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cool-space-wallpaperI was looking at a list of color names when my eyes lit upon “cosmos pink.” Wow! What color could be more amazing than a glowing shade of pink named after all of creation? Surely cosmos pink must be the color of pulsars as they wink out, the ineffable shade at the heart of a supernova…the color of god’s polo shirt! However when I looked more closely into the matter, I discovered that I had jumped to a dreadful misapprehension. Cosmos pink is not named for the swirling firmament of all that is or will ever be: instead it is named after a small Mexican flower somewhat related to the sunflower.

A field of cosmos flowers

A field of cosmos flowers

This is a disappointment, but not a crushing one, since I love flowers nearly as much as I love cosmology! Botanically speaking, Cosmos is a genus of flowers which live in the Americas from Paraguay in the south up through Central America, Mexico, and into the United States southwest. They have naturalized to various other parts of the world by means of escaping from gardens or even from contaminated livestock feed. Since cosmos are members of the aster family, they tend to be extremely hardy. There are about 40 species which range in size from 30 centimeters to 2 meters (1 foot to 6 feet 7 inches).  They grow easily and can be planted in vast colorful fields (which is probably what I would do if I had vast farmlands and endless resources).

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from....everywhere

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from….everywhere

Cosmos flowers look very much like the classic daisy-type flower which all schoolchildren draw. They have a ring of ray shaped petals around a central eye (which is actually a disc of tiny florets). Cosmos flowers come in a variety of colors such as blue, white, red, yellow, orange…and, of course, pink. The color cosmos pink is a bright medium pink with a dash of blue. Come to think of it, who is to say God’s polo shirt is not that color?

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

Mictlancihuatl devouring the living

The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl.  According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new.  But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power.  She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld.  One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races.  In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings.  Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.

altar de muertos

Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld?  Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers.  The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor.  Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers.  It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it  lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”.  The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico.  Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.

And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself?  The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild!  The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold.  The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.

(Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage.  Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils and they are also used as ingredients in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings.  In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success.  The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.

The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

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