Butterflies in Your Stomach? Everyday Phrases Fresh From the Garden

At the risk of planting an ear worm, if you’ve ever heard any of the many versions of the 1970s country hit (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden — made famous by the late Lynn Anderson and sung by everyone from lyricist and former Smiths front man Morrissey to punk rockers The Suicide Machines — you know the song wasn’t referring to an actual patch of dark red Mister Lincolns or Frida Kahlo floribundas. 

Instead, it meant that life isn’t always easy and if you expect it to be, you’re in for a surprise. No one guaranteed you a worry-free existence, not even your beau, who may be the apple of your eye. (Interestingly, that saying originally referred to the pupil of the eye, which in the 16th century was seen as being apple shaped.)

When you think about it, a lot of expressions stem from the garden. You could say it’s fertile ground for many of the phrases we use every day.

Some relate to growth and development, physical and personal. 

Are your kids growing like weeds? Did your boss notice your confidence blooming? After all those years of art lessons, is your sister’s talent finally blossoming?

Others reflect the steps it takes to get from concept to conclusion.

The last time you came up with a big plan, did it start with a seed of an idea? And if you wanted to turn that plan into a successful business where you’d be top banana, did you need seed money to do it? Were you profitable and able to enjoy the fruits of your labors (or were there too many thorny problems and the notion went nowhere, withering on the vine)? 

We may be barking up the wrong tree, but you probably use expressions like these all the time, without even thinking about it.

But why? And how did they come about?

Ancient roots

Considering language evolves alongside human activity, it’s no mystery why so many common expressions come from the world of gardening. After all, there’s evidence that people have been gardening for millennia. 

For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem written around 2100 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia (which is considered to be the birthplace of writing and recorded history), the city of Uruk is described as being “one third gardens.” 

While these were unlikely to have been flower gardens near homes and more likely were palm orchards for food, it’s evidence that gardening took root pretty early on. The more time people spent cultivating plants, the more they translated what they were seeing and doing into common sayings. They passed down those expressions — many of them colorful, relatable, and easily applied to things we experience and notice all the time — from one generation to the next. 

Out of their cocoon

Obviously, as times have changed and language has evolved, our garden-associated phrases have changed, too. In the late 1800s, calling something the bee’s knee (in the singular) suggested you thought it was small and insignificant. 

By the Roaring Twenties, though, the expression bee’s knees had taken on an entirely different meaning, referring to something excellent. (Admittedly, Bill and Ted’s Bee’s Knees Adventure doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

While flower gardens may seem to be a more likely source of everyday expressions (and especially rose gardens, which have given us phrases like everything's coming up roses, take time to smell the roses, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a bed of roses, among others) vegetable gardens haven’t exactly been overlooked (we’re here to squash the rumor they have!). Less than 50 years ago, for example, they inspired the ubiquitous term for a lazybones whose eyes are glued on a TV or screen: couch potato. 

There are probably at least a hundred expressions that started in the garden. We’d let you in on all of them, but we wouldn’t want to spill the beans. So, for now, we’ll just bug off.

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