Pansies, orchids, Triffids and O’Keefe

The pansies on my balcony are really freaking me out.

When I bought them from the garden centre, they looked quite sweet and inoffensive. Three small tubs, each containing three little purple-and-yellow fat-cheeked faces.

A few weeks of sunshine and regular visits from the watering can and they have multiplied into a swarm. There are over a hundred of them. All their faces point the same way towards the sunshine; each face is identical. A colony of clones.

There is something alien about flowers. Georgia O’Keefe, flower artist extraordinaire, said:

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.

And this certainly comes across in her paintings – the enormous petals curving outwards, which make the flowers look so inviting, beckoning the eye inside where it will be enveloped in the new floral world.

Everyone is quick to point out the sex in O’Keefe’s pictures. And there is something threatening about their seductiveness. The flower becomes your world – it cocoons you, wraps you up, takes you over. She says it’s just for a moment, but what if that moment threatens not to end? What if instead of being your world, the flower takes you back to its alien world … forever?

The most threatening flowers I know are John Wyndham’s Triffids. Although I read The Day of the Triffids when I was twelve, I’ve never been able to forget their whip-like sting, with which they attack, and their tripod-like mobility. Terrifying. And Triffids are from the Soviet Union – the Second World in Cold War terminology – so they really are alien.

I have recently been given a pair of yellow orchids. They are beautiful, but there is something unsettling about them, something uncanny, sexual, abject, alien …

In Richard Mabey’s wondrous The Unofficial Countryside (which I’ve written about here), he explains how orchids grow. Unlike most plants that sprout upwards, propelled by the energy in their seed until they make leaves with which they can photosynthesise, orchids are unable to rely on the energy in their seeds, because their seeds are almost devoid of nutrients. Orchid seeds lie sterile in the earth until a fungus comes along and tries to gobble them up. Somehow the orchid and fungus mesh together incredibly intricately while the fungus is trying to steal the orchid’s nutrients. And this meshing together means that the orchid then begins to leech nutrients off the fungus too. The fungus counter-attacks and so on. A vicious tussle ensues which can last for up to fifteen years. Several orchids succumb to the fungus attack, but a few manage to win the battle and grow far enough to push their leaf shoots out of the ground – safety. It is an astonishing fact, but best of all is Mabey’s analogy:

one of those bitter but intense marriages where the more intimate and fierce their fighting, the more the partners seem to prosper, preying off each other’s renewing strength.

I’m sure fans of Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate such an anthropomorphic simile. There is something sexual and vicious about flowers after all. Well certainly about orchids.

And perhaps the orchid–fungus relationship helps to cast some light on the Triffids too. In The Day of the Triffids, the strange plants are cultivated by humans because their extracts are superior to normal vegetable oils. Humans use the Triffids, just as the fungus uses the orchid – they take its nutrients. But all along, the Triffids are really using the Humans, happy to be cultivated so that eventually they are able to turn against the humans and try to take over the world. It is like the orchid pretending to be of use to the fungus only to then fight back, gaining ascendancy.

I just hope that my pansies aren’t trying to take over my terrace. Because once they’ve done that, there’s the whole of North London, and then the world …

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