The Singer in the Arms of Dawn

Though considered “coarse” by our doyen of Southern gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence–among others–she–along with those others–unfailingly mentions in the same breath that the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia) sets Monet’s gardens at Giverny ablaze in late summer, their open branches tipped with blossoms of vermilion and orange that tower over his gentle lines and mounds of green.

The Mexican sunflower was first described by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who visited the United States in 1877. He came at the invitation of American botanist Asa Gray, who with Dalton intended to investigate the connection between the floras of eastern United States and those of eastern continental Asia and Japan. It was during this visit that he visited the American Southwest where—in addition to meeting Brigham Young—Hooker collected specimens of the plant, which he sent to England that year along with over a thousand others. As is the custom, Hooker, as the discoverer of the species, was entitled to give it a name, and for reasons that may forever remain unfathomed, he named it after the bridegroom of Aurora, goddess of the dawn.

Tithonus was a prince of Troy, the son of King Laomedon by the Naiad Strymo. He was a talented musician with a beautiful voice. His brother was Priam, the last king of Troy. Aurora fell in love with the young prince, and took him to Olympus to be her groom. Aurora asked Zeus to make him immortal and he agreed, but she had not thought to ask also that he should remain young. So it came to pass that Tithonus grew old, but could not die.

Helpless at last, unable to move hand or foot, he prayed for death, and Aurora, with a feeling for the natural fitness of things, turned him into a cicada that sings to her as the morning warms.

Flowers of the Dead

Red spider lilies bloom in the diminishing days of summer, springing up from drying lawns and fields as if from nothing.

A native of China, the lily (Lycoris radiata), is poisonous to most animals. Every part of the plant can induce vomiting, paralysis, even death. They’re planted in rice fields to deter rodents. When they spread to Japan, where the dead were buried without coffins, the lilies were planted to prevent vermin from disturbing grave sites. In time, the brilliant red flower became known as the corpse flower, the ghost flower, and—most poignantly—the lost child flower.

Buddhism also came to Japan from China, and the Lotus Sutra became a fundamental text for many Japanese schools. In the sutra, heavenly flowers descend from the realms of the gods, falling on the Buddha and his audience. Many devotees associate this flower – called Manjushage – with red spider lilies.

The lily blooms around the autumn equinox, Higanbana, the day the dead return to the world, and higanbana is a popular Japanese name for the flower. The flowers are said to bloom on O-higan “the other shore,” of the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a Styx-like river separating the lands of the living from the banks of carmine blossoms beckoning  spirits back to life.

Muscadines and Scuppernongs

It’s late summer. The exhausting heat endures, and September’s sure to extend the drought, but on a (rather singular) bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets.

North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties are vastly superior.

Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet, the sort of thing a little old lady would poison, pour into cut crystal apéritifs, and serve to a  middle-aged rogue she’d discovered was cheating on her with the choir director.

The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the Sanskrit muska-s  (testicle,) in reference to the musky scent of the fruit. (Never underestimate etymology.)

Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black/purple and the white/bronze. The white/bronze type is called a scuppernong because of a natural cultivar so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.

These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy; when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.

You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies , as well as the aforementioned wines, but their fresh taste is incredibly wonderful, so keep a bowl  on the kitchen table during the season to nibble on.

Summer Howlings

“Cantaloupe” in the Deep South mostly sounds something like “canna-lope,” without a hint of ‘t’, but Bill Neale saw it spelt “CAN’T ELOPE” on a roadside sign in North Carolina, and a buddy of mine calls them “Romeos and Juliets”.

The name comes from an Italian communi near Rome, one of several Italian towns called “Cantaloupo,” (“song of the wolf” or literally “sings wolf”) where this variety of melon arrived in Europe from (of all places) Armenia in the early 18th century. The cantaloupe didn’t become a commercial crop in the US until the early 20th century. An early popular variety, ‘Rocky Ford’ was developed in Colorado, but ‘Ambrosia’ and ‘El Gordo’ have largely come to dominate the markets.

Incidentally, the European cantaloupe, Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis, is lightly ribbed with a gray-green skin; the American cantaloupe, C. melo var. reticulatus, has a webbed skin. It’s worth noting that the name “musk melon” comes from the pronounced aroma of the uncut fruit; a related group of scentless  melons including honeydews, Canary, and Santa Claus are termed inodorata.

Adam’s Banana

During his famously quoted expedition in search of Livingston, Stanley also said, “If we run out of food, we’ll eat bananas.”

Sir Henry’s flippant dismissal of this vital foodstuff in lieu of boiled beef sums up the Brit empiricist mind; millennia before Stanley’s split second of Victorian condescension, bananas had been a staple in Asia since Homo erectus.

