Jennifer Potter, author of Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World, at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Jennifer Potter, author of Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World, at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Great to be back at the Hay Winter Weekend with my new flower book. It was my very first book festival, back in 2006, when I came with Strange Blooms, my biography of the early seventeenth century gardeners, the John Tradescants. Much smaller and more intimate than the summer jamboree, Hay’s winter festival still strikes me as a terrific meeting point between writers and audiences.

Part of my affection for Hay stems from the cafe quiz the festival hosted on that first opening night, which saw me on the winning team for the only time in my life. Team member Rosie Boycott was a whizz on political questions and Howard Marks chipped in with an answer about Colombia’s FARC guerrillas (“Believe me, I know,” he told us).  No flowers, I’m afraid, but I had a running streak with questions about art. We won a 12-foot Christmas tree between four of us, which we graciously donated back to the festival, though I have a rankling memory that the runners-up won a crate of wine.

No quiz this year but a night of skiffle in the glorious building site of Hay Castle with Thrill Collins, who provided the warm up act for this summer’s Glastonbury Festival. They got everyone dancing, some of us still in our coats, and their sly take on songs from the eighties and nineties had everyone smiling, most of all band member Pete Harper on vocals and cajon drum who spent most of the set laughing his head off.

My flower talk was scheduled for Saturday, a day of golden winter sunlight when Hay was looking at its magical best, and we should all have been outdoors. I love festivals for the challenge they bring of meeting the people who have read – or might read – your books. Each audience is different and you get a very real sense of singing for your supper. At Bridport this year, people laughed a lot. At Folkestone they said my voice was like having a massage (is that good or bad?). At Hay, a steward who sat in on the event said she could feel the focus in the room, which I found reassuring; like most performers, we want to know how we’ve done. I liked the questions, too. They were sharp and pointed and opened up new tangents I might have pursued while writing the book.

The last question framed the talk beautifully. Having spent five years researching and writing a cultural history of the rose, and two more years looking at seven flowers that have shaped our perceptions of the world, I was asked if the rose was significant in more cultures than any other flower. The answer is yes and no: yes for the West and Middle Eastern societies such as Iran, no for China and the East, even though China has more endemic species than anywhere else. And the rose is native only to the northern hemisphere, so southern incarnations have been transplanted from elsewhere.

I finished off with a story about The Speech of Flowers, a tiny book from Oliver Cromwell’s time I found in the British Library. The rose calls together the other flowers to complain about the upstart tulip, which threatened to dethrone her as the Queen of Flowers. After much debate, the flowers voted that the tulip should be rooted out of gardens and cast on the dunghill as a foreign interloper. Xenophobia stalked the garden, even then.