Monstrous botanicals, the darker side of the human imagination

Monsters Under Glass: A Cultural History of Hothouse Flowers from 1850 to the Present by Jane Desmarais 2018. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Probably, the most obvious interaction between plants and people is the food value of the former: Plants keep us alive. However, when that most basic and essential of needs is satisfied, additional plant-derived calories can give us the energy to exercise our imagination. That in many ways is the essence of Monsters under Glass by Jane Desmarais [hereafter referred to as Flowers of Evil, apparently a previous working title for this book]. Do not therefore be misled by the book’s sub-title A Cultural History of Hothouse Flowers from 1850 to the Present. Flowers of Evil is NOT about how to grow exotic blooms in greenhouses. Rather, the word ‘cultural’ refers to the representations of hothouse flowers, their growing conditions, and their metaphorical value in artistic outputs of the last 150 years or so. And, since the aspects covered in Desmarais’ thoughtful and enlightening book include art, dandyism, architecture, novels, poetry, voluntary euthanasia in a hothouse, and sado-eroticism, Flowers of Evil should be of interest to a much wider audience than those green-fingered devotees who want tips on tending their tropical orchids. Certainly, it would be nice to think that was the case because this is a most entertaining read. Although I do wonder if entertaining is the right word given the ‘not always suitable for genteel refined company or a topic of conversation for public discourse’ nature of some of the books and source material referred to in Flowers of Evil’s pages.

As the book’s Press Release so succinctly puts it, Flowers of Evil “shows how exotic plants stimulated the imagination of novelists, poets and artists in the early nineteenth-century”, and “moves from Decadent literature to the vegetable monsters of twentieth-century science-fiction, movies, comics and video games”. And that’s the great thing about the study of plants and people, it takes you far and wide, and often a very long way from traditional botany, and its obsession ‘just with the plants’, to the many and varied interactions – and reactions – between plants and people, which are explored so intriguingly in Flowers of Evil.

Flowers of Evil is not confined to plants within hothouses, but extends beyond the vitreous veneer to exotic blooms more generally and the imagery they – and the hothouses themselves – convey, or have been subverted to convey, by Man(kind). A major theme of the book is the increasing awareness, and wariness, of ‘the modern woman’ that emerged in the 19th Century, and the analogy evident in many art-forms that equates tropical plants with such ‘dangerous women’. Flowers of Evil documents dramatically and graphically how male insecurities were severely tried and tested – and found monumentally wanting! – as the male-centric, established order, throughout Europe in particular, was being unsettled during the 19th Century. This isn’t a subject I’d ever considered before, so many thanks to author Jane Desmarais for opening my eyes to the notions and interpretations she reveals in Flowers of Evil, and thereby extending my appreciation of plants and people interactions.

Flowers of Evil is a feast of facts. For example, Chapter 1 has a fascinating – if ‘potted’ – history of, and insights into, the origin and evolution of glasshouses. And Chapter 5 provides an interesting essay on the nature and role of the garden in history, from the millennia-old Epic of Gilgamesh to the 20th and 21st Centuries, as we go from open spaces that are Earthly paradises to enclosed rooms and hothouses that can be hellishly warm.

Flowers of Evil is also a feast of fiction, and makes good use of contemporary sources and artistic endeavours that encompasses George Formby and his ‘In a little Wigan garden’, Wallace and Grommit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit, and the TV advert for Cadbury’s Flake chocolate. All of which fit with the book’s idea of dangerous women and exotic blooms. How? You’ll have to read the book to find out…

As we digest all of that, we must bear in mind that hothouse plants are not monsters. They only become so when they ‘escape’ from the glasshouse and enter people’s imagination. When they do, and that imagination is allowed to run wild and free in the minds and hands of artists of various types, then we are invited to see plants in many weird and wonderful ways. Ways that are frequently surprising and sometimes sinister. Is Flowers of Evil a plants-and-people text? Yes, but not as we might be used to!

Although this review is – and should be! – about the book I feel it appropriate to say a few words about the publisher here as well. I first encountered Reaktion Books a few months ago when reviewing Sunflowers by Stephen Harris. That book was a revelation to me – as was the publisher’s other titles in the Botanicals series (which includes Palm, and the as-yet-unpublished Rose, and Birch). The amalgam of plants and people in that collection suited my interests down to the ground. The extension of that theme to The Story of Soy and the subject of this review, Flowers of Evil, underline the important work that Reaktion Books is doing in helping to spread the ‘plants-and-people’ message. In that regard Reaktion Books is to be applauded for, and encouraged in, its commitment to botanical education, and its attempts to tackle plant blindness. More power to them in that most worthwhile endeavour!

And now back to the book: Flowers of Evil is stylishly and well written. This is a great book; one I enjoyed reading, and which made me think about plants in new ways.

Summary

Jane Desmarais’ Monsters Under Glass [back to its proper title now] will extend your plants-and-people knowledge far beyond the more usual and obvious concerns of plants as providers of drugs, food, and clothing. Therefore prepare to have your own imagination stretched to the darker side in its exploration of the realm of botanical metaphor and allegory. For that reason Monsters Under Glass is a great companion to more mainstream texts such as Lewington’s Plants for People or Mauseth’s Plants & People, and just goes to show some of the unexpected places that the wider study of plants can take you.

  • The indoor and outdoor plants of porn videos, the glass houses of ‘Suddenly Last Summer, ‘the Adams Family’, The Little Shop of Horrors, the genetically engineered plants of ‘Minority Report’ and the science fiction creations of the latest ‘Lost In Space’ series amongst so many others from comic strip cartoons like Brenda Starr’s black orchids to the Key West novel setting for ‘Dream of Orchids’ this book looks like a great summer reading alternative to science journals and articles on taxonomy and other scientific fields concerning botany.