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Ep 66: On the Life Cycle of Flowers and the Art of Being Subtly Beautiful
The flower is a universal symbol of beauty, not just in terms of its visual representation, but also because of its association with scent and perfumes – floral perfumes.
While flowers may paint an otherworldly picture of heavenly beauty, our appreciation of flowers actually tells of mankind’s innate desire for subtlety in beauty. One that doesn’t just value physical form of shape, pattern and texture, but also qualities of transience. Floral perfumes engage our olfactory senses, an experience that may mimic our own self-soothing psychological mechanisms of memory processing— a critical part of how one finds beauty in the everyday with the passage of time.
Hi guys I’m Dr. Teo Wan Lin of TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre. Welcome to today’s episode of Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty. Today I am going to talk about flowers, the eternal symbol of beauty, their life cycle, and what they can teach us about the art of being subtly beautiful.
The art of subtlety
The word ‘subtle’ actually originates from a Latin root word, which refers to fabric having a fine weave. In today’s world, subtlety is defined, according to the Oxford Dictionary, as something delicate or so precise that it is difficult to analyze or to describe. The original Latin root word is essentially pointing to something which is understated, delicate or nuanced. When we talk about “the art of being subtle” we are actually referring to the act of conveying something in a skillful, clever way that is strategic and intentional.
On the topic of beauty, I think that we can identify with this sentiment. Trying too hard to be beautiful can come across as garish or distasteful. This description is often referring to clothing or attire. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps the evolution of our consumerist mindset has led to the belief that more is better, more beautiful. That the louder, the more attention-grabbing something is, the more beautiful. Is this really true? I would like to look at the example of a flower – the eternal and universal symbol of beauty. To see if we can shed some light on this topic.
Beauty is hard to please but the flower exudes it perfectly
The quality of floral blooms is such that it universally elicits an emotion of beauty. Also, bringing to mind the ideal of beauty. Why is that so? There are true biological traits that we can observe in the morphology of the flower which can account for it. For example, in its color, shape, in the delicate nature of the floral petals. For some reason, I feel that a flower’s beauty is almost never outlandish or garish. We can say the same about many things found in nature. They are magnificent but never over the top. To me, that is truly miraculous. This is because it is easy for a perfect, aesthetically symmetrical, morphologically symmetrical object to be regarded as tacky or garish. Even if it is made as an exact copy of what it was trying to imitate.
We are hard-wired to find the transient and subtle more beautiful, maybe because it fuels our hope in tomorrow, the eternal
I think there is a real answer to this found in neuroscience. The way we are hardwired as human beings to perceive organic forms and natural states as being the most pleasing to our eyes is evidence that we crave subtle beauty. There may or may not be a true mathematical definition of these organic objects in nature. For example, scientists have discovered the concept of fractals in nature and organic forms. They posit that it is essentially what makes every natural phenomenon not just unique, but also replicable and identifiable by its overall morphology.
Hence, for this reason, we are able to identify different animals. Even in the plant kingdom, within the same species of plants, there are differences and yet they are uniform. That is really an example of the genius of nature. In terms of being able to maintain homogeneity, and at the same time, being individually distinct. This contributes to the concept of subtle beauty. Very often, we are inclined to think that being unique is also the definition of being beautiful. Simply because it is different from everything else. The mystery here is truly that nature relies on the subtlety of its creations to bring out the sense of beauty.
The ephemeral quality of floral blooms
The other quality of floral blooms is the ephemeral nature of its petals and the bloom itself. There are certainly lessons for us to draw from this quiet beauty of a flower- not making a sound throughout its entire lifecycle. In today’s world, we often feel like we are drowning in all the noise. When applied to the beauty and fashion industry, and in all forms of media that we consume, it can seem like you need to be loud in order to be heard. I feel that it there is something that is quite different, in East Asian culture at least. Where subtlety and quietness are traditionally valued as forms of meditation and produce a sense of quiet self-confidence.
Self-regenerating quality of a bloom
Philosophically, I feel that flowers themselves represent this very unique quality of beauty. It is both material in the sense that physically, we can appreciate why flowers are beautiful. With its myriad colours, different shapes, and the way our body and our mind reacts to it is physically tangible. But at the same time, I think we all understand and can appreciate that the floral beauty of a flower of a bloom is not just in what one can see, but also in its scent, engaging another one of our senses. That is very interesting as well because it is distinct and unique to each type of flower.
The bloom itself is transient. It lasts only for a couple of days for most flowers, and then the flower goes to seed. The seed then sprouts new plants, which when they reach maturity, will flower again. This is the self regenerating, eternal quality of plants that I feel contribute to not just the physical beauty that we see on the flower, but also the philosophical idea of a beautiful phenomenon that is self regenerating, reminding us of eternity. To compare the beauty of a physical bloom of a flower to that of a synthetic flower. Without a question, we can tell that there is a very big difference. There is almost no room for comparison. The inherent beauty of a living bloom is apparently then, quite distinct. Especially when you compare it to even a perfectly crafted artificial flower.
