Bracts of the Holy Involucre

I’m very fond of arcane botanical terminology. I learned many of these terms years ago when I was first learning the technique of “keying out” flowering plants and fungi. A key is a branched list, a series of yes and no questions. “Are the leaves oppositely arranged on the stalk or alternately?” “Are the spores rusty red?” “Are you still alive after tasting this?” — just kidding on that last one!

[to be continued this afternoon]

[24 hours later, as it turned out!]

The Dictionary Demon, a useful beast who spends most of his time curled up by my computer’s power supply, has been sulking lately. This morning he poked his scaly head out of the computer case and yawned, revealing ichor-stained fangs. He said:

“Damn, Larry, why don’t you give me a mission? I’m bored!”

“Okay — how about fetching me a definition and etymology of the word involucre?”

The dragon-like creature expanded as it flew from the computer case, causing the kitchen to seem rather crowded. I opened the screen door and the demon flew out, soaring low over the somnolent Quincy roof-tops.

While I waited I read a passage from a wonderful little volume, a memoir by Elisabeth Tova Bailey titled The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating:

In most languages, the word for “snail” refers to its spiral shape: in the Native American language Wabanaki, the term is Wiwilimeq, for “spiraling water creature”. Giovanni Francesco Angelita, an Italian scholar, wrote an essay in 1607 titled “On the Snail and That It Should Be the Example for Human Life”. He praises the creature’s thoughtful pace and good morals and credits it for inspiring everything spiral, from the invention of drill bits to Europe’s most famous staircases.

I was startled by a scrabbling of claws at the screen door. The demon swooped in with a dramatic flourish and dropped a quivering parcel into my outstretched and cupped hands. It appeared to be made of the wings of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies stitched together with .. were those barely-visible fibers milkweed floss?

I looked closer. It wasn’t just wings — entire living butterflies were sewn together to form the pouch! Thus the quivering, which began to intensify. With a soft wafting of air the parcel burst apart and the Fritillaries flew away, most of them finding their way to the still-open screen door. I was left with an oval piece of some sort of fabric in my hands. It looked to be made of the pressed breast-down of mourning doves bound together with milkweed stem-milk. The feathers were oriented so that the feather barbules all pointed to my left; stroking the surface was like petting a cat, both with and against the “grain”.

The definition was written upon the pressed-flat and silky surface with a purple-black substance which I suspected was pokeweed-berry ink:

   Involucre \In"vo*lu`cre\, n. [L. involucrum a covering,
        wrapper, fr. involvere to wrap up, envelop: cf. F. 
        See {Involve}.] (Botanical)
        (a) A whorl or set of bracts around a flower, umbel, 
            or head.
        (b) A continuous marginal covering of sporangia, in 
            certain ferns, as in the common brake, or the 
            cup-shaped processes of the filmy ferns.
        (c) The peridium or volva of certain fungi. Called 
            also {involucrum}.

An aside: isn’t it intriguing that there are three similar words containing two “v”s which are almost homonyms?

  1. Volva, a fungal membrane — the white flecks on the cap of a Fly Agaric mushroom are volval remnants.
  2. Volvo, a Swedish make of automobile
  3. vulva, an anatomical structure

Botanical terms such as rachis, corolla, and pistil are mostly derived from Latin roots, a modern survival from an era when Latin was the language of science.

For some reason the phrase “bracts of the involucre” rose to the surface of my mind the other day while I was driving. My consciousness streamed — “involucre” reminded me of “sepulchre” and “bract” reminded me of “brat”. A scene appeared before my mind’s eye:

An order of green-clad monks inhabit a monastery located on a mountain terrace in some remote land, perhaps somewhere in the Balkans. They are botanical and horticultural monks who occupy their hours with identification and cultivation of rare plants brought to them by supplicants from every corner of the Earth.

These monks keep their precious relics of past abbots and saints in an elaborately-carved stone replica of the involucre of a sunflower — the Holy Involucre.

Menial chores around the enclave are performed by an unruly cadre of novitiates known as the Bracts of the Holy Involucre.

