#95 Wall Flowers




Wallflowers growing next to the front windows of Charleston in Sussex.


While the name “wall flower” can allude to any flower that blooms in cracks and crannies or up against the warm support of walls, in modern usage it specifically refers to varieties of Erysium (formerly classified as the species Cheiranthus), a member of the Cruciferea or cabbage family (Hogan 561). According to Ward’s Contemplation Upon Flowers, the Greek name is from the verb “to draw out,” a reference to the blisters sometimes caused by some species (369). Indigenous to Greece and originally imported from the Mediterranean basin through Spain, wallflowers were popularly associated with two other kinds of “gilliflowers”: “clove gilliflowers” or carnations, and “stock gilliflowers” or stocks, which they somewhat resemble in both form and scent (Folkard 295 and Watts 408).  Rising out of a shrubby rosette with narrow pointed leaves, the four-petalled perennial flowers perch in club-shaped groups of ten to thirty at the tops of branches growing from 9” to18” high (Wikipedia).  While hybrids occur in shades including brown, mauve, and orange, the most common British variety is E. Cheiri, typically yellow with brownish spots. In her 1846 treatise on Flowers and Their Associations, Anne Pratt quotes a line from Thomson’s Spring about the “yellow wallflower stained with iron brown,” remarking that the yellow variety is “as common throughout our island as any wild flower” and noting that it is “one of the sweetest scented flowers of the early year”(222).




This distinctive coloration may be why wallflowers are sometimes referred to as “bloody,” as in a letter by the poet Gray quoted by Rendall (58) or called “Bloody Warrior,” a mispronunciation of the West Country name “Bloody Wallyer,” according to Watts (408).  Having a long blooming season, the flowers generally appear from May into the autumn, but in mild climates may flower year round (Hogan 561). In his 1931 encyclopedic guide to The Garden, E. T. Ellis recommends planting seeds in May and then transplanting mature plants to their blooming position for the next year in October (1147-8), but their drought tolerance means that they may self-seed among rocks and cracks.


            Although the term “wallflower” is currently defined as a shy or introverted person, usually female, who retreats from social situations by standing at the periphery, this meaning is relatively recent.[1]  Most of the uses in British literature either refer to the natural appearance and growth habits of the flower itself or to stories that align with the meaning ascribed in the Victorian language of flowers: “Fidelity in Adversity” (Greenaway 43). The flower’s pedigree, though somewhat short is fairly distinguished.  Herrick’s poem “How the wall-flower cam first, and why so called,” published as #36 in the 1648 collection Hesperides, establishes the foundational myth, telling an Ovidian transformation story of a young girl trying to climb down a wall to meet her lover whose silken rope slipped, causing her to fall and die of her bruises.  Love then turned her into a plant.[2] In his account of Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics, Folkard cites a Scottish version about a maiden in a castle on the river Tweed, separated from her lover who belongs to an enemy clan. He gets into the castle disguised as a troubadour and they make arrangements to run away together, but she falls during her escape, and ever after troubadours wear wallflowers as a sign of her constancy (295). [3]


            Other eighteenth and nineteenth century literary references to wallflowers similarly locate them in archaic settings near romantic castle ruins. Robert Burns’s 1794 poem “A Vision” starts off “by yon roofless tower,/ Where the wa’flower scents the dewy air” (qtd. by Rendall 59).  Sir Walter Scott mentions them twice in his narrative poems where they carry a somewhat melancholy resonance.  In Rokeby Hall (1813), the hero approaches the titular “ancient Hall” illuminated by moonlight and finds:

The battlements, the turrets grey. 

Seemed half abandoned to decay; 

On barbican and keep of stone

 Stern Time the foeman's work had done; 

Where banners the invader braved. 

