Flowers: an Unexpected Obsession
I never really thought of myself as a ‘flowers’ person.
When Elle and I originally started this blog and our Instagram account, we had the intention of writing about ‘the good life’. It was supposed to be about growing our own fruit and vegetables, foraging for wild foods and preserving what can be preserved; about spending time doing things properly, and enjoying the crafts and activities that bring us closer to nature. Living slowly, fully, frugally, and conscientiously.
And I hope this is still what we do!
But I had never anticipated how much flowers would become such a major interest for us, yet take a quick glance at our Instagram and you’ll see immediately: we really like flowers.
Stop and Smell the Roses
As someone who until the year before last didn’t know what a peony was, and until last year didn’t know how to pronounce it, this has come as something of a surprise!
Now that I think about it, this late-discovered love of all things floral was a natural result of forcing ourselves to slow down and notice the detail.
It was during the first lockdown back in March 2020 that we began our ritual of daily lunchtime walks, and for the first time observing the seasons changing in what felt like minute detail. Taking our camera out on these walks, I found myself ‘discovering’ new species of flowers almost every day. Ox-eye daisy, field garlic, jack-by-the-hedge, wild chamomile. Varieties that I had presumably walked past without noticing for the first 30-odd years of my life became suddenly fascinating.
I would return home, eager to share these ‘floral finds’ with our new friends on Instagram, often leading with #whatisthisflower, and invariably the endlessly brilliant community would be more than happy to share their knowledge.
The more time I spent outside, the more I realised that flowers were everywhere. I had oddly retained a childhood impression that, with the exception of the ‘weeds’ I remember plucking from the school playing field – daisies, dandelions, and the like – flowers were things you bought at a florist, or at the supermarket. It was as though flowers belonged to their very own category of plant, rather than being an integral feature of how almost all plants survive.
It seems almost every type of plant has flowers, in often amazingly original ways. The house I grew-up in had a range of beautifully flowering trees – especially the blossom of the cherry, apple, damson and greengage trees – and yet I never appreciated that these were flowers until I travelled to Japan to see cherry blossom season in 2008. I grew-up completely oblivious to the stunning floral display of the horse chestnut trees that loomed over our house.
The last few years have given me the time and the inclination to ‘discover’ flowers.
I have nothing against the ‘decorative’ flowers – roses, peonies, dahlias, begonias, and the like – and we (attempt) to grow many in our own garden. However, it is the ‘unexpected’ flowers that I find myself most excited about, including not just wildflowers like dandelions and forget-me-nots, but also those plants you don’t usually consider as ‘flowers’: bolting lamb’s lettuce, mature nettles and woody herbs like thyme and rosemary.
My obsession with wildflowers can probably be traced back to Plantlife’s No Mow May campaigns. This campaign, which encourages gardeners to let their lawns grow during May to encourage wildflowers, and therefore pollinators, has really resonated with me.
There is a worrying tendency to attempt to control gardens like we might try to control the insides of our house. This might be through intensive mowing, the use of damaging chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers), or even the sad resurgence of artificial lawns. It is as though people have become scared of anything remotely natural, and are attempting to banish it.
We don’t have any ‘lawn’ as such, yet every inch of our garden that isn’t used for growing crops is left for wildflowers. Forget-Me-Nots, common St John’s wort, Bird's-foot trefoil and hairy willow-herb all compete for attention along the edges of our paths and raised beds, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
From where I sit and write at the table on the patio, I can watch the bees meander between the mouse-ear hawkbit and the flowering broad bean plants, and see small white and small tortoiseshell butterflies visiting the flowering nettles at the back of the garden.
My sudden conversion to a life more floral came at a time when I was also taking a painting and drawing class, organised by West Suffolk College, and run by artist and teacher, Jenny Antoine. The central theme of the course was flowers, covering illustration and watercolours, before culminating in a Dutch flower painting-inspired project.
At first, I have to admit I was a little sceptical. I think I was expecting landscapes or portraiture, and yet there I was, listening to the rest of the class discussing varieties of fuchsia, feeling rather out of place. I liked flowers by then, but they were not something I had ever considered drawing.
Yet as the course continued, I became hooked. We explored a range of techniques in the class, but detailed botanical illustration in pen quickly became my favourite approach. While Jenny encouraged me to explore different styles – freer, more expressive and abstract – she was still supportive when I found my niche.
I fell in love with the way botanical illustration is selective with detail in a way photography often isn’t, highlighting exactly those aspects of a plant that can help to identify it. I was soon looking everywhere for flowers to draw at home, experimenting with different ways to represent the curling of leaves, the branching of stems and the wrinkles of petals.
And with this new creative interest, it is like the final piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. This floral obsession now seems like it was inevitable all along. It brings together so many aspects of my life that are important to me: the environment, artistic creativity, the appreciation the small details.
Flowers have now taken a really central place in my life. The garden is a patchwork of bright summer yellows, soft purples, vibrant pinks, calm whites, some wildflowers, others decorative, and still others the beginnings of tomorrow’s fruit and vegetables. My phone is constantly warning me that it is completely out of space, and this flower photo really must be the last.
And the desk – once the work computer has been stowed away every evening – is a mess of pens, pencils, paints and sketchbooks, all sitting on a collage of botanical illustrations at various degrees of completeness.
Jenny Antoine, the teacher who inspired me to look again at flowers, passed away at the beginning of this year. I knew Jenny for only 10 weeks, but in that time, she managed to give me confidence in my own creativity, for which I am unspeakably grateful.