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Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

The common onion (Allium cepa) is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables: indeed, the onion goes so far back that now Allium cepa is known only as a cultivated vegetable. As with the cow, the actual wild version of this organism has been lost (although there are other edible allium species around the world which go by the name “wild onion”). Common onions probably originated in Central Asia: the oldest archaeological evidence we have of onion farming puts the vegetables in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago, and in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, however it is likely that they were grown as a crop long before then. Onions are in the most ancient Chinese and Indian texts and likewise they are in the oldest chapters of the Bible. The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were heavily dependent on onion cultivation. When Rome fell, onions became a staple of the medieval diet. Emmer wheat, bitter vetch, and bottle gourds have come and gone from fashion, but the onion is more popular today than ever. There is a huge bowl of them in my kitchen right now (and I cook them into pretty much every savory dish).

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Onions are easy to grow in many different types of soil in many different ecosystems. They are also easy to store all winter and plant from seeds or bulbs. They can be dried or pickled for long term storage. They can be cooked in every conceivable way, or just eaten raw. Clearly humankind has an ancient relationship with onions and they have kept us alive in many a jam (myself definitely included).

An onion field...hmm, not much to see here...

An onion field…hmm, not much to see here…

Indeed, onions are such a bedrock part of human culture, that we don’t too have much to say about them aside from boilerplate comments about their tear-inducing properties (which are caused by sulfenic acids released when onion cells are damaged). The ancient Egyptians thought of onions as sacred, and made them a part of funeral ritual and a symbol of the cosmos, but subsequent generations have become distracted by flashier vegetables, and pay the ancient onion little tribute (although I suppose there are arguments that onion domes, my favorite architectural flourish, are a sort of homage).

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

I was hoping to feature some onion-themed deities or deep and troubling myths about these edible bulbs, but I haven’t really been able to find too many (although the satirical website is messing up my ability to search for material). So, instead of citing ancient literature or art, here is my own tribute to Allium cepa. This is a small oil painting which I made back in 2002. It pays tribute to the modest but very real visual beauty of onions. I painted the three main colors commonly available (after looking through all the bins for the right subjects for my still life like a crazy person). The painting makes me smile and it reminds me fondly of all the chili, curry, Chinese food, pasta, and porridge I have eaten which would have been thin and bland without this amazing vegetable. Hooray for onions!

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

Common Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)

The common myrtle (Myrtus communis) is a small evergreen tree from the Mediterranean which grows up to 5 meters (16 feet) tall (although it is usually smaller).  Myrtle has little white star-like flowers which turn into blue-gray glaucous berries.  The small leaves produce an essential oil with a distinctive odor.  Myrtles are elegant small plants which can be clipped into handsome topiaries for the mild weather garden.  Some of you Californians may recognize it, if you aren’t too busy surfing, or auditioning for movies, or joining cults.   Herbalists attribute various medicinal properties to the plant, but medical science has never confirmed any utility of any part of the plant as a drug.

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Aphrodite rides on the back of the swan, accompanied by a pair of winged Erotes (love-gods) holding myrtle wreaths. (drawing after fifth century Greek vase)

Myrtle is primarily worthy of mention because the Greeks and Romans loved it and regarded it as a sacred plant of love and immortality.  The plant was the signature flower of Aphriodite/Venus (though it was also apparently sacred to Demeter, albeit to a lesser degree).  Since it is symbolic of Venus, myrtle punches far above its weight in the canon of Western art.  Visitors to art museums are probably perplexed to notice the non-descript little topiary in the background of bodacious paintings of the gorgeous nude goddess (assuming they notice at all).  Venus’ other attributes are well known: swans, roses, nudity, little men with bows and arrows, nudity, shells, Cyprus, nudity, and sparrows, however the poor myrtle seems somewhat overshadowed by the charisma and charms of the love goddess.

Venus D'Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Venus D’Urbino (Titian, 1538, Oil on Canvas) Note the pot of topiary myrtle in the pot by the column!

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth.  Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago!  Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast.  The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis.  As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner.  This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains.  There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things.  Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate.  It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos).  Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era.  As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).

A young Welwitschia

A young Welwitschia

Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life.  As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel.  The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves.  Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine.  Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture).  The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.

05

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Yesterday’s post described the carnivorous nepenthes plants which entice organisms into their slippery liquid-filled depths where the tiny creatures are killed and digested.  The plants however are after different nutrients than carnivorous animals are.  Instead of hungering for proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and complex amino acids (and all that other stuff nutritionists and zookeepers are always going on about) plants simply want phosphorus and nitrogen.

