Category Archives: Acanthus

Bassics of botany: Acanthus mollis – Brank-ursine

Welcome to the start of a new series featuring some figures from the earliest eras of natural history, accompanied by some of my favourite jazz bass players – the title is not a mis-spelling.  I’m researching and listening to things I like, with some plants along for the ride.  And by the way, this blog has just passed 1,000 views – thank you all for your support.

This flower I’m starting with is, however, no simple passenger – it’s as striking as an asphodel, and with an equally long and significant history. Although it’s originally a Mediterranean plant, it‘s also found in the milder west of France, and

The distribution of Acanthus mollis in France – green=present

it’s become well-known in gardens. It was introduced to Britain in the 16th century – the photo above is of a plant I’ve grown from a cutting I took from my mother’s garden near Eastbourne.  The English name means  ‘bear’s claw’, from the shape of the flower.

It’s also well-known because the distinctive deeply-lobed leaves feature on columns of the Greek Corinthian order of architecture. The story is told – started perhaps by the Roman architect Vitruvius – that the idea came from a Greek architect and sculptor named Callimachus (NB – see below) who saw a basket placed on a young girl’s grave, through which had grown an Acanthus, its leaves emerging through the basketwork:

From Claude Perrault’s Vitruvius, 1684 – courtesy of wikipedia, where else

The proportions of a Corinthian column are intended to represent the slender body of the young girl.   It’s an architectural detail which has spread even further than the plant – they’re on the Roman Pantheon, the Bank of England, and the US Capitol for example. If you want a bit of historical gravitas, mixed with its apparent opposites of grace and  style, go for those leaves.

NB Don’t confuse this Callimachus with the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria 200 years later, or with the drink calimocho (originally kalimotxo in Basque) which is another mixture of opposites, this time cheap red wine and cola.  But if you’re tempted, there are useful recipes (including ingenious use of a plastic bag) here.

The plant has also been important in herbal healing:  Culpepper says it is  ‘…an excellent plant under the dominion of the moon’. The cooked  leaves ‘mollify the belly’, the bruised leaves  ‘applied like a poultice, are very good to unite broken bones and strengthen joints that have been put out’ and  ‘there is scarce a better remedy’ for burns, ruptures, cramp, gout, or ‘hectic fevers’… (Kalimotxo could also be a remedy, of course, principally in cases of unwanted sobriety and hypoglycaemia).

I’d suggest that perhaps these two uses of the acanthus are linked:  the earliest Corinthian capitals found (c. 450 BCE) are not supporting a roof but inside temples on votive columns, and another early example from the 4th centuryBCE is at Epidaurus in the temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing whose staff and snake feature in so many pharmacies.

The association of plant and god may have come about from the healing uses of the plant – I imagine that the big fleshy leaves of the acanthus were already a folk remedy for aches and burns, similar to our use of dock leaves for nettle stings.  However, the concept of illness at an asklepion (as the temples were called) was as something supernatural such as a divine punishment, and most of the practice of the cult of Asclepius consisted in ritual baths and purification (one of his daughters was not called Hygeia for nothing), and votive offerings –  according to Plato, the last words of Socrates were  ‘Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget’ – a joke of Socrates about giving thanks for his ‘cure’ from the ills of life.  Cure-seekers also  slept overnight in the temple, after which the priests would interpret any dreams and use them to recommend what to do.  Another of the daughters of Ascelpius was Panacea, who must have been very busy (perhaps with the acanthus, which is so good for everything).   It was at an important  asklepion on the island of Cos that Hippocrates established his school – more about him in another post.

I like to imagine Asclepius appearing before a panel of doctors in the new, cash-strapped Greek health service to decide whether he is fit to practise healing:

Doc: Welcome, Asclepius.  We’ve had a very good letter of recommendation from the Mount Olympus Community Team, Mr. Apollo something…..Apollo what?

Asc: Just Apollo. My Dad.

Doc: Your parents are gods?

Asc: Only on Dad’s side. My mother, Coronis, was just an ordinary princess, daugther of the King of the Lapiths. But Dad had her burned to death when she married someone else, and he came and pulled me out of the flames just in time.

Doc.:I think we’ll move on from your family to your qualifications.  Where were you trained?

Asc: Well, I learned the basics from a centaur, Chiron. Apart from that, there are the acanthus leaves, and I get inspiration from Dad, and sort of improvise on that…

Doc: And we hear from your previous employer that you let snakes crawl around freely on the floor of your clinic.

Asc:Temple, not clinic. Not just any snakes, mind – sacred snakes. It’s really therapeutic.

Doc: Hmmm.How very….alternative. We’ll let you know. Who’s next?

Secretary: Hippocrates.

Doc: Well, it can’t do any harm to see him.

We saw this wonderfully preserved statue of Asclepius at Empúries in Catalunya – an astounding site with the remains of the Greek town called Emporion (founded in 575BCE) and of the later Roman Emporiae. I was struck that the statue came in two parts from different Greek marble quarries: the bust from the island of Paros, and the rest from  Pentelicus in Attica – international trade 2,500 years ago  His was the largest temple on the Greek site, evidence of the importance of this cult – after all, what’s more important than health?

No Corinthian columns with their acanthus leaves at  Empúries – but they do feature on one of the finest Roman buildings in France – in fact, the best preserved temple in all the former Roman empire, the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, where carved acanthus also adorns the frieze on the architrave.  This temple was built in 16BCE, and so impressed Thomas Jefferson when he was minister toFrance in 1785 that he had a stucco model made, and copied it for for the Virgnia State Capitol when he returned.

Well done for making it this far!

This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother, her garden, her humour, and her love of music.

It’s about time for some jazz – this is Miroslav Vitous, perhaps best known from his short stint with Weather Report but his best work is elsewhere, such as on Epilogue, a track from the fine album Mountain in the clouds (1972 – also available as Infinite search) which also features Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin and Joe Henderson.

Next: Back to blues, and set-aside, and honey, and Etta James.

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Acanthus