OUR eloquent countryman, Mr. Ruskin, commences his work on "Flowers" by a somewhat severe criticism of his predecessors. He reproduces a page from a valuable but somewhat antiquated work, "Curtis's Magazine," which he alleges to be "characteristic of botanical books and botanical science, not to say all science," and complains bitterly that it is a string of names and technical terms. No doubt that unfortunate page does contain a list of synonyms and long words. But, in order to identify a plant, you must have synonyms and technical terms, just as to learn a language you must have a dictionary. To complain of this would be to resemble the man who said that Johnson's "Dictionary" was dry and disjointed reading. But no one would attempt to judge the literature of a country by reading a dictionary. So also we can not estimate the interest of a science by reading technical descriptions. On the other hand, it is impossible to give a satisfactory description of an animal or plant except in strict technical language. Let me reproduce a description which Mr. Ruskin has given of the swallow, and which, indeed, he says in his lecture on that bird, is the only true description that could be given. His lecture was delivered before the University of Oxford, and is, I need hardly say, most interesting.
Now, how does he describe a swallow? "You can," he says, "only rightly describe the bird by the resemblances and images of what it seems to have changed from, then adding the fantastic and beautiful contrast of the unimaginable change. It is, an owl that has been trained by the Graces. It is a bat that loves the morning light. It is the aerial reflection of a dolphin. It is the tender domestication of a trout." That is, no doubt, very poetical, but it would be absolutely useless as a scientific description, and, I must confess, would never have suggested, to me at least, the idea of a swallow.
But, though technical terms are very necessary in science, I shall endeavor, as far as I can, to avoid them here. As, however, it will be impossible for me to do so altogether, I will do my best at the commencement to make them as clear as possible, and I must therefore ask those who have already looked into the subject to pardon me if, for a few moments, I go into very elementary facts. In order to understand the structure of the seed, we must commence with the flower, to which the seed-owes its origin. Now, if you take such a flower as, say, a geranium, you will find that it consists of the following parts: firstly, there is a whorl of green leaves, known as the sepals, and together forming the calyx; secondly, a whorl of colored leaves, or petals, generally forming the most conspicuous part of the flower, and called the