The little flower that could

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Himalayan plant grows, enchants on rocky heights

Reading non-gardening books about flowers sounds about as interesting as reading gardening books. My green thumb is more like a black digit of death to anything that lives in dirt and requires watering. At home, I’m barely able to get my potted cacti to thrive.

Still, there’s the allure of something so beautiful coming right out of the ground with a will all its own. Susan Orlean felt it when she wrote The Orchid Thief and Bill Terry feels it too with his account of the famous but misnamed Himalayan blue poppy.

Apparently it isn’t a poppy at all. When famed British mountaineer and explorer George Leigh Mallory stumbled across a patch of the flowers at almost 5,000 metres along the East Rongbuk Valley in Tibet (after he failed to reach the summit of Mt. Everest), poppy was the first word that came to his mind.

He wrote to his wife that he was “half the time in ecstasy” when he discovered “things growing as though they liked growing.”

He was close. Its real name is meconopsis, meaning “poppy-like.”

From that wonderful start of several historical anecdotes, Blue Heaven goes right along into glorifying the flower with praise and adulation. Terry writes, “The blue poppy is the symbol of longing among gardeners and … widely thought to be unattainable.”

Of course, the book then lists out all of the information one can use to obtain its seeds and attain horticultural success. What good would it do to just tease us, right? It doesn’t really expound on the subject with out and out directions though. It demands that you read the whole thing and pay attention.

Despite being a relatively short book, the actual text is only about half the length considering every second page is a picture. You could call this a tribute book, like a rock reporter who follows his favourite band on a tour and captures every drop of sweat on film like a star-struck groupie. This is pure flower fandom.

Still it’s a pretty interesting read, even for a non-flower guy. I can’t say that it encourages the novice gardener to start with the blue poppy though. In fact, everything Terry writes indicates the difficulties associated with its growth. When he writes that you can do it, the next sentence says that you can’t.

He boils his philosophy of trial and error (mostly error, he admits) down to “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Actually he quotes Samuel Beckett for that wisdom.

“No matter, try again, fail again, fail better.”

Words to live by, and not just for flower people.

Blue Heaven: Encounters with the Blue Poppy

By Bill Terry
TouchWood Editions
184 pages
$24.95

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.