Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Beautiful monstrosities




When Goethe expounded to his friend Schiller, with all his peculiar force of words, the theory he had conceived that the flower of a plant is but the higher development, or rather, transformation of its leaves, Schiller at once saw the truth and beauty of the idea. But he saw, at the same time, notwithstanding the fascination of the words and manner in which the case “was put,” that the poet-botanist had not advanced, in his theory, one single step beyond the narrow boundary of a happy thought. The theory of Goethe was, in fact, a mere guess, as all first glimpses of a new truth have ever been—it was a brilliant and poetical guess—and not a scientific discovery based upon a series of proven data; and so Schiller replied to his friend, in the recorded words, “It is an idea, and not an observation.” It was so, but it was not destined so to remain. Goethe had thrust his light into a dark place, and others, working by it, gradually converted the idea into an established fact: the botanists completed the work of the poet.

Goethe’s discovery was a bright ray flashed out in a fitful gleam of dreamy philosophy, and was trimmed into a steady and permanent light by botanical physiologists, instead of being snuffed out, as new lights too often are, by the lovers of the more old-fashioned candles of science; and the full development of the theory became an explanatory key to the occurrence of all those beautiful monstrosities in the inflorescence of plants which we admire in such exquisite examples of deformity as that of the double rose, or the double anemone.

A special monstrosity connected with the rose, and which is one of the most picturesque and beautiful among floral aberrations from normal forms, may serve as an example which will furnish proof how very recently we have been put in possession of the true secret by means of which all the curious and irregular growths of flowers may now be so simply explained. The special monstrosity alluded to is that of the singular growth(1) of the calyx of the rose which has invested a certain variety of the common rose of Provence with the name of the “moss rose.” This curious excrescent development was, till a comparatively speaking recent period, explained by several naturalists after fanciful fashions altogether unworthy of scientific men, and nearly as difficult of credence as that explanation of the stars offered by the early Greek astronomers, which supposed them to be positive lights, mysteriously extinguished at the dawn and as mysteriously re-kindled at night.

For instance, one of the explanations offered for the appearance of the moss-like excrescence on the calyx of this rose, was, that it was the work of a gall insect. This hypothesis was founded on the discovery that it was, in fact, a gall insect that produced the moss-like tufts occasionally found on small branchlets of the common briar or dog-rose. It is true that in the appearance of the unnatural growth induced by the disturbance of the fibre and tissues of the part, during the ravages of the gall, there is a certain resemblance to the unusual moss-like growth of the calyx of the so-called moss rose, but the two causes are self-evidently different. How, indeed, could it be supposed for a moment that a gall insect should be located in each segment of the calyx of every flower on each plant of the “mossy” variety of the rose? and that every offshoot of the plant in question should also be furnished with its perfect set of galls to the calyx of each flower? Such an idea, one would think, could never have been entertained for a moment. The growth of the moss-like excrescence of the calyx is in fact an accidental and deformed growth arising from some disturbing cause, the precise nature of which is at present unknown; but that the disturbance, however created, is one that takes place in the process of the transformation of the leaf to the flower is now deemed the most philosophical solution of the mystery of this beautiful lusus naturæ. Accepting for the moment this view, the disturbed action would necessarily take place in the following manner. The calyx, when this deformation is about to take place, has not ceased to exercise its vital power of development at the completion of its own legitimate form as a portion of the flower, but has received some unusual stimulation which has given it a tendency to develope itself into an entire flower, the moss-like appendages being possibly imperfect rudiments of stamens (2). At the point of development at which these deformed and imperfect stamens have been produced in the form of a moss-like excrescence on the calyx, it would seem that the unnatural growth ceases, and the legitimate process prevails, so that the petals of the flower are duly developed within the monstrosity that has taken the place of the usual calyx.

This aberration, whatever be its hidden cause, must have taken place, originally, on some single branch of a common double rose; but, as every bud on each distinct branch is acted upon by the same specific vital principle, the aberrating branch being taken off and caused to strike root would become an independent plant, every new branch of which would produce buds having the same vital principles as those of the original branch; and so a distinct variety would be established, which might be multiplied to any extent, every flower of which would have the curiously deformed growth of calyx from which the name of the now common moss-rose is derived.