The hare-bell now and wall-flower waved (Canto 5, verse 3, ll 4, 7-12)[4]

And two years later in The Lord of the Isles (1815), “the wall-flower waves not on the ruined hold” at the beginning of Canto 3 as a solemn silence descends on Artonish Castle after the Abott is moved to prophesy that Robert the Bruce will be the future savior of Scotland.[5]  
Byron’s mention of wallflowers in Canto 4 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage shifts the flower’s location from Scotland to Rome, but its presence on the Palatine Hill echoes the dark, mysterious ruins of his poetic predecessors. Walking the ruins in the “fading light” while listening to the owls, the poet notices:
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown    
Matted and massed together, hillocks heaped    
On what were chambers, arch crushed, column strown    
In fragments, choked-up vaults, and frescoes (Canto 4, St. 107, ll. 1-5)[6]

Perhaps the most famous potential reference to wallflowers is Tennyson’s short, rather metaphysical lyric “Flower in the Crannied Wall” (1863). Referring only generically to any sort of flower growing out of a wall, it eschews any previous associations with thwarted love, melancholy, or mysterious darkness, instead evoking the flower as a subject of spiritual speculation:


Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.


Similar to Blake’s injunction in Auguries of Innocence “To see the world in a grain of sand/
And heaven in a wild flower,” this poem uses the flower as a microcosmic example of the wonder of the universe. [7]


     Woolf’s mentions of wallflowers largely ignore this storied tradition.  All four occur quite early, before 1922. Three are naturalistic accounts of planting the flowers at Asham or Monk’s House.  In April of 1913, Woolf writes her sister from Asham, praising the work Vanessa had already done in the garden there and reporting improvements to be added by the Woolfs, including planting foxgloves and wall flowers under the trees (L2 24).  Following the practice recommended by Ellis, in October of 1919 Woolf recorded in her diary that she had spent the day working on the garden path at Monk’s House, planting “wall flowers, daisies, and foxgloves” (D1 55).  Two years later in September of 1921 she reveals the success of these efforts, reporting that  “Our garden is a perfect variegated chinz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums & so on: all bright cut from coloured paper, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be” and again notes,  “I have been planting wallflowers for next June” (D2 138).


Only once do wallflowers appear in a literary context in Woolf’s fiction, in the short story “Sympathy,” written in 1919 in the midst of these horticultural endeavours.   A tale of misapprehension in which the speaker confuses the death of a friend’s husband with that of his father, it presents the wall flower drained of its nectar --  an ironic  inversion of faithfulness in adversity in that the narrator’s sympathy is hyperbolically generated for the wrong person:


No, no, Humphry Hammond is dead. He is dead—the white sheets, the scent of flowers—the one bee humming through the room and out again. Where does it go next? There’s one on the Canterbury Bell; but finds no honey there, and so tries the yellow wall flower, but in these ancient London gardens what hope of honey?  (CSF 111)


Once more the wallflower is part of an “ancient” setting, perhaps associated with the death of a beloved partner, but its consolation is emptied out of any promise of sweetness.


[1] According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the current colloquial meaning does not appear until 1820. https://www.etymonline.com/word/wallflower Accessed October 21, 2022.


[2] For text of the poem see: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22421/22421-h/i.html#p36

Accessed October 21, 2022.  There are two copies of Hesperides in the Woolf library at WSU: one signed by VW; the other belonging to Herbert Duckworth. 


[3] Watts tells the same story (409).


[4] While Rendall cites the poem (59), he does not provide the full context.  For full text see The Internet Archive (p. 208): https://archive.org/stream/rokebypoem00scotrich/rokebypoem00scotrich_djvu.txt Accessed November 5, 2022.


[5] This line is mentioned by Rendall (60).  The full text is available on-line through The Internet Archive, but has not been edited at all so is full of errors and at times almost unreadable.  As far as I can tell, it is line 7 of Canto 3, and appears on p. 85 of the first edition.

https://archive.org/stream/lordislesapoem00scotgoog/lordislesapoem00scotgoog_djvu.txt  Accessed November 5, 2022.


[6] Full text is available at Project Gutenberg: https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5131/pg5131.txt  Accessed November 5, 2022.


[7] The Wikipedia entry on “Flower in the Crannied Wall” notes that the Blake verse was first published posthumously in 1863, the year that Tennyson wrote his poem. Evidence of how well-known the poem was is provided by reference to and a photo of the 1903 George Frederic Watts statue at Lincoln Cathedral of Tennyson holding a flower accompanied by a plaque bearing the text of the poem. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flower_in_the_Crannied_Wall  Accessed November 6, 2022.

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