THE YOUNG GIRL, her hands full of flowers from the garden, came in to beg her mother for a story -- "a brand new one, Mama."
Mother plucked a pretty pansy from the bouquet and was reminded of a story her mother had told, one summer long ago.
"Once upon a time there was a little flower king with two lovely daughters. The king's wife had died and so he searched for a new queen to mother his children and be his companion. But alas, the king married a woman whose beauty was only skin deep. She allowed only her own two daughters to dress as princesses, and dressed the king's daughters in very plain gowns. She even made them share one chair . . ."
At this, Mama pointed to the pansy's top two petals. "See, my dear, their gowns have no trimming," she said as she tore off petals Nos. 1 and 2, revealing a single sepal (a small underleaf on the stem).
"And look how the two poor sisters had to sit on one chair. But the queen's daughters wore pretty gowns with dainty decorations and each had her own throne." She pointed to petals Nos. 3 and 4 and tore them off to reveal two sepals.
"But to show you how selfish this queen truly was, why just look at her gown," she said, showing petal No. 5. "It has the fullest skirt, with a flounce and the fanciest design.
"And how many thrones do you think this greedy queen kept for herself? Why, two!" And with this, Mama tore off the last petal to reveal two tiny sepal thrones.
"But Mama where was the poor little king all this time?"
"Why right here, my child," she said, pointing to the stem, "down in the basement with his feet in a foot-tub. And such a funny little tub, too, for it's so long and narrow that you wonder just how he manages to get his feet in it. But indeed he does," Mama said as she smiled and pulled the tub off to show the king's tiny feet, just as real as can be.
"And to keep him warm, look here, his sweet daughters have knitted him a wee yellow scarf which he wears around his neck."
With this wondrous tale completed -- and Mrs. Sharp hopes you share it with your dears -- both mother and child were charmed by the simple magic of flower lore, a tradition easily rediscovered.
Do you remember the summers of your childhood and the carefree hours you were entertained by Mother Nature's many toys -- hollyhock dolls, cucumber boats, Mr. Jack-in-the-Pulpit's lectures, morning-glory maidens, peach-pit baskets, weeping-willow whistles, walnut-shell ships, acorn doll dishes, coconut cradles and sunflower parasols?
Children have always played with Mother Nature's novelties. All that's required, even of your very modern child, is a merry heart, imagination and time enough to be gay, which are summer's gifts to the child in all of us.
To help us reach back, and to refresh your memories of nature's playthings, Mrs. Sharp has two recommendations. First is The Long Ago Lake: A Child's Book of Nature Lore and Crafts by Marne Wilkins (Sierra Club/Charles Scribner's Sons, $5.95; available by mail, plus $2.25 for postage, from The Ark, 4245 Crestline Ave., Fair Oaks CA 95628; 916/967-2607). This charming memoir captures the essence of childhood summers spent on a Wisconsin lake 50 years ago by mixing family lore with craft projects.
The second is Snips & Snails & Walnut Whales: Nature Crafts for Children by Phyllis Fiarotta ($8.95, Workman Publishing Co.), a compendium of more than 100 projects to make with flowers, leaves, twigs, pine cones, stones and even spider webs that's excellent for beginners in nature crafts.
But neither book tells how to create summer's most ephemeral entertainment -- the flower doll. In Mrs. Sharp's memory, no such dolls were ever as beloved as these perishable beauties fashioned with wit and wonder from common flowers. Herewith:
You will need assorted trumpet or bell-shaped flowers in complimentary colors -- brilliant hollyhock or Canterbury-bell blossoms work best for the lady's overskirt and waist. Next, a morning glory or petunia in full bloom for her ruffled petticoat. A snapdragon blossom would work as a head, or a daisy with facial features etched in. Broomstraws stuck through phlox are her arms (which besides being fetching will hold her together). Top her off with a nasturtium bonnet and let our flower doll carry a delicate daisy parasol. If you don't have a garden, buy a bouquet from the corner vendor.
Mrs. E. F. Sharp is a Victorian author and mother who has been advising families on seasonal pleasures for more than a century. She is assisted in this century by Washington writer Sarah Ban Breathnach.