Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre

The Blossom

Y ES, they had listened very attentively the day before when Uncle Paul told them all about poisonous plants. Who would not listen to a talk on flowers? Jules and Claire, however, would have been glad to hear more. How are the flowers made that their uncle showed them yesterday? What is to be seen inside them? Of what use are they to the plant? Under the big elder-tree in the garden their uncle talked to them as follows:

"Let us begin with the blossoms of the digitalis, which I spoke of yesterday. Here is one. It has, as you see, almost the form of a glove-finger, or better, of a long pointed cap. Emile could put one on to his little finger; there would be plenty of room. It is purplish-red in color. Inside, it has spots of dark red encircled with white. The red glove-finger rises from the center of a circle of five little leaves. These little leaves are also part of the flower. Together they form what is called the calyx. The rest, the red part, is called the corolla. Remember these words, which are new to you."

"The corolla is the colored part of the flower; the calyx is the circle of little leaves at the base of the corolla," repeated Jules.

"Most flowers have two envelopes like these, one within the other. The exterior, or calyx, is nearly always green; the interior, or corolla, is embellished with those magnificent tints that please us in so many flowers.

"In the mallow, which you see here, the calyx consists of five little green leaves, and the corolla of five large pieces of lilac rose color. Each of these pieces is called a petal. The petals, all together, make the corolla."



"The corolla of the digitalis has only one piece or petal; that of the mallow has five," remarked Claire.

"It looks that way at first, but on examining closely you will find that they both have five. I must tell you that in a great many flowers the petals unite as soon as they begin to form in the bud, and by their union constitute a corolla which looks like only one piece. But very often the united petals separate a little at the edge of the flower, and by indentations more or less deep show how many are joined together.

"Look at this tobacco blossom. The corolla forms a tun-bellied funnel, apparently composed of only one piece. But the edge of the flower is cut out in five similar parts, which are the extremities of so many petals. The tobacco blossom, then, has five petals, the same as the mallow; only, these five petals, instead of being separate all their length, are welded together in a sort of funnel.



"Corollas with separate petals are called polypetalous corollas."

"Like that of the mallow," suggested Claire.

"And that of the pear, almond, and strawberry," added Jules.

"Jules forgets some very pretty ones: the pansy and violet," said Emile.

"Corollas with petals all joined together are called monopetalous corollas," continued Uncle Paul.

"For example, digitalis and tobacco," said Jules.

"And the bell-flowers, don't forget them, the beautiful white bell-flowers that climb the hedges," Emile added.

"The five petals joined together are just as easily distinguishable in this flower we have here, called snap-dragon."



"Why is it called snap-dragon?" asked Emile.

"Because when it is pressed on both sides it opens its mouth like an animal."

Uncle Paul made the flower yawn; under pressure of his fingers it opened and shut its mouth as if biting. Emile looked on in amazement.

"In this mouth there are two lips, upper and lower. Well, the upper lip is split in two by a deep indentation, the sign of two petals, and the lower lip is split in three, indicating three petals. The corolla of the snap-dragon, although apparently all in one piece, is therefore in reality composed of five petals welded together."

"There are, then," said Claire, "five petals in the mallow, pear, almond, digitalis, tobacco, and snap-dragon, with this difference, that the five petals are separate in the mallow, pear, and almond, and welded together in the digitalis, snap-dragon, and tobacco."

"Five petals, either separate or united," Uncle Paul went on, "are found in a great many other flowers.

"Let us come back to the calyx. The little green leaves of which it is composed are called sepals. There are five in the different flowers we have just examined, five in the mallow, five in tobacco, five in digitalis, five in the snap-dragon. Like the petals, the parts of the calyx, or sepals, sometimes remain separate, sometimes join together, but generally leave some indentations showing their number.

"The calyx having its parts distinct from one another is called a polysepalous calyx. That of the digitalis and of the snap-dragon is of this class.

"The calyx with sepals united is known as a monosepalous calyx. Such is that of the tobacco blossom. By the five indentations at its edge one can easily see that it is formed of five pieces joined together."

"The number five occurs again and again," observed Claire.

"A flower, my child, is beyond doubt a wonderful thing of beauty, but especially is it a masterpiece of wise construction. Everything about it is calculated according to fixed rules, everything arranged by number and measure. One of the most frequent arrangements is in sets of five. That is why we have just found five petals and five sepals in all the flowers examined this morning.

"Another grouping that often occurs is that in threes. It is found in bulb flowers,—the tulip, lily, lily of the valley, etc. These flowers have no green covering or calyx; they have only a corolla composed of six petals, three in an inner circle, three in an outer.

"The calyx and the corolla are the flower's clothing, a double clothing having both the substantial material that guards from inclemency, and the fine texture that charms the eye. The calyx, the outer garment, is of simple form, modest coloring, firm structure, suitable for withstanding bad weather. It has to protect the flower not yet opened, to shield it from the sun, from cold, and wet. Examine the bud of a rose or mallow; see with what minute precision the five sepals of the calyx are united to cover the rest. Not the slightest drop of water could penetrate the interior, so carefully are their edges joined together. There are flowers that close the calyx every evening as a safeguard against the cold.

"The corolla or inner garment unites elegance of form and richness of tint with fineness of texture. It is to the flower what wedding garments are to us. That is what especially captivates our eye, so that we commonly consider it the most essential part of the flower, while it is really only a simple ornamental accessory.

"Of the two garments, the calyx is the more necessary. Many flowers, of severe taste, know how to dispense with the pleasing part, the corolla; but they are very careful not to renounce the useful, the calyx, which, in its simplest form, is reduced to a tiny little leaf like a scale. Flowers without corolla remain unseen, and the plants that bear them seem to us to have no blossoms. It is a mistake: all trees and plants bloom."

"Even the willow, oak, poplar, pine, beech, wheat, and so many others whose blossoms I have never seen?" asked Jules.

"Even the willow, oak, and all the others. Their blossoms are extremely numerous, but, as they are very small and have no corolla, they escape the inattentive eye. There is no exception: every plant has its blossom."