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia) is a tiny vesper bat which lives in Malaysia (the portion on Borneo). The small wooly bat weighs between 2.5 to 4 g (0.08 to 0.14 ounces) and, at most, measures 40 mm (1.6 in) from nose to tail.  It is one of the smallest mammals alive—it is even smaller than the miniscule lesser bamboo bat (which lives inside of single segment chambers in bamboo stalks).  The small wooly bat has found an equally fine home: the tiny creatures live inside a Bornean subspecies of nepenthes– Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata.  The little bats fit perfectly inside the long tapered chambers of Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata—the taper even prevents the tiny aerial hunters from falling in.  In exchange for providing a perfect home for the tiny bats, the plants also get something.  Bat guano is a famous source of nitrogen and phosphorus—so much so that humans have been known to mine old bat caves to use the deep layers of excrement for an agricultural fertilizer.

carnivorous-plant-and-bat

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongate does not need to be an effective hunter.  The bats which live inside its tube shaped pitchers provide it with the nutrients it needs on a continuing basis: the two organisms provide a beautiful example of a symbiotic relationship.

woolly bat with pitcher plant

Musa acuminata flower

Musa acuminata is a species of herbaceous plant from Southeast Asia.  Actually it is a very remarkable herbaceous plant because (along with certain other members of the Musa genus), it is the largest herbaceous plant living today.  They are so large that some people call them trees—although they are not properly trees.  The plant’s aspect is disturbing—almost like something out of a horror movie.  A giant pseudostem sprouts rapidly from a fleshy underground corm embedded within the jungle earth. This pseudostem is a towering appendage made up of layer after layer of horny leaf sheaths. Giant leafs grow out from the top of it—some of them as long as a man.

Diagram of Musa acuminata

At the very top of the pseudostem sits the elaborate reproductive apparatus of the plant, a grotesque inflorescence made up of alternating rows of flowers and petal-like bracts.  The strange mass droops down from the tree and a wizened inferior ovary dangles at the bottom.  As the female flowers are fertilized they form a hanging cluster of distinctive fingerlike fruits.  These bulbous “fingers” are grouped in tiers and they angle upward giving the whole stem an alien look. The fruit of Musa acuminata is radioactive because it contains a large amount of potassium (including potassium-40).  Botanists have described the fruit as “leathery berries” (although, to my eye, the elongated fruits suggest something other than berries).

Musa acumniata inflorescence

Although the fruits have a stiff waxy covering and contain a great deal of potassium, they are sweet–so jungle animals carry the pods around, eat them, and distribute the seeds (although the plant also produces asexually by suckering off clonal buds).  Some animals are especially drawn to the fruits and scientists speculate about whether Musa acuminate evolved symbiotically with the primates of Southeast Asia.

In fact 10,000 years ago an invasive species of African primate which had somehow made it to Papua began to select varieties of Musa acuminate trees which suited their taste while destroying (or at least not propagating) the other varieties.  Soon the fruit began to change into something which fit the primates’ hands and suited the beings’ color palate.

Musa acuminata was hybridized with other Musa species (particularly Musa balbisiana) in order to create different varieties of fruits. Parthenocarpic varieties of bananas were discovered and the virgin plants were carefully nurtured and cloned. Ten thousand years of selective breeding has produced a big yellow glowing seedless fruit, far different from the little stunted green fruit. Archaeologists believe that the banana might have been the first domesticated fruit (the only other contender is the ancient fig—which did, in fact, evolve alongside African primates).  Today they live throughout the tropics and subtropics.  Banana plants are additionally used to make fiber and as ornamental plants, but their importance as a foodstuff for humankind is difficult to overstate.  Not only are the yellow “Cavendish” fruits eaten in immense quantities, but starchy plantains are consumed with savory meals, and banana wine is the dominant spirit of large swaths of Africa.  Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world and our fourth most abundant crop overall.

Cuban bananas wash ashore along a Dutch island off the North Sea after a shipping mishap

 

The Common Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)

This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell.  Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous.  Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests.  The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on.  All aconite plants are extremely toxic.  You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).

Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root.  In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations.  The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals.  The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names).  The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different.  For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.

The Yellow Wolfbane (Aconitum anthora)

Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden.  Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple.  Perhaps their failure was a good thing.  Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.

The flower I planted--Bicolor Monkshood (Aconitum x cammarum, var. Eleanor & Stainless Steel)

My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history.  Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces.  These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life.  Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.

Aconitum ferox (Dr. J. Bhunia)

Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature.  According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life.   The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).

Medea (Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, painted 1866-68)

It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant.  In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression.  Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love.  On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings.  Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own.  Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm).  It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

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