Tuesday, February 25, 2020

About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and flowers.  Many of my published articles on these subjects are available on my Academia.edu site. https://clemson.academia.edu/ElisaKaySparks   All along I have been collecting a vast amount of material: lists and counts of all the flowers in Woolf's fictional, non-fictional, and biographical works; information on the literary, medicinal, and mythological meanings of flowers; research on the history of gardens and gardening and on the social assumptions and practices involving flowers and gardening.  Eventually, all this needs to be distilled into a book.  Right now, I have a list of 98 flowers that Woolf refers to at least once in her fiction and/ or essays (There are about a dozen more which she mentions only in diaries and letters; see Flower Count). Recent access to digital searches for over 600 of her essays continues to expand my counts, which are still in flux. I am writing my way through these 98 flowers, generally in alphabetical order, producing an essay on each flower. So far, I am up to tulips #91, though I have also written longer published essays on apples, lilies, poppies, roses, sunflowers, violets, etc.

I have been having so much fun writing these essays and have been discovering such a complex web of intersecting allusions and references that I am impatient to share. So I have decided to e-publish them as I complete them, here on this blog.  All of these essays should be thought of as being in a nearly final but still draft state.  In order to declutter the essays, I have used parenthetical documentation which refers to the comprehensive Works Cited posted on this site (Apologies ahead of time for formatting issues in the bibliography; it is very difficult to chase down fugitive bits of HTML code which can randomly re-size a font or turn it, say, blue.)  Occasionally I will only footnote a source in an essay, usually because it is referenced only once, in an on-line source that can be linked to. I have used the standard abbreviations for Woolf’s works in parenthetical citations throughout; that list is also available on this site.

Each essay tends to start out with a basic botanical identification and description of the plant, continue to some meandering and recondite speculations on associated literary and mythological allusions, then go on to a generally chronological treatment of its appearances in Woolf's life and work, working towards a holistic discussion of what the flower seems to mean to Woolf.  An annotated list of the reference sources I consulted most frequently for this research is posted on the site.  I have gratefully consumed as well the work of dozens of Woolf scholars, which I cite perhaps too copiously for grace, but I hope to leave plenty of tracks for subsequent scholars. In so far as I have had time and patience, I have also looked at the holograph manuscripts of various novels and different editions of different essays so as to track how Woolf’s use of flowers evolved through her writing process. Inevitably, I have come across a number of fascinating insights  -- into Woolf’s methods of creating structural unity, into possible sources in the great lumber-room of Woolf’s omnivorous reading, into hidden or coded or ironic significances.  Indeed, for almost every flower/ essay there was a moment of discovery, an easter egg of delight that I couldn’t wait to share with the wider Woolf community.  Hence this blog.

Another advantage in publishing these essays on line is the ease of including illustrations.  At first I simply wanted to include a photograph or other clear rendering of each flower.  I was not sure what an asphodel looked like, or bog myrtle, or sea-holly, and I suspected many readers of Woolf would be at a similar loss.  As I began to consult giant floral reference works, look up species on the Internet, and try to take photos of flowers myself, I began to understand that the appearance of these flowers is often quite important and tells us things about their meanings that are not obvious to those who know only their names and how they have been used in Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti.  For example, an illustrated listing of all the flowers in Jacob’s Room reveals that many of the blossoms are purple, spiky, and composed of many small flowers symmetrically arrayed, allowing some interesting speculation as to Woolf’s adaptation of the pastoral elegy’s use of purple flowers.  

Each essay thus has a headpiece illustration, with the source identified in the caption.  Some of these are pictures I took, often on site, such as the escallonia hedge and the forget-me-nots at Talland House, the apple orchard and bluebells at Monk's House, wallflowers at Charleston, wisteria in Richmond, water lilies at Kew, foxgloves and fritillaries at Sissinghurst. Some of these are botanical illustrations, usually from Wikipedia Commons or other open source websites.  Since I am a printmaker, I have sometimes indulged myself by including woodcuts I have made of particular flowers (the idea of carving 99 woodcuts appealed to me only briefly as a wishful fantasy).  As the project developed, I sometimes found myself wanting to include other illustrations-- a picture of varieties of fritillary butterflies from Coleman’s British Butterflies which Woolf owned as a child, is one example -- and so I have felt free to link to those whenever I have access to images which can be used without permissions.

If you are energetic or interested enough to read through these essays chronologically, you will see that their style, structure, and comprehensiveness has continued to develop over the couple of years I have been working on them. Eventually, when I reach Zinnias at the end, I intend to circle back and update from the beginning-- another great advantage of digital publishing.  In face, I have already selectively revised pieces when I have run across mistakes or exciting new information, as always happens during such encyclopedic projects.


  1. Nice Post to read. Thanx for such an amazing blog. Keep sharing.
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  2. Very nice blog and good collection of flowers to happy love one. Get more happiness with Flowers Gift online.

  3. Lovely to learn a bit more about the plants around us. Learning about flowers in different languages are amazing.


About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...