While European versions of the Expulsion have Eve offering up an apple (probably a Winesap; the Granny Smith is theologically impossible) as the principle instrument of temptation, many African, Asian and Oceanic interpretations depict Adam as succumbing to a nice banana instead (Eve had a rough cut, why not Adam?). These accounts also describe our primal DNA donors as masking their shame with banana leaves, which makes far more sense to me than that fig drag, even for Eve.

Before Chiquita and other mega-growers began shipping bananas in chemically sterilized bunches, stores would impale whole untreated stalks on ceiling hooks to ripen. Given the number of nooks and crannies in these masses of vegetation, it’s unsurprising that the occasional tropical creature would piggy-back its way into a local market.

My grandfather Jess kept a small country store that supported an endless series of banana stalks from the Cockrell Banana Company in Tupelo as well as any number of worthless relatives and other such riff-raff. Jess checked out produce before he put it up for sale, and occasionally he’d discover some sort of exotic fauna cowering deep amid the bananas.

He’d usually find a spider big enough to scare the bejesus out of any little old lady getting a couple of bananas for pudding to take to a homecoming. These he fed he to the chickens, but once, to his great delight, he found a small boa and kept it in a glass gallon jar with some hay in the bottom for everyone to ogle before he he sent it to the University of Mississippi, where it enjoyed a long, happy career as a desensitizing agent for people with snake phobias.

He once told a slacker cousin that he could get a snake into Ole Miss, “But I can’t get your ignorant ass into a decent barber school.”

Drying Cayennes

Select the ripest peppers without bruising, mold, or tears. Wash, drain, and remove stems and husks. Spread in a single layer on a sheet pan and place in a very low oven, no more than 200 degrees. Vent slightly by propping the door open with a wooden spoon. Toss and turn every half hour or so until crisp. Store in a vented container until ready for use.  This process  works for most thin-skinned peppers, and depending on the size takes three to five hours.

Get Cereus

Just the other day, a neighbor told me that his night-blooming cereus—which of course was heavy with buds—was given to him by his grandmother, who got her start from Chestina Welty at a garden club gathering in Jackson.

Since moving to Jackson twenty years ago, I’ve heard variations of this story ad nauseum from every Tom, Dick, and Harriet I run into. Most will tell you that Eudora gave a cereus cutting to their mother/aunt/sister/nelly uncle, or to some hitchhiker she picked up on the Trace. To admit—as I often do, with characteristic tactlessness —that your “Queen of the Night” is of dubious lineage puts you in a dim, refrigerated social limbo next to a browning head of iceburg lettuce.

The proliferation of Welty night-blooming cereuses mimic the properties of the True Cross, whose fragments once proliferated throughout Christendom to profit the papacy, but we can’t fault the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for peddling the Welty cereus rather much like Borgias did Holy Splinters: MDAH must get  those museum roofs plugged up somehow.

In the end, nobody can possibly certify that their beautiful Mississippi blossom is a blue-blood Welty or just some pass-along white trash epiphyllum somebody stole from off the porch of a double-wide in Scott County.

Docteur Magnol

Pierre Magnol was born in 1638 to an apothecary’s family in Montpellier. He enrolled as a medical student at the University of Montpellier in May 1655.

By Magnol’s time, Montpellier was an important, long-established commercial and educational center. Montpellier was the first university in France to establish a botanic garden for medicine and pharmacology.

After receiving his degree (MD) in 1659, Mangol’s attention shifted to botany. In 1687, he became Demonstrator of Plants at the botanic garden. Magnol was appointed Director of the Montpellier botanic garden in 1696, later Inspector of the Garden until his death in 1715.

Magnol’s most important contribution is the concept of plant families. He developed 76 tables, which not only grouped plants into families but also allowed for easy and rapid identification, an important step towards a tree of life.

Magnolia as botanical nomenclature first appeared in Charles Plumier’s Genera (1702) for a flowering tree in Martinique. Much closer to home, William Sherard, who studied botany under a pupil’s of Magnol (Tournefort,) adopted the name Magnolia in the taxonomy of Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1730) for another flowering tree.

It’s almost certain Linnaeus never saw a specimen of Plumier’s Magnolia, if one even existed, and left with a scribbled description and a scrawled drawing, must have taken it—rather despite the yawning geographic disparity—for the same plant described by Catesby.

Things eventually ironed out. Initially, Linnaeus described a monotypic genus, with the sole species being Magnolia virginiana—which we know as the sweetbay magnolia—and assigned it five varieties. He later raised these to species status. The Madagascan plant Plumier described is now known as Magnolia dodecapetala.

The name Magnol now adorns a genus with anywhere from 210 to 340 species (we have 8 in the southeastern US), a family (Magnoliaceae) with two genera, Magnolia and Liriodendron (tulip trees), and division (Magnoliids) with more than 10,000 species.