Protean mimetes imitates life (Plant Portrait VI*)

Does this flower remind you of a rabbit's tail, a duck's feather or perhaps a droopy dandelion head? If you could see past the fluff you'd think it more like the flower of a grevillea or banksia. It's a relative of theirs called Mimetes.

Mimetes are people that imitate, represent or simply copy what someone else has done, or so say the linguists. Mimetikos is something capable of, and subject to, imitation. The word mimic comes from the same origin and there are books written about Mimesis*, 'art imitating reality'.

Keen gardeners and plant-lovers will be familiar with this botanical Mimetes, a genus of protea-like plants from South Africa.

It's unclear why, in 1807, Richard Salisbury named the genus 'mimetes'. It may be because all 14 species look very similar - that is, they imitate each other - or because the genus looks a bit like Leucospermum. Yet the name is almost ironic given how distinctive this genus is in flower from any other plant. No one writes of the flowers imitating some creature, such as a rabbit or duck, to encourage their pollination.

All the protea family genera have small flowers that generally pack a punch when massed together into a flowerhead - think banksia, waratah or protea itself. In this case the flowerhead is a little more subtle, although the red new growth makes up for this in great measure. There are only a handful of the small flowers below each leaf, and up to dozen or so of these them clumps on any single flowering stem.

All 14 species grown in the Western Cape region and only three are not threatened with extinction. The species photographed here, a few new plantings near the Oak Lawn in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, is Mimetes cucullatus, the Common Mimetes or Common Pagoda. As you'd expect from its vernacular name, is one of the three.

The genus includes some survivors though. One species, the Silver Pagoda (Mimetes stokoei), was thought to have become extinct when the last plant was killed in 1969. After a fire 30 years later, though, seed stored in the soil germinated and the species sprang to life again two years later.

In fact all but the Common Mimetes release seed that will germinate after fire. Instead, the Common Mimetes has an large rootstock and resprouts after fire. Perhaps for this reason it is described on PlantZAfrica (my favourite South African plant website and source of much of the information here) as 'among the easiest members of the protea family to grow'. It flowers throughout sprinter, sprummer and summer, and often other times as well.

Life can be tough. When it is really tough, we either bunker down and wait for the good times (resprouting) or sacrifice ourselves for future generations (looking after our seeds). Tenuous perhaps, but the best I can do as a reflection on Mimetes imitating life.

Note: James Joyce, I understand, was one of the first to use a mimetic approach to his writing (he certainly imitates life well in Ulysses) and there is the wonderfully titled, and unread (by me) paper called 'The memesis of metempsychosis in Ulysses'. Metempsychosis being all about transmigration of souls and reincarnation, I not sure I'm up for reading it anyway. 

And just for the record, chapter or episode 3 of Joyce's Ulysses is sometimes called Proteus. The action takes place at Sandymount Strand, on the way back to Dublin from Sandy Cove, where the day starts in Ulysses and where I photographed the local swimming hole (the Forty Foot) on Bloomsday in 2010. Now that's tenuous!

*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.