Organism of the week #26 – Oxymoron

Plants can have some very odd names. Bears are not renowned for their trousers, and this spiky sod is the last thing anyone would want to make a pair of trousers from, but “bear’s breeches” it is. Even its Latin name is odd: acanthus means spiny, and mollis means smooth; a literal oxymoron.

Acanthus mollis [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Acanthus mollis

It might not look very familiar, but it may be the most quietly famous plant in the world, having been immortalised in stone through much of the world for over 2000 years.

As any classicist – and many a bored sixth-former stuffing their CV with General Studies – can tell you, there are three ways to cap off an architectural column in the Greek style: plainly, fussily, or gaudily (the Romans later added boringly and ludicrously).

The gaudy version is decorated with the leaves of Acanthus: you can see them here at the top of the columns outside the Royal Institution in London:

Royal Institution (T.H. Shepherd) [Public domain]

Royal Institution (T.H. Shepherd)

Why Acanthus was chosen rather than any other local Mediterranean plant is as much a mystery as the plant’s strange common name. There is a story, quoted by Vitruvius, that Acanthus was found growing through a votive basket left on the grave of a young girl, and this inspired the sculptor and architect Callimachus to invent a new kind of column. This sounds about as likely to me as those ridiculous backronym etymologies of swear words (“Fornicating Under Consent of the King” – yeah, right), but whatever the reason, I think it’s rather nice that Callimachus (or whoever) elevated a obscure, prickly thing like Acanthus to such heights, rather than going for an obvious, safe choice like grapes or olives. But I guess I would, wouldn’t I?

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