A century before Emily Dickinson wrote that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” Erasmus Darwin (December 12, 1731–18 April 18, 1802) — Charles’s grandfather and his great influence on evolutionary ideas — set out “to inlist Imagination under the banner of Science, and to lead her votaries from the looser analogies, which dress out the imagery of poetry, to the stricter ones, which form the ratiocination of philosophy.”

Having spent seven years translating Linnaeus’s groundbreaking classification system from Latin into English, coining several common English names for flowers in the process, Darwin was especially thrilled by the new science of the sexual reproduction of plants. In 1791, he published one of the world’s first popular science books — the book-length poem The Botanic Garden, which endeavored to introduce Linnaeus’s sexual system to the common reader.

Auriculas from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the second half of the book, titled The Loves of Plants, Darwin celebrated the lushest part of the living world through the lens of romance and sex, slicing through the era’s corseted propriety with the intimation that human sexuality is just another part of Nature, as beautiful and valid as a flower.

Animating the book is the insistence that all living things are interlinked in a chain of being; it was in a long footnote to The Loves of Plants that he outlined the rudiments of evolutionary theory, which his grandson went on to develop in On the Origin of Species.

Predictably, having made science scintillating and orthogonal to theological dogma, The Botanic Garden became a bestseller deemed too explicit for unwed women to read.

Large-flowering sensitive plant (Mimosa grandiflora) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In addition to being a “natural philosopher” (the term for “scientist” before the word was coined for Mary Somerville), inventor, and ardent advocate for women’s education and the abolition of slavery, Erasmus Darwin was celebrated as a supreme English poet before the rise of Coleridge and Wordsworth. A quarter millennium before The Universe in Verse, he channeled its animating spirit, seeing in poetry a powerful portal of feeling into the life of the mind — a portal through which scientific ideas otherwise intimidating or alienating may enter freely, into a temperament of receptivity.

Tulips from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Darwin devoted his life to illuminating how nature works, meeting reality on its own terms and making of those terms a thing of beauty. These ideas came abloom anew in The Temple of Nature — his final and finest poem. He died before he could see its life in the world — it was published a year after his death and went on to influence generations of scientists, poets, naturalists, and philosophers.

Among them was the English physician and botanical writer Robert John Thornton (1768–1837). Between 1807 and 1812, Thornton published The Temple of Flora — a lavishly illustrated, poetry-laced effort to popularize Linnaeus’s sexual system, heavily influenced by The Botanic Garden and The Temple of Nature.

Stapelias from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Perhaps because Thornton was not a poet and his attempts at verse were a poor imitation of Darwin’s, the book was not a popular success — the 800 copies printed nearly bankrupted him. But the illustrations from it — scrumptious color engravings of some of Earth’s most magnificent flowers, based on paintings by the eminent artist Philip Reinagle — endure as some of the most breathtaking botanical art of all time.

Night-blooming cereus (Cactus grandiflorus) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Quadrangular passionflower (Passiflora quadrangularis) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Winged passionflower (Passiflora alata) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Nodding renealmia (Renealmia nutans) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Common blue passionflower (Passiflora cerulea) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Blue Egyptian water-lily (Nymphaea caerulea) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.).
Sacred Egyptian bean (Nymphaea nelumbo) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Indian reed (Canna indica) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
American cowslip (Meadia) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Yellow pitcher-plant (Sarracenia flava) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Pontic rhododendron from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Narrow-leaved kalmia (Kalmia augustifolia) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
American aloe (Agave americana) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Chinese limodoron (Limodoron tankervilleae) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Artichoke silver-tree (Protea cynaroides) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Carnations from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Superb lily (Lilium superbum) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Hyacinths from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Roses from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Snow-drop and crocus from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Persian cyclamen from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Dragon arum (Arum dracunculus) from The Temple of Flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, then savor the science of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for nonbinary plants — with a side of Emily Dickinson. (All roads in nature lead back to Emily.)



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