Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A six-headed literary monster (Plant Portrait XIV*)


One of my subscription podcasts, Frank Delaney's Re: Joyce, is a reading and explanation of James Joyce's Ulysses in more or less weekly installments over 10 or so years. Delaney can be pretentious, mawkish and a little tiresome in his delivery but it's worth persisting with if you love Joyce and his perfect order of words.

In mid-June this year Delaney began dissecting chapter/episode nine, 'Scylla and Charybdis'. In the original Ulysses story, by Homer, Scylla is a six-headed monster and Charybdis is ... a whirling maelstrom. Transferred into Joyce's story, according to experts, the two monsters become philosophers, and we listen to a tussle between the idealised forms of Plato and the pragmatic logic of Aristotle (in this text represented by one of the heroes, Stephen Dedalus). It's about rhetoric, borrowing the super power of both Homer's creatures - their ability to persuade with words.

Anyway, I'm listening to Delaney read this chapter and tell what he thinks it means. On hearing the word Scylla I immediately of course thought of the plant genus Scilla. And then wondering if there was a genus called Charybdis. Which it turns out there is, sort of. Plant relatives of Scilla, as well as a group of marine custaceans, have been called Charybdis (like modern-day China and Hong Kong, biological nomenclature is one country and two systems, allowing the multiple of genus names).

The plants once called Charybdis are now included in Drimia, a genus grouped together with Scilla in the a subfamily (called Scilloideae) in the family Asparagaceae. This is all part of the recent reclassification of lilies and the like so it might sound a bit odd (like the siren call of a sea creature from a Mediterranean island perhaps). It used to be in the Hyacinthaceae, linking it to garden plant you'll know.


Scilla and what were once called Charybdis include bulb-forming species from Africa and around Homer's sea, stretching through to Asia. But not to South America. Yet words can persuade us differently. This is Scilla peruviana, growing in the shadow of the mountain photographed (2008) at the top of the post.

Despite the name the mountains are not in Peru, but in the south of Spain, in the Sierra del Pinar. I gather from Wikipedia that Carl 'father-of-plant-nomenclature' Linnaeus was apparently given specimens from Spain that arrived on a ship called 'Peru', leading him to mistake its origin.

Scilla was known to the Ancient Greeks as Skilla, which the Romans turned into Scilla, then Squilla. Our friend Linnaeus punted for Scilla, although again botched things up a little, requiring some later tidying up of the appellations. The flowers of Scilla have six each of the various parts but whether the flower is name after the monster or the monster after the flower, I don't know.

And speaking of places where things may or may not have occurred, the island of Madeira may or may not be Circe, which Homer refers to in his tale and Joyce uses as his informal name for chapter/episode fifteen. I've posted before on the giant quill of Madeira, Scilla madarensis, including the following picture of Graham Ross and me next to one at Kew Gardens in 2012.


Frank Delaney won't get to this point in the story for another year or two.

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.

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