How flower books grow on you

Two books — one old, one new — changed my mind about flowers.

Before reading them, my attitude toward flowers could perhaps best be described as "indifferent." I did not hate them, but I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to include them in my life. If you sent me flowers, I'd say, "Why, thanks," but secretly I would be wondering how soon I could upend the vase's contents into the trash and reuse the container as, perhaps, a pencil holder.

I usually tried to hold off on the Great Flower Dump until the kind soul who'd brought the bouquet had at least made it past my driveway. Any sooner than that, and I risked seeming ungrateful.

Then I read "100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names" (1997) by Diana Wells and the new novel "The Language of Flowers" (Ballantine) by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

The former sounds like a reference book, which it sort of is — but it's so much more than that, too. Wells gathers up the intriguing tales that lie behind the names of popular flowers, and presents them in calm, almost solemn prose that makes floral history seem profoundly important. The begonia was named for Michel Begon, an official in Louis XIV's court. Forsythia? Look no further than William Forsyth, a Scottish gardener. Hosta is a tribute to Nicolaus Thomas Host, a botanist. The dahlia is homage to Anders Dahl, another botanist. And the zinnia is a living memorial to Johann Gottfried Zinn, an 18th century German botanist who, when he wasn't strolling through gardens with a smile on his face, was making some of the first accurate anatomical sketches of the human eye.

What really distinguishes "100 Flowers," however, is the introduction, in which Wells makes the point that flowers are far from the simple bits of decorative frippery that people such as me always thought they were. Flowers, she notes, might as well be upending me into the trash:

"Flowers are more essential to us than we are even to one another, and if we lost them, we would lose all. Even human grief, our cries into the darkness, is nothing compared to the flowers. … We can call flowers what we like, we can tread on them, we can pick them. But it is always we, not them, who are incidental."

"100 Flowers" sets the table perfectly for "The Language of Flowers," a novel that also uses green, growing things to say something fresh and special about human life. Diffenbaugh writes in the first-person voice of a woman named Victoria Jones, raised in foster care, who turns 18. She's on her own now. Armed only with a love of flowers and a mysterious affinity for matching the right bloom to the right person, Victoria confronts a challenging present — and a thorny past.

In the Victorian era, the practice of using flowers to signify emotions and ideas was raised to an art form. There were many published guides for those who wished to make statements through stamens. If you sent hyacinth, for instance, you were asking forgiveness. If your heart were breaking, then red carnations were the perfect choice. Amaryllis meant pride. Wisteria meant welcome.

Diffenbaugh's protagonist has a hard time communicating, because of her rugged and mostly loveless upbringing, thus flowers are the perfect translators. "Now, as an adult, my hopes for the future were simple," Victoria says. "I wanted to be alone, and to be surrounded by flowers."

The novel's first several chapters are powerful and evocative. As things move along, the story loses a bit of its steam and a lot of its poetry. Still, "The Language of Flowers" should fulfill its author's most important goal: to raise awareness about the plight of young people who have aged out of the foster care system.

"I am absolutely trying to use this book to get people invested on an emotional level" with foster care, said Diffenbaugh, 33, in an interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass. "I wanted to get inside the head of a character who had a hard time attaching, loving or showing any kind of warmth."

Diffenbaugh and her husband have hosted several foster children and have two biological children, ages 3 and 5. She has established a nonprofit organization called the Camellia Network (camellianetwork.org) to mentor those in the foster care system who are approaching emancipation.

"I've worked with homeless kids, kids in foster care, and I've never met a kid who couldn't be reached," she said. "But as I try to show in my novel, it isn't simple. I do feel that there is something to be said for just giving love into the world."

And if you can't say it yourself, you can try sending peppermint (warmth of feeling), rose (enchantment) or heliotrope (devoted affection).

Vanessa Diffenbaugh will appear at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Villa Library in Lake Villa; and at 7 p.m. the same day at Highland Park Public Library in Highland Park. For information on both, check lakeforestbookstore.com.

jikeller@tribune.com

Twitter @litkell

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