The multiplied petals of the double flower itself are forms of monstrosity which affords a still more direct illustration of the principle that flowers are but developed leaves, as leaves are rudimental flowers, as may be easily shown; and in this case the manner of the transformation is not merely conjectured, as in the preceding case, but can be proved to demonstration. Under ordinary circumstances, and in the greater number of plants, the flowering process occurs when the growth of a branch is stopped by the partial exhaustion of the supply of sap. Its further power of elongation being thus withheld, and additional growth being impeded, preparations for the production of seeds commence, from which the plant, or rather a new plant, may recommence its course of existence and reproduction. These preparations for the production of seeds lead to the commencement of the transformation of leaves (or rather the buds or germs of leaves), into calyx, stamens, pistils, and petals. But peculiar disturbing causes occasionally divert the system of transformation from its proper course, and instead of the central portion of the leaf-germs forming themselves into pistil and stamens, and the surrounding leaf-germs into petals and calyx, the whole of the leaf-germs that should have formed various parts of the flower, become petals only, and thus is produced that luxuriant and beautiful monstrosity, that double flower, the ancient glory of gardens, the large double rose.

An interesting illustration of the theory of leaf-transformation often occurs in an unhealthy state of the double-flowered stock. In double varieties of the Brompton, or ten week stock, most amateur gardeners must have observed a peculiar growth that is occasionally developed from some disturbing cause, such as injudicious removal, or unusual degree of cold; or, the development of the flowers at too late a period of the season. Under the influence of any of these causes of disturbance to the habit of the plant, a disposition is shown in the additional petals to return to their normal condition of leaves; and then occurs the interesting spectacle, of a flower composed of leaves instead of petals (3).

The calyx is seldom so much diverted from its usual form as to be rendered unfit to perform its office as the cup or socket of the flower, or of its frequent office as seed vessel. The reason of this is, that in its original form it is probably the husk of the leaf-bud, as in a different stage of the growth of the plant it becomes the husk of the flower. The calyx does, however, sometimes disappear in the aberrations of the transformative processes, as in the double cowslip, in which it is represented by perfect petals; or rather a perfect petal, deeply divided at regular distances; which is the characteristic of the whole primrose tribe, being a monopetalous or single petaled family. From this calyx transformed to a petal issues the real floral petal, presenting the curious aspect, not of a double flower, but of one single flower issuing from another single flower. In this case, the inner flower is fertile, having its full complement of pistil and stamens, and a more or less perfect seed vessel. Examples of this kind of doubleness rarely, if ever, occur except in monopetalous flowers, such as the primrose, or bell flowers, of which the well-known old garden favourites, the double pipped oxlip and the double Canterbury bell, may be cited as garden examples. These monopetalous plants do not, however, always exhibit the peculiar kind of doubleness formed by the development of one pip within another, which generally occurs by the calyx assuming the form and colour of a monopetal; but the stamens sometimes become detached petals, within an encircling or duly formed monopetal. and thus present a somewhat analogous aspect to that of the double rose, as in the case of the double[1] polyanthus, which has at the same time a perfect calyx. In other cases, as in that of the double Canterbury bell, the double pip occurs sometimes by the formation of an additional pip from the growth that should have produced stamens; the calyx, like that of the double polyanthus, being formed in the usual manner. In this case the flowers are liable to be entirely barren, though a few of the flowers, having still some of the seed producing stamens, and the pistil more or less perfect, produce seeds; many of which, however, never germinate. (See cut 4).

To return to the most beautiful of these elegant monstrosities, the double rose. It may appear curious on a first glance at the subject, that this most attractive of all floral aberrations should have occurred so early in the annals of floriculture as to have been cultivated by the ancient Persians, as well as the Greeks and Romans. This circumstance may, however, be easily accounted for. It is those flowers that have an indefinite number of stamens that display the greatest natural disposition to become double by a number of the superabundant stamens becoming petalets in the process of their transformation from leaf-germs. The rose, therefore, and its allies, having a part of their seed-producing system composed of a great number of stamens, form a family group of flowers which are much more subject to the aberration which diverts a portion of the intended stamens into petalets, than plants which produce flowers with fewer stamens. The frequent occurrence, therefore, of the phenomenon of multiplied petals to which the rose was thus naturally predisposed, caused it, no doubt, to be noticed at a very remote period; and the extreme beauty of the aberration would doubtless lead to the creation of many kinds of devices for its perpetuation, which, not being very difficult, as shown in the case of the moss-rose, double roses naturally became favourite objects of cultivation at a very remote period.

