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I wanted to write about flowers for April, but, so far this April has been a cold month and there is not much going on in the garden apart from Hellebores and crocuses.  Fortunately April is also poetry month!  Therefore, I looked up “gothic flower poetry” on Google to see if I could combine literature, flowers, and the dark foreboding beauty of Gothic aesthetics.  What Google provided was a William Blake poem from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.  Here it is in its totality:

“The Sick Rose”

William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem is so short as to barely be a poem, and it is by William Blake so it is probably ridiculously famous (although I have never encountered it until now).  I was going to move on and write about something else, but the disturbing truth is that I can’t get this poem out of my head!

Like a worm or invisible larva this poem insinuates its way into the reader’s mind.  Also like a minuscule worm,  the poem uses its tininess to devastating effect.    Since there are only 34 words (divided into two disturbing 17 word stanzas), there is not much information to guide the brains to a satisfactory & comprehensive conclusion.  Thus we are trapped with the ambiguity of what the rose and the worm represent…beyond just a dying rose and an invisible infectious agent which is killing it (which is already unsettling).   The effect really is akin to some virulent nematode or spirochete burrowing deeper into a a maze of defenseless petals.

Symbolically, the poem is most obviously about love and the pathology of desire:  the bed of crimson joy is destroyed by dark secret love.  The fetishism, opprobrium, and shame of sexual lust undermines the more sanctified elements of romantic love.  The worm is a perverse predator and the rose an innocent naif.

Yet this poem is not merely about human love and longing.  It is about a real living thing, a rose, destroyed by another living thing, a worm.  Blake evokes the baffling gestalt of a world of tigers and sheep where predators and prey both rely on each other to continue.  Without the wolves, the sheep would eat all of the grass and die out.  Without parasites, weakness would flourish in ways which would unmake the host.  The poem does not just mirror pathologies of love (putatively our most sacred emotion), it showcases a miniature ecosystem which is a microcosm of the whole world.  Is it a broken system?  The rose is indeed dying…

 

Dactylanthus taylorii

In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air.  In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything).  It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.

However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture.  There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight.  Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites.  Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all.  They leach nourishment out of other vegetation.  One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand.  Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.

Dactylanthus taylorii: close-up of male flowers (Photo by Helen Jonas)

Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family to other plants are anything but clear.  The Hades plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees.  It has not roots and no leaves but is connected to its host via a stem.  The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure.  Plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) (a strange and evocative creature which the native Maori call by the name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto”).  The flowers produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat–which apparently attracts the bats which then carry pollen between male and female plants.

The Lesser Short-tailed Bat pollinating Dactylanthus taylorii

Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find.  Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown.  However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create.  In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.

Last year to celebrate October and the spooky season, Ferrebeekeeper presented a series of posts concerning the mythological monsters born of the Greek snake goddess Echidna.  Those monsters were really big and really scary but, in the end, the operative word was “mythological”–they didn’t actually exist.  This October I have decided to pay closer heed to the real world as we celebrate the horrifying, the macabre, and the eerily beautiful.  To start with, I have already presented a dead city surrounded by ancient desiccated mummies and nuclear test sites! But I’m guessing that Xinjiang is pretty far away from all but a handful of my readers, so today I wanted to focus on a horror closer to hand.  In fact today’s subject is even closer than that—there are 50/50 odds that there are some of these parasitic mites crawling in your eyelids even as you read these lines.

Coloured scanning electron microscope photo of Demodex folliculorum (from Sciecephotolibrary)

I am writing about Demodex, a genus of tiny parasitic arachnids which live in or around the hair follicles of mammals.  There are more than 50 known varieties but two species in particular (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) are endemic to human hosts. The mites are approximately 0.4 mm long, with eight extremely short legs.  Covered with adhesive scales, the mites are semi-transparent. According to Buzzle.com, “The needle-like mouth-parts feed on the dead, flaky skin-cells, hormones and the sebum which accumulate in the hair follicles.”  Buzzle goes on to note that while the mites are usually harmless an unusually large number can cause demodicosis, a sort of mange.  Although I gave a 50/50 breakdown in the first paragraph, that number seems to have been made up by dermatologists to keep squeamish people from ripping all of their eyelashes out.  Odds are if you have walked the green earth long enough to see adulthood, you have played host to these eyelash mites.

Demodex brevis seen under a conventional microscope

This topic seemed fun when I started, but I honestly have not been able to keep my fingers out of my eyes while writing and I am now squinting at the screen through itchy, puffy eyes.  Nevertheless there is an important point behind all of this.  It isn’t just coral reefs and aspen colonies which form habitats for other living things. Every lifeform is an ecosystem with parasites, symbiots, and weird alien neutrals–even us.

Mikimoto Pearl Crown

In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages.  Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal.  Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants.  Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).

Ex-General Alfred Gruenther presents the pageant crown to Jean Marie Lee of Alaska, the 1957 U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen.

The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.

Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin.  In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste).  However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls.  The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.

The Cherry Blossom Festival Crown

For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art.   The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls.  Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.

Mikimoto Pearl Crown II

In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls.  The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner.  Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.

The Phoenix Tiara used to crown Miss Universe between 2002 and 2007

Here the crown is worn by Riyo Mori, the 2007 Miss Universe pageant winner

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