While working with a batch of specimens, analyzing the contents of their "notes" fields, I came across this strikingly poignant note on a specimen label: "strong aroma reminds me of deer hunting with dad near Lake Berryessa."
The tarweed represented by the specimen sheet is nothing particularly spectacular: a handful of cream-colored flowers, likely a little brown and shriveled due to age, on a spindly stem with thin leaves and minute hairs. The data offered by the specimen--date, location, species--are surely worthwhile for studying plant distributions, ecology, and evolution. Yet something about this quick note reminds us that plants can be even more than data points or scientific curiosities. To humans, plants can evoke memories, symbolize ideas, and encapsulate emotions,
Plants have been used as artistic symbols for centuries in art, literature, and everyday life, from giving a bouquet of roses to a lover, to commissioning a painting of yourself with a pineapple to symbolize how extravagantly wealthy you are (yes, that happened; take a look at this painting of Charles II from 1675).
Different plants are used to symbolize an enormous breadth of human emotion and experience. Oaks can represent strength and royalty (one composer called the oak "England's Tree of Liberty"); daisies can symbolize youth and innocence; in China, the plum represents longevity. Artistically and culturally, plants can remind us certain facets of our existence. Take, for example, these lines of a poem by William Wordsworth, reflecting on daffodils as symbols of joy and rebirth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"
On a very personal level, the sight, smell, and even sound of plants can bring us back to pleasant days, like the tarweed collector remembered time spent with a loved one. On a walk or looking out a window, during turmoil, plants can remind us that life goes on, that nature has a way of pressing onward, and that we are all somehow connected to one another in this diverse and dynamic world.