In those classes of plants in which the flowers are only furnished with a small and definite number of stamens, the act of becoming double by the aberrant transformation of the stamens into petals necessarily causes the flower to be altogether barren; useless but beautiful pelatets having taken the place of the whole of the seed-producing system. This occurs in many other cases; among which might be cited the double wallflower, which, as producing no seed, can only be perpetuated by cuttings; but, at the same time, it should be stated that from semi-double flowers, in which one or more stamens have escaped transformation, a few fertile seeds may be expected, which are always more or less likely to produce double-flowering plants. The Germans, indeed, appear to have a method of treating the seed of the wallflower and some other plants, either during its growth or afterwards, in some way that gives it a strong tendency to produce double-flowering plants. The double rose, however, produces fertile seed naturally. Only a portion of its numerous stamens having been converted into petals, it still preserves its fertility, the remaining stamens becoming the means of furnishing perfect seeds, though in far more limited numbers than is the case in a single-flowering rose. (See Cut 4.)

Not the least singular circumstance connected with deformed flowers is that their fertile and seemingly healthy and perfect seeds, in most instances produce plants subject to a similar aberration to that of the parent, which looks something like a confirmation of the Darwinian theory—the accidentally produced double rose producing, as a rule, double roses. A certain number, however, of the plants produced from these seeds display a tendency to return to the original and perfect form of the single flower, having only a very small number of their stamens converted into petals. These are semi-double varieties, the seeds of which would doubtless produce a few specimens still less double, and by selecting the seeds of the least double flowers through several generations, the oirginal form of the single flower might doubtless be eventually reproduced. As, however, the first tendency towards original “singleness,” in the shape of a semi-double flower, is deemed a worthless variety by rose-growers, it is immediately destroyed; and so the possibility of causing the plant, in a series of generations, to return to the simple and perfect form of its flowers is never likely to be tested by professed florists.

It is in these elegant deformities, these beautiful monstrosities, that professional florists find both their profit and delight. The trade in the varieties of double roses has indeed become an important branch of commerce, and the same may be said of the double dahlia and many other exquisitely deformed flowers. The production of pleasing floral deformity has indeed become so profitable, when judiciously turned to account by experienced dealers, that it is sought for, by every means, with the greatest avidity. By the careful watching of many thousands of seedlings from some plant of which it is wished to procure a double variety, a slight disposition in some one individual to become double may, after the careful watching of perhaps millions of specimens, be at last detected; and if this disposition be only shown by the transformation of a single stamen into a minute and imperfect petal, it is enough. The seed of that special flower is carefully collected, and if those seeds produce plants, or a single plant, exhibiting a still greater disposition to become double, final success in producing the desired extent of deformity and monstrosity is secure, and the profusely double flower is deemed already in prospective possession of the expectant florist. In this way double varieties of plants of kinds seemingly the least likely to sport into double flowers are now produced, and thus the double petunia and the double fuchsia have been recently added to our list of “beautiful monstrosities.”

The Chinese having remained comparatively undisturbed for several thousands of years in the enjoyment of an advanced kind of Oriental civilisation, in which a love of flowers has ever been a distinguishing feature, succeeded in producing several kinds of double-flowering plants many centuries before such double-flowering varieties were known in Europe. Of these the double-flowering peach, the double-flowering plum, and the double-flowering cherry are now well known. They were indeed pictorially known to us centuries ago by their representations on Japan-ware and porcelain, but then our botanists only thought such representations imbecile vagaries of the Chinese pencil, and gave that ingenious people—those Celestials of the “flowery” empire—no credit for having positively produced by horticultural perseverance the flowers whose portraits they delighted to paint on their matchless China-ware. Even after the numerous recent introductions of Chinese double flowers hitherto unknown to us, such as the enlarged double peach flower, of a deep crimson, and the size of a camellia, and several others, many yet remain to be procured, which are, however, already know by repute, as one of the consequences of our increased intercourse with China.

H. Noel Humphreys.


  1. It should be remembered that gardeners term those flowers of the primrose tribe double that have the anthers transformed to petals; while those which have the calyx transformed to petals are called double-pipped.