The King of Flowers

This month the nation will come together to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III. It’s only natural then that we’ve been busy thinking about royalty ourselves, but not in the way you’d expect… Rather than focusing on well-known monarchs, Head Gardener Dan has been looking at horticultural royalty – and even crowned his very own ‘King of Flowers’. He reveals all below.

With the King’s Coronation just around the corner, I did the only thing any self-respecting, enquiring gardener would do and Googled the ‘King of Flowers’. And why not? There is an undisputed King of the Jungle, and every year the great British public crown somebody King or Queen of the Strictly dance floor. Why shouldn’t we muddy folk have our own royal emblem, a regal totem to inspire us against despondency in the face of late frosts and parched summer earth?

Anybody who wonders the same will likely dredge up the same answers as I did – which is to say very few – and wonder why they ever bothered in the first place. So, I’ve decided to save you the trouble and declare my own ‘King of Flowers’ (or should that be ‘King of the Flowers’?) in honour of this special event.

The first Google result tells me that the ‘King of Flowers’ is called a rose, which is a bit confusing because the same article also tells me that roses are referred to as the ‘Queen of Flowers’, not to mention the ‘birth flower’ of those born in June, and a symbol of anything from true love and passion to purity. All of this serves to tell us nothing other than you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet.

The next result crowns the peony instead. Apparently, peonies have been considered the ‘King of Flowers’ since the Tang Dynasty ruled ancient China (618 to 907 AD). The Tang Dynasty prized aestheticism, and the lush abundance of peony flowers proved irresistible to Emperor after Emperor – so much so that sometimes their concubines would wear them in their hair and bees would buzz all around their heads in the mid-spring heat.

It’s a compelling argument, but what about Rafflesia arnoldii, the world’s biggest single flower? What is the king if not the biggest of them all? A native of Indonesia, this parasitic plant with no leaves, roots, or stem, emits a vile smell akin to rotten meat when it flowers. For this reason, whilst I might call it the ‘King of Flowers’, it is more commonly known as the stinking corpse lily. Not very noble at all then!

There are other plants commonly referred to in royal terms too of course. My favourite, the crown imperial fritillary, literally wears a crown of spiky leaves atop its bold, bell-shaped yellow and orange flowers. It looks very kingly indeed. Yet, in Iranian culture, where they can be found growing wild, the crown imperial fritillary is said to be a symbol of sorrow; the flowers, a bit like upside down tulips, are thought to be hanging their head in mourning.

All of this is a bit of a muddle and gets us nowhere really. How on earth can we determine the true ‘King of Flowers’ if it means one thing to one person, and another thing altogether to somebody else, say, on the other side of the world?

So, for that reason, I must declare the man who made sense of it all the real ‘King of the Flowers’, Carl Linnaeus. Not a plant after all then, but a human being, and the father of modern plant taxonomy no less. 

Like us, Linnaeus thought it was rather bothersome – not to say unhelpful – that different people referred to different plants by different names all the time. One man’s king is another man’s corpse lily after all. And so, Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist by trade, devised the binomial system of nomenclature, a simple universal means by which to name plants, adopted by everybody. Let order reign over chaos.

Linnaeus determined that instead of often long-winded, descriptive names, we’d all be better off if we just agreed to give each plant two names: a genus and a specific epithet. The two names taken together forming the species.

Unfortunately, Linnaeus wasn’t too fond of big, extravagant statements, and much preferred instead the long-dead language of Latin, which at least nobody can understand in equal measure. And so, the crown imperial fritillary is properly called Fritillaria imperialis using the binomial system and is indisputably so, irrespective of what I or anybody else may wish to call it, kingly or otherwise.

And although folklore around plants still – thankfully –exists, and colloquial, common names will always be used, thanks to Linnaeus, there will always be a singular standard to which we can refer to, to help clear up any confusion. Besides, King Carl has rather a nice ring to it, don’t you think? All hail the King!