Last week we planted the first plants in Hortus Europa. While the plants grow in the garden, you will find the stories that accompany them here on our website. In what ways do we, as Europeans, relate to nature? In an attempt to find an answer I will collect different stories about nature: myths and fairy tales, personal accounts and memories, historical events and scenarios for the future. This way, a subjective flora of Europe will start to take shape.
The apple tree has many meanings in different parts of European history and mythology.
The apple-tree used to be an important orchard fruit of ancient Greece, being associated with love and marriage. One myth in which the apple plays a particularly large role is The Judgment of Paris. At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris, the goddess of strife, cast a golden apple addressed to the fairest amongst the goddesses. Aphrodite, Hera and Athene all laid claim to the prize. Zeus told them to go to Prince Paris of Troy and let him decide. Paris chose to award the apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, because she had promised him the most beautiful woman, Helene, in marriage. This moment leads to the abduction of Helene and the subsequent Trojan War, one of the most important events in Greek mythology and the subject of Homer’s Iliad.
The apple is also of great significance in Celtic culture. It stands for eternity, immortality, love and beauty. In one Arthurian legend, Arthur goes to Avalon (the isle of apples) to recover from his mortal wounds, the same island on which it is also said that Excalibur was forged. Apples were held in such high esteem that, according to ancient Irish law, the deliberate felling of an apple tree was punishable by death.
Through numerous artistic portrayals, we have also come to associate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil with an apple, even though the Bible does not specify what type of fruit it is. Eve takes one bite from it, and it marks the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. When Snow White takes a bite from a poisoned apple she falls into suspended animation, only to be awakened when the rambunctious dwarfs try to move her coffin.
For the art show Documenta 13 (2012) American artist Jimmie Durham and artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev both planted an apple tree in Kassel (Germany). Christov-Bakargiev’s apple tree was named after Catholic priest and activist Korbinian Aigner, who was deported to the Dachau concentration camp during the Nazi period. There, he bred apple trees, and made drawings of them as well. He named one of the varieties ‘KZ3’, after the German abbreviation for concentration camp. After the war he continued breeding and drawing apples, and ‘KZ3’ was later renamed ‘Korbinian.’ Christov-Bakargiev exhibited 372 of Aigner’s drawings of apples and used the Korbinian apple to make apple juice.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote about the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Narcissus was known for his extraordinary beauty. When he was a young boy he encountered the nymph Echo. She admired him from a distance and after exchanging a few sentences tried to embrace him. Narcissus turned her away and she spent the rest of her life heartbroken in the mountains, until nothing remained of her but her voice. Later on Narcissus turned down a fair share of nymphs who fell in love with him, and one of them prayed that he would one day feel what it was to love and receive no love in return. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, heard and granted the prayer. Narcissus caught a glimpse of himself in a pond and fell in love with his own reflection. He wasted away obsessed with the image and transformed into a narcissus flower.
‘He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.’
The Juniper Tree is one of the fairy tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century. Wilhelm Grimm, one of the brothers, believed many of the stories they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family. For a long time, this opinion was discounted as it was believed that the tales dated back only a few hundred years. Recent studies have shown that the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales are much older than previously thought. They date back thousands of years, to prehistoric time.
In The Juniper Tree a woman wishes for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. She knows she is about to die, so she asks that she be buried under the juniper tree her family has outside, as that is where she had wished for the child. After a few months she gives birth to a son only to die a few days later. She is buried underneath the juniper tree. Her husband grieves for a long time, and then remarries. His second wife gives birth to a daughter, Marlinchen. The second wife hates the son from the first wife because he is first in line to inherit all the family’s money, and she wants that for her daughter.
One day she offers the boy an apple. As he reaches in a box to get it, she slams the lid on him, beheading him. She then takes a white scarf and ties his head back to his body, and tells Marlinchen to ask him for the apple, and if he doesn’t give it, to hit him. Marlinchen kindly asks for the apple, and when the boy does not answer hits him in the head, and the boy’s head falls off. Marlinchen gets very upset and tells her mother that she killed her brother. Her mother reassures Marlinchen and they agree not to tell the father. The mother then makes a stew out of the boy’s body. When her husband returns she tells him the boy has ‘gone to stay with his mother’s great uncle’. He unsuspectingly eats the stew and finds it delicious. Marlinchen, however, keeps the bones left over from the meal and buries them beneath the juniper tree.
