MYTHOLOGY OF PLANTS

The speaker at our meeting on 18th February was one of our own members, Joanna Baxter. Joanna is a knowledgeable gardener who specialises in acers and she has spoken to the BGA on a couple of occasions. The subject of her talk was “Mythology of Plants” and it was very clearly presented with a wide range of illustrations …

Joanna began by saying that many of our familiar plants have a history going back thousands of years and many have featured in ancient story- telling and have found a place in popular culture. For the purpose of this talk she concentrated on one plant; the laurel or bay, laurus nobilis …

In spite of its name this is not the same plant as the cherry laurel or portugese laurel.
It has a wide variety of uses ranging from cooking, using the burned wood for smoking food, aroma therapy, and as a main ingredient in Aleppo soap.
Joanna talked about the laurel under four headings; its botany, the way it has been the subject of story-telling, in art and how it has entered into popular culture. Laurel is native to the Mediterranean basin and is an aromatic tree or shrub. It is unisexual so propagation requires both a male and female plant. There are two varieties, one golden leafed and the other narrow leafed. It is well suited to training and pruning, generally in a spherical or conical shape and is frequently grown in standard form as a ball on a single stem, straight or in a spiral. For cultivation it needs good drainage and it likes growing in pots. Plants should be repotted every two years but, if it grows too big to be repotted, the top two inches of compost should be removed and replaced with a fresh supply of John Innes no. 2 compost. Plants should be grown in a sheltered position and will tolerate temperatures down to -5 degrees ot lower if planted in the ground. Protection can be given from fleece and with the stem wrapped in bubble wrap. Plants should be pruned lightly in summer. Bay trees can be propagated from seed, semi-ripe cuttings or suckers.

Ovid, who lived from 43BC to 17/18AD, is the source of the stories about laurel. They feature three main protagonists; the Greek Gods: Apollo, Eros (god of love), and a nymph Daphne, and they all involve metamorphosis (change) of one kind or another. Apollo took over the source of oracles at Delphi after killing its guardian, the dragon-snake Python , with his arrows. On return to Olympus he teased Eros about the use of Eros’ love arrows. In revenge Eros shot a gold tipped arrow at Apollo condemning him to a hopeless love. He also shot Daphne with a lead tipped arrow which made her dislike Apollo on sight.

The sequel to this was that Apollo fell in love with Daphne but his love was not requited. Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly but she was saved at the last moment by her father, a minor river god, by changing her into a laurel (bay) tree.

Joanna showed us a number of examples of the way the story of the laurel has been depicted in art. It was a popular subject at the time of the Renaissance and features particularly in Italian art of the period; a notable example being a sculpture by Bernini in Rome and there are many pictures showing Apollo thwarted as Daphne changes into a bay tree. It is also used as architectural decoration in the work of Robert Adam and in the Regency period and it features in some coats of arms and in the Alpha Romeo badge.

It is associated with imperial and military power and a laurel wreath was a sign of office worn by emperors. We saw examples of this in sculpture and paintings of Roman emperors and their successors in the Holy Roman Empire and Napoleon Bonapart. In later traditions the laurel was associated with cultural and academic achievement. It gives its name to our poet laureate and to Nobel prize laureates. Some Italian graduation ceremonies are celebrated wearing laurel wreaths. It has also come into our language as the baccalaureate, in the bachelor’s degree and in aphorisms such as “not to rest on one’s laurels” and “ to look to one’s laurels.

Joanna concluded by saying that the laurel showed how our interest in plants can be deepened by researching their stories.

Jeremy Arthern

More photos from Joanna’s talk:

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