Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Life Lessons From Silene

Sources that I've researched indicate that the genus, Silene (pronounced sy-LEE-nee), aka Lychnis, was named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, probably with the mythical and not too unbelievable character Silenus in mind.

Lewd Silenus, tutor of Dionysus, satyr and drunk in bad company with a Cyclops, could not get enough of wine. Yet, he was known for his occasional wisdom, loosened by drink. He was an imaginary embodiment of these sayings:

In vino veritas; En oino álétheia (in wine there is truth).
In goes wine, out comes a secret.
In wine there is truth, in water there is health.

Euripides figured him like this, exchanging with ODYSSEUS:

...Let me have a single cup of that (wine) and I would turn madman,
giving in exchange for it the flocks of every Cyclops
and then throwing myself into the sea from the Leucadian rock,
once I have been well drunk and smoothed out my wrinkled brow.
For if a man rejoice not in his drinking, he is mad;...

...and there is dancing withal, and oblivion of woe.
Shall not I then purchase so rare a drink,
bidding the senseless Cyclops and his central eye go hang?
Euripides, The Cyclops (420BC)

Apparently, Silenus had had too much of water.

I've often wondered what goes on in the minds of plant taxonomists when they're bestowing names. Unfortunately, few have told. We know, however, that certain plant characteristics are often the bases for botanical names.

Silene is not known for medicinal qualities, nor is it associated with wine and intoxication. Some species have burgundy-colored flowers, but not enough of them to suggest the name. Many species of Silene have sticky parts, so are commonly known as Catchfly. Another common name, shared with other plants, is Bachelor's Button. Perhaps one holds a clue.

Well before the Victorians made much of the language of flowers, plants were steeped in symbolism. Daisies, for example, symbolized innocence. White lilies symbolized virginity. Red roses symbolized love. Ivy symbolized marital fidelity. Catchfly symbolized a snare. Perhaps that thought prompted Linnaeus to bestow the name.

Being the son of a Lutheran minister and amateur botanist, Carl Linnaeus was well-acquainted with Scripture. His father, Nils, probably taught him life lessons drawn from both.

No doubt Nils also warned him from the Bible as he left for University.

Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come upon you unawares. (Luke 21:34)

Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. (Romans 13:13)

Surfeiting, drunkenness, rioting, chambering, wantonness, strife, envying and cares take their toll. Silenus, entrapped by greedy King Midas and wine, burst out, “Oh, wretched ephemeral race … why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.

Having been well-trained in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, theology, mathematics and botany, it's not much of a stretch to speculate that Linnaeus reflected on Catchfly and named it after tragic Silenus. Perhaps he even had a bit of personal experience from university life to draw upon.

Silene is a genus of about 700 species, distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Some were formerly included in the Lychnis genus. Fewer than three dozen species are commercially available. Bloom time is generally from late spring to early summer. Most thrive in USDA climate zones 4 through 9. Average garden soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8 is fine. Drought-tolerance varies by species. Deer do not care to eat Silene.

Perennial borders, butterfly gardens, hummingbird gardens should include Silene. Flowers are good for cutting, too. Theme gardens emphasizing popular Victorian plants, the language of flowers, myth and legend would be perfect for Silene.

If you would like to grow Silene, choose a site in full sun to partial shade. Take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis. You will pay a small fee. If your soil is not friable, cultivate to a depth of 8 inches. Add fertilizer and other amendments as recommended. Remove all traces of weeds.

Water the plants in their pots. Allow them to drain. With a garden trowel, dig holes twice as large as the pots. Space the plants about 12 inches apart. (Larger growing species can be planted farther apart.) Remove the plants from their containers, add water to the planting hole, fill in around (not on top of) the root balls with native soil. Water again. A light top-dressing of mulch may help to retain moisture and discourage weeds until your plants are established.

Silene, especially S. coronaria 'Gardener's World' with it's white foliage and striking red blooms, will certainly captivate your garden visitors. While you have their attention, instruct them in life lessons drawn from plants.

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