Dear Readers, when I was at the nursing home last week, visiting my Mum who is dying, the staff nurse was talking about how they could make the room a little more peaceful.
“We can put in softer lighting and gentle music”‘ she said, “and some candles, maybe some scented ones…”
“Not the scented candles!” I said, “I wouldn’t want Mum’s last thoughts to be about how much she hates the smell of jasmine…”
And indeed, Mum has something of a dislike of many scented products, especially since she became ill. Things that she’d previously loved have become overwhelming. But there is one flower that may still work, at least in its natural form, and that is the freesia. Its light perfume isn’t overbearing and thuggish, but insinuates itself into the mood of the room without any drama.
There are 16 species of freesia, all of them from Southern Africa and most from Cape Province, home of so many unique plants. The one that we buy comes from a hybrid between two species, Freesia refracta and Freesia leichtlinii which was made in the 19th century, and a more recent addition of Freesia corymbosa which gives us the pink and blue forms.Although there are many freesia-scented toiletries and perfumes on the market, nothing that I have smelled comes close to the scent of the plant itself. It is often used in wedding bouquets, and my mother wanted some for hers back in 1957, but was told that, as her wedding was in September, there would be none available. She did, however, get some beautiful sugar paste ones on the cakes made for the 60th Wedding Anniversary celebration back in September 2017, so she got them in the end.
Nowadays, you can get freesias pretty much year round, and most of the blooms are produced from some eighty suppliers in the Netherlands, bulb capital of Europe.
Freesia can be grown from seed, but is actually a bulbous plant, a member of the crocus subfamily. In their native habitat, freesias are usually pollinated by solitary bees. Their period of dormancy underground may be a protection from the grassland fires that are a common feature of the fynbos, or Cape Floral Kingdom, where they originated. For all their apparent delicacy these are tough plants.
The flowers of freesia are edible, and I rather like the idea of a freesia and lemon tisane, as described on the Garden Eats website here.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, the freesia represented trust, and in the US is apparently the flower to use to celebrate a couple’s seventh wedding anniversary. If you wondered what you were meant to be sending on the other years, have a look at the list here. I am somewhat disappointed that there are no suggestions for an eighteenth wedding anniversary, as mine is coming up next year. Looks like I’ll have to wait until my twentieth.
And now, a poem. Here is one by Robert Henry Forster, a poet who took the garden and the more ‘domesticated’ plants as his last subject. He was Northumbrian born and bred, and I imagine that the colour and scent of the freesias in his greenhouse were even more welcome in the teeth of northern gales than they are here in London. This example of his work is a big bowl of custard of a poem, as comforting as bed socks and Heinz tomato soup. It’s just what I need at the moment, what with the Winter Solstice coming on. On some days, it barely feels as if the sun gets above the horizon before it slips back into bed.
The Greenhouse in Early April, by Robert Henry Forster (1867 – 1923)
Still do the garden’s half-awakened beds
Wait for the passing of the wintry cold;
But in this fairy palace we behold
The sheltered blossoms lift their comely heads.
Fragrance the newly opened Freesia sheds
From its white trumpets with the splash of gold;
And here the Polyanthus doth unfold
Its blooms, and colour with gay colour weds,
Colours of brilliant or of subtle hue;
Bright orange with fair yellow for its mate;
Pale yellow margined with a fairy blue;
Crimson and gold in almost regal state;
Soft pink and brown, ethereal to view,
Matched with a yellow not less delicate.
And here, most faithful of all blossomed friends,
The Primulas their witchery display.
Spring will depart and summer pass away,
But for these happy flowers one summer ends
Only when Nature’s operation sends
The next succeeding summer’s opening day:
In drear December they will still be gay,
As though for winter they would make amends.
So should true friendship be,-a constant thing
In sunshine or beneath a gloomy sky,
Not waking only with the breath of spring
And ready at the winter’s touch to die,
But bright and helpful and encouraging
When days are dark and other comforts fly.
Photo One by Makoto hasuma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two from http://pza.sanbi.org/freesia-leichtlinii-subsp-alba