A beautiful bird flies out of the tree. It goes and sings a song to a goldsmith about its cruel death at the hands of its stepmother and how caring his sister is. The goldsmith gives the bird a golden chain because the song is so beautiful. The bird sings the same song to a shoemaker, who gives it a pair of red shoes, and to millers, who give it a millstone. It then flies back home and sings its song. The father goes out to see what is singing such a beautiful song and the golden chain falls about his neck. He tells everyone that a beautiful bird gave him a chain. The bird sings again and Marlinchen goes out to see if this is true, and the red shoes fall to her. She comes in and tells everyone how happy she is with what the bird has given her. The bird sings a third time, the mother goes out and the bird drops the millstone on her, crushing and killing her.
Juniper is also an important spice in many European cuisines, especially in Alpine regions, where it grows abundantly. Juniper is used for the Southern German specialty Sauerkraut. For its preparation, fresh cabbage is preserved by lactic fermentation and seasoned with juniper and caraway. Sauerkraut can be eaten raw (as a kind of salad), or it can be cooked and fried (often together with small cubes of smoked ham or bacon) to be served as a side dish. There is also a variety of juniper-filled dumplings.
According to Finnish tradition, if one is to find the seed of a fern in bloom on a midsummer night, it will guide them and allow them to travel under the cloak of invisibility to places where eternal Will o’ the wisps called Aarnivalkea mark the spot of hidden treasure. These places are protected by a spell that prevents anyone but the fern seed holder from ever knowing their locations. Similar stories are told in other European regions.
This kind of stories have their origin in the fact that for a very long time the reproduction of ferns remained a mystery. Now we know they multiply using spores, but when these fern tales were told the only known means of reproduction for a plant was through its seed. The mysterious fern seed was also said to help with finding lost oxen, magically opened locks and improved the aim of hunters who would never miss a shot if in possession of a fern seed. And if you were to rub it in your eyes, you were able to look into the heart of people. In 1579 the bishop of Vercelli (Italy) issued a decree about the fern seed: “He will be severely punished, who collects fern or fern seed, or any other herb or plant, on a specific day or specific night, with the thought that it would be pointless to collect them another time.”
In the north of the Netherlands, rhododendrons were often planted at farms to show how worldly the owners were. It was a way of increasing the statute of the farm, as rhododendrons were most often found in the parks and gardens of castles or manor houses.
Rhododendrons are also of importance in Ulysses, the famous 1922 novel by James Joyce. The book is seen as one of the most important works in modernist literature. It tells the story of one day in the live of Leopold Bloom. The name Ulysses comes from the Latin form of Odysseus, and the novel makes parallels between the story and characters of the Odyssey and the experiences of Leopold Bloom. The last chapter of Ulysses is also known as Molly Blooms soliloquy: Molly speaks to herself, relating thoughts, feelings and unspoken reflections.
In this chapter it becomes clear that rhododendrons played an important role in Leopold and Molly’s early courtship: ‘the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know’
This fragment is an example of the stream of consciousness technique. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the writer said: ‘In Ulysses I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does, to what you Freudians call the subconscious …’
Usually regarded as primarily urban, Joyce exhibits in his work a strong ecological dimension, as suggested in the collection of essays entitled Eco Joyce: the environmental imagination of James Joyce (2014). Multiple essays have also been written on Joyce and ecofeminism. Ecofeminism is a philosophical and political theory and movement that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones, regarding both as resulting from male domination of society. The writers of these essays point out how Joyce’s way of portraying women is strongly tied to how he views nature. ‘Joyce’s women live in close contact with their senses. … They are not so much fictional representations of actual women as they are flowing rivers and spinning earth balls, disguises for Natura.’
There’s material here for a completely separate article, but there are many more plants to write about so I’ll leave you with links to follow if you want to know more.
Do you have plant with a story you think belongs in Hortus Europa? Send us your stories or get in touch by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or join us for the opening of the garden on 16 April and tell us in person!