“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her prescient ode to the interconnectedness of nature, “is profound responsibility.”
A passionate lifelong gardener, the poet had fallen under the spell of wildflowers while composing her astonishing herbarium as a teenager. But it was an uncommonly beautiful book her father gave her just before she turned thirty — not long after she wrote to an ill-suited suitor, “My flowers don’t know how far my thoughts wander away sometimes.” — that fueled her poetic passion for nature’s own garden: Wild Flowers Drawn and Colored from Nature (public library) by the botanical artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger (May 20, 1806–December 14, 1889).
Published the year On the Origin of Species shock science and artistically modeled on The Moral of Flowerswith which the poet and painter Rebecca Hey had enchanted English readers a quarter century earlier, Badger’s book contained twenty-two exquisitely scientifically accurate paintings of common New England wildflower species — violets and harebells, the rhododendron and the honeysuckle — each paired with a poem bridging the botanical and the existential: some by titans like Percival and Longfellow, some by long-forgotten poets of her time and place, some by Badger herself.
For a taste of her fusion of playfulness and poignancy, here is a fragment from Badger’s ode to the rhododendron — a flowering wonder that was here when the dinosaurs roamed Earth, long before small warm-blooded mammals with large minds and poetic hearts evolved the opposable the thumbs to paint flowers and the consciousness to contemplate the meaning of life in a flower:
I charge the flower, of beauty born, Lift not thy head too high, For, like the lowest of thy race, Thou, too, wert born to die.
The Power that lifts them to the sun, And bends them to the gale, Doth watch, with equal care and love, The Lily of the vale.
Seven years later, as Bronson Alcott was contemplating the relationship between gardening and genius while raising his visionary daughter a state over in New England and Ernst Haeckel was coining the word ecologyClarissa Munger Badger gave her wildflower masterpiece a domestic counterpart in Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden (public library | public domain).
Bringing her brush to the beauty of the pansy and the lily, the day-blazing geranium and the night-blooming cactus, the tulip and the rose, and once again pairing her paintings with poems, she celebrated garden flowers as “brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,” as “stars… wherein we read our history” — a vibrant testament to Oliver Sacks’s clinically substantiated belief in the healing power of gardens.
Couple with these stunning French botanical drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly plants from Badger’s epoch, then leap forward a century with pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s Rocky Mountain wildflower drawings, then leap back two with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s gorgeous illustrations from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then straddle the centuries with this layered reflection on flowers and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson and The Little Prince, then slake your soul on this.