Let a thousand flowers bloom
It’s a bit unusual to start these weekly commentaries with a quote from the Communist leader Mao Tse Tung. But it seemed appropriate since in these weeks – for those of you who live in cities and have not noticed – South Africa is entering into springtime and soon, all across the country, a thousand, if not a million, flowers will bloom.
The botanic gardens and flower fields of this country, especially places like Kirstenbosch or the Namaqualand, are internationally famous and draw tourists from around the world. They come to admire the fynbos, succulents, restios and proteas that locals take for granted. Botanists divide the world into 5 plant kingdoms: 4 of them cover whole continents but the 5th and the smallest – the Cape Floristic Kingdom – is entirely contained within South Africa. It contains 9,000 species, more than 2/3 of them unique to here. In fact, the Cape Peninsula alone boasts more plant species than the whole of Great Britain!
So as well as being proud of the animal life of this beautiful country, let us also take time to appreciate, admire, preserve and thank God for the plant life. It is unfortunate that too often we treat plants as a landscape (to be overlooked), an inconvenience (to be eradicated), or a commodity (to be harvested) or a decoration (to be thrown away when a bit limp). Of course flowers are wonderfully decorative but they are also essential to the eco-system – not a backdrop but the backbone of all ‘higher’ forms of life (ourselves included).
For me an important aspect of botany is the magic of diversity. Though I am a lazy gardener, I have had the privilege of spending time with some serious and inspiring plants-people. I am constantly in awe of their ability to see varieties of colour where I only see green and to identify minute but critical differences between plants and elements of plants that to me all look the same. Diversity in plant life is not just impressive – it is essential.
Plants need each other and the variations in their forms of reproduction, the way they use water, the kind of soil in which they prosper and the times of year that they bloom are all part of an intricate mechanism of inter-dependence and mutual support. Anybody would think that it had all been designed! This diversity is then threatened by external forces (usually human) who mess up some aspect by polluting the water or spoiling the land. One of the greatest threats is when humans introduce an ‘alien’ species (something from outside the system) which actually undermines diversity because it overpowers the balance of plant life that is already there.
The Bible is full of metaphors drawn from plant life – from the lilies of the fields to the jonquils blooming in the desert. What lesson can we draw from botanic diversity? That difference is not just to be tolerated but encouraged? That respectful balance between different opinions, different ways of life, different cultures, different spiritual journeys is something that benefits everyone? That when any one form becomes over-bearing or seeks to suck life out of the system, we have to intervene and tame it or eradicate it? That sometimes things blossom and prosper when they are cared for – and sometimes when they are left alone? I leave you to draw your own lessons – and thus give you a perfect excuse to find time in the next few weeks to sit silently outdoors and smell the roses, and the proteas, and the zantadeschias, and the strelizias, and the ……