Flower power

They have inspired poets and dreamers, and they have also dethroned a king. There’s more to flowers than their pretty looks.

Highlights: 
The next time you look at a flower, really look at a flower, just be aware that you may be looking at a game-changer in history!

Once upon a time, a flower cost more than a diamond. People bought it selling houses and property, liquidating assets and savings. At one time, just one flower sold for more than the value of a posh town house. When the market for this flower collapsed, it resulted in many bankruptcies and sent shock waves through a whole nation.

This is not fiction. This is the story of the tulip.

Flowers are the lovely gifts that nature continually bestows upon the earth. The combinations of their sheer variety, colours, textures and scents add invaluable aesthetic value to our lives. Every flower that blooms is a miracle that shows the greatness of life, and the infinite scope and range of nature.

Scientists say that there were no flowers of any kind on earth for a very long time. It was only about 100 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs or the late Jurassic era, that flowers evolved. We are all lucky to have escaped life in that drab colourless world.

But flowers are not just pretty faces. While viewing the beauty of flowers, it is easy to forget the primary purpose of a flower, which is to ensure survival of the plant. The striking colours, the attractive shapes and alluring scents have all evolved to maximise its chance for pollination, and through the production of seeds, continued existence. For, the flower is the reproductive organ of the plant, and the better it looks, the better chance it has to produce progeny.

Most importantly, flowers are the fundamental energy resource for most of life on earth. In his book, Flowers: How They Changed the World, Dr William Burger opines, “Without flowers, we humans simply wouldn’t be here, whether as primates, two-legged omnivores, or grand civilisations!” All flowers are unique in their own ways, and provide a feast for the senses. However, some flowers have not just aided our existence, but also influenced our lives by shaping history.

The tulip

The beautiful tulip originated as a wild flower in Central Asia and is propagated by bulbs. The Turks fell in love with this flower and in the days of the Ottoman Empire, they began to cultivate and breed it. The very name ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word ‘tulband’, meaning turban. Tulips became an obsession with the people, with artists, craftsmen and poets using them in their work lavishly. Poets like Omar Khayyam and Rumi waxed eloquent about them. Architecture, gardens, floor and wall tiles, clothing, glass, porcelain and jewellery — all had tulip motifs.

However, the emperors went all out in their madness for this bright and beautiful but odourless flower. In the 16th century, Sultan Selim II ordered his subordinates to deliver up to 32,000 bulbs at a time to plant in his 12 palace gardens that were tended by 900 gardeners.

The height of this magnificent obsession occurred during the period between 1718 and 1730, which is called the Lale devri or the Tulip Era, when Sultan Ahmed III had a vast garden for his collection of 1,323 varieties — all for a flower that bloomed for just a week in a year. The tulip festivals that were held during that week were so lavish that inevitably people rebelled against the sheer excesses of the Sultan and dethroned him in the appropriately named Anti-Tulip Rebellion.

Even today, the tulip is celebrated in Turkey. It is the national flower of Turkey, and the official airline of Turkey, THY, has a grey tulip painted on the fuselage of its planes.

But tulip madness was not confined to Turkey. The flower made its arrival in Europe without any fanfare, but went on to create history. In the 16th century, the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, was given some tulip bulbs by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. He passed them on to his friend, botanist Charles de l’Ecluse, who planted them in the botanical gardens in Leiden, Netherlands. The flowers did wonderfully, becoming the darling of the wealthy. Normally, the petals were of bright, solid colours, but occasionally they produced striped and feathered flowers with vivid streaking and extraordinary beauty. Since these plants were in short supply, l’Ecluse’s gardens were routinely raided, and his bulbs, stolen.

Tulips quickly became a status symbol and the prices of the bulbs rapidly became exorbitant. The most expensive tulip to be traded was the Semper Augustus, with its magnificent red-and-white flame and feathered blooms of indescribable beauty. At the height of the Dutch tulip mania, a price of 10,000 guilders was offered for a single bulb of this variety — the same as the cost of the most expensive houses on the canals of Amsterdam, about $5 million by today’s reckoning.

The trading bubble collapsed in February 1637. It began in the city of Haarlem, when traders just refused to show up at a routine bulb auction. The speculation in tulips ended, leaving behind as its legacy a valuable lesson in speculative investing.

The lotus

While the tulip caused a mad frenzy, another flower brought tranquillity and enlightenment to its viewers. It was the lotus, the flower of spirituality, revered from the ancient times. The lotus is an aquatic plant, which grows in the muddy and murky but quiet waters of lakes and ponds. The stem rises out of the water and bears a flawless flower with petals of enchanting colour, breathtaking symmetry and a matchless central yellow cupule. No matter how dirty or murky the water, the flower rises, pure, serene and peerless, from it. The lotus flower also has another characteristic behaviour — it closes when darkness falls and opens when the sun appears.

The ability of the lotus flower to exist in the worst of conditions without being tainted by them taught thinkers and philosophers a great lesson. Man exists in the midst of evil, in the quagmire created by his rampant senses and desires, but the learned and thinking man develops the ability to rise above his circumstances and live a serene life. This was the lesson taught by the Buddha.

