Calendars have existed for thousands of years in various forms. The Chinese, Japanese, Romans, Egyptians, and Hopi and Navajo Indians, among countless others, developed calendars. Each of these calendars was different, but each was an accurate means of keeping track of the seasons and the passage of time. Because calendars were so closely tied with nature, it followed logically that different months should be associated with particular plants and flowers.
The Chinese, especially, used plants to keep track of time. According to Chinese folklore, two trees grew at the Court of Yao. One tree put forth one leaf every day for fifteen days as the moon waxed, and then it shed one leaf every day for fifteen days, as the moon waned. In this way, they measured the months. On the other side of the garden was a tree that put forth leaves every month for six months, then shed leaves every month for six months. In this way, they kept up with the passage of the years. A Chinese legend dating back to the seventh century A.D. says that Ho Hsien-Ku, daughter of a humble shopkeeper, ate the peach of immortality given to her by Canopus, god of longevity. She then became one of the eight Taoist immortals and decreed that honor should be paid to a particular flower each month of the year. This formed the basis of the Chinese floral calendar. Through the centuries, other civilizations adopted the custom of using a floral calendar. Primary among these was the Japanese and English.
The English took the art of keeping time with plants to an extreme with their experiments with a floral clock. A pet project of Carl Linnaeus, the floral clock, or watch of Flora, never worked quite as well as he has wished. The basis of the clock was forty-six flowers that opened during different times of the day and night. This was complicated by the fact that different flowers stayed open different lengths of time. Further complications involved variations in temperature, moisture, and light intensity, which also caused the plants to open sooner or later than they were supposed to. Another problem was that these flowers were chosen for when they opened, and not for their beauty or how they looked together. This created a garden that had little aesthetic appeal. Still another problem was that many of the flowers were of the Compositae family and had similar flower forms, giving a monotonous look to the garden. Some of the flowers used were chicory, day lily, calendula, and sow thistle. One of the more reliable plants was Tragopogon partensis, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon.
This was thought to be so accurate that boys working in the fields based their lunch time on the movements of this flower. In addition to formal calendars using certain flowers, superstitions and old wives’ tales about plants and flowers abound for each month of the year. These are generally connected with the changes in weather and how they affected the gardener.