Jean-Jacques Rousseau relates in his Confessions that one day in 1764 he and a friend were climbing up a hill at Cressier, near Neuchatel in Switzerland, when he ‘exclaimed with a cry of joy, “Ah! There is some periwinkle!” ’; the friend ‘observed my delight, without knowing the cause of it’. The flower had reawakened in Rousseau a happy memory from thirty years earlier, when he knew nothing of botany and the plant had been pointed out to him by his protector, tutor and lover, Madame de Warens. The popularity in France of the Confessions means that plant is now commonly regarded as an emblem of memory and friendship.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on 28th June, 1712, and so there are just a few days left to mark his 300th anniversary. At the time of the periwinkle sighting he had been living for a couple of years in nearby Môtiers, after protests in Paris over his view of religion had forced him to flee. And it was there, when he was fifty, that he developed a passion for botany that was to last the rest of his life. He ordered a shelfload of books, and as he collected plants he annotated their margins – you can see them here. Straightaway he began to plan a botanical dictionary. His approach to plants, like his philosophy, is at the same time far removed from present-day understanding and immensely appealing, due not least to the clarity and force of his writing.
Rousseau admired Linnaeus, whose Species Plantarum had been published in 1753, and wrote to him:
Alone with Nature and with you I spend happy hours walking in the countryside, and from your Philosophia botanica I get more real profit than from all other books on ethics…
It was Linnaeus who gave Vinca its generic name, from the Latin vincire (to bind), referring to its use in garlands. Rousseau followed Linnaeus in seeing species as individually created by the Deity and immutable, and for him plant-collecting prompted transports of religious wonder:
Nothing is more singular than the rapture, the ecstacy I felt at every observation I made on vegetable structure, and on the play of the sexual parts in fructification. The forks of the long stamina of the Self-heal . . . the explosion of the fruit of Balsam . . . and a hundred little acts of fructification filled me with delight, and I ran about asking people if they had ever seen the horns on the Self-heal, just as La Fontaine asked if Habbakuk had ever been read.
The world of nature was a solace to Rousseau when the world of politics and religion rained blows on his head. He wrote: ‘If only I had imitated the Uppsala professor [Linnaeus], I would have won a few days of happiness and years of peace of mind.’
I was lucky enough to be given a copy of his Elementary Letters on Botany , written in the 1770s to a female friend he had met in Môtiers in 1762. In these he makes clear he has no time for botany as a science:
You must not, my dear friend, give botany an importance which it does not have; it is a study of pure curiosity, one that has no real utility except what a thinking, sensitive human being can draw from observing nature and the marvels of the universe. Man has rendered many things unnatural, the better to put them to his own use…
Here he is talking about grafting of wild fruit trees, and the selective breeding of flowers, which he describes as ‘monsters deprived of the faculty of reproducing their own kind’. He was also against the transport and naturalisation of plants from one part of the world to another: his response to the classification of Vinca major as an invasive species in temperate regions of Australia, New Zealand and the United States would surely have been ‘I told you so.’