Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stumbling upon The Blue Flower

The Campanula rotundifolia to the left is commonly called harebell. It is also known as the Bluebell of Scotland.

C. rotundifolia forms slowly growing clumps of basal leaf rosettes which are about 3" tall. Floral stalks can reach 18". The color is described as light clear blue. They are fairly widespread, and can be found from Alaska to Southern Europe (and Scotland). They like well-drained soil, good light and will bloom happily in the early summer for many years if they are well-sited.

The Campanula family is huge. According to the Sunset Western Garden Book/My Plant Bible, there are over 300 species. But there's another very large plant family, also with blue bell-shaped flowers, some of which are clear light blue like C. rotundifolia. That family is the gentians.

The Gentiana acaulis at the left is commonly seen in the embroidered company of Edelweiss blossoms on clothing from Bavaria, Switzerland and Austria. It grows happily in alpine scree and blooms heartily in summertime.

Many people who have pondered such matters believe that the gentian is Die Blaue Blume created by Novalis, The Blue Flower that spearheaded the passions of German Romanticism, becoming the symbol of genius and the quest; more poignantly, it was the symbol of the unattainable.

I recently re-read Novalis' account of the blue flower. It is in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen that he describes a tall light blue flower blooming at the edge of a mountain spring. As Heinrich approaches it, the flower leans forward toward him and the petals remind him of a blue ruff, in which hovers a lovely face. At that moment the hero is awakened from his dream by the voice of his mother (and I wonder whether Freud gave this matter any thought). Before that, however, we learn that there are dark blue rocks with multicolored veins surrounding the spring, and that the sky is deep blue black. One can assume the water also had a blue tint.

Searching for the origin of the blue flower, the actual model Novalis used, became high sport among certain literary types. There have also been theologians who wondered how many angels could fit on the tip of a pin, so I'm not going to be too rough on these scholars.


Novalis wrote poetry, essays and fiction in the 18th century, specifically to counter the ideas of the Enlightenment which he found devoid of spirituality. He was a broadly educated and keenly intelligent man, more philosopher than anything else. As such, he was certainly competent at developing a metaphor or two as he told his tales. The Blue Flower is one such metaphor: blue is the color of the heavens, it is the color of clarity, and in the field of optics, blue light vibrates at the highest frequency.

I've also seen The Blue Flower label pinned to Lithodora diffusa, a ground-hugging perennial that forms a carpet of shocking blue. (I'm not fond of Lithodora because I find that its strident color is difficult to work into the garden, though I love its name: a gift from the rocks. Lithodora often appears to thrive in gravel that wouldn't host much else.)

In other applications, to offer a frame of reference, blue violet is the color used to describe the Crown chakra, the level of pure consciousness in the ancient Indian energy system; in modern times we have the notion of Indigo Children originated by New Age thinker Nancy Ann Tappe to describe children who represent the next phase of human development. Blue is now and always has been an up there color.

Why would common plants become a symbol for everything beyond our reach? Novalis was smarter than that. I'm positive his flower wasn't based on anything but his own imagination, and I ask anyone who believes otherwise to explain the part about the tender face that appeared to Heinrich in the center of the bloom.

Nonetheless, if I had to choose, I like Campanula rotundifolia for The Blue Flower. The bloom is the right shade (light blue) and it is tall (18"). It grows in a similar habitat to Gentiana and to Lithodora. It is a far more graceful plant than the other two, a quality not lost on 18th century German writers.

Here's the weird part: I came to these thoughts about a week after I had ordered my new business cards, which happen to show an open Campanula rotundifolia blossom on a field of pale blue violet. I haven't read Novalis since my undergraduate years. I was not conscious of making this choice. I picked the design because I liked the image and the color.

This issue doesn't require the genius of Freud. It simply shows how deeply things can be rooted in your psyche without your awareness. A Blue Flower, for instance.

It comforts me as proof that I don't have to have all the answers: I am still on a quest, and I see the face of the divine in every flower I meet.

photo credits: Campanula rotundifolia,; Gentiana acaulis,; Lithodora diffusa,

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