Hecate recently asked how we know it’s almost time for Beltane. She has an answer in terms of the deep relationship she has with the oak trees in her location. I haven’t lived in one place long enough to have the same specific awareness that she does, so my answer is more internal. I know it’s almost time for Beltane because of desire.

This year, though, I have a botanical example. The tulips by the Netherlands Carillon are beautiful.

Field of red tulips with Washington Monument in distant background.
Tulips at the Netherlands Carillon

I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Pollan investigates and meditates on the relationships between humanity and four different plants, each one catering to a different human desire. For the desire of beauty, he selects the tulip. In the opening of the chapter, he talks about how he had long preferred to tend food plants in his garden. The flowers of these plants, only a brief stop along the way to the bell pepper or tomato that he really wanted, he calls “teleological flowers.” In contrast to these purposeful plants, he sets out to rediscover what people see in flowers grown purely for their beauty.

This stands for that: flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making. … Sometime long ago, the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own, and the offspring of that match, the miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

And although Europeans tried to find teleological uses for the flower, they failed: “The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.” He speculates about why this particular beauty captured the Dutch in the famous tulip mania:

I also think the particular character of the tulip’s beauty made it a good match for the Dutch temperament. Generally bereft of scent, the tulip is the coolest of floral characters. In fact, the Dutch counted the tulip’s lack of scent as a virtue, proof of the flower’s chasteness and moderation. Petals curving inward to hide its sexual organs, the tulip is an introvert among flowers. It is also somewhat aloof – one bloom per stem, one stem per plant. “The tulip allows us to admire it,” Herbert observes, “but does not awaken violent emotions, desire, jealousy or erotic fevers.”

Red tulip

Herbert was only partially right, as Pollan goes on to describe in the tulip mania. Today, when even the tulips look like wanton displays of desire, I know it’s time for Beltane.

Red tulip with outer three petals folded back

3 thoughts on “Beltane, botany, and desire

  1. I usually have some sort of Spring ritual, but it may not be until June this year.

    I envy you your flowers and oak catkins. We are just getting the first bits of spring here, and they’re tentative bits. Last week we had a vicious February-style blizzard/ice storm/hail storm/lightning storm, followed by a bleak March drenching. I only just saw the first crabapple blooms, and the Amelanchier, my usual marker for Spring, are only just beginning to bud.

    It’s too wet and cold even for radish planting, and I’m still eating tubers. It’s not spring until I can get all the ingredients fresh for a mushroom-watercress omelette, and can see violets and dandelions in the parks.

    1. {{Dav and all the folks having bad weather this spring}}

      I like your food markers. Our “farmer’s market” will be opening next week (in quotes because I doubt there are any working farms within a 10-15 mile radius, but it’s still comparatively fresher, more local foods, usually made with preferable production methods) and that’s a good indicator for me as well.

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