Living

Venus’ looking glass: Nothing but beauty

Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid's archery,

Sink in apple of his eye. When his love he doth espy,

Let her shine as gloriously as the Venus of the sky.

— “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Act 3, Scene 2

Shakespeare refers here to the planet Venus, which very recently in the pre-dawn sky has been making quite a spectacle. Shakespeare also refers a good many times to the goddess Venus, she the champion of love and beauty, and after whom the planet was named.

Turns out that the goddess Venus had a really wonderful mirror, and some kind of mirror it was: anybody (or anything, probably) looking into it would see nothing but beauty, no matter how homely you might be. Imagine: if you had such a mirror, how could you go on with life doing anything but constantly staring into it?

Well, in spite of her own great beauty, Venus was apparently not very well organized, and she lost her mirror, which was later found by a country boy, who upon looking into the mirror was so entranced that he couldn’t leave it alone. Venus sent Cupid to fetch the mirror, but the boy refused to let it go. It all got a bit ugly, and there was something of a struggle … and the mirror fell, shattering on the ground. There may be a lesson for us here. (Discuss among yourselves.)

Now, there are plenty of flowers out there which are very small, or otherwise not particularly attractive, and they usually don’t engender very loving names. But it’s fun to name pretty flowers after things which are themselves beautiful, and the old common name of our Mystery Plant speaks to this.

This is a species which is widespread in eastern North America, showing up in mostly disturbed habitats: trail edges, old fields, vacant lots, and sometimes in your yard or garden. It’s an annual herb with dark green, alternate leaves, and the leaves are somewhat egg-shaped, clasping the smooth stem.

Plenty of flowers will be produced on the stem, which is usually unbranched, at least toward the top. The upper flowers have five deep purple-blue petals, and are quite showy. After the flower fades and falls, a little capsule will develop which has a tiny pore about halfway up, and the tiny seeds will dribble out of this capsule when it’s dry and ripe.

(Turns out that there are also flowers lower down the stem which never do open up, but remain closed. They can still make seeds, but by self-pollination, unlike the higher open flowers.)

This species is closely related to the various kinds of bell-flowers which are placed in the genus Campanula, many of whose species are native to Europe and the Mediterranean. In fact, it was originally considered to be a species of Campanula. The old common name which refers to Venus surely was applied to various bell-flowers of Europe … but the name has stuck with our American species. I think Venus would approve.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Today’s Mystery Plant is “Venus’ looking-glass," Triodanis perfoliata. …

John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or emailnelson@sc.edu.

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