Say it with flowers?

Dani Nadel et al., have unearthed possibly the oldest example of the decoration of graves with plants.
Image: Júlio Reis/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Júlio Reis/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s always pleasing to me to know that mankind’s relationship with botanics is a very old and important one. Indeed, so important and profound are these plant–people interactions that floral tributes accompany many of the most significant events in a person’s life, e.g. use of calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) at weddings to symbolise purity. Frequently, however, these associations are so ancient that their true significance or meaning may be lost to us today. Such is the issue facing Dani Nadel et al., who have unearthed possibly the oldest example of the decoration of graves with plants.

Working with Natufian graves that were created 13 700–11 700 years ago in the Raqefet Cave at Mt. Carmel (northern Israel), the team have identified the presence of members of the Lamiaceae (mint family) – such as Judean Sage, Salvia judaica – and Scrophulariaceae (figwort family). For the most part the plants were identified from impressions made in the mud lining of the graves, and from phytoliths (tiny siliceous, opal-like mineral bodies produced by many plants). Both of which are nice examples of the use of plant forensics in archaeology. Whether use of specific plants implied sophisticated floriography (the language of flowers, a means of coded communication through the use or arrangement of flowers) is not known. But even if that were the case, the puzzle then is to understand the code to know what message was being communicated. Unravelling that will take a little while longer, I suspect. Nevertheless, this work certainly pushes back an evidence-based date for examples of such intimate ceremonial associations between plants and people.

From saying it with flowers to saying it to flowers now, and an ‘experiment’ being conducted by Bents Garden & Home (a family-run garden centre in Cheshire, UK). The Great Experiment – which has attracted some sceptical commentary from The Geeky Gardener – is aimed to examine whether plants respond to the human voice. The experimental design features six (so they should be able to undertake some statistical analysis…) plants (species unspecified – which is not good publicity for a business that provides plants to the public…) that will be ‘loved’ with kind words and happy thoughts, whilst another six plants will be subjected to ‘hateful’ conditions and harsh words; all other conditions such as watering and fertilization will be exactly the same. ‘The results will be announced soon’… Hmmm, maybe something to keep quiet about…?