The lotus flower is therefore one of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. The well-known mantra Om Mani Padme Hum translates roughly into ‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’. A Zen verse states, ‘May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus’. In Buddhist art, a fully opened lotus symbolises enlightenment, while the mud around the roots represents our messy human lives. As the flower rises from the mud and blooms, so should the human mind seek to break free of our experiences and suffering and achieve purity. The Buddha is sometimes clothed in special robes made from a unique fabric which is made from lotus plants. The fibers for this are produced only in two places in the world, Inle Lake, Myanmar and Siam Reap, Cambodia.

Hinduism also exalts the lotus. It represents eternity, purity and divinity, and is used as a symbol of life and fertility. The puranas say that a lotus rose from the navel of God Vishnu and at the centre of it was Brahma.

The goddess of good fortune, Lakshmi, stands on a pink lotus blossom, while the goddess of learning, Saraswathi, holds a white lotus. In fact, almost all gods and goddesses favour the lotus and there isn’t one single temple anywhere in the world which doesn’t have at least one lotus sculpture.

Hindu scriptures state that the atman or soul dwells as a small but brilliant light in the lotus within the heart. The Bhagavad Gita exhorts the human to be like a lotus: he should work without attachment, dedicating his actions to God, while being untouched by sin like a beautiful flower standing high above the muddy water.

The lotus is also a recurring motif in Jainism and Sikhism. It is so much a part of the Indian ethos that it is no wonder that it is our national flower.

The lily

Ancient Egypt worshipped a similar flower, the lily, but called it the lotus. The two native species were the white and the blue lily, and in hieroglyphs, represented the Egyptian word for lotus, ‘Seshen’. The white lily blooms in the evening, giving it lunar associations, while the blue lily is in sync with the sun. The flowers close at night and the buds sink into the water, only to re-emerge and bloom again when the sun rises. So Egyptians used it as a symbol of rebirth and reincarnation.

The sunflower

Another beautiful flower, also associated with the sun, has a strange history. It is the sunflower. The sunflower is native to the American continent, where it was cultivated even before corn. Seeds of this plant were taken to the European continent as one of the novelties of the New World. Some of these plants were grown in Holland, where a Russian traveller fell in love with the giant flowers. The traveller was Peter the Great, who took seeds back with him to Russia and began cultivating them. The Russians took to sunflowers in a big way when sunflower oil became the only oil allowed to be used in the period of Lent. Soon they were growing over two million acres of this crop. Now, the flower travelled… back to its native land. Russian immigrants to the United States and Canada carried seeds with them and began cultivating them with such success that the ‘Mammoth Russian’ became a much-favoured variety to grow. Though the seeds were first used as chicken feed, oil production caught on. Crushing plants in Canada, Minnesota and North Dakota led to hybridisation work, and pretty soon, US was cultivating about five million acres…

…And the sunflower travelled back to Europe! In the early 80s, low cholesterol content in sunflower oil made it highly popular, and Russian exporters couldn’t meet the demand. So US began to export sunflower seeds again! Now, the exports have stabilised in the two continents. Wonder where the peripatetic sunflower will go next!

The poppy

The sunflower travelled with pride, but another flower travelled in infamy. The opium poppy, the source of one of the world’s oldest medicines, has also been the cause of great sorrow.

The earliest known records for opium poppy show that it was first cultivated in 3400 BC in lower Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians called it Hul Gil, or the ‘joy plant’, because of the intoxication it produced. The latex produced from seed pods is dried to make opium, which can be further purified to make heroin.

Healers through the ages have known the medicinal benefits of opium. Termed laudanum, the tincture of opium in ethanol was used to ‘relieve suffering’ of patients suffering from pain, sleeplessness, diarrhoea, bronchitis, tuberculosis and rheumatism. During the 18th century, it was used as a sedative and tranquiliser. However, doctors everywhere began realising its extremely addictive powers, especially when it was used for recreational purposes. And that is where the trouble lay.

In the 1800s, China had a trade surplus with Britain, thanks to its export of tea. Britain sought to destabilise this situation, with Indian-grown opium. The British forced Indian farmers to grow opium, and through the East India Company, amassed vast resources of opium and cotton which it began to export to China in return for its import of tea. This resulted in more Chinese opium addicts, and reduced their trade surplus. Therefore, China banned the opium trade. This led to the First Opium War, which resulted in, amongst other things, Hong Kong being ceded to the British Crown.

Today, opium usage has become a distressing epidemic throughout the world. It is also financing terrorist outfits like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The rose

Finally, the flower that has captured the hearts of human beings since time immemorial: the rose. Roses are known to have flourished 35 million years ago, and petrified rose wreaths have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. They were grown for their fragrance as well as their medicinal powers, and are used in a number of poultices and beauty treatments.

In the 1st century AD, Emperor Nero of Rome is said to have dumped tons of rose petals on his dinner guests. Cleopatra of Egypt had her rooms filled with petals of fragrant roses so that when Marc Antony met her, he would be overcome, and thereafter, remember her every time he smelled a rose. Her ruse worked perfectly!

However, the rose was immortalised by the War of the Roses, a civil war that took place in England between 1455 and 1487. The nobles of York adopted a white rose, while the House of Lancaster decided to take a red rose to represent them. Tudor Henry VII of Lancaster won the war, but married into the House of York, merging his Lancastrian white rose with the red rose of his York bride, and creating the Tudor Rose of England. This Tudor Rose is now the plant badge of England.

"When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment," said American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. The next time you look at a flower, really look at a flower, just be aware that you may be looking at a game-changer in history!

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