Rhapsody in Sage
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
You belong among the wildflowers. You really do.
Do you know the Tom Petty song, Wildflowers? If you don’t, stop reading and go listen to it. I’ll wait. It’s one of my top five pop songs, both for its melodic beauty and the sweetness of its message.
You belong among the wildflowers.
Yes, I do. Thanks, Tom, for knowing that about me. What you didn’t mention, though, is that I belong among the Greek wildflowers. Now that that's clarified, I never want to live without them.
Before moving to Greece, I always lived in cities – Portland, Oregon, New York, and San Francisco. Wildflowers were a wonderful abstraction, a thing, like snow, that I could drive to when I wanted, if time allowed. And sadly, time never did allow it. Or rather, I didn’t grant myself leave to visit them. A big bloom in Death Valley? Wouldn’t that be cool to see? Of course, but, well, I can't get away. And so it went. Thus, my sense of them remained fuzzy. I took them for granted, as I did many aspects of nature. They’d be there for me, whenever I was ready, and this was a comforting thought. I had time. I’ve learned better since I’ve started living among them.
Wherever I walk these days, a floral carpet unfurls before me. Bell-shaped yellow flowers fired the opening salvo in December. They’re called Bermuda Buttercups, a type of sorrel, and they are omni-present because they’re not native to the area. Invasive is the term biologists use and it’s a useful concept well beyond the garden.
As winter rolls into spring, new wildflowers arrive in waves of color. The sorrel is joined by pink malcolmia with tiny cheerful flowers, and chartreuse spurges that barely look like flowers at all. The maroon petals of the Grecian Cerinthe appear almost leathery. Purple irises and pink cyclamen brighten shady trails. Wild orchids gape in fields with their sensuous mouths. Poppies bright as lipstick make me feel as if I’ve stepped into a Monet painting. And daisies, so many daisies, nodding in the breeze.
These wildflowers delight me. For the first time in my life, I think I understand the admonition from my church-going days to “walk in love.” Now it makes sense. I love everything about them.
I love the contrast of their formal Latin names with their folk names - Geropogon hybridus or Goats Beard, take your pick. The long lost biology major in me loves their radial symmetry. I love the element of surprise they bring to the day – what’s blooming now, and the answer to that is always a surprise. I understand now why Primavera was worshipped, stepping lightly as she does on this soft, ephemeral beauty. I’m not alone in my admiration. The bees love them too. They bend the yellow bells of the sorrel nearly to the ground, wandering into the deepest chambers in search of the good stuff. Their legs get so freighted with pollen that sometimes they can’t achieve lift off.
Some come with a do not touch label: prickles. My favorite of these is called the Pale Globe Thistle, or Echinops sphaerocephalus if you want the ten cent name. It looks like the love child of a medieval torture device and a probe from a future world. A true sci-fi flower.
Then there is the sage. If I could, I’d write this in a fragrant font, so that you could smell it when it’s in flower. You might think you know what it smells like from your culinary explorations of the herb, all brown butter and velvet. Rich and wintery. But I promise, wild sage growing in a field, blooming in palest purple, smells ethereal, part sea foam, part bee wing, part wind. Next life, when I come back as a perfumer, that’s the scent I’ll try – and fail – to make.
The abundance of wildflowers – both in sheer numbers and variety – intrigues me. Why so many?
As I read about them, I’m struck by how functional our human view is. 35% of the world’s crops require pollination. Wildflowers help with that. They provide forage for insects and animals. Their roots stabilize the soil. So industrious, these little beauties. Always doing. Yet why so beautiful? The more I learn, the more magnificent they become. But I’m grateful that humans did not design them. In our hands they would have been more efficient but less joyful – the Model T system of flowers. You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.
However, as I gaze at the colorful array, besotted and charmed, the locals here see something else. The flower called May – Μαιος – because that’s when it blooms – is starting early. It will be a hot summer. Perhaps we’ll have water shortages. Again. Like last year.
Wildflowers, too, have news for us, should we choose to listen.
Jean Shields Fleming is the founder and editor of Certain Age. Her novel, Air Burial, was published by Carrol & Graf, and her non-fiction appears in Moxy Magazine among other spots. She lives in the Peloponnese between the Taygetus mountains and the Mediterranean sea.