virgin Mary.
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Fifteenth-century England was torn for more than thirty years by a conflict that later came to be known as the “Wars of the Roses”: The houses of Lancaster and York, both descended from King Edward III, fell into dispute over the succession during the reign of Henry VI, who was a baby when he inherited the throne and who, as an adult, suffered mental problems (probably also inherited) that left him completely incapacitated during part of his reign. Each of the two branches of the family used a rose as its badge, red for the House of Lancaster, and white for the House of York.
After three decades of bitter and brutal military conflict, political assassination, and outright murder, Henry Tudor, a distant relative of the Lancasters, won the throne at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and married Elizabeth of York, combining the two families into the House of Tudor, and ending the feud.
The Tudors ruled England and Wales for the next 117 years, using a red rose with a white center as their symbol.
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Two hundred years later, in Holland, modern venture capitalism was invented when tulips hit the market early in the seventeenth century.
“Futures trading” was born as a side effect of the weeks or months required to ship large cargoes from Constantinople to the Dutch ports. Investors put up money to buy bulbs from the Turks, which were then shipped to Holland. During the weeks or months that the ships were in transit, speculators bought and sold the cargoes, based on the prices they expected them to be worth upon arrival, often with borrowed money. By the time a ship arrived in port, the value of the bulbs it carried might have doubled or tripled over the original price. If, however, the cargo was ruined by bad weather or poor handling, or the ship failed to arrive at all, shareholders would be left holding the bag.
When the Ottoman Turks took possession of Constantinople in 1453, effectively pulling the plug on the terminally-ill Byzantine Empire, the insignia of the ruling House of Osman was the tulip, which had been brought from central Asia centuries before by their ancestors. Tulips sent to European monarchs as gifts sparked a fashion, and by late 1636, a single tulip bulb could be worth ten times an ordinary workman’s annual wages; investors sold everything they owned in order to buy shares in boatloads of bulbs, which could double or triple in value just in the time it took to get them from Constantinople to Amsterdam.
The bubble, of course, eventually burst: early in 1637 tulip prices collapsed. The practice we now call “short selling” had been banned, so nobody profited as the prices dropped. Fortunes were wiped out in a matter of days.
As with politics, memories are short where money is concerned, and the Dutch returned to the tulip trade within only a few years. Today Holland sells two billion bulbs annually to the rest of the world: flowers account for 25% of all Dutch agricultural exports.
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I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Flowers first appeared on Earth about 140 million years ago, confusing the dinosaurs and delighting the insects who flourished on new diets of pollen and nectar; by the 21st century the dinosaurs were gone, but the flowers were fueling a global cut-flower trade worth just under $102 billion dollars annually.
So, until a coyote or bald eagle decides to hold a pose for the two or three minutes it takes me to get my act together and snap a picture, I’ll keep shooting the sunflowers and the sweet peas. Maybe the biblical lilies of the field “toil not, neither do they spin”, but that doesn’t mean they don’t earn their keep.
Correction: I originally posted that Holland exports nine million bulbs annually; that number was wrong, it’s actually closer to two BILLION bulbs! Thanks to Marco Groot of Hilverda de Boer for catching the mistake!