"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Bears Breeches and Angelica (and Plants and Philosophy)

Bears Breeches and Angelica (and Plants and Philosophy)

From Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

Acanthus includes around 30 species of shrubby and herbaceous plants from the Mediterranean region, down into northern and eastern Africa and across into western Asia. The name is from the Greek for ‘spiny’; Acantha was a minor figure in Greek mythology, a nymph who got turned into a plant by Apollo after she fought off one of the unwanted sexual advances of which ancient mythology is so full….

Acanthus is most famous as being the model for the ornamental leaves found on the capitals (pillar tops) of the so-called Corinthian order of ancient Greek architecture. Given the popularity of Classical architecture, the acanthus leaf has reappeared ever since as carved or printed ornament, in both buildings and paintings….

“The rather odd common name of bears’ breeches is obscure in origin, without any recorded explanation.”

From The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord:

“[Theophrastus] is the first to recognise, in the 500 plants that he includes in his Enquiry, many of the characteristics which eventually helped to determine how plants were to be classified. He notes that some plants are annual, completing the whole of their cycle of growth in a single year; others are perennial, springing up each year from the same rootstock, and dying down to the ground in winter. He sees how some plants seem to fall into natural groups or families, especially those plants which have tiny white flowers arranged in wide flat heads on top of hollow stems.

“Later, when a more specialised language began to emerge to serve this demanding new discipline, flowerheads of this kind became known as umbels….

The term was then used to label all plants that had this characteristic flat head of flowers – the Umbelliferae: angelica, carrot, celery, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnip, cow parsley, hogweed, Queen Anne’s lace, sweet cicely, alexanders, ground elder. And the deadly poisonous hemlock. There was a clear and pressing incentive to understand the difference between this plant and its similar wild cousins.”


Dig into the names of plants for a while, and you’ll invariably encounter characters from Greek mythology, and, as I recently learned, Greek philosophers. Actual human beings! The philosophers that is.

My knowledge of Greek mythology never advanced much beyond watching The Mighty Hercules cartoons as a tyke (my favorite character was Daedelus, portrayed as an evil wizard); but I did spend a couple years dabbling in philosophy back in the twentieth century. I eventually switched my studies from philosophy to history, after discovering how dwelling in the minds of philosophers was a bit too much like never getting out of my own head… and history, at least, led me to explore the world around me and try to connect the past with the present, even in my own neighborhood and at historical sites like The Atlanta History Center and Oakland Cemetery.

The Greek philosophers were especially fond of sorting things — their mythology also reflects that — in the sense that they were compelled to observe the external world and try to classify and organize what they saw. Pummeled with all sorts of information the way us “moderns” are, we easily forget that those oak trees or dandelions encountered on a walk through our ‘hood once had no names, and, as important, no explicit differentiation from each other.

Initially, through Aristotle, plants got separated from animals; then his student Theophrastus documented 500 species of plants within the spaces he explored, extending Aristotle’s plant-and-animal distinctions by naming plants and defining plants-as-plants with descriptions of their individual parts. As Anna Pavord tells us in The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants:

“Theophrastus is the first in the long list of men who fought to find the order they believed must exist in the dizzying variety of the natural world. He lays out the puzzle, nudges together a few pieces that he thinks might fit. Fitfully, over the next 2,000 years, the puzzle is taken up by a series of philosophers, doctors, apothecaries, each of whom adds to the picture, links a few more pieces together, until finally, by the end of the seventeenth century, the whole picture begins to make sense….

“We now have written descriptions of 422,000 plant species. Theophrastus knew about 500, half of which had already appeared in Greek poetry, plays, essays…. But Theophrastus was the first person to devote serious attention to the business of naming plant names….

“He was the first person to discuss plants in relationship to each other, not just in terms of their usefulness to man. Magic and medicine both provided powerful practical incentives to know more about plants, but Theophrastus wanted to know them in a different way, just for the sake of knowing. From that knowledge, connections between plants gradually emerged which helped to make sense of the natural world….”

If you’ve ever tried to explain a plant’s parts — the leaves, the stems, the flowers, the parts of a flower, as you (or I) might do when writing about a photograph, or painting, or drawing one — you’re pulling from a philosophical tradition that goes back at least to the Greek philosophers and creatives, and probably even further into Eastern traditions of regions like China and India that had an equally vibrant culture of learning about and making use of the things growing from the ground around them. That “oak tree” and “dandelion” look a little different now, don’t they?

The photos below have been hanging around in my Lightroom catalog for a while; I took them while hunting down other flowers at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — especially the lilies and irises. It wasn’t until I found out what they were called — and how far their botanical names went back historically — that I decided to post my photos of the Bears’ Breeches and Angelica. I mean, who can resist those names, especially “Bears’ Breeches”! And “umbel” by the way — which is a description of the Angelica flower’s form, connects it to the plant family Umbelliferae, and whose word history gives us “umbrella” — also describes the flower structure of lantana in photos I previously posted.

Here are the Bears’ Breeches, growing at the border between a shaded and sunlit area next to some old urns… enough breeches for several (very small) bears!

The Angelica stood tall in a large bunch near the base of an oak tree, looking like two different plants depending on the age of the flowers. The older flowers — like these two and the three immediately following — were dry to the touch and lively with dozens of tiny bees flitting among the red or rust-colored buds. I couldn’t quite get a sharp shot of the bees in motion — they wouldn’t stay still! — but here you can see three of them coming in for a landing, and then… landed.

From the same plant, here are some younger blooms, just beginning to open. A bit of the red color that will eventually appear as the plant ages and dries out is visible on some of the tops of the blooms. The bees, for whatever reason, seemed uninterested in the white blooms, a little something that might be worth learning more about on its own.

There were only a few fully opened flowers, since it was late in the summer season when I took these photos. Here’s one of them; the detail is quite fantastic. Select the picture to view it in a slide show and then choose Info/View Full Size (or click here) if you’d like to get a closer look.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


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