Memories are beautiful because our moments, just like the blooms, are transient
To illustrate, look at how we feel towards artificial blooms. Most of the time we feel almost nothing in comparison to the emotion that fresh blooms elicit in us. I think this is very telling, in terms of our human psyche, that we crave organic material. Be it from the scents that arise from the living bloom, or even from the fact that we innately do like things that are transient. Because it is transient, and we know it doesn’t last forever, we also appreciate it more.
In terms of the scent of natural blooms, it is certainly possible to replicate this with synthetic fragrances. A lot of these synthetic molecules are actually copies of what is found in nature. They are longer lasting and more suited to be bottled in floral perfumes. However, the key here is that the inspiration is from a natural bloom. I think this is also why fragrance is so important to men and women. For women, we actually associate the fragrances or perfumes that we use with our own memories. I feel that it is our emotional response to scent that also helps to encapsulate this emotion of beauty that we get from flowers. So when we wear floral perfumes, we are often reminded of our favorite flower.
Transient beauty in a bottle
So in that sense, floral perfumes and fragrances actually encapsulate our desire to be beautiful. Because like how these blooms are transient in nature, the volatile compounds that make up a fragrance in a bottle of perfume are also transient – it dissipates after a certain time. But at the same time, it’s almost like when we apply it, we are immediately transported to this world where the fragrance can remind us of this beauty that we had once experienced.
I think it is imprinted in our human psyche that we do seek out subtlety, transience and what is organic in terms of its origin and form, as opposed to what is synthetic or artificial. Therefore, really this idea of transience which is in our human concept of beauty is a huge part of our psyche. That may be the cause that leads us to seek out what is immortal and eternal.
Even our quest for agelessness, at the end of the day, may be linked to our subconscious acknowledgment of the ephemeral.
Scents and the human experience
Moving on, the reason I think flowers are also the archetype of our discussion on beauty today is that as a symbol of beauty, it is intricately associated in the human experience with this beautiful sense and allure of natural floral perfumes unique to each flower. It’s a testament to the fact that we human beings with our olfactory senses are actually able to process this remarkable experience, which is purely olfactory, but also visual. However, I think that one can seek out this sensation or emotion of beauty purely from the olfactory standpoint.
In my opinion, this is actually real evidence that beauty is an experience and maybe a sensation and emotion rather than any sort of objective definition that has to fit certain criteria. For example, we are also able to study the effects of aromatherapy in medicine. In terms of its positive impact on our wellbeing, our psychology, our emotional states. It can help us on many levels and eventually can even translate to an overall sense of physical wellbeing.
Beauty in nature arises out of maturity
I want to end this podcast with a discussion on the lifecycle of a flower. The fact is that flowers do not appear overnight. In fact, if you ask any gardener, they will tell you that flowers are only present in mature plants. Hence, the lifecycle of a plant is such that it takes time to bloom to reach maturity. For example, a rosebush, doesn’t start off as a rose, and it is only a part of the plant. It is the rest of the plant like the tree and branches, which when it’s healthy, fully grown and mature. After it reaches a certain age that then starts to produce small buds. Subsequently, these become full blooms. Rose bushes are where roses come from, and not your floral shops.
What we have commercialised in the floral industry sometimes can lead one to think that beauty is a commodity. In fact, it may influence our subconscious. Delving deep into this topic, which allows us to understand how roses truly are in nature, can help to soothe our psyche. Especially if we are struggling with the demands of a consumerist society. Also, in terms of unrealistic depictions of beauty that affect our self esteem. Roses grow out of thorny rose bushes. At first, it doesn’t even appear as a beautiful stately tree, but simply as a thorny bush. It starts off either as a seed or as a propagated cutting. When it’s young and immature, it doesn’t bloom. It’s only when it reaches maturity that it produces the most beautiful, but transient blooms.
Self care of our outer and inner selves
I think there is a lesson here with regards to the adaptation of our definitions of beauty as a consumer of it. While it is very good for us to indulge in self-care, and also keep ourselves physically healthy. For example, through the use of cosmeceuticals and adopting a healthy lifestyle. At the same time, it is critical for us to heal our inner world as well. Therefore, helping this journey is really the story of how a rose comes to be. I think we all struggle with this idea that things are less than perfect. In nature, everything that can be viewed eventually as perfect always starts off as imperfect. This instant gratification that we get from the media we consume today may actually be influencing our personal assessments of beauty.
A lesson from the life cycle of flowers
The innate reflection here to me is that we ought to view the lifecycle of a flower- the eternal and perfect symbol of beauty by all standards and universal definitions of beauty. The life cycle of flowers actually teaches us the beauty of time and maturity as a journey that is often fraught with difficulties or imperfections. However, we can truly trust that it will reach its most perfect state in its own time. It is well said in a biblical text:
“See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”
If we were to focus our energies on fashion, for example, in terms of the key to making us beautiful, it can be quite frustrating. We also find that it’s hard to please everyone because of changing fashion trends. But for some reason, the humble flowers seem to exude it perfectly.
I feel that we can learn a lot from floral beauty. First of all, we appreciate that it is with time and age, with maturity, that we truly can blossom. It’s partly because of our own emotional journey that helps us appreciate the things around us, which we probably had taken for granted before. This includes the beauty of humble flowers, the beauty of scents. Well, that’s it for today’s podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion: a storytelling of the allure of flowers, the science of floral beauty, and the art of being subtly beautiful, just like the rose
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