#1 Almond Blossom
As one of the earliest harbingers of spring, the flowering almond is an appropriate bloom with which to begin a survey of flowers in Virginia Woolf’s life and work. Although mentioned only twice in her fiction, the almond has a prominent place in Virginia Stephen’s early diaries where -- along with crocuses, squills, and daffodils -- its progress is carefully charted as an index to the season. During the course of twenty days in March of 1897, she recorded the almond trees in nearby Kensington Gardens as first “getting pink” (PA 48), next “just coming out” (PA 52), then fully “out” (55) and finally “all most beautiful” (A 59). More than twenty years later, the venue has shifted to Kew Gardens where in March of 1919 and 1920 Woolf notes the arrival of almond trees and daffodils (D1 252; D2 21). Writing at Hogarth House in January of 1921, she ironically elaborates the association of almond flowers with early spring and by extension young love when she asserts in her diary that she could write a “new chapter in Clive’s life”: “Spring has miraculously renewed herself. Pink almond blossoms are in bud. Callow birds crow. In short, he’s out of love & in love” (D2 87).
The traditional symbolism of almond blossoms matches pretty well with Woolf’s personal experiences. According to Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, the Flowering Almond signifies hope (8). The first flower to appear in the Middle East, the blossoms’ early arrival and miraculous appearance on bare branches cause it to be associated with birth and fertility. It appears frequently in the Bible: in Numbers 17, Aaron’s rod is an almond branch, and in Exodus 25 and 37 the design of the menorah is said to be based on the design of almond blossoms. The Hebrew word for almond is “shakeid” which means to be awake or to watch. In Jeremiah 1 there is a Hebrew pun when the Lord asks Jeremiah what he sees, and he replies that he sees an almond branch. The Lord says this is true, affirming that Jeremiah sees the Lord watching.
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Blooming Almond Tree,” one of the most famous appearances of almond blossoms in the visual arts, combines a number of these associations. Painted in 1890 to celebrate the birth of his nephew, namesake and godson, the painting represented Van Gogh’s hope for a new start. Writing to his brother Theo he called the painting “perhaps the best, the most patiently worked thing I had done” and expressed his desire for the painting to hang over the baby’s bed. (VGVG 130).
While all the personal mentions of almond blossoms occur in Woolf’s diaries before 1921, they appear in two later novels, Orlando and The Years, in both cases as signs of spring in the city. The most substantial treatment is in Orlando where, walking in Kew Gardens on March 2 sometime in the late Victorian era, the female protagonist lists the emerging markers of spring: ”a grape hyacinth, and a crocus, and a bud too on the almond tree” (215). All this new growth inspires her rather sexual fantasies of “bulbs, hairy and red, thrust into the earth in October, flowering now” (215). Eighteen days later, she gives birth to “a very fine boy” (217).
The last almond blossom to appear in Woolf’s work is in the first section of The Years. Spring is coming to London: in the Pargiter’s backyard garden “buds were beginning to swell” (17); Milly and Delia, standing at the window, look out on the London street and see that “The crocuses were yellow and purple in the front gardens. The almond trees and privets were tipped with green” -- a final inventory of vernal harbingers.