The Acanthus mollis, a plant among the significant flora of Greece, is known by several other common names: sea holly, bear’s breeches, and sea dock. Though this plant at first sight is imposing and prominent, there is a certain botanical effervescence to its large and leafy, filigree-like tendrils that reach up vertically.
It is no wonder, then, that the acanthus inspired the highly-decorative and ornamental motif carved upon the capital of the Corinthian column, but additionally is considered to be a prized national flower steeped in a rich plant lore of antiquity.
The acanthus, residing within the classification of the Acanthaceae family, is native to the Mediterranean basin and to hot summers. Its scientific name is derived from Greek and Latin: άκανθα, meaning “thorn,” and mollis meaning “smooth.” Like many things of nature, the acanthus is both paradoxical and perplexing. Its naming suggests this flower is delicate but defensive, complex but consistent.
Perhaps even more intriguing, the acanthus is a perennial, indicating a certain steadfastness year after year. In this extraordinary season of the Bicentennial, the acanthus unlocks doors to how we may understand the past, to how humans might have connected with the natural world, to how the environment might shape the way history unfolds.
1st century B.C. Roman architectural writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio illustrates a mythological anecdote in his lengthy treaties, De architectura, known today as the Ten
Books on Architecture. In noting the three major classical orders - Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian - Vitruvius describes the latter as having the slenderness, adornment, and shaping of a maiden. In the city-state of Corinth, west of Athens, a young, free woman has died, for which Vitruvius writes:
“After her burial, her nurse, collecting a few little things which used to give the girl pleasure while she was alive, put them in a basket, carried it to the tomb, and laid it on top thereof, covering it with a roof-tile so that the things might last longer in the open air. This basket happened to be placed just above the root of an acanthus. The acanthus root, pressed down meanwhile though it was by the weight, when springtime came round put forth leaves and stalks in the middle, and the stalks, growing up along the sides of the basket, and pressed out by the corners of the tile through the compulsion of its weight, were forced to bend into volutes at the outer edges.”
Callimachus, a 5th century B.C. sculptor and favorite of the Athenians, is said to have stumbled upon the Corinthian maiden’s grave, witnessing an acanthus which had burgeoned through the funerary basket into a glorious cascading and draping cluster.
The result of a somber passing had given way to a new hope and muse - the Corinthian order column - a daring stylistic approach, and an otherworldliness in connection to the ground from which all things emerge.
_____________________________ WORDS: Tedi Pascarella
PHOTOS: Flora Graeca | American School of Classical Studies at Athens | Gennadius Library