Saturday, January 12, 2013


             By way of backstory: Poetry magazine just ended its year-long celebration of 100 years in print. In conjunction with this milestone, they published The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry, a copy of which I duly procured.

            [Note to poetry fans: it’s a good collection, spanning the ins and outs of the genre over the last century. The thumbnail biographies, although annoyingly freighted with prizes, awards, and past or present teaching positions, are particularly fascinating. Almost a third of the poets represented either committed suicide or died in bizarre circumstances. For example, Frank O’Hara was struck and killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island. Weldon Kees is presumed to have leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge. Randall Jarrell stepped into the path of a oncoming car in Chapel Hill, NC. Hart Crane jumped off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. Craig Arnold disappeared while clambering around volcanoes in Japan. And we all know how Sylvia Plath ended up.

            See how these digressions proliferate? Keep reading—it gets worse.]

            Anyway. Ray Bradbury said writers must read poetry every day, so I do. This morning The Open Door opened to the William Carlos Williams snippet, “Of asphodel, that greeny flower,” from the fifth volume of his epic dense and largely unintelligible Paterson. It goes like this:

“Of asphodel, that greeny flower, the least,

                        that is a simple flower

                                                like a buttercup upon its

branching stem, save

                        that it’s green and wooden

                                                We’ve had a long life

and many things have happened in it.

                        There are flowers also

                                                in hell. So today I’ve come

to talk to you about them, among

                        other things, of flowers

                                                that we both love, even

of the poor, colorless

                        thing which no one living

                                                prizes but the dead see

and ask among themselves,

                        What do we remember that was shaped

                                                as this thing

is shaped? as their eyes


                                                with tears. By which

and by the weak wash of crimson

                        colors it, the rose

                                                is predicated.”

Asphodelus ramosus, branched asphodel
            All new-to-me-plant sensors aquiver, I lumbered into the kitchen for coffee and to type “asphodel” in the Google search bar. Ninety minutes later, I knew that there are 17 species of tuberous Asphodelus, and as many, if not more, genera with the common name “false asphodel.” Taxonomists, apparently bored now that Aster has been successfully rechristened Symphyotrichum,  recently moved asphodel from the lily family, Liliaceae, to the much harder to pronounce Xanthorrhoeaceae (zan-thor-REE-uh-cee-ee, I’m guessing, from the Greek for yellow—xanthos—and flow—rheo—referring to the resin the plants may or may not excrete), which also contains the daylily and the single-species Australian grasstree sub-families. All of them originate in Mediterranean-like environments.

            [For a graphic look at how those wacky taxonomists operate, check out the phylogenic tree in Wikipedia’s Xanthorrhoeaceae entry.]

When is an asphodel not an asphodel? When it's a de affodil.

            Another interesting lexicographic wrinkle is that the word “daffodil” may have come from a corruption of asphodel, “affodil”; specifically, from the bulb-loving Dutch de affodil. This in turn might explain why the blog UrbanArt Wallpapers offers a picture of a mini-daff to beautify your computer screen and calls it asphodel.  

Asphodel tubers, yummy when boiled
            Asphodels have an impressive recorded history. As Williams tells us, they are the flowers of Hades. In The Odyssey, Homer blankets the Elysian fields of the Isles of the Blessed with them. Ancient Greeks believed they were the favorite food of the dead, and planted them near graves. This belief was reinforced by the fact that poor Greeks boiled and ate the tubers. In case you’re interested (or hungry), most parts of the plant are edible when cooked.

Asphodelus aestivus/ramosus/microcarpus

My research leads me to believe Williams’ “greeny flower” refers to Asphodelus ramosus, or branched asphodel, pictured above. In yet another example of taxonomic love of confusion, A. ramosus (“branching”) is synonymous with A. aestivus (“of summer”) and A. microcarpus (“small fruit”), depending on which Linnaean descendant you personally rely upon.

This is how I’ve blown a perfectly lovely mild and sunny January Saturday. I am in good hopes that further cyber-digging will bring me to a source for asphodels—the real ones, not the fakes—to plant in my yard. Should I ever turn off the computer and go out to dig in the yard instead. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Thanks for dropping by.


Prunus mume 'Peggy Clarke'

 P.S. -- Look what was blooming on our deck this morning! Why, it's spicy-scented 'Peggy Clarke' ornamental apricot!

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