Mad about mimosa
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Exploding into abundance in the dead of winter with delicate, cloud-like yellow flowers, the mimosa is a botanical boom. It heralds brighter days to come, but pinning down its history, meaning and even name is as thorny as its evergreen branches. “When we talk about mimosa in Britain, we’re really talking about acacia,” says Simon Toomer, curator of living collections at Kew Gardens. “As often happens with non-native plants, they have both adopted names and origin names, which change and evolve over time. Common names are lovely, but they can be confusing.”
Part of the Fabaceae, or pea family, the Acacia dealbata originates from south-east Australia and Tasmania, and arrived in Europe around 1820. There are around 1,300 varieties, though it’s the golden mimosa that’s most widely known. “Acacia has quickly become a very popular tree,” says Toomer. “It does better now than a century ago, as climate change has played into its hands.”
Mimosa is an enduring symbol of strength and beauty. In floriography, the Victorian language of flowers used to convey messages, yellow mimosa offered an expression of love and admiration. In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology and How They Change Our Lives, Stephen Buchmann cites the use of flowering plants including acacia as medicinal herbs as far back as the days of the pharaohs; the plants were excavated at a sacred animal necropolis at North Saqqara, Egypt. The name acacia derives from the Greek “akis”, meaning point or barb, and in certain parts of the world, including South America and southern Africa, its sheer adaptability marks it out as an invasive problem plant.
Not so in Europe, where come January it vivifies the chicest tables and interiors. “We’re definitely having a mimosa moment,” says the cook and author Skye McAlpine, whose new book, A Table Full of Love: Recipes to Comfort, Seduce, Celebrate and Everything Else in Between (out on 2 February), explores the emotive power of food beyond simple sustenance. It features a nostalgic recipe for mimosa truffles, made with limoncello and white chocolate, covered in yellow floral-like crumbs. “Mimosa is my happy flower,” says McAlpine, who grew up in Venice, where the golden mimosa has been an integral part of Italy’s La Festa della Donna (Women’s Day) celebrations for more than 75 years – on 8 March each year, women give and receive mimosa posies as a marker of solidarity.
“It’s an incredibly positive tradition, one that makes you feel as though you’re being celebrated just for being yourself,” says McAlpine, whose mother (and teacher) would proffer annual bunches of mimosa. Today, McAlpine still fills her house with flowers from the market and picks up bags of sugared acacia flowers from the Venetian pastry shop Rosa Salva to prettify puddings on the day. She has also been known to create huge tiered mimosa cakes festooned with real flowers that, in her words, conjure sparkly yellow fireworks.
The practice of eating acacia is age-old. In Edible Flowers: How, Why, and When We Eat Flowers, Monica Nelson charts the use of mimosa as a pollen-rich edible with some prominent fans. US president Thomas Jefferson called it “the most delicious flowering shrub in the world” and grew it in the garden of his Charlottesville plantation Monticello, where it continues to flourish. “It must be one of the first mimosa in America,” says Nelson, who points to the plant’s historical use in cakes and tinctures as colouring and in perfume and medicine. “The pollen alone opens up this whole other world of applications, from dusting it over cookies to drinking it in tea,” she adds. “The human reaction to flowers is really magnetic and intense. Eating flowers is a way of drawing nature closer and incorporating their beauty into our lives.” Would-be harvesters, beware: stick to Acacia dealbata, she warns, as other varieties can be poisonous.
For Natalie Sytner, the founder of Italian ceramics and homeware label Bettina Ceramica, who frequently features mimosa in her brand imagery (see image, top), the flower is forever synonymous with womanly zeal. As a child, her mother would cut a posy from the mimosa tree in their courtyard. “It’s widely grown in Liguria, northern Italy, where she grew up, and in the town of Bordighera, where we spend summers, there’s a mimosa trail that was a favourite walk of Monet’s and features in some of his paintings,” she says. Known as the land of mimosa, it’s an area that’s been populated by acacia farms for generations, and it instantly conjures their distinctively heady scent.
“It’s an aroma that reminds me of the Mediterranean and the Côte d’Azur,” says Charlotte Semler, the co-founder of the British fragrance brand Verden and skincare line Votary. During school holidays, Semler’s grandfather would drive her from her native Denmark to their seaside home on the French Riviera – an arrival that remains deeply embedded in her olfactory memory.
“The first thing you’d see were these wafts and wafts of mimosa by the front door,” she recalls. “It was so joyful – the smell, the colour, the warmth – and very meaningful as a counterpoint to the dreariness of the cold northern European winter.” Verden’s forthcoming fragrance Hortosa, which comes in hand and body wash, balm and candle form, evokes the delights of a mimosa garden. “It smells like spring flowers,” says Semler of the blend of jasmine, neroli, rose and mimosa that assails the senses with an evocative sweetness that’s intended to spark hopefulness. “Mimosa arrives just at the moment when we are all yearning for that burst of sunshine,” she says. “It’s like a note from summer to say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m coming.’”
American artist Donald Sultan is also enchanted by acacia. “It’s such a beautiful and delicate flower. To me it seems so soft and unobtrusive,” says Sultan from his Manhattan studio, where he recasts mimosa in abstract forms and on an industrial scale. “A French friend sent me a letter with a little mimosa posy inside – I’d never seen them before,” he says. It ignited a fascination that has consumed his creative output ever since. “I’m still stuck on mimosa,” he says simply.
Sultan is not alone: Vincent van Gogh, Matisse and Pierre Bonnard all endeavoured to replicate its exuberant forms, as did the English biologist and botanical artist Marianne North, who memorably captured mimosa in the early 1880s in the wilds of Queensland, Australia. The species would later become the nation’s floral emblem. “The vivid tones of green and gold of what we call golden wattle have become the national colours,” says the botanical writer and art historian Olivia Meehan. “In the early 1900s wattle came to represent sunshine and love – and at that time it was perhaps a way for migrants to connect with the land.” She points to a portrait by William Dargie titled Wattle Queen, which shows Queen Elizabeth II resplendent in a mimosa-yellow gown, a sprig of wattle at her shoulder, painted to mark her 1954 Australian royal tour. At her more recent memorial, Australian mourners carried mimosa sprigs to adorn a golden wreath. “It felt like a very poetic gesture,” says Meehan. “A wattle wreath for the wattle queen.”
So how best to bring that eternal wattle sunshine home? Designer Hikari Yokoyama, who runs the sustainable cut-flower business Naum Flower, advises arranging acacia either alone – as a boldly purist statement in the style of Parisian florist Louis-Géraud Castor (also a favourite of Nicolas Ghesquière) – or paired with something sharper for contrast, such as ranunculus, anemone, paper whites or Icelandic poppies. “Hockney has said he hates daffodils as they seem garish and feel overused. I have to agree. To me, mimosa has a slightly different springtime feel that’s more elegant, exotic and ethereal,” she says. “As soon as I see them, it feels like winter is finally over.” Here comes the sun.