The Perks of Growing Wallflowers

Wallflowers (erysimum) are wonderful plants. You buy them bare rooted from the market in autumn, 10 for £1. You pop them in the flowerbed and forget about them,or watch them in avid anticipation, until Spring where they set the (flower) bed on fire in a riot of scented red and orange blooms.

 Growing them will also help you live out your Brideshead Revisited fantasy- admit it, we all had one. While the pre-fabs of York may be a far from the dreaming spires of Oxford, you could nonetheless be like Sebastian Flyte and vomit over a bed of wallflowers and through your friend’s window.

‘There were gillyflowers growing below the windows which on summer evenings filled them with fragrance.’….’there appeared at the window a face I knew to be Sebastian’s…. he looked at me for a moment with unfocused eyes and then, leaning well into the room, he was sick.’

Confusingly, Waugh calls them gillyflowers. The problem with plants, as with geraniums/pelargoniums, is that they tend to have several names. Even worse, gillyflower is a common term for any of several scented flowers, including dianthus (pinks and carnations) and stocks. It’s all very confusing. I’m going to take a huge liberty and assume that Waugh meant wallflowers. He mentioned them growing in Lent term, which is far too early for Dianthus or Stocks. (Country Life back me up on this:

Wallflowers and tulips in Worcester college Oxford, from this delightful blog by the college gardeners:

The gillyflowers under the window were not a passing detail from Waugh, they are mentioned again throughout the book:

 ‘We returned to Oxford and once again the gillyflowers bloomed under my windows and the chestnut lit the streets and the warm stone strewed their flakes upon the cobble; but it was not as it had been; there was mid-winter in Sebastian’s heart.’
‘The autumnal mood possessed us both as though the riotous exuberance of June had died with the gillyflowers, whose scent at my windows now yielded to the damp leaves, smouldering in the corner of the quad.’

They become an emblem for the lost Arcadia of his first year. While, like Charles, they remind me of university, it is of, in an only slightly less fatalistic way, of exams, not doomed youth. But I can forgive them that because they are so damned cheerful during summer term.

I planted them in autumn term of third year in the front garden of our student house, and they survived a York winter, snow included. Their cheapness, hardiness and timing makes them the ideal plant to grow in any space you can muster around your student house. They are perfect for a student garden because they start flowering just as you should start to be thinking about revision, and continue until the end of exams. They really require no maintenance at all, so you can neglect them completely while you go home during holidays, and still reap the benefits during exams. Of course, for those of us who have graduated, they’re equally happy in a window box, or a tub, and are probably a better way of reliving university than tequila shots or library all-nighters.

My wallflowers in York, with bluebells and tulips.

While I could probably do lots of literary comparison between Brideshead Revisited and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Patrick/Sebastian, Sam/Julia, Charles, wow, that comparison really does need to be written). I have used the title, but I’m afraid I haven’t written more about it, as the wallflowers in the book are people not plants.

Wallflowers, are mentioned by plenty of other authors, including Emily Bronte, Dickens, and E.M. Forster, but the final word goes to Victor Hugo who has by far the jolliest description of wallflowers from Notre-Dame de Paris.

‘Outside the balustrade of the tower… there was one of those fantastically carved stone gutters with which Gothic edifices bristle, and, in a crevice of that gutter, two pretty wallflowers in blossom, shaken out and vivified, as it were, by the breath of air, made frolicsome salutations to each other.’

I think ‘frolicsome salutations’ in my new favourite phrase.

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