Forsythia, gaillardia, penstemon, and euonymus. It’s springtime and I’m struggling once again to talk plants and flowers. I have to repeat their names in my head over and over in order to remember them. Sometimes mnemonic devices work, but though “harrow” sounds like “yarrow,” a piece of farm equipment does not make me think of this fern-like flower.
Some people have a preternatural memory when it comes to flower names.
I have a friend (a little unassuming lady who wears sweaters with pearl buttons and goes to Mass every Sunday) with an amazing skill. She knows the language of philosophers and princes. She speaks Latin. Just point to the big yellow flower next to her neighbor’s fence and she’ll immediately say, “Helianthus.”
Sometimes I think I just have a memory block where flower and plant names are concerned. Then I get flustered at my lack of recall, which only makes things worse. We all deal with selective memory though. According to research (exploringyourmind.com) we tend to remember the things we care deeply about and find meaningful in some way. When I was much younger and took a night school class I had a reading professor who often gave poor, unfocused lectures. Not long after I took his class, this professor left the teaching profession altogether and began selling luggage at a store in the mall. He may have been a bad instructor, but he did tell our class one thing I’ll never forget.
He said, “If you want to remember a word, ANY word, you have to develop a relationship with it.”
Though I like plants and flowers, their beauty and fragrance are only for a season. As Robert Frost once wrote in a poem about the impermanence of both life and spring flowers, “Nothing gold can stay.” Which brings me to an area I have a year-round investment and interest in: books. My daughter-in-law asked me last week if I’d ever heard of a novel called The Overstory. She told me she was curious because she saw the title in her e-library account. I read The Overstory a couple of years ago when it was first published. The content of that book immediately flashed in my mind. I told Amanda the book was a collection of stories all having to do with trees and the impact trees have on people’s lives and the health of the planet. Not only was I able to summarize the book despite having read it so long ago, but I even remembered the author’s name: Richard Powers.
My hippocampus clutches at all things literature.
So though I can’t remember the name of that blue, stalky flower (delphinium), I can distinctly recall stories about flowers. In Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the protagonist, a pioneering miner, finds out his wife’s cheated on him with a friend, and rips out all the rose bushes he’d planted for her next to their house. Larry McMurtrey’s novel, Lonesome Dove, is about a couple of tough Texas rangers. One of the rangers, Gus, has a lady friend who repeatedly plants flowers around her house only to have them die, subject to the merciless wind and drought of the Great Plains.
Though the genus names for flowers easily escapes me, I often do remember their common names, like daffodils for instance. And again it’s through the lens of literature, prose and poetry, that my memory is enhanced. Who can forget poet William Wordsworth writing about taking a nap and dreaming of daffodils dancing in the breeze:
For oft upon my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.