Imagine drama… imagine an ailing abbot and behind-the-scenes strife between potential successors to the revered office. A lowly Bract learns of the struggle and is inexorably drawn in…




Filed under Natural History, Photos, Words and Phrases

9 responses to “Bracts of the Holy Involucre

  1. Joan

    Couldn’t wait until you came back to find out what involucre meant…so here it is. Now I get to look up ‘bracts’ (grin). Wait! Wait! don’t tell me..
    Interestingly enough, I was reading a passage in a book last night which described an elderly man as “etiolated”. Brian (for once) didn’t know what the word meant, so he Googled it and told me it meant ‘feeble’. He left the definition on the puter and I later noticed he’d left out what I thought was an important half. For a plant, it’s that long stringy condition brought about by insufficient light plus that alien cave-fish white look from lack of chlorophyll. I hate when that happens!
    So, it’s probably a plant term which evolved to describe people. As for the process to achieve this state..not so much. I do wish that staying indoors in poor lighting would make me thin. I’d emerge each spring looking svelte with great skin. Oh well… all I seem to lose is vigor.

    1. (of a plant) Pale and drawn out due to a lack of light.
    2. Having lost vigor or substance; feeble.

  2. Hmm… I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read of a person described as “etiolated”; my only familiarity with the word is from botanical or horticultural writing — in other words, the first definition shown in your comment. The second definition must be the usage you saw in your book. What book? I like writers, such as novelist John Banville, who revive little-used words.

    BTW, a great example of plant etiolation is a carrot left too long in a fridge’s crisper drawer, with pathetically pale and drawn-out leaves, which softly wonder, “Where’s that sunlight I’ve always heard about?”

  3. Joan

    I’m not sure that word is little used because the novel is British, and they tend to use a lot of words that we do not, or use them in ways that we do not. The novel, is “The Innocent Spy” by Laura Wilson, set in pre-WWII England. So far, not as gripping as “An Empty Death” second in the series, which I read first. I live 2 blocks from the library. My idea of Heaven.

    Have never left a carrot long enough to sprout anything but a bad odor, but don’t ask me about potatoes. Can’t you cut the tops off of some veggies and plant them?

  4. I have a dim memory of my mother helping me plant a carrot top in a saucer of water and placing it on a window-sill. A pleasant winter diversion.

    Potatoes and onions are two vegetables which rot in an exceedingly nasty way, repugnant both to the nose and to the eye. I neglected a bag of potatoes this summer; I’d forgotten they were in a drawer, and when I found them I was appalled by the stench and texture (or lack of texture). I sacrificed some rags to that clean-up job!

    I just got back from the library, which is ten blocks from here. Biking in this clement fall weather is a joy. Among other books, I checked out a Henning Mankell mystery novel. Mankell is Swedish; he and Ian Rankin are two of my favorite British Isles mystery writers.

  5. bev

    Liked your description of the Dictionary Demon and of the parcel which it delivered up. I’ve always meant to ask if you once worked in a herbarium or in some other career which required plant identification. I gave Tova Bailey’s snail book to my mom as a gift earlier this summer. She loved it. I shall try to find time to read it this winter (very little time for reading in summer). I was once quite the library junkie, especially while at university where there were dozens of books on even the most obscure of topics. Remember having to do a bit of research on cannibalism only to find that a whole shelf of books were checked out by one person. Now there’s something for the vivid imagination to ponder. Yikes!

  6. bev

    Btw, I type on an iPad and find that the size of the screen leads to many typos going unnoticed. I should wear reading glasses, but have such a hard time keeping track of objects that I never will. Instead, I will leave cryptic comments on blogs and FB, over which friends can puzzle or hold up as proof that I am becoming senile.

  7. I’d be glad to fix your typos if you wouldn’t mind, Bev. I routinely fix Joan’s.

    No, I never worked in a herbarium, but it sounds like it would be fun! As with all things, I’m self-taught out of necessity. I was a classic rural autodidact during my decades in Knox County, MO.

    I’m glad you liked my familiar demon — everyone should have a pet!

    Your story of the mysterious educated cannibal-fancier was a good one — I’m sure all sorts of scenarios came to mind!

  8. bev

    Yes, by all means, fix any crazy typos that you see. Unfortunately, there are usually quite a few!

  9. Joan

    Hmmm . Well that story threw me for a loop. All this time I thought you had come across this thistle:
    Oh well. (grin) Nice to hear another dictionary demon yarn. Bev, however, having not heard of your prickly pal, may think you’d come across some peyote before you wrote the post. (snicker)
    As for typos…(sigh…) Guilty as charged. I have been helped a little by the new blog’s handy perk of redlining typos. Sadly, it has no spell checker, and I have to go slogging off to Word in order to correct my spelling. I think Larry’s spell checker memory is a real incentive to comment on this blog.

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