Beyond the red rose: a walk in a rose garden

[~ 10 minutes]

Listening to: Brooke Fraser, Scarlet

O my Luve’s like a red red rose
That’s newly sprung in June

— Robert Burns

I. Hortus conclusus

There’s a rose garden I know, a garden I haunt on occasion.

It’s not particularly large; close to the sea, girdled with a stone wall that turns it into a modern day variety of hortus conclusus, only with no virgins in sight.

Many roses grow there, some old, some new. I have no names for most of them—or, rather, I do have a list of names provided by the owners, beautiful names like Gloire de Dijon, and Cymbeline, and Cuisse de nymphe. However, with rare exceptions, for the most part I struggle to attach name to bloom.

A rose by any other name… would have different parentage, presumably. And might, or might not, smell as sweet.

My triumphs are few, but taste sweeter than nectar. I’ve been delighted by the scent of a Rosa rugosa cultivar in delicate shades of creamy vanilla, its stems aggressively covered in countless thorns.

I recognise the rambling banksiae roses both yellow and white, draping themselves over stone arches and trees. I’ve finally met the Macartney rose (Rosa bracteata), its lush green foliage the perfect background for gorgeous white blooms with a gilded, sun-like centre. Continue reading

Say it with narcissi: flowers to celebrate the Chinese New Year

How a scented Mediterranean flower ended up bewitching the Far East

[~ 6 minutes]

Listening to: Yoko Kano,  Aqua

’Tis said that the sense of smell is intimately connected with memory, something that Proust and his madeleines apparently turned into an incontestable truth.

I am not usually assailed by memories when smelling anything in particular; however, there’s one scent that does trigger a Proustian recollection within me, the scent of a flower that blooms every winter in my parents’ garden: paper whites, or Narcissus tazetta L.

Although narcissus aren’t flowers you’d usually associate with Spain, it turns out that the Iberian peninsula actually boasts the greatest biological diversity of this genus: we have them in all shapes, sizes and colours. The ones I’m familiar with belong to one of the few divisions, the Tazettae, whose members bloom profusely on each flower stalk (instead of producing a single bloom at the tip).

Narcissus tazetta

If I had to choose a single word to describe them, if would be fragrant. Their perfume though can be dangerous, or so the ancient Greek myths would have it: some versions of Persephone’s descent into the Underworld featured the narcissus as the sweet-smelling flowers that Hades used to lure the young goddess into his clutches.

Indeed ’tis said that the name narcissus could be related to the Greek root narkao — the same that gave us words such as narcotic. Continue reading

[Book-a-Leafing] Ladders to Heaven

(Shanahan. Unbound 2016)

Listening to: Enya, Storms in Africa

“Dear Reader: You and I are related, both in blood and through figs.”

Figs have been part of my story since I was a child.

Not that I noticed them at the time; for many years they were in the background of my memories, whether as stumpy trees that yielded fruit others loved eating, or as the benevolent green giants that shadowed our front school yard.

I don’t think I knew they were related, my family’s fig trees and the behemoths at school. At some point though, I began paying close attention to this group of trees every time I stumbled across one, whether in real life or in books.

Fig trees crop up pretty often when you look for them, you see.

Ugandan bark cloth from Ficus cf natalensis, omutuba
Ugandan bark cloth made from Ficus cf natalensis, omutuba (at least, so I was told!)

They were in the Egyptian myths I so loved when I was a kid; they were lining the streets of the cities I’ve lived in; they were in Ugandan craft shops transformed into bark cloth; they were in my mother’s yard, and on those incredible pictures of old Cambodian ruins…

In the end, coming to love fig trees was inevitable: they wear you down by virtue of being everywhere you look— even when you’re not seeking them out on purpose.


Such was the case with this book, which I found via the author’s blog Under the Banyan.

I recall being thrilled when I discovered the website; its tagline, “Stories about us and nature”, described so well what I was trying to do, and the author was a biologist, too! So I began following it, and I soon discovered this guy had a thing for figs.

The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) that gave the blog its name? It was there for a reason.

He was even writing a book on the cultural history of the genus Ficus. So when the occasion came once it was published, I bought a copy. I thought hey, figs are part of my story, after all; it’ll be fun to learn more about them…

After reading the book though, I realised I was nothing special.

Because figs have been part of virtually everybody’s story, whether they realise it or not, since forever. The deep roots of this genus have enfolded you —yes, even you!— in a quiet embrace that encompasses the entire human race.

Let me share with you my impressions as a reader, so you can fig(hah!)ure out whether the book might pique your interest, too… Continue reading

Of Incense & Beans: elusive plants in Greek religion

[~ 6 minutes]

Listening to: Sleepthief feat. Jody Quine, Eurydice

It was the beans’ fault, of course.

