The power of flowers
By this time in late spring our garden has burst into an incredible show of flowers, from the bottle brush tree to the rapidly reviving roses; from the plumbago to the carnations and pinks. Some imported petunias of the brazen and showy kind are overflowing from our window boxes, and even my latest attempt to grow sweet peas, in the form of a dwarf variety, has begun to produce gently perfumed pink blooms.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all is the climbing rose. It now stretches right across the pergola, filling a corner of the garden with a riot of deep red flowers. I only wish I had it a little more under control!
Ancient Egyptians turned to plants to mark many rites of passage, in life as in death. Acacia branches and papyrus stems were carried aloft in processions; great bouquets of flowers were regularly presented to the god of the local temple, especially by the pharaoh himself. After death, during the preparations for burial, mummies were garlanded with multiple strands of mixed flowers, or flowers and faience beads, and more blossoms were placed among the linen wrappings. The offering of flowers was an integral part of the burial ceremony itself.
Needless to say, some Egyptians had a great fondness for gardens and plants in life as well. We know this from reliefs and frescos in tombs and temples (some of which have now sadly disappeared, but not before they were recorded for posterity by European visitors during the C19). Also, from fragments of wall paintings and pavements recovered from ancient palaces such as that of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Akhenaten at Tel El-Amarna. Even the furnishings of a burial provide clues: an ivory box made for Tutankhamen features the presentation of splendid bouquets to the king by his queen.
Typically, a garden was laid out with precision around a pond. Rows of trees such as sycamore figs, date palms and dom palms, and perhaps persea, provided a framework for the design. Favourite decorative plants were the blue and the white water lilies, often referred to as lotus flowers; poppies; cornflowers and mandrakes.
A high-ranking official such as Ineni – chief of works for the building projects of King Tuthmosis I (about 1500 BC) – took care to have his garden, fishpond and orchard depicted for posterity when he came to prepare his own tomb.
Our garden, though, is a strangely modern creation. Apart from the date palm, the vines, and a number of herbs and veg such as onions, lettuce and beans, there probably isn’t a single plant that an ancient Egyptian would recognise, and nothing in the way of flowers.
This underlines the fact that plants have been treated as commodities throughout much of human history, “discovered” wherever mankind travelled and then transported back home and/or traded across the oceans. The Egyptians were masters of the art of having a go at transplanting their finds to home soil, from frankincense originating in the land of Punt (failed) to pomegranates found in Syria (succeeded very well). In our garden, we are just carrying on the tradition: for example, with comfrey, brought as seeds from England and grown in our garden purely to make liquid fertiliser from the leaves – not that I have enough of it!