When I was a young child my parents regularly played host at various meals over the Christmas period to a series of young men, who were colleagues of my father. On duty during the festive season, they were often stationed away from home and in those days I doubt any would have had a car to enable them to travel back to see their families in their time off. Grateful for the inclusion into our family celebration, they would often bring flowers for my mother and a gift for me. Among the numerous selection boxes and the odd (as in occasional rather than strange) doll was one gift that stood out then, and remains clear in my mind now. I would have been about five years old. Beautifully wrapped, it was a book. Not a standard size book, nor even a large book, but one which, standing about three feet tall, was positively enormous. It was filled with the most beautifully detailed pictures and these were my introduction to the world of Flower Fairies.
The 170 botanically accurate illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) which accompanied her verse still enchant today (though I am less enamoured by her poetry). Each of the exquisitely drawn fairies was responsible for the welfare of his or her plant. Living in gardens, on the wayside or perhaps in a marsh, the baby fairy sleeps in their flower, and as it grows so the fairy grows too. Many of the flowers depicted could be found in the garden of my childhood. My mother was a keen gardener and taught me the names of many which remain my favourites today.
Heliotrope’s my name; and why
People call me “Cherry Pie”,
That I really do not know;
But perhaps they call me so,
’Cause I give them such a treat,
Just like something nice to eat.
For my scent—O come and smell it!
How can words describe or tell it?
And my buds and flowers, see,
Soft and rich and velvety—
Deepest purple first, that fades
To the palest lilac shades.
Well-beloved, I know, am I—
Heliotrope, or Cherry Pie!
I have no memory of what happened to my much loved book, but a few years ago bought myself a smaller (and it must be said, inferior) version which served to remind me of my favourite fairies and of those long forgotten. Although I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never find any, I used to hope so hard that one day I’d find a fairy at the bottom of my garden.