What’s in a Name?

by Norman Todd – April 2001

In my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations there are 110 listings for roses and none for rhododendrons.In the main part, I suppose that this is due to roses having been known from classical times.It is probably because most roses are fragrant and their name has only one syllable and four letters.Lumbered with a name that has twelve letters and four syllables and not at all well known until a century and a half ago, it is perhaps excusable that our favourite flower has had short shrift from the literary world.

In the past couple of days I’ve come face to face with a small posy of poets.They assure me that this is not a serious life threatening experience.One of them, Patrick Lane, was kind enough to send me a copy of Al Purdy’s poem ‘Arctic Rhododendrons’ which is the only poemknown to Patrick ‘on such flowers’.Here it is.

They are small purple surprises

In the river’s white racket

And after you’ve seen them

a number of times

in water-places

where the silence seems

related to river-thunder

you think of them as ‘noisy flowers’

Years ago

It may have been

that lovers came this way

stopped at the outdoor hotel

to watch the water floorshow

and lying prone together

where the purged green

boils to a white heat

and the shore trembles

like a stone song

with bodies touching

flowers were their conversation

and love the sound of a colour

that lasts two weeks in August

and then dies

except for the here or four

I pressed in a letter

And sent whispering to you


Perhaps the American Rhododendron Society should attempt to correct the imbalance between roses and rhododendrons, exercising some poetic justice, by sponsoring a show of verse along with those of trusses and photographs.In as much as poets are such a rare breed, and while their affliction iss certainly not at all contagious, most of us could no more write a poem than explain photosynthesis, still I think our club could help the literary world a little by coming up with a collective word for rhododendrons.If a group of curs can be recognized with a collective – ‘cowardice’, and ladies with ‘bevy’ and rooks with ‘parliament’, then groups of rhododendrons should be accorded similar status.I will offer a prize of a rare rhododendron (small) – one of the Taliensia subsection – as a prize to the entry deemed, by our editor, to be the most evocative.

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