Quite unexpectedly, recently, I have had a little visitor. Of the botanical kind.
Let me go back to – not the beginning, but as far back as I know. We acquired a couple of tropical plants last year and put them in our window on a small piece of IKEA furniture that had been intended to hold a large TV, but we didn’t get a large TV, we got two plants. One of those plants is a yucca, and perhaps I’ll talk about it another time. The other is what is commonly called a snake plant.
When I look at it, I do not think of a snake; I think of a garden. It’s a set of long green blades, stabbing up from the planter, a bit like very close-up views of grass. You might think it looks like swords, but gladiolus, Latin for ‘little sword’, is already taken. Some people call the snake plant Saint George’s sword, but I don’t know who. Some people, I read, call it mother-in-law’s tongue, because it is long and sharp, but I think whoever decided to call it that should have worked on their relationship with their mother-in-law, and probably with their wife too. My mother-in-law is a very nice person and we get along well, and I will not be calling a plant after her tongue – though I should say that, like my mother-in-law, this plant is very agreeable and undemanding (and occasionally gives you nice things you didn’t ask for. But I get ahead of myself). So I am inclined to call it by the name my own mother uses for it, a name that is common enough: sansevieria, from its Latin name, Sansevieria trifasciata.
Our sansevieria requires little water and grows anyway – some of the leaves have added almost a metre in a year. It’s not flashy, but it’s green; it’s as durable as an aspidistra, and we keep it flying. We repotted it into a bigger pot with more soil not long after getting it, since the pot from the store was clearly temporary. Aina bought it, and I’m not sure where, but one of the local grocery stores probably (which, I guess, is like having an adoption agency in a mortuary, from the plant’s perspective). Where they got it from I don’t know. The species apparently originates in Africa, but this one surely has only know northern climes.
Now, what is this name, sansevieria? It makes me think of Sansa Stark, from Game of Thrones, and indeed it is stark, but I will eventually tell you why it’s more like Danaerys, Mother of Dragons. The spelling confuses people a bit –you also see sanseveria and sanseviera – and it turns out that such confusions run through the history of the plant. The genus name is in honour either of two men with similar names, both from the same general part of Italy; one is Pietro Antonio Sanseverino, Count of Chiaromonte, and the other is Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo. It happens that San Severo is a town in Apulia (on the other side of the peninsula from Naples) that was also originally named after San Severino. So by both ways the plant’s name traces to Saint Severinus (to use the English version, which uses the Latin name).
And who was Saint Severinus? There were several, but the one in question was a monk who ministered to the poor and sick in Noricum, which was about where modern Austria is. But he wasn’t from there. He was from… well, we’re not sure. When asked, he wouldn’t say. But it seemed that he was from somewhere far away originally, but that he was “of purest Latin stock”; it’s commonly thought he was born in southern Italy, or perhaps Africa. His name gives no clue, anyway. You may see the sever and think of swords, but you should think instead of severe, which comes from the same Latin root, severus – meaning ‘serious’. (If you want to make a pun about “Snape plant,” you go ahead.)
And this plant is, in its way, serious and severe. But serious and severe things sometimes hold mysteries and surprises. Just a few years ago, molecular phylogenetic studies revealed that plants in the genus Sansevieria were actually part of the genus Dracaena. What is Dracaena? It’s the genus that includes dragon trees – hence the name, a Latinization of the Greek δράκαινα (drakaina), meaning ‘dragon [female]’. Yes, this snake is actually a dragon.
But that’s not the last surprise. The Garden of Eden had a snake, but this snake – or dragon – has its own garden. A few weeks ago, I noticed that there was something quite different and unexpected growing in it. A different plant, I thought, perhaps riding in on the potting soil from who knows where?
I took a picture and asked Twitter, and I was promptly told that this stolid, serious plant occasionally, and without being asked, bursts into flower, and that’s what was going to happen here.
To be precise, it grows a stalk, separate from its long leaves; the stalk grows bulbs; eventually the bulbs open into flowers. Pretty little fragrant flowers. They won’t last all that long, I read, but they rejoice while they are here. And so do we. They are welcome, unexpected as they are, wherever they might have come from.