Had it not been for the philosopher’s strange obsession with them, Pythagoras would’ve probably been filed away in my memory alongside other mathematically inclined Greek figures.

But he did have something for fava beans (Vicia faba L.), or so the ancients wrote, and everybody has been trying to explain it away ever since. This means he crops up in the most unexpected of places, such as a book on the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in which ’tis suggested that Pythagoras’ ‘beans’ were not broad beans, as it has been assumed for centuries, but lotus seeds instead.

(This sounds a lot more plausible when you realise that the Greek word for sacred lotus was, indeed, “Egyptian bean”, kyamos Aigyptios. Although I cannot fathom how they possibly found them remotely similar. Of course the Greeks apparently used the word kyamos rather… indiscriminately. They also called henbane ‘pig bean’, hyos-cyamus, and there is NOTHING bean-ish about henbane —or lotus-ish, for that matter).


Pythagoras, frankincense and divination: what we (don’t) know

However, I was not expecting to encounter my legendary philosopher-mathematician during my research on olibanum (frankincense, Boswellia sacra). As it turns out, at least one of his biographers, the Roman Porphyry, pointed at him as the introducer of the art of libanomancy* in Greece. Continue reading

[Book-a-Leafing] The Orchid in lore and legend

(Berliocchi. Timber Press 2004)

Listening to: Seay, Orion’s Gate

 Orchids are something of a cultural conundrum.

Despite being one of nature’s most diversified and sizeable plant families, with members spread all over the world (save for Antarctica), their role in our cultures is disproportionately small, and blooms relatively late in time. With the exception of some oriental orchids (Cymbidium spp) beloved by the Chinese and Japanese, Mesoamerica’s precious black vanilla beans, and a few other examples, most orchids lived in the shadow of the world’s cultural consciousness.

Martin Johnson Heade, Jungle Orchids and Hummingbirds (1872)
Martin Johnson Heade, Jungle Orchids and Hummingbirds (1872)

It was thus with great pleasure that I found Dr. Berliocchi’s book on the role “in lore and legend” of the orchid family, hoping to glimpse what meanings, both ancient and new, humans have given these extraordinary flowering plants.

The book is such a necklace of interesting facts and tidbits, anecdotes, legends, stories… that it’s difficult to choose which ones I enjoyed the most. Continue reading

Datura & I: a thorny history

On the elusive history of thorn-apple in the Old World (Datura spp

[~ 8 minutes]

Listening to: Delerium feat. Michael Logen, Days Turn into Nights

I walked out of the botanic garden with my legs on fire and my heart overflowing with excitement.

I’d gotten her. At last.

Flirty white skirt fairly glowing in the darkness, I’d caught my ghost by moonlight —or, rather, LED-light.

After a month of chasing shadows we had finally met, Datura and I.


Before the hunt: how I met the thorn-apples

I had been hunting magic plants of late. Collecting their stories, then re-spinning them with an extra twist. I’d first gathered tales of plants used against the evil eye, then moved on to those legendary plants connected with witchcraft, the nightshades. Mandrake, deadly nightshade, henbane… and, finally, the last one standing: the thorn-apples* I knew, Datura stramonium and D. metel.

*one of many names, among which devil’s trumpets, devil’s weed, or jimsonweed.

Our story had begun years before I ever set eyes on her, during a university course on plant diversity. I still remember the professor’s sheepish warning concerning D. stramonium, a piece of advice evidently linked to his own experiences with her: do not smoke, ever. Continue reading

A girl’s guide to dyeing your hair with henna

[~ 9 minutes]

Listening to: Conjure One feat. Azam Ali, Nargis

Warning: this is a personal how-to guide for people (I’m guessing mainly females) interested in henna-dyeing their hair by themselves, in which I talk about my own henna experiences.

Quite unlike my other articles around here, it’s less theory/ideas and more practical —but if this doesn’t sound to interesting to you, never fear! Here’s one on the strange connections between henna and an ancient philosopher’s beard. (Yes, it’s interesting. I promise!)

From unremarkable to eye-catching hair with henna

Some women are born stunners; they could walk into a supermarket dressed in sackcloth and still have jaws drop as they glide into the dairy aisle.

That is not me. At all.

When people stare at me, it’s usually because there’s a one-foot long paintbrush sticking out of my hair bun, or because I look like a raccoon-eyed lunatic after having distractedly rubbed my eyes and smudged my kohl powder in the process.

However, these days I’m being stared at in an admiring way (not my words; R, the very intelligent husband, confirms this). It’s my hair people are gazing at —despite there being no paintbrush, not these days.

Naturally dyed (brunette) hair with henna (Lawsonia inermis)
No paintbrush, see? Yet it still attracts attention. A lot more comfortable, too (big brushes are a nuisance with low ceilings and doors).

If that weren’t enough, something astonishing happened a few days ago that confirmed my suspicions. Continue reading