Annette Giesecke, Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington
Almost without fail, I select native plants when adding to my small garden landscape, being conscious of the need to maintain habitats for precious native fauna. I happen also to find New Zealand native flora both fascinating and beautiful. The small-leaved Muehlenbeckia astonii [‘shrubby tororaro’] – its wiry, architectural branch structure having evolved in response to bracing winds; cold, dry environments; and, possibly, pressures from browsing moa – is a particular favourite.1 Nonetheless, I am seduced by exotics from time to time. Most recently, it was Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, known commonly as the ‘paddle plant’, that caught my eye and found its way onto my porch (Figure 1). In this case a combination of shape, colour, and name made this plant irresistible… especially its name.
The paddle plant looks something like a super-fleshy Rosa centifolia [‘cabbage rose’]. Native to South Africa, the paddle plant is a succulent with rounded leaves that are greyish-green and have striking, wide red margins at least part of the year. As its scientific name betrays, the plant bears ‘thyrsus-shaped’ flowers. The Latin species tag thyrsi-flora literally means ‘thyrsus-flowering’. But what is a thyrsus? Greco-Roman religion provides the answer, which has its roots in the cult of the Greek god Dionysus.
Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, is today widely known as the god of wine, but this reflects only part of the god’s identity in antiquity.2 As it happens, Dionysus also was not a Greek god in origin. Rather, he was native to the ancient Near East from where he was imported to Greece. From Greece he was later introduced to Rome. As for his sphere of influence, Dionysus originally was a vegetation deity. Specifically, he represented sap, the life-sustaining liquid in plants, and for this reason he was viewed as being responsible for luxuriant growth in all plant life (Figure 2). Over time, Dionysus became associated with a range of life-sustaining fluids derived both from plants and from other sources in nature, for example wine, honey, and milk. In his play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides (5th century BCE) described the arrival of Dionysus in Greece, as well as the nature of his worship, in detail. From the first, Dionysus was extremely popular, and his cult spread like wildfire. Little wonder, as Dionysus was the ultimate ‘democratic god’. In his eyes all were equal: slave and free, male and female, young and old, even human and animal. The god offered people a welcome release from the worries, hardships, and constraints of daily life, all facilitated by drinking a bit of wine. In earliest times, his celebrants would drain their cups (thereby actually partaking of the god that wine embodied), don a fawnskin, clutch a thyrsus, and head for the hills or other wild places in order to commune with nature in ecstatic dance (Figure 3). Something of a magic wand, the thyrsus was a fennel stalk topped with a clump of ivy. According to Euripides, a thyrsus could be used as a weapon, especially against those who disrespected the ‘foreign’, gender-fluid, shapeshifting god (the long-haired, effeminate Dionysus could assume the shape of a serpent, a bull, fire, and even a burgeoning grape vine). Alternatively, the thyrsus could be used to work miracles. When struck with a thyrsus, the earth flowed with streams of milk and honey.
In a state of manic ecstasy – literally ‘standing outside oneself’ (ancient Greek ek-stasis) – the gods’ worshipers snatched up small animals, tore them apart while alive (Greek sparagmos), and ate them raw (omophagia). While appearing barbaric to modern sensibilities, this ritual gave worshipers access to fresh blood, another liquid incarnation of the god. Over time, however, this form of worship was considered ‘over the top’ even by the Greeks. As they became more urbanized, new, more restrained forms of worship were introduced. The city of Athens took the lead in popularizing theatrical productions as the chief public form of honouring this much revered and popular god. As wine drinkers will know, this beverage is conducive to blurring reality and encouraging shifts in behaviour. In view of this fact, a connection between playacting and Dionysus, the wine god, can quite naturally be made.
In any event, the thyrsus would remain one of Dionysus’ most important symbols throughout antiquity. Depiction of a thyrsus alone could suggest the presence of the god. What, then, of the paddle plant? When flowering, this plant produces a metre-long stalk atop which vibrant yellow, fragrant flowers cluster (Figures 4 & 5). The resemblance of this Kalanchoe’s flower stalk to a thyrsus is striking, hence noted Irish botanist William Henry Harvey’s publication (1862) of this plant as the thyrsus-flowering Kalanchoe, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, in his Flora Capensis; being a systematic description of the plants of the Cape Colony, Caffraria, & port Natal (1862).3
1. Will Harvie, “Moa had minor role in evolution of twiggy native shrubs”, 12 Jul 2021
2. See for example, Annette Giesecke, The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome (Getty Museum, 2014), pp. 66-75.3.
3. The full citation of this work is: William Henry Harvey & Otto Wilhelm Sonder. 1859–1933. Flora Capensis; being a systematic description of the plants of the Cape Colony, Caffraria, & port Natal. 7 vol. in 11. Kalanchoe thyrsiflora appears in Fl. Cap. Vol. 